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For good career advice, look to the past

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

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

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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