Several weeks ago, a University of North Carolina senior asked me a question, "How can I find a job as a strategic creative?" My answer: She's already positioning herself to do just that with smart use of LinkedIn, Twitter, and careful social networking. I'm not worried about her job search; she's doing great already.
That being said, I think job search fever can sometimes lessen the attention given to an even more important part of the process--that of keeping and thriving in a job once it is yours! To that end, I asked my friend Rennie Mapp, a seasoned writer and veteran of creative workplaces to share her thoughts on learning professionalism. Here is Rennie's story--and advice:
My first job after college was as a jack-of-all-trades newspaper reporter for a small-town paper that came out twice a week. I loved my varied set of responsibilities, from covering hard local news to writing personality profiles to taking photographs. Some aspects of the job did surprise me, however, because unstructured but creative behaviors that had worked well for me in college simply didn’t fly in this creative but more structured environment.
Fortunately, I had a good boss who appreciated my writing skills and curious mind. He was quite patient in helping me develop the small habits that really add up as a foundation for any kind of creative, self-starting profession.
So here are four professional behaviors that I was surprised to learn when I started my first job:
Look at your calendar the instant you sit down at your desk. Creative, motivated people often already know what interesting work they need to do on a given day, and they are excited to start it when they arrive at work. It’s often the annoying little responsibilities that slip their minds. If you look at your calendar before you start any project, you can plan to handle the little responsibilities in a way that doesn’t interfere with your enthusiasm for your more interesting labors.
Hit your keyboard by nine am. Planning your responsibilities (see #1) is important, but thoughtful people can spend a lot of time planning their work. It really helps to have a hard-and-fast time when you actually start. My boss gave me this rule, and I can still see him “just happening” to walk by my desk at 9:03 to make sure he could hear me typing. (This rule is based on arriving at the office at 8:30—you can adjust it according to your own office arrival time.)
Don’t use your computer at work for anything that you wouldn’t want your boss to see. This rule includes private email accounts as well as work accounts: many companies now have software that can snoop on any screen you have open, and they search for keywords that indicate improper use of company resources. But even in the days before sophisticated snooping, I managed to offend my copy editor by making fun of her in a private email to my boyfriend. He and I were rather full of ourselves as clever satirists, and my witty comments were about her pedestrian attitude and lack of insight. She just “happened” to find it (on MY computer) and then, once she had the evidence that I was using my computer for personal messages, my boss felt he had to support her. It was embarrassing but instructive. It’s easy to feel superior with talent and a fresh degree, but it was really inappropriate to crow about her failings, especially on my work computer.
If you want to develop a professional relationship outside of the office, couch your overture in a professional way. Here’s another embarrassing story: I met a guy whose work interested me, and I asked him if he’d like to have lunch some time. He was married, and in our small-town atmosphere he got the idea that I was hitting on him. I had thrived in the relaxed intellectual atmosphere of a large public university, and in my dull little town I was craving interesting conversation. I would have been better served if I had been specific in my interest in his work when I asked him to meet with me, and had mentioned someone else whom I wanted to include as well. I’m not suggesting that you can’t make personal friends out of professional contacts, but that your initial interactions need to be clearly understood as happening within professional boundaries.
I loved that job. I still miss the heady days of dashing around from murder trials to interviews with scientists, firefighters or any odd little old lady that my editor thought might interest me. It was also an important step in the process of my professionalization as a creative, thoughtful writer and teacher. Most of my work experiences since then have been in environments with less top-down structure, such as in college classrooms and at my own desk as a scholar and free-lance writer. I am grateful that I worked in a creative but structured atmosphere in my first year out of college, because I was able to internalize structures and habits that have been as important to me since then as they were when I was 22.
Rennie Custis Mapp, PhD, has taught English literature at the University of Virginia, Princeton University, the University of South Carolina, and Dickinson College. She writes and blogs on taste, aesthetics, ethics, literature, and food. You can find her on Twitter (RennieM).