Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Be gracious

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 London 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 either.

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 Kenyon College. It goes slightly beyond ‘be gracious’, but speaks of the importance of how we choose to think. Worth a watch: