Recently, while I was slumming around the Internet, I ran across a blog written by one of my younger coworkers. Though I considered diverting my eyes, as if I’d found a friend’s open diary at an opportune moment, I couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing my junior colleague’s innermost thoughts clearly typeset in 10-point Times Roman font. Plus, he’d posted it for everyone to see on the World Wide Web. However, most of his twenty-something musings held little interest to a 38-year-old voyeur. Endless lists of favorite bands, favorite friends, favorite bars and favorite Friday nights. However, I stopped short when I saw what was on the very bottom of his list: his job at our design firm.
Though he didn’t write that he hated his job, he did hate that he wasn’t taken seriously. And furthermore, he wrote, he wouldn’t be taken seriously for quite some time – most of his office mates had years of experience. In his opinion, he was prematurely withering on the vine, his creative juices sapped by the more established people in the firm. He felt his talents were being wasted and that he needed to find another job in order to grow. What interested me most about my coworker’s blog was something he didn’t write… the part that he’d only been working for about a year, having been hired immediately after college with no prior experience.
He also didn’t include asking me why he couldn’t wear flip-flops to work (we’re just not that kind of office). He didn’t mention wondering why he needed to show up to work on time. And he didn’t explain how he had to be told that his work was only part of a greater collaborative effort – generally, young hires have a significant learning curve and all of their time cannot be billed to clients. Our creative group may consist of many talented individuals, but we do work as a team. Having a young, inexperienced designer flying solo is not an option.
And why would a young, fledgling designer want to work alone” More than likely, they should be able to draw upon years of experience from their colleagues. These colleagues come in all shapes, sizes, hair colors, and ages. Sure, they may ramble about the old days, how they used to do this or that, but if you listen carefully and ask good questions, you may discover some nuggets of wisdom. You may learn how to deal with clients. You may learn how to critique your own work. Or learn how to know if the work you’re doing is appropriate for a particular client (some Fortune 500 companies may not want creativity more suited for a skateboard shop). You may even find out the best way to get a raise. There’s no better resource than a person who has been gaining experience for years.
When I made the recommendation of hiring this young gun, I appreciated his outgoing personality as well as his design sensibilities. From experience, I’ve decided it’s better to hire a young person with a good attitude and a promising portfolio than a world-weary diva with an outstanding portfolio. Perhaps I should call my theory of hiring The Play-Doh® Principle: I enjoy finding fun, young, colorful talent who will, hopefully, allow themselves to be molded and shaped into thoughtful, intelligent creatives. When I was hired, I fell into this group: I had a solid design education with a decent portfolio accompanied by an open mind and an eagerness to learn more about being a professional designer. I felt very fortunate to be part of a firm with so many talented creative personalities. Though I was completely intimidated by their abilities, I wanted to learn as much as possible from these people for whom I had so much respect. I had no doubt that I didn’t know it all. And now, as a senior creative director sixteen years later, I’m still learning something new every day.
It wasn’t a mistake hiring this designer or any of the other twenty-somethings in my office. But I do think I’ve underestimated their feelings of entitlement. And I’m not alone. Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton told an audience that young people today "think work is a four-letter word." She also mentioned that they have a sense of entitlement after growing up in a "culture that has a premium on instant gratification." Unfortunately, she later took back these remarks. (Unhappy Chelsea = unhappy Hillary).
I don’t want to be the office curmudgeon. I understand what it’s like to be young (who hasn’t shown up to work with a hangover”). But I’ve had too many experiences over the past couple of years dealing with people right out of college who aren’t willing to listen to, let alone learn from, their seniors. And it’s frustrating trying to explain why they need to put extra effort into their work, why they need to dress professionally, why they may need to attend a meeting, why they need to think of another idea, and why they may need to help their seniors in supportive roles. Most of these recent grads are under the impression that they’ve “made it”, having successfully climbed up the Mount of High School and College, and are now ready to roll down the back slope of their lives until they see the ocean view from their million-dollar retirement home.
If I could say one thing to you recent grads it would be: Don’t overlook the advantages of working with experienced, knowledgeable talent. Listen and learn while you’re in a position where you’ll be cut some slack. There are more things to be learned, more chances to make mistakes, and more opportunities for personal growth. A positive attitude, an open mind, and even a tucked shirt, can make a good difference in your workplace and your job. And seeing a young employee with aspirations to do their best can, amazingly enough, even inspire their older, crankier colleagues.