photo courtesy bobby podesta

Work Like It’s Your Money

And other lessons from my start-up job

The first thing I learned when I got to college was that I needed to start criticizing things, and quickly. My tendency to smile marked me as apolitical, which wasn’t very sexy — and, in general, my knee-jerk friendliness (aka being Midwestern) seemed to betray a watery intellect.

So, eager to please and to fit in, I equated negativity with thoughtfulness, and acted accordingly. Everyone in my Jane Austen section knew the whiny drawl of my voice — which I often raised, usually to make a point that was simultaneously combative, controversial, and nonsensical. And since I got pretty good grades, it seemed true that the more bullshit I spewed, the better.

The problems arose when I got my first job, at a start-up. To my surprise, the culture didn’t reward heedlessly clashing with the norm. While there’s a high priority on hiring fresh young minds — not to mention giving new recruits a lot of freedom — I soon learned that I would have to earn the right to talk before I let my tongue wag.

In fact, it turned out that if I wanted to keep my job, I would have to forget everything I’d learned in college (the place that had hypothetically gotten me that job to begin with). The learning curve was steep for me, and, being a nice Midwestern girl, I hope to make it easier for you!

Here’s the advice I wish I’d gotten:

1. Work like it’s your money.

When people talk about start-ups, they always say they’re perfect for making your own way/path/some other cliché. That’s true, which often means you have absolutely no structure. Especially if, like me, you’re part of a small, growing company and are the only person to have been hired so far within your field (e.g., the first copywriter, the first sound designer, etc.). You’re not exactly being compared to anybody, and your bosses might expect you to give them an idea of how quickly someone in your line of work can get things done. Depending on how much of a martian your job description makes you, you might even be asked to set your own deadlines, so that when the start-up does grow, and more of “you” are hired, your bosses will know what to expect.

In other words, start-ups can become ideal places to do absolutely nothing.

My advice? The obvious: Refrain from fucking off. Because when the start-up does grow or when the higher-ups are prematurely driven to hire more of your ilk because you are moving as slow as molasses, there is better than a zero chance that your new cohort will not treat this like some marathon, and you will look terrible by comparison. (And by terrible, I mean fireable.) So, work like it’s your money. Look lively, and don’t be a jerk-off just because you can be.

2. Say “thank you,” since it’s not your money.

You are not part of some huge company. The person allocating the funds is probably standing right there listening to you gripe about how nasty this catered lunch is or how dumb and boring that “team-building” field trip was. Would you complain in front of your dinner-party hosts about what they’re feeding you? Probably not. Be equally gracious at work.

3. Reread your job description.

At first, due to the small staff numbers, start-ups tend to feel like spaces where everyone needs to pipe up about everything. User-interface designers are compelled to comment knowingly on public-relations efforts; writers want to weigh in on design; engineers feel the need to critique the office manager’s Google Calendar invitations — because, well, there’s a foosball table downstairs, and everyone keeps talking about teamwork, and this was supposed to be collaborative environment, right?

But weighing in on every little thing, regardless of your job description, is a good way to alienate your coworkers and stress yourself out. Odds are, unless you’re a generalist, you were probably hired to do something very specific, and it’s better for everybody’s mental health, including your own, if you focus on that particular element (your job description) rather than the bigger picture (company goals, launch dates, someone else’s job description). Doing otherwise will only make you dizzy, anyway.

4. Don’t confuse close quarters with closeness.

The small physical size of most start-up workplaces also can create a false sense of intimacy. Some days, you might feel like you’re at a clubhouse instead of at an office. But don’t confuse close quarters with closeness: These are your colleagues and, pending a successful launch, you’re going to be around them for a while.

Oh, and if you already got a little too close and don’t know how to backpedal? Perhaps you opened up to your coworker about your stress level, your relationships, or your attraction to dolphins? It happens. Eat lunch at your desk for a while. It’ll all blow over. (And out of politeness, make sure you afford your coworkers the same selective memory when it comes to their inevitable oversharings.)

So there you have it! I’ve ventured into the wild of real life and reported back on my findings for anyone who thinks it’s cool to critique everything. (It is not cool. Know what is cool? Health insurance.) Being smart and talkative is not enough, my friends. It’s time to buckle down.

And yes, I might have learned this by working in a more traditionally corporate environment, like that of advertising or publishing. But I doubt I would have learned it as quickly as I did working in a start-up — where, because of my autonomy, I had to police myself.

It’s not some new lesson that we should work hard at the jobs we get, if we’re lucky enough to get them. But it’s worth repeating to a generation rewarded mainly for its creativity and outspokenness: We were not hired to shoot the shit, but to do our jobs — to contribute on a micro level to a big project that requires individual action, not overeducated discursiveness (or phrases like overeducated discursiveness).

Now go out there and be awesome.