By Judith Newman
When I was 22 and desperate to escape public relations, I decided to get a job at Rolling Stone. Having no magazine experience was hardly an impediment. It was only a matter of attracting Jann Wenner’s attention. So I worked very hard on my résumé. Then I put it in a pink plastic folder, filled the folder with glitter, attached the folder to some balloons and hired a messenger to deliver it. Because there’s nothing that says “serious investigative journalist” like glitter and balloons.
It may surprise you to learn that I didn’t get that job, nor several others with similarly festive deliveries, one involving feathers. Maybe if I’d been applying to Jazz Hands magazine, I’d have had a shot. I realize, in retrospect, that I could have used one or more of the books here: books about getting new jobs, accepting and improving yourself in old ones and learning how to work the system when you don’t come from a place of privilege. Little of the advice involves feathers.
In his 20s, Mike Lewis had the kind of career his parents could boast about: Our Son, the Venture Capitalist. And he didn’t hate that life, not at all. It’s just that all he could think about was becoming a professional squash player, devoting his life to a sport with no real prize money and few big sponsors, where you travel the world, crashing on people’s couches. Uh. O.K. then!
This dream is one step away from that famous “S.N.L.” skit in which Martin Short and Harry Shearer decide to ditch everything and become Olympic synchronized swimmers, despite the fact that they don’t know how to swim. But it is a dream, and it’s his, and despite the fact that Lewis wasn’t even a great squash player in college, he decides to go for it. And in WHEN TO JUMP: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want (Holt, $26), he tells us exactly how he made his move. The unintentional hilarity here is that Lewis’s bold leap is more of a whir forward on a Segway. I mean, the guy had an inspirational quote and a map of the world taped to his office wall. But maybe that’s the point: Most of us shouldn’t jump without a certain amount of body armor in the form of saved money, support from friends and family, and endless self-affirmation. What makes this book fun are the collections of stories from fellow jumpers: P.R. executive to bishop in the Episcopal Church, video-game marketer to inventor of the Lyft Carstache, and so forth. The jumps don’t have to be unusual to be moving. I got a little choked up over Teresa Marie Williams, who was told by “an important adult” at her high school that she should rethink her plans to pursue her education because she didn’t come from “a family that goes to college.” She did just that, became a nurse, had a son — and then started medical school in her 40s. Take that, Bozo Guidance Counselor.
Incidentally, Mike Lewis made it up to the rank of 112th best squash player in the world, traveled to nearly 50 countries, rode in untold numbers of buses and slept on untold numbers of couches. And was very very happy in what many of us would consider the ninth circle of hell. Cue the Eurythmics: Sweet dreams are made of this, and who am I to disagree?
Leah Weiss, Ph.D., teaches a course in compassionate leadership at Stanford’s business school, and if that sounds a little like George Carlin’slist of oxymorons (“jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence”), never fear: She’s got the goods. In HOW WE WORK: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind (HarperWave, $27.99), Weiss shows how viewing our careers “as an opportunity to practice mindfulness, purposefulness and compassion” will make us better workers and better people. She applies the goals of meditation to the office, not in a “sit on a cushion with your mantra and a vanilla candle” kind of way but by knowing your own mind and heart. She talks about the three aspirational principles of the Tibetan system called dampa sum — making your actions good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end. You begin by writing your own mission statement and setting out your core values, continue with “meta-cognition” (understanding how your daily work connects with your personal goals and those of your employer) and end with reflection and a process of “check ins” to collect feedback from your colleagues and see if you’re meeting your own expectations.
Weiss’s approach to greater satisfaction and success at work is steeped in evidence-based science. And it’s not just philosophical; there’s plenty of practical advice. Consider, for example, her mental exercise intended to cultivate compassion for an officemate who drives you crazy. This multistep process includes: imagining her outside work, perhaps interacting with her children or taking a walk in the woods; imagining her insecurities, her disappointments; thinking about the people who care for her or a family member who needs her. “Can you imagine meeting her for the first time and enjoying her company?” Weiss asks gently. To which I could only answer: “She wears a MAGA cap and chews with her mouth open, so I still hate her. But thanks for asking!” At least Weiss has given readers an approach that might be more help than the tiny voodoo dolls I used to keep for those special someones.
Gary Burnison’s LOSE THE RÉSUMÉ, LAND THE JOB (Wiley, paper, $30) is less about compassion in the workplace and more about scaring us straight. Burnison, the chief executive of Korn Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm, dedicates the book to “everyone who hates his or her job.” He doesn’t mean for readers to actually ditch the résumé; he wants us to understand what a minor part of the job hunt it actually is, particularly now that so much job hunting is done electronically. Hit a button and you’ve applied — and so have thousands of others, often without giving much thought to their qualifications or where they want to live or, essentially, who they are as workers. (Just because you like foosball doesn’t mean you’re temperamentally suited for a start-up.) The point is not “What can you do for me?” but “What can I do for your company?” “Lose the Résumé” breaks down every aspect of job hunting, explaining what matters and what doesn’t. Did you know that as many as 25 percent of all applicants are deep-sixed by their dopey social media pages? “If you’re not careful,” Burnison advises, ominously and accurately, “you can tweet yourself out of a job.”
Much of what’s here we know instinctively, but it’s very good to be reminded. “Networking poorly is worse than not networking at all,” Burnison writes, as I flashed back to the gynecologist who, in the midst of examining me, asked if I could take a look at his collection of poems about menopause. We’ve all been there — sometimes in stirrups.
And finally there’s Stacey Abrams’s MINORITY LEADER: How to Lead From the Outside and Make Real Change (Holt, $28, available later this month). If we don’t have a slavery apologist and accused child molester in the Senate, we can thank black women voters and those who spearheaded registration drives for people of color in the South. Abrams has been a successful tax attorney, entrepreneur and, not least of all, award-winning romance novelist. But she arrived on the national stage when she became House minority leader of the Georgia General Assembly. This year, if she wins the Democratic primary, she could become the first black female governor in American history.
Abrams calls “Minority Leader” a “handbook” for outsiders, which means it includes a primer on our country’s power structure for people more likely to have worked on the manor than to be of the manner born. She also tackles the internal barriers, the “fear and otherness” that hold so many back, that keep marginalized people toe-dipping in the system while the privileged cannonball straight in. The second of six children of a “genteel poor” Mississippi family, she abided by her parents’ “trinity of education, faith and service.” Abrams had one early success after another, yet one question haunted her: “I was really good at being a black woman, compared to other black women. But could I be more than that?”
For someone who sneaked into the computer lab at Spelman College to plan the next 40 years of her life on a spreadsheet, the answer was obviously “Yes.” But that she could even frame the question in this way speaks volumes. Abrams’s own grit, coupled with her descriptions of much stumbling and self-doubt, will make “Minority Leader” touch you in a way few books by politicians can. In fact, the last one to manage it — biracial, the child of divorce, raised with little money by a single mother — became our 44th president. That’s some pretty serious jumping there.