For good career advice, look to the past

Megan Hustad, commentator and author of "How to be Useful."


Kai Ryssdal: The National Center for Education Studies figures something like a million and a half brand new college graduates are going to be set loose on the U.S. economy this year. So, what to tell a 22-year-old humanities major about to go looking for her first job?

Commentator Megan Hustad says there's no shortage of career advice out there -- it's just that most of it's useless.

Megan Hustad: It took me about six years after college graduation to realize that almost every lesson I'd absorbed about the workplace was wrong.

My mother, of course, had always told me to "just be my own sweet self." Monster.com encouraged me to "dress with confidence." Both disastrous ideas. And how about this bullet point: "Stay alert for opportunities that allow you to showcase your best skills." I've been working for over a decade and I'm still not quite sure what this means. How is a 22-year-old supposed to know what her best skills are, never mind the optimal moment to unleash them on the world?

After all that pressure to get into school and land a career-track job, you'd think we'd spend more time making sure that those entering the job market were armed with wisdom they could actually use.

The problem, I think, is that today's advice for graduates tries to be too motivational. But as I discovered over the last year of combing through a century's worth of career counsel, we used to do better.

Take Andrew Carnegie. He once recommended that young office clerks acquaint themselves with a janitor's closet so they wouldn't feel themselves above the grunt work that accompanies entry-level jobs. Writing in the 1960s, Helen Gurley Brown was also specific: If no one notices you in meetings, bring a red leather notebook to the conference table and start taking notes with a vengeance. Then there's Mark McCormack, author of a 1980s business bestseller. He advised paying attention to unguarded moments and the expressions on your colleagues' faces.

I don't know about you, but I think that's all a lot more interesting than "look for opportunities to showcase your best skills." Fact is, most entry-level employees don't need brainless platitudes to get them through the day; they need technique. They need a working philosophy. Entry-level jobs can be humbling, sure, but those cubicles also provide space in which to practice the art of living and for such a grand undertaking, you need more than just bullet points.

Ryssdal: Megan Hustad's new book is called "How to be Useful." She lives in New York City.

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Ed's advice needs to be thrown out. It makes too much good sense.

We must lose the cliché's indeed. Follow our intuitions for what is interesting, and common sense, so that we can share them with others: those interviewing us for a job. And these observations, fascinations, unique to us and perhaps less articulated but still recognizable in others, have a history of their own, which comprises exactly who you are or should be or want to be. I have made it a habit to hold on to anything flying by that has those qualities; to slowly making them part of me. Put them down (write or type), categorize (any kind of table or blog or whatever), relate them when they somehow belong together, reuse them in different contexts so that the whole starts to collate (the plot thickens), surf the links to relive them and re-instruct my 'better self' and my persona. Seems a lot for a little? Perhaps. Then I don't know why I have been doing this all my life and turned it into an app (see my site).

Pardon my grammar on the orig response...lesson number three, proofread your work before pressing the Submit button, your company will appreciate that too :)


In response for requests on useful tips for those entering the job force;

After having served in the Marine Corps for just over 20 years as an enlisted Marine, and working in the very broad field of finance and getting moved around to new jobs periodically (fiscal, accounts payable, payrolls, federal travel, recruiting, business charge cards, and equal opportunity), I would like to break this down shotgun style for folks;

Every time you start a new job;

Mentors: I can not stress the importance of finding mentors to show you the ropes. Do not limit this to senior personnel. Often times your experienced co-workers are more than glad to teach and demonstrate their knowledge of things. If there is ever something to not be shy about it should be about honestly asking how things work. It demonstrates that you care about understanding, the company, compliance with policies/regulations, and pride in your work.

References: Take some extra time to familiarize yourself with the references governing your position. Ensure you understand the scope of your job...your business. Understanding the references allows you to work with confidence and when you produce a product/service you will be more confident you can back up your work. Again, don't be shy to ask for this kind of help...the references. It further demonstrates your earnest desire to do things right, keep the company (and yourself) out of hot water, and back up your work.

Two small, but valuable things related to the getting help/references; be sure to thank people for taking the time to help you and for providing references and once your figure out what your business is...MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS...avoid office politics at all costs. Have some free time on your hands, then take the time to understand the references, whether they are company policies, local or state requirements, federal requirements, etc... Understanding why your policies and procedures exist empowers you to propose changes...and that is when you make your company grow. Your company wins and so do you.


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