Three Dumbass Mistakes I Made Early in My Career So You Don't Have To

Too much honesty? Yeah that's not so great.
Publish date:
February 18, 2015
career, Workplace, mistakes

I will never forget my junior year in college applying for internship after internship and doing phone interview after phone interview. I was an editor at my school's newspaper, I had a shaved head, I was oh so cocky.

The recruiter called from this northeastern newspaper I had applied to amongst several others, and I had made the cut as one of the finalists. I did a halfway decent job answering the initial questions — I told her how I scored some stories and managed to break a few pieces that were out of the ordinary — but then we got to the final question.

"Why do you love journalism?" she asked me.

I fiddled around with the pack of my apartment's communal Camel Lights on the table in front of me and just vomited up the first answer that came to me.

"Well," I said, taking one of the cigarettes and lighting it up outside. "I just really like seeing my name in print."

Truly. I actually said this. Aloud.

I did not get the internship.

Now is there anything wrong with my sentiment at its core? No, I really don't think so — but it's all in how you come across, and for someone who didn't know me, it was a terribly smarmy little thing to say. What I meant was that up until that point in my life, writing had always been a fairly isolated process. To me, putting forth into the world pieces of writing with a byline connected me in a way that I had never experienced before college. Professors talked to me about what I wrote. Angry people wrote in. Editors noticed. It was revolutionary. But it was also way, way, way too much honesty in a job interview.

To quote a particularly eloquent hand-made sign in my apartment today:

"Be cool, honey bunny, be cool."

Transparency, honesty, and authenticity are all outstanding workplace attributes — but like all good things, they have their limits.

It is simply not other people's jobs to take care of you in your career or to guess what you probably meant, which is why we need to have as many uncomfortable conversations like these with each other as possible to share and learn from mistakes. Here are three of my favorite mortification moments I hope you can benefit from. And let's just call that "seeing your name in print" anecdote a bonus.

Don't do that either.

#1: It is everyone's job to fix mistakes so don't act like a brat about it just because it's not in your formal job description.

I remember an editor taking me aside once as I sat at my desk in my style-less Cathy-comic sweaters as a pudgy little 21-year-old at The Des Moines Register, chomping on my goldfish crackers and swilling soda. This hard-working lady told me she wanted to point out to me an error that I kept making — again and again — that was violating AP style. It was a generous moment. She was telling me something that irritated her to have to correct repeatedly. She was giving me the opportunity to spare her that future resentment. She was teaching a man to fish, honestly.

I looked at her and said with with all the self-awareness of a stump, "Isn't that, like, the copy editor's job to fix?"

She somehow managed not to just straight up "Chinatown" slap me in response, but I don't know that I would have blamed her if she had. ("It's the copy editor's job." Smack. "It's the reporter's job." Smack. "IT'S THE COPY EDITOR'S AND THE REPORTER'S JOB.")

I look back on that moment with an empathy I try to muster when I see others frustrating me with that same entitled attitude in their first few jobs out of school.

The truth, the final word, the only reality is this: It's everyone's job to make the end product as clean and excellent as possible. Never assume someone else is going to clean up your messes. You're just not that valuable.

#2: Stop making excuses.

I was re-watching The Devil Wears Prada the other day and I found the "details of your incompetence do not interest me" line particularly amusing.

One time I had dinner with an editor when I was early in my writing career. This person also functioned as a mentor of mine, and he told me he wanted to talk to me frankly.

I wasn't writing enough, he told me.

He had always watched my career, and he didn't want to see me not producing at the level I was capable of. My response was to tell him in great, exorbitant detail why my precious snowflakes of stories were worth more time than everyone else's on the planet.

Do you know what I should have said? "You're right. I could do more, and thank you for your honesty."

It's hard to be critiqued. No one likes the feeling that they haven't been meeting or surpassing expectations, but if you can master the skill of not taking criticism personally (it's perhaps the hardest of The Four Agreements), you will be loved by all who work with you.

#3: If someone helps you, always recognize and be grateful for what the person has done — or don't expect anyone to do anything for you again.

Right before college graduation, I had one particularly kind professor who hooked me up with an interview at The LA Times through a friend of hers. When all was said and done I ended up taking a stint at The Washington Post instead, but none of that matters. Because what I realize now (that I never even thought about at the time) was that this woman made calls and introductions and put her own professional reputation on the line to make this interview happen for me.

Do you know what I did to thank her?

I have no idea. Honestly.

E-mail was in its infancy around then so maybe I sent her a note? I have vague recollections of talking to her on the phone later when I was then fretting about how I might extend my WashPo gig. And I suppose she might have had enough compassion to understand that me calling her again and again was because she was one of the few people I trusted — and this was my feeble misguided attempt to say thank you.

But let's be real. All I did was keep taking and taking.

It doesn't matter if I didn't have money to send a gift or flowers. I should have sent that woman a heartfelt handwritten letter that I can recite to you this day. It is not easy for people to make job interviews happen. Karmically I was paid back years later when I pulled some strings and hooked up a colleague with an interview at The New York Post. Know what happened? She simply flaked on me because another interview she had elsewhere that day was really great and had gone over. What? I was so pissed that I had put my rep on the line for this girl and she repaid me like that. But looking back on my lack of appreciation for what my professor did for me in the late '90s — I'm talking real appreciation — I think my own actions were equally obnoxious.

People barely have time to manage their own lives. If they help you in a meaningful getting-you-a-gig-way, stand up and pay tribute.

Two great additional benefits: It will make you feel terrific, and it will lead to more people wanting to help you.

So. Please tell me what hard-earned lessons you've gained over the years through your own feats of foolishness. I know I can't be the only one to so spectacularly stumble in my early years.


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