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The Most Valuable Professional Lessons I Have Learned
Today marks my 6-year anniversary at Dance Spirit. I’ll always remember the day I started, because I was living in Connecticut at the time and my mom didn’t like the idea of me commuting into the city on September 10 and then, the next day, on September 11.
These six years at the magazine have flown by. I got my start at this company by cold-calling the only phone number I could find — for a woman in the ad sales department — and asking if they offered internships. I applied, did a phone interview from my college dorm, and got hired as the only summer intern in the editorial department. It was awesome and I was obsessed with it. Nothing beats seeing your name in print for the very first time.
I stayed in touch with the editors after my internship was finished and continued to freelance from time to time throughout my senior year of college. I specifically remember writing a Q&A piece with a young musical theater girl: I did the interview from my parent’s house while I was home on Christmas break and got paid a whopping $75 when the article was published three months later. (Now, that girl is starring in the touring production of Flashdance and I’m…still making right around $75 an article!)
I lucked out after graduating college. I wrapped up my university days in May 2007, and by September of that same year, the vice president of DanceMedia, the parent company of Dance Spirit, called saying they were creating a web editor position and she wanted me to come in and interview for it.
I took two long trips into the city for the interviews, and at the end of the second one, I was offered the full-time job. It was a dream come true. I would be changing the world by writing e-newsletters and blog posts about High School Musical!
I commuted nearly three hours each way for the first three months at the job. I was living in Cheshire, CT, at the time and, at the insistence of my douchebag boyfriend, tried to make the commute work so I could stay in Connecticut with him. I’ll look back now and give that one big “LOL.”
In December 2007, my post-grad life really started. I moved into an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — at least according to Craigslist; it was really Spanish Harlem — where my commute became a blissful 40 minutes each way down to the Financial District. I went to events in the city all the time, including countless Broadway shows and New York City Ballet performances — all for free!
Since then, much has changed. So many people, including great friends, have come and gone, and my role at the company has shifted significantly. I worked as web editor for all of the company’s magazines when I started (Dance Spirit, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Pointe and American Cheerleader), and was then promoted to work solely on Dance Spirit.
I was an associate editor and then, in 2009, was told the current editor in chief would be leaving the company and I would get her job.
I was 24 at the time and it seemed unbelievable. The editor in chief began training me immediately, though it wasn’t until 2012 that the transition actually went into effect. I was finally the editor in chief of Dance Spirit — the job I dreamed about since I was 16.
I have gained a lot of experience at my specific company and job, and while that may not translate elsewhere in the world, I have a bit of knowledge swimming in my brain by now. Working on a small staff at a small company has provided unique opportunities and, with them, a massive dance bag filled with lessons. That metaphor didn’t really work. Go with it.
It’s fitting that on my job-iversary today I’m off doing the ultimate Dance Spirit ritual: flying to L.A. at the last minute to attend the season finale of “So You Think You Can Dance” and then doing a photo shoot with the show’s winners. We’ll also be shooting a handful of other dancers while we’re out here and, hopefully, squeezing in a run along the water in Santa Monica at some point, too.
Like I said, I don’t know much, but I do know a few things by now. Here are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my six official years (plus a 3-month internship) at DS…
Do your job. Let other people do theirs. Even if you think you can do someone else’s job better than he/she can, let it go. It’s one thing to go above and beyond; it’s another thing to step on someone’s toes and turn yourself into enemy #1.
Some people just work differently. This was a hard one for me to learn. Once I became “the boss,” I didn’t immediately realize why some people didn’t automatically fall in line as I’d hoped. I am a morning person — many people aren’t. I like to leave at 5:30 PM whenever possible — others won’t. You may never see eye to eye with certain people, whether it’s regarding a creative layout or what constitutes a full workday. That doesn’t mean you’re right or she’s bad. It just means you have different opinions. I’ve learned to let that fuel our staff rather than create tension.
Tuck your shirt in. Trust me, it looks better.
It’s OK to take a sick day when you’re not physically sick — but don’t lie about it. I’m a huge proponent of mental health days. If you are going to take one, simply say you’re taking a sick day. Don’t launch into a diatribe about how you’ve been up all night puking and you have a 104-degree fever and also the food poisoning, OMG. You’re going to show up the next day feeling fine, so don’t fake an illness to begin with. If your company allows for sick days, they’re yours to take.
Never try to make yourself look good by making someone else look bad. No matter how slick you think you’re being, a good boss can tell when you’re throwing someone under the bus for your own benefit. Let your work speak for itself as a way to get ahead. Don’t be an asshole.
Admit your mistakes. This is another one that was hard for me. It took me a while to realize that everyone, at some point in their career, has had to deal with a learning curve. Everyone has made mistakes, both big and inconsequential. It’s OK to mess up as long as you learn from the experience and don’t let it happen again. Don’t try to lie about it or shift blame.
Don’t bother packing your lunch. I mean, you can try. Lord knows I have. But when everyone else is going out for Chipotle, that cucumber sandwich you brought “to save money” is suddenly going to sound like the worst lunch ever.
Negotiate your starting salary. You can, and you should. Doing so will give you a higher jumping off point throughout the entire rest of your career, both at your current company and beyond. It’s scary asking for more money, but the worst that happens is that your boss/HR says no, and the best that happens is you’re suddenly soooo rich. Or, like, $500/year richer.
Don’t dwell on problems. Problems are inevitable in any field. Instead, spend your time actively seeking practical solutions that will benefit as many people as possible.
If you want to be a boss or manager, don’t worry about being liked. The day I found out I was getting promoted, I stopped going to lunch with the rest of the staff. I knew I needed to create distance between us to get them to see me as their boss, not a colleague. Once I felt this relationship was established, I would grab a bite with them from time to time, but I needed to have that barrier in our professional lives. And in most cases, it has worked out great! (Though they might tell you differently…I don’t know.)
Don’t pretend to know everything. Just ask! When I started at Dance Spirit, I would always nod along as if I knew who every professional dancer was, and acted as if I was familiar with every dance company that has ever existed. I was living a lie, people! I still have to ask “stupid questions” all the time, but I’d rather ask than get busted down the road when my ballet-obsessed coworker notices I still sometimes forget when to use éleve and when it’s réleve.
People will always remember that time you cried at work. So don’t. Go to the bathroom or, my personal favorite, the greeting card aisle at the Duane Reade downstairs.
Don’t expect a pat on the back every time you do something awesome. You’re not a little kid anymore and not everything you do deserves endless praise. Boo! Some people will manage you by praising you endlessly, which is beautiful, but many won’t. Don’t act surprised and heartbroken when you think you’ve just pulled off the most impossible feat ever and your boss merely nods in acknowledgment.
Put your foot down and set expectations right away. Trying to do so later will be much harder. Make your expectations clear and don’t back down on them.
Don’t lie. Ever. To anyone. Having to remember your lies takes a lot of work, and someone will always find out you’ve been deceitful. Man up and make everyone’s lives less complicated.
Remember that the people you work with are human. They have feelings and personal lives and you may never fully understand what they’re going through. Be compassionate.
Remember that your job is just your job. As I’ve learned this year, it’s probably not worth killing yourself over. I 100% attribute my sickness this year to job stress. I love my job but it can get stressful, as they all do.
I will never forget the day an older and wiser colleague finally said to me, “Alison…it’s just Dance Spirit.” I was so offended. How dare she belittle my beautiful baby! But once the rage settled, I realized she was right. It’s just a magazine. I’m not saving lives. No one will die if there’s a typo in a quiz called “Do you have killer confidence?!” Some of you might work in jobs where people will die if you mess up, but for many of us, the stress isn’t worth it.
Your turn! What are the best professional lessons you’ve learned?