College does a fantastic job of teaching you how to properly roll a joint while sitting on a curb outside a frat house, and how to get more time to turn in your term paper. It teaches you valuable lessons about the impermanence of friendships, and how to negotiate yourself in social situations that make you intensely uncomfortable. Depending on what you studied, you learned how to talk about your feelings, to dissect other people’s work, and to take criticism in a manner that is cool, calm and collected. Where it fails is in giving you any reasonable skills that prepare you for an environment where you have to be professional.
Here are some things I have been told are professional. Blazers. Pants that are not jeans. Wearing pants while you work. Having an email signature, even on your personal email. Knowing how to dial in on a conference call. Org charts. Not panicking every time your boss asks you to step into her office. Hearing the words “Can I see you for a sec?” and not asking immediately if you’re about to be fired.
Being professional is really just maturity in a setting where you don’t know anyone else, like going to someone else’s family reunion, and being unfailingly polite. It’s having an innate understanding of how to run a business, and knowing how to treat your employees with the kindness they deserve. As an employee, being professional is just showing up and doing your job, and doing it well. It’s less about knowing the “right” things to say, and more about doing what you came to do—your work. The stilted social interactions that pepper most offices aren’t necessary anymore, but understanding the boundaries in an office where everyone seems equal is hard at first.
“Welcome to the paradise of the modern artist.” – An Interview With Tom Toro, ‘New Yorker’ Cartoonist
The Salesman The Salesman was an older gentleman with a smoker’s cough and a bad gossip-site habit. He read Perez Hilton every day at 4 p.m., for one hour, while cackling and reading tidbits out loud over my cubicle wall. He left the office promptly at five, often with his manager, a brusque but nice woman with a penchant for pantsuits, usually off to a bar around the corner to have a cocktail and dish before getting on the BART and heading back to San Francisco’s East Bay. As bosses go, he was one of the best I’ve had: low maintenance, trusting, out of my hair. His teeth were the worst I’ve seen, jagged and brown, but he had a nice smile, a quick laugh and shared my passion for sotto voce gossip, shared in quick bursts every hour. Usually, our subject was the head of sales, a pompous jackass who spent the entire year I worked there calling me Heather. The Salesman used to joke that he came with the building, and for a while, I believed him.