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Golden Guide Career Advice: Work is Theater—You’re Joining a Show in Progress

Lydia Lazar

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Golden Tip No. 22: Learn Your Part Well

Any workplace you join has a shared history and narrative —be sure to learn your role in the ongoing production so you can demonstrate what a good fit you are for the job. Perhaps aside from new startups, you will be joining a team in an organization that has a structured hierarchy. Make sure you understand who is officially in charge, who has the real influence and what part you are playing in the show.

Getting a job and finding success in the role are only loosely connected. It’s similar to the challenge politicians face when they win an election and must switch from nonstop campaign mode to governing. Once you have been hired, the burden is on you to figure out how to succeed.

Ideally, the organization and your supervisor will be focused on supporting your efforts, but you may find, once you get started, that they are not as helpful as you hoped or as they promised they would be. Stay calm no matter what happens and remember: Many jobs don’t turn out as we expect—for better or worse. Either way, your task in a new job is to survive long enough to learn something, contribute and make something of the experience.

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It’s often the case that there are hidden power centers within organizations, sometimes reflecting personal relationships—or clashes—between colleagues. When you are new, it can be helpful to ask around the office about the recent past. Maybe there’s history with a particular client that would be good for you to know, or differences of opinion between certain individuals or departments. Keep track of what people tell you and try to discern what they may be withholding. As the new kid in town, you may be given “advice”—be sure to listen with an open mind but keep your opinions to yourself in the early days.

The primary challenge in your first few jobs is to do your best work and to not worry too much about the trajectory of your professional career. Even if you’ve taken a job that didn’t match exactly what you had in mind for yourself—or which hasn’t turn out to be “as advertised”—as long as you are developing new skills and demonstrating your capacity for excellence, you will gain valuable professional and personal experience.

Golden Guide Career Advice is a series from the AMA in partnership with Lydia Lazar, author of Dean Lazar’s Golden Guide: Pragmatic Career Advice for Smart Young People. A new tip in the series will be posted each Tuesday—all tips are available here.

Do you have a career question? Contact Lazar at deardeanlazar@gmail.com—the answer may appear in a future post.


Dean Lazar's Golden Guide

For more career tips, read Dean Lazar’s Golden Guide: Pragmatic Career Advice for Smart Young People, available on Amazon and at your local bookstore. Do you have a career question? Contact Lazar at deardeanlazar@gmail.com—the answer may appear in a future post.

Lydia Lazar is founder and president of LHL Consulting. She is the former associate dean for recruitment and career services at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and previously, dean of international law and policy overseeing international student admissions (LLM) at Chicago-Kent College of Law.