When I dropped out of school at 19 to start my first job in Hollywood, I didn’t know anything and I had no idea where I’d end up. Thankfully, I was attached to some smart and forgiving people who let me learn under them. I suppose I also had good instincts. Within a few short years, I’d become a bestselling author, the director of marketing for a publicly traded company and get to work on a ton of cool projects. I’ve hired my fair share of people now (fired them too) and having been through the ringer of young-person-just-starting-out-in-a-new-field close to a half dozen times, I figure I know it well enough to talk about it.
It goes like this: You’re scared but overconfident, clueless but eager to learn, just glad to be given a shot and you don’t want to screw it up. I tried to think of a few things I wish I’d been told when I was just starting, things that would have saved me some tough lessons. These are the things I still tell myself.
-Assess the terrain. Sit there and observe. Figure out who the dominant personality types are, what makes them tick and how things really work. Don’t act, don’t give your opinion, don’t do anything until this has been done. When you understand the people, politics and the business (e.g., the terrain) then you can begin to get to work.
–Always say less than necessary.
-The point isn’t just to prove that you’re capable, but also that you’re sane. In fact, if you had to pick between the two, being well-adjusted is the better one. You can teach people how to do things. You can’t make them normal. In other words, leave your crazy at home.
-Stay on the radar. Your excuses need to be just not-flimsy enough that they don’t seem completely full of shit. If it passes that test, then any question, any update, any offer is worth using to stay in the frame.
-Don’t be too good at being an assistant (or an intern). In fact, the whole point is to be too good to be wasting your time and other people’s time at administrative shit that you mess up anyway.
-Remember, most people on the internet are losers and outsiders. “Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic,” Marcus Aurelius would remind himself. Don’t go expecting Seth Godin, Jeff Jarvis or [insert industry blogger here]. Whatever you do, don’t quote them. Your job is to successfully mitigate their vision of how the World Magically Should Be with how it Realistically Is. If you can do that, you’re more revolutionary than they will ever be.
-If you’re working all the time—that is, if you don’t get to leave the office until midnight and got there at 5am—you’re doing something wrong. You’re either working for an idiot who is going to burn you out, or you’re the idiot and you haven’t figured out the short cuts. For a while I had 3 full time jobs (ones you’d have killed for) at the same time. I wasn’t working all hours of the day, I just did them simultaneously.
-Steer clear of the charlatans, lifers, and the toxic. You become who you know.
-On the same note, you can probably skip most of the “social” activities the job requires. Introductory calls, lunch meetings, parties and conferences are usually a waste. Don’t be friendless and don’t be rude, but these things are mostly a collective effort to waste time and forget how unhappy everyone is. Besides, being the conspicuous absence can help build your reputation, if done right.
-Ask yourself: “Am I saying this because I want to prove how smart I am or am I saying this because it needs to be said?” When you’re just getting started, it’s usually the former.
-Forget credit. Fucking forget it so hard you’re glad when other people get it instead of you. After all, that’s your job—to make other people look better.
-Save your money. The smaller your nut each month, the less pressure you’ll feel to put up with stupid shit. It gives you the luxury of not being dependent on the system. It lets you see through it. (see: The Dress Suit Bribe)
-Educate yourself. No one is ever going to teach you enough or hand it to you on a platter. Books and articles, and ask questions—an endless amount of them. People love to give advice and they love people who they don’t feel they have to drag to the next level.
-Make it happen. Nobody cares what it will take, what problems this causes for you, what personal stuff you have going on. Just get it done. You can tell us what you went through…after.
-Have an exit strategy. Know how this all fits into your grand strategy, this is the Start-Up of You. But also have the easily explainable, non-threatening goal that you tell people so you can maneuver in peace. If you’re working at a management company, don’t tell everyone your goal is to be a stand-up comedian. The grand strategy is just for you.
-Don’t expect anyone else to understand. It’s your job to find a release and an outlet for the stress and the feelings. Never forget: the crazy stays at home.
-Most importantly, remember that you are not special. There were a million other kids on this path before you and there will be another million after. Most of them either went nowhere or turned out to be nothing. Even the successful ones might still flame out or be assholes. What does this mean? It means don’t get high on yourself. Don’t tell yourself a story. Be quiet, work hard, and stay healthy. It’s not ambition or skill that is going to set you apart—notice I didn’t mention those things a single time. It’s safe to assume you’ve already got them covered. What will set you apart, what is rare, is humility, diligence and self-awareness.
One last thing. You can always email me (as many of you have taken it upon yourself to do). I’ve been there. I’m still there in some ways. But like I said, I’ve been through this ringer more times and with more riding on it than most people. I’m happy to help.