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Fresh Out of College? First, Accept Help.

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006; F01

Welcome to the world of work, new graduates. Sure, you probably had a few internships. Maybe a campus job for a little extra cash. But what do you really know about the workplace?

You'll spend more time in this place than in any other, in an environment you rarely have control over, around people you didn't choose but need.

(Okay, when I start to think about it that way, I shiver a little, too.)

I thought I would give you a leg up this week with some advice from people who have been through those first years of work. And survived, just as you will.

"When people offer to help you, assume they mean it and take them up on it."

That career-advancing advice comes from my fabulous editor and queen of guidance, Martha Hamilton. Martha said that this is the one thing she wishes she had realized when she started working.

When people offered her guidance or help -- contacts, lunch to discuss her future -- she rarely took them up on it. Why? She guesses she wanted to feel as if she could do it on her own. Or maybe she felt she wasn't worthy. "Who? Me? You want to help me ?"

Well, yeah. They do.

Martha told me this last week as we sat to discuss this career I love, one that, like any career, sometimes -- okay, often -- leaves me seeking guidance. Learning from her past, she has long been on the giving end, doling out guidance and advice to many less experienced journalists.

Sadly for me, she is retiring (but lucky for us will write a column in these pages). Thank the workplace gods, we do, for Martha, our much hipper and prettier Yoda.

I also used to think I could figure it out alone. But after letting go of offers to chat about my future with someone I admired, for example, I started to understand the importance of accepting help. And I began to really get that people truly mean it when they offer help. So take it.

Lucia Cruz is just two years out of college and wishes she understood that same thing when she graduated from the University of Virginia. "I wish I had known how important it was to take offers of help from people -- how to send them my resume and realize that it was not a hit on one's pride to ask for help in spreading the word you were looking for a job," she said. "I had just graduated from U-Va. They pounded into your head that you're coming from a prestigious place, it wouldn't be a problem finding a job," she said.

So her first job, which lasted all of two days, consisted of her standing on K Street, asking for money for Democratic causes -- most likely from lobbyists with connections to the Bush administration.

Her mother offered to send Cruz's resume out to friends and other family members. "I was so incredibly stupid, now that I look at how many offers I turned down. But I had this hesitation that if I didn't do it on my own, it wasn't worthy," she said.

Things have worked out just fine -- she works for a nonprofit organization in higher education. But she is a bit wistful about the opportunities she might have missed.

If she could shout from the rooftops (or pages of The Washington Post) to recent grads now, this is what she would say: "Take offers of help. E-mail people your resume. E-mail your resume to other recent grads. I know about four job opportunities off the top of my head I could tell people about right now."

As important as it is to accept help, it is also important to remain a little independent.

Give yourself a chance to make up your own mind about new co-workers and managers.

This comes from Zsofia McMullin, who learned this on her first job at a small-town newspaper after she graduated in 1998.

On her first day, people came to introduce themselves. Few hid their feelings about other employees. One warned her away from the editor, saying she was hard to work with. That editor is now McMullin's mother-in-law. "We got along great and had a great working relationship," she said. "I had a very different personality than the person who didn't get along with her."

When you go into a new job and accept what your new co-workers say about one another, you can get pulled into a nasty situation that pits you against the same people you might actually work well with. Remember those alliances contestants built on "Survivor"?

"When you don't know a situation or people and you don't know what people's motivations are, you can get yourself in trouble and be associated with the wrong issues or the wrong people," McMullin said.

If she had listened to that first person about her now-mother-in-law, she might not have ended up falling in love with her co-worker, the editor's son. (Small company, remember?)

Try to remember you have a life outside of work.

Abby Wilner, author of "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties," said she was advised by a co-worker in her first job (the inspiration for her book) to not take work home.

"It can be easy to let the stress of the office slip into your personal life, and it's so important to completely remove yourself mentally from your job when you leave for the day, every day," she said in an e-mail. "Keep in mind the bigger picture and don't lose that sense of perspective of what's really important in your life. Try to maintain balance -- stay active in the community, take advantage of your years of freedom and flexibility -- that way your entire world won't come crashing down if you have a bad day at the office."

Wilner swears that once she gets home now, she thinks only "about my husband and my Netflix." Okay, she admits, sometimes she is on a deadline and does bring work home with her. But it's important, she believes, to draw a line.

In short: Work hard, but live well.

And welcome to the world of work.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Wednesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her with your column ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company