Letting Go, Relationships, Work, Writing

Things I learned by being someone else’s assistant

I don’t know a thing about kids these days. Specifically, the kids getting bachelor’s degrees next month.

I know a lot about little kids — the ones who still need their bottoms and their noses wiped — but not about the big ones. The ones half my age. The ones desperately looking for jobs.

Apparently, it’s a dangerous time to be a young, reasonably intelligent but inexperienced job seeker, which makes me confused and sad.

Confused because I don’t remember my generation having the wealth of opportunities dem gosh darn newspapers claim existed.

Back when I was 22 (in the mid 90s, thank you very much), I had to agree to be somebody’s slave for a year (aka unpaid internship), and if I was really good at my job, maybe (just maybe) they’d bring me on the next year as a research assistant making an annual salary high enough to pay for food, but not necessarily rent.

The good news is that my upper middle class parents could supplement my income.

The bad news is I wanted to be independent so badly I said, “No, thank you,” and found a house to rent on 14th and East Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.  2 miles from the closest Metro stop, but just around the corner from your neighborhood hungry drug dealer.

I’m sad, too, to read that kids these days are having a hard time finding work because looking back, the first three jobs I had out of college were the hardest, the lowest paying, but most certainly the richest in terms of life lessons. I am the hard-working, versatile, compassionate professional I am today thanks to my experiences working like a dog for people who treated me poorly or patiently, as I reacted and responded to their every whim.

It helped that I worked for an egomaniacal fanatic academic;

a visionary, but temperamental creative;

a brilliant, but misunderstood obsessive-compulsive who craved gourmet cheese.


These mentors (yes, even the crazy ones mentored me) taught me not only how to edit like a perfectionist; how to lick envelopes so they closed fully; how to follow up on faxes three times to make sure they were received; they also taught me who to be so people want to work for you; as opposed to arriving one morning minus one assistant, but plus one carefully typed, and heavily proofread “Dear John” letter on your desk.

By being someone else’s assistant, I learned what Simon Sinek swears by:

“Those who lead inspire us… Whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to.”

Simon Sineky
Simon Sinek

Of the bosses that pushed me around — and all of them did, even the nice ones — I worked harder for the ones who treated me like a human being poised to be someone someday. Like a boss in the making. Like a grownup-to-be.

The man that finally promoted me from assistant to “coordinator” used to call me his “rising star.” And for this man, I worked hardest. To this day, more than a decade since I worked for him, I consider him my most inspiring and valuable mentor. If for nothing else than telling me, and telling others, I was a rising star.

He made me believe it.

And from his words, and his conviction, I rose.

It’s hard for me to believe or accept that there are no jobs out there for our young people. That there are no crazy, obsessive-compulsive pedantic workaholics seeking someone to read through and sort into color-coded folders 2,745 inbox emails; no minimum wage opportunities through which to prove how late you will stay in order to work your way up to a cubicle with three temporary walls instead of none.

I just don’t believe it.

If we aren’t going to give our young people today the chance to be someone else’s assistant, how will they ever learn to be grownups?

How will they ever learn who to trust and who not to? How to treat others? How to speak kindly? How it feels to finally receive acknowledgement, praise, a raise?

If we don’t maintain or create new entry-level positions for our young people, who will inspire them to action? To rise to the top in order to not be at the bottom anymore? To innovate something new to fix the stupid, old ways their bosses insist they follow religiously?

Our young people are our future.

And it’s our job to push them around,

so they will yearn to learn how to fly on their own.

Fly, and then lead.

4 thoughts on “Things I learned by being someone else’s assistant”

  1. This is full of passion, and I entirely agree with your sentiments. The young need good mentors almost as much as they need jobs. Both seem quite hard to find at the moment


    1. Thanks! You’re right about the lack of passion and drive and how they go hand in hand. Someone responded to this on twitter referring to it as a “sense of entitlement”


  2. This is so full of truth, Jen. Once, just out of college with a BA/MA from Hopkins, I was a secretary for a lawyer who treated me pretty poorly -very condescending. I was talking to my uncle about it -also a lawyer, and he said, “You know, Aliza, it’s the wise boss who sees the value in having an equal as an assistant. ” This not only made me feel better as an assistant, it taught me a lot about what kind of boss I wanted to be when the time came. I always kept his words in my head.


  3. Truth! It’s very important to start from the ground up (and maybe to do it more than once) – it definitely takes care of any sense of entitlement left over from your childhood/teen years. Even having a shitty boss gives you such life lessons – you realize that being treated like crap doesn’t make you respect your boss more…so you carry that lesson with you until you have employees/interns of your own and you treat them like gold!

    And I totally agree with you that it’s hard to believe that jobs just don’t exist. Sure, the value of a masters education isn’t what it used to be, but there is always work. You can’t think certain jobs are “beneath you” because you can always find a way to weave in your schooling and experience into any job…and you never know where that job will take you.

    On a slightly related note, this reminds me of the whole Immigration Reform hullabaloo going on in this country right now. Some members of congress are lamenting about how these illegal aliens “take away American jobs.” Well you talk to any farmer and they’ll tell you straight up that we need the immigrant labor – because Americans think it’s beneath them to work out in a field all day! It will be interesting to see what happens next…


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