Tolerable First Impressions

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By Rachel Dry,
an assistant editor in Outlook
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

HOW TO BE USEFUL

A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work

By Megan Hustad

Houghton Mifflin. 232 pp. $19.95

I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE

By Sloane Crosley

Riverhead. 230 pp. $14

Very soon, despite the difficulty of job hunting in tough economic times, newly minted graduates will march into Day One of their first real jobs. They will arrive a little nervous and a little plagued by doubt.

With some luck, these neophytes might meet with someone like Megan Hustad. She would likely be well dressed but not in a loud or distinctive way. The look itself would be instructive: Understated uniformity is the way to go. She might offer to pay for coffee -- she seems like a generous type -- and then settle into a pep talk about what it takes to get ahead, or at least survive, at work.

This no-nonsense attitude reflects the message of her succinctly titled book "How to Be Useful," a guide, she explains in the introduction, for the "tenderhearted and creatively inclined." Part study of best-selling advice literature, part collection of cautionary tales from herself and her peers, the book is an engaging blend of prescription and cultural history.

Hustad, a former editor, mixes her own wisdom with that of writers such as Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, John T. Molloy, Helen Gurley Brown and even Donald Trump, who is treated quite charitably in a cameo. "Have a firm handshake," she quotes from "How to Read a Person Like a Book" (1971). There is "something vaguely un-American" about a bad grip. A section on the long and proud history of artfully crafted tales of humble beginnings features Carnegie's barefoot childhood and Jack Welch as a child of parents "poorer than he wanted them to be." The lesson? Don't loudly discuss your own flighty failings, but do practice "preemptive self-deprecation." It works, she writes, because "if you can point out where your own chinks are first, you take away someone else's fun -- and disrupt whatever play for dominance he or she might be attempting."

It's not cheery advice-book fare to suggest knocking yourself down a peg, but cheery is not Hustad's goal. (Her young but jaded audience wouldn't believe cheery, anyway.) She doesn't sugarcoat the working world but offers tips about how to make it bearable. "Tell yourself small lies about the glory in drudgery," she suggests early on. This will not only make the collating or bagel-fetching more tolerable in the moment, she says, but could earn you a key self-deprecating tale later on. And if the lies don't work, she provides more practical advice: "Do freeload."

Apart from encouraging after-hours personal use of the photocopier, however, the overall sentiment of the book is easy to digest. Hustad manages to make the process of identifying your professional goals and then setting out to achieve them palatable -- even hip.

Is Sloane Crosley whom Hustad is writing for? Maybe.

In her best-selling essay collection "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," book publicist Crosley describes landing her first job. At an interview with the woman who would become her boss, she mentioned that friends would describe her as "a loose cannon." It was a joke -- in air quotes! -- but still.

Her book, a breezy collage of her experiences in the big city, is filled with many such tales of accidental achievement. Crosley lies badly, fakes illness repeatedly, romanticizes the possibility of real illness and locks herself out of a series of apartments multiple times, but she still manages to get by.

Still, she finds independent life in the city not quite as shiny as she'd been promised. "We were disillusioned by day and deglamorized by night," she writes of herself and her peers. "Our apartments, our love lives, the bar-slash-lounges we waited on line for. They all seemed smaller than we thought they should be." This disenchantment leads her, in another essay, to volunteer at the butterfly conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History. (Yes, butterflies. That's how she gives back.)

Crosley's skillful retelling of her own pratfalls can be funny. But, of course, reading about someone else's mistakes won't keep you from making your own -- and that may be all the advice new graduates need to hear.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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