Wednesday, July 31, 2013
When I was finishing my GCSEs at school great emphasis was placed upon work experience and its benefits when looking for a job. Not having a choice in the matter, my classmates and I all organised work experience placements as best we could, in industries that we thought might interest us.
I was fortunate enough to have a friend whose father worked as a commissioning editor at a
publishing house. The arrangements were made and I began my first ‘job’ in London. I loved
everything about it. I was young enough for the commute to be vaguely exciting;
the office was lively; and there were books everywhere! The editor I was
shadowing had manuscripts that were several inches thick and held together by
thick rubber bands piled two feet deep in his office, burying the two-seater
sofa almost completely. And these, he told me in a mock-exasperated tone, were
just from agents and addressed personally to him. The ‘slush pile’ –
unsolicited manuscripts sent to the publishing house in the hope of being
published – was far bigger.
I don’t remember too many of my tasks there, as it’s nearly six years ago now, but I do remember reading through several manuscripts in the slush pile. This exercise stuck with me, purely because of what was in there – there was a submission from an ex-marine commando describing, in sickeningly graphic detail, an ambush on a Hummer convoy in
Afghanistan. There was one from a
woman who had compiled a guide to life using advice from the late 1800s and
early 1900s. One particular tip has stuck with me, and that is, ‘One must
always make sure that one’s top hat is well polished before leaving the house.’
My reader report ran along the lines of ‘No, no, please, God, no.’ It wasn’t
published. There was another from a Russian journalist who believed her
government was trying to kill her, and was desperately trying to get her story
published. She only gave her mobile number to be contacted on for ‘security
purposes’. Convinced I had found a controversial and potentially best-selling
manuscript, I rushed in to my editor, who read through the cover letter while
listening to my explanation, then looked at me with a smile and said, ‘So you
think we should risk the polonium here, do you?’ That one didn’t get published
Before I left, however, I asked to have a chat with my editor about the publishing sector in general. We sat down and discussed various things, but the single piece of advice which has stayed with me since then was, ‘Be gracious.’ I spent a long time thinking about it – largely trying to work out what gracious meant – and how to apply it. The synonyms include ‘kindly’, ‘courteous’, and, according to the OED, it is slightly archaic: it can be linked to the medieval notion of chivalry without too much effort.
The further I have gone through education since that conversation, the more I have realised its wisdom. Since having been involved with my university’s student newspaper, especially, I have seen how this advice applies very well to management and job-seeking. For example, I have conducted interviews for positions with candidates who were positively abrasive and who were unsuccessful in their candidacy purely as a result of their attitude. Similarly, as an editor, I have found that it is far easier to secure my team’s enthusiasm and loyalty by treating them kindly and courteously, as opposed to shouting at them and threatening them, so much so that I have never had to resort to the latter two options. I’m not saying that I treat everyone graciously – far from it, though I try my best. It is an ideal that I choose to strive towards. This might not be the right mindset for everyone, or every job, but it has worked for me so far.
There was a commencement speech video that went viral late last year entitled This is water, delivered by David Foster Wallace to the graduating cohort of
It goes slightly beyond ‘be gracious’, but speaks of the importance of how we
choose to think. Worth a watch: http://dotsub.com/view/6b8cc93f-3b53-486b-a1ce-025ffe6c9c52 Kenyon College