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I can’t remember what I did last Tuesday. I went to work, probably interviewed some people, then wrote an article or something. The reason I can’t remember is that last Tuesday was a lot like the previous Tuesday and also the one before that. (Not to mention all the Mondays and Wednesdays and Thursdays that muddle things up even more.) Once you develop a routine, whether it’s a diet or a traffic commute or a job, it seems as if you’ll keep doing it forever. That’s probably why teenagers are always so angry—you’d slam doors and listen to loud music, too, if you thought high school was going to last forever.
But actually, our routines change much more frequently than we realize, especially those related to work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average baby boomer held 11 jobs between ages 18 and 46. Younger generations move around even more; today an 18-year-old will have had more than five jobs by age 24. Each new career switch introduces you to a new desk, a new set of responsibilities, and a whole host of new people you have to get along with. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like high school. Maybe it really does last forever.
The first thing you have to do at your new job—and this applies to everyone, from the new boss to the summer intern—is learn people’s names. A former editor of mine once told me a story about meeting Bill Clinton back when he was governor of Arkansas and then running into him years later, after he’d become the president. (I had no idea it was possible to “run into” a president, but I’m going to a backyard BBQ next weekend so maybe I’ll see George W. Bush). Clinton is so adept at networking that he not only recalled my editor’s name but also the name of his wife, how they first met, and what they both did for a living. I, on the other hand, worked for six months with someone I knew only as “the tiny woman with freckles.”
“You have to keep a list,” says manners expert Thomas P. Farley. “You’ll be meeting 50 or 60 people on your first day at work, and you can’t be expected to remember everyone. When you’re back at your desk, jot a few notes down.” You won’t need the list for very long, a few weeks at most, says Farley. But it will help you remember which of the three Davids is from California and whether the woman in marketing goes by Katherine or Kate.
After you’ve learned who your co-workers are, you have to figure out what they’re like. Are they fitness freaks? Sci-fi nerds? Do they socialize together after work? Eat lunch in the break room together? You need to figure out your new office’s culture. This is a more difficult task, one that requires you to gauge people’s personalities and infiltrate their social groups accordingly. Wait a second, this also sounds a lot like high school.
“The first week of this job was really difficult for me,” says Debbie Hadley, who works with autistic children in Pennsylvania. “I was thrown in a classroom with five other teachers. They didn’t know me or what I was about, and when I showed up they all reacted differently.” One co-worker was friendly from the start, Hadley says, but the others kept to themselves until they got to know her. One of them refused to speak to her at all.
“I’d walk in the door and smile, and she wouldn’t say a word,” says Hadley. “It was weird. It made me wonder if I’d done something wrong.” Did the woman hate her? Was she jealous of something? Hadley had no idea. Then one day the co-worker started talking about her day, “like she’d been normal and nice the whole time,” she says. Hadley has never asked her why she made herself unapproachable in the beginning. “That’s the secret to being the new person,” she says. “You push through and deal with this stuff and hope everyone warms up to you.”
They will eventually, of course. And then one day, someone else will be hired and then they’ll be the new person instead of you. It’ll be your turn to refuse to talk to them, make them feel insecure, and then ask to borrow their calculus notes. Sorry. That was high school again.