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.

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