Before I get into talking about other people’s mistakes, let’s get out of the way that I have messed up some pretty major things myself – see Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To. They’re some serious fuckups.
Now let’s talk about mistakes endemic to young people, and how to be a gentlewoman instead.
Mistake #1: Acting Young – But Not in a Way That Suggests Amazing Job Skills
Some people really like to fit in, and want to have “friends” at the office. Regular friends who are fun, not colleagues or mentors or allies. This is a high-school-level mentality that leads some groups of employees to form a subculture that doesn’t serve any of them well.
If you work in an all-women office, trendy or high-fashion choices can be a way of displaying dominance over other women, or just keeping up with the higher-ups. Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli once famously said, “Women dress alike all over the world: they dress to be annoying to other women.”
But if the decisionmakers above you are mostly men – and you don’t work in fashion – youthful fashion flare will probably backfire.
I’m sure you’ve already heard the advice to “dress for the job you wish you had.” What seems normal and fun and “technically” within the dress code to young women often looks insanely distracting and loud to older men. Whoever wrote the dress code that allows jeans was not imagining the kind that are skinny or the kind that are bright orange. Getting away with technicalities isn’t helping the career of the woman with too many rivets.
Also, men’s work clothing tends to serve as a sort of “team uniform.” You wear the tie because you’re on-board and ready for orders, sir. So if your male boss is wearing an uncomfortable dress shirt/tie/undershirt/slacks combo every day and you are wearing slouchy things exclusively, you look as though you are not ready to work as hard as people whose clothing demands good posture. In sum, you should be about as uncomfortable as your boss.
Many young people also make the mistake of developing a social circle at work exclusive to other young people. Unless you all get promoted en masse (suuuper likely in a recession!), this is just going to further identify you with people in your cohort instead of those at the next level.
All those other employees your age? Be nice to them, of course! Help them out as appropriate. But dress ten years older than them. Act ten years older than them.
Now, I wrote in Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To about going too far in the other direction – I was actually lying (up!) about my age. This is going too far. I think the ideal position is one in which everyone knows you’re, say, twenty-four – but they can hardly believe it!
Instead of expressing your youth through fashion and social choices, use your youth as a reason why you are very good at technology: you will volunteer yourself to manage the Twitter account. When someone over thirty-five says, “What’s Reddit?”, you have the answer. I don’t care if you don’t like technology; the assumption that young people are better at these things is the main competitive advantage to being young. I mean, sure, young people are also, in general, more up on the latest style pop culture – that’s you and fifty million other girls. You can’t build a competitive advantage out of that.
There are enough prejudices against young people; you have to use the only prejudice in favor of them. You are not youthful, so much as a grown-ass woman who is also well-known as a valuable consultant on youth matters.
Mistake #2: Excessive Rule-Following and Reward-Seeking Behavior
It’s true that women now graduate from all levels of college (including law and medical school!) at higher rates than men. It’s also true that they get a shockingly low proportion of venture capital investment. A lot of this is due to institutional discrimination. But some of this is due to women being socialized to follow rules, and praised for doing so.
I wrote in Bullish: When “Achievements” Just Leave You Feeling Empty about Generation Y’s alleged “addiction” to praise. Whether this is true on a generational level is less important than whether it’s true for you: being addicted to praise makes you someone’s little bitch. Praise doesn’t even cost anything to the person giving it; chasing it is a terrible way to run one’s life.
Seek to move forward by doing things that don’t have applications, or even names.
This leads me to…
Mistake #3: Not Getting Your Name on Something Concrete
For me, the easiest way to make money is to tutor people, which I do about twenty hours per week. In the best-case scenario, these people go on to do very well, to provide me with testimonials, and to tell others of the positive experience they had being coached. But mostly, it’s an hourly job; once you’ve tutored a hundred people, tutoring two hundred people is not much more impressive.
What is more impressive is forgoing some of that cash long enough to write books and manuals in my field. There’s something tangible that says “Jennifer Dziura” – indeed, the 1,000 vocabulary flashcards I wrote clock in at around 8 pounds, thus leading to my now-tired joke that I mailed a set to my mother in lieu of a grandchild.
In Bullish: Basing Your Career on a Resume Is Like Competing in a Brothel Lineup, I talk about how an impressive resume is just a basic qualification, much like a bachelor’s degree. Everyone has that.
Similarly, “two years’ experience” at a job doesn’t sound that hot (who doesn’t have that?) But this is usually what you get when you get roped into all manner of different projects, all worked on by big teams in which you have no special or discernable role.
If you find yourself unexpectedly job-hunting next week, what do you have to show prospective employers? A resume that makes reference to your contributions to a bunch of stuff that these potential employers can’t go look at? That’s a problem. It’s fucking brutal out there.
In Bullish: Personality Qualities More Important Than Anything on Your Resume, I wrote about the value of pitching things. Write blog posts, write whitepapers, write e-books; calculate statistics about the effectiveness of your work and publish charts and tables; photograph things and put them in an online portfolio. Be an intrapreneur. Get your name on something at any cost.
Young people today face a daunting work environment: a terrible economy, and a generation of competitors who all have the same achievement-filled resumes and bachelor’s degrees. The majority of college graduates now go home to live with mom and dad. If you want to have kids, you somehow have to recover from economic dependency, become independent, and then become able to support someone else in the short span of years (12-15) between college graduation and when your ovaries give out. I’m saying that it’s an urgent matter.
I often write about being kind to your future self. It can be hard to imagine “you-at-forty-five” (or maybe even “you-at-thirty”), but I can guarantee you that whatever that future self wants will require money, freedom, flexibility, options, and the respect of others in her field. It’s your job to make those things happen now.
originally published on The Grindstone