When I was first seriously applying to jobs in college, I got incredibly frustrated with the experience requirements that almost all of the postings listed. It was the old Catch-22 of employment: how on earth to get “two years’ experience working in online media” when nobody would give it to you in the first place?
But after 11 months of working in what my parents would call a “grown-up job,” I’m starting to realize what exactly those years of experience are good for. Sure, I’ve gained familiarity with team management, HTML and the phrase “going viral,” but that pales in comparison to what I’ve learned on the mean streets. (Of the Silicon Valley.)
1. No One is Running for Office Princess
Fun fact: I was homecoming queen my junior year in high school. (And captain of the Mathletes. Suck it, Lohan!)
I consider myself a pretty likeable person, all things considered, despite my perennial grumpiness and near-obsessive need to smear food all over myself before ingesting it. So when people don’t like me, particularly people I have to see every day, it starts to wear away at my soul a little. Or, you know, a lot.
A few months ago, I became convinced that one of my co-workers secretly hated me. I started reading between the lines of every single e-mail and IM she sent me, hoping to pinpoint the exact cadence that conveyed, “Your face makes me want to punch a baby Ryan Gosling” instead of “Can someone file those TPS reports by this weekend?”
I became a woman obsessed. Every time I got any of my other coworkers alone, I would immediately change the subject from high heels or whatever to “Why does this person hate me? WHY, GOD?”
Finally, one of them snapped at me, “Kate. Who. Actually. Cares?”
Me: *whimpering noise*
Truth-Dropping Co-worker: “Even if this person DOES dislike you, which she DOESN’T, who cares? Are you worried it’s going to affect you professionally?”
Me: “N-no, but—"
Truth-Dropping Coworker: “No one is competing for Lord of the Office. Not everyone HAS to like you.”
Cue me weeping into my coffee.
This co-worker was right, though. So what if this person didn’t like me? She clearly didn’t feel enough rancor to, say, bring in our human resources representative to kill me with a pickaxe. I’d tried the best I could to get her on my good side, and it just hadn’t worked. Maybe she’d stalked my iTunes account and felt offended by the number of The Mountain Goats songs in there. Maybe she’d snuck a bite of my lunch from the office fridge and was allergic to sriracha sauce. Freaking out about it wouldn’t change that, and it was only making me (and the rest of my co-workers) crazy. Realizing that was tough, sure -- but also surprisingly freeing.
2. You are Not a Special Snowflake
I am definitely one of those stereotypical millennial children who believes that they will be immortalized in legend by the time they turn 30. When I was a kid (…and an adult), I used to narrate imaginary New Yorker profiles of my famous, accomplished self as I walked around my suburb.
“Conway has a wide face and a quick, easy grin,” I’d say aloud as I stared at my dog sniffing a rhododendron. “But her face grows shadowed as she talks about the tragedy that inspired her magnum opus.”
I was an overachieving, anxious child and an even more overachieving, anxious adult. Without a near-constant stream of positive reinforcement, I wither and die like my late carnivorous plant, Seymour II. Until I graduated university, this was never really a problem. What is an A on a paper, after all, but acknowledgment of someone’s effort and proficiency in Lacanian analyses of "The Hunger Games"?
But when I got to The Real World™, I found that most functioning humans don’t have the time in their busy lives to individually thank you for performing, oh, I don’t know, your JOB.
This didn’t really hit home until I found myself weeping into my mattress over an after-hours email from a colleague that I perceived to be “overly terse.”
“I j-just never get any—I don’t know whether I’m even doing a good jo-o-o-o-b!” I sobbed to my mother over the phone.
There was a silence.
Finally, she said, “They pay you, don’t you?”
Touché, Mother. Touché. For what is a paycheck but a tacit agreement that you’re at least semi-competent at your position?
Positive reinforcement from friends and loved ones should be encouraged. At the office, as far as I can tell, a lack of negative reinforcement is a generally accepted equivalent.
3. Wash Your Damn Hair
Last week, my cube-mate looked at me narrowly. “Kate,” she said. “Our cubicle smells weird.”
“Wha-aat?” I said. “Like what?”
“Like…like old milk,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “Are you…do you…smell that?”
“No,” I said, scratching at my scalp. We both watched a puff of white powder float out of my bangs, twisting in the late afternoon sunlight, and disappear into the ether.
“No idea,” I said again, turning back to my monitor. “Sorry.”
Look. I know everyone sprinkles a handful of baking soda on their hairlines once in a while for a quick-fix dry shampoo equivalent. I’m not judging. But when you’re doing it like…twice a week, like I was for a while, you might have a problem. A laziness problem.
Just. Wash your hair. Take showers. Brush your teeth. Don’t wear your “weekend jeans,” even if you’re convinced that you dodged the majority of that Guinness that your date knocked off the table on Saturday night. It might look okay in your 6 am bathroom mirror, but in the fluorescent light of the office, everyone’s gonna catch on to the fact that you’re actually a crusty, semi-disgusting individual. Try to keep them in the dark as long as possible.
4. You Don’t Always Have to Be An “Adult”
Before actually getting a job, I was straight-up convinced that moving into Cubicle Town meant the death knell of being cool. Sure, I’d worked in offices before, but it was always as the Hip Student Assistant who listened to NPR as she digitized contracts and always dropped hints about her nipple ring.
First stop permanent office work, next stop posters of cats wearing burlesque outfits. I just knew that somewhere, a dude who had Feelings about Michael Buble was readying his stash of rarely used prophylactics, waiting for me to resign myself to my fate.
Of course, my first week at my job, one of my super-awesome co-workers led a spirited discussion about furries at our company-wide lunch. Another one told me she’d cried so hard at the Neil Patrick Harris revival of Company that she hadn’t been able to wear contacts for three days. A third dragged me to a hot yoga class at her gym. During downward dog, she’d glanced at me, winking, and whispered, “Reminds me of last night!”
Maybe it’s a virtue of working at a tech company, but all of my co-workers are genuinely really cool people. In their spare time, a lot of my colleagues are the stars of garage bands or food blog mavens or marathon runners. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran into my boss at Coachella.
As a kid, I always thought that having a “grown-up” job meant leaving the sheer goofiness of adolescent pursuits behind. But if you can manage it, it actually means that you have a lot more time (and disposable income) to do whatever the hell you want.
5. …But Sometimes You Have to Be
This is the part that kind of sucks. I’m incredibly bad at confrontation and at articulating my desires in the heat of the moment. It’s what makes me a terrible dater, for example. I’m far more comfortable just making abortive gestures and “giving it time.”
And professionally, the idea that someone would just ask for a promotion or a change in management is so utterly foreign to me that it actually makes me anxious just thinking about it.
Turns out, though, that saying, “I’m interested in altering my job title,” doesn’t need to be preceded by 40 minutes of mewling and a beaker full of palm sweat. Crying at the office, while sometimes unavoidable, should really not be prompted by a mildly unpleasant face-to-face communication. These interactions are what your superiors and colleagues expect you to do calmly and without any dramatics. If you treat them like an interrogation, you will be met with bafflement at best. Trust me, I have been there.
I have zero poker face skills whatsoever, so these sorts of things are definitely not an easy lesson for me to learn. But every time I grit my teeth and grunt out what I need to succeed professionally and personally, the easier it gets on me. Someday, I hope to utter a full sentence without wincing. Someday.
And One For the Road: Quit being hungover at work. I know it happens to all of us once in a while, but seriously. We are not fooling anyone with our sunglasses.