Helping Young People Succeed at Work

Book Excerpt

Read before you buy—enjoy this sample material taken from Part I of the book, entitled First-Job Success.

Chapter 3. Plotting Your Own Course

Buckle up.

Entering high school, young adults begin spending less time in life’s passenger seat and more time in their own personal driver’s seat.

Although this transition might sound intimidating, it can be exciting. Up to now, most of your major life choices have probably been made for you. Most were probably related to your grade-by-grade advancement in school.

Now, in high school, you can either begin choosing your own direction or keep letting others do it for you. Consider these simple but real choices.

Do I want to play competitive soccer or baseball? Do I want to excel at one or the other? Must I choose?

Are my grades suffering because I spend my weekends doing nothing but playing video games?

Should I take that job stocking shelves at Warehouse Inc., where I will interact with nobody, or on the sales floor at Guitar Emporium, where I will work with many people who share my passion?

It is a universal rule that the more time you spend doing one thing, the less time you have for doing others. So, it would be wise to choose your most important pursuits with thought and care.

This is not to say you should avoid trying new things or limit yourself to only a few interests. Rather, you would do well to consider carefully which activities to pursue enthusiastically and which to just try on for size.

Most important is to recognize your increased liberty to choose—for yourself—where you are going in life and that the sooner you start plotting your own course, the more interesting and fulfilling your life becomes.

These comments about steering your own personal course are meant to highlight the importance of taking personal ownership of your job-seeking efforts instead of, say, just letting your parents find any convenient job for you. Otherwise, you might indeed spend your summer with your uncle Ted fixing septic tanks.


When looking for work, in a way, you are selling a product. That product is you.

Before you begin contacting companies, take some time to consider the state of the merchandise you are offering. If you don’t like what you see, now is the time to begin making changes.

Which one of the following two statements would you prefer as your own best description?

That guy over there, he goes by the name Snake. He always dresses carelessly, never looks you in the eye when he speaks to you, and seems only to be interested in himself. He’s kind of a loner.

The guy in the cool shirt? That’s Will, which suits him—no matter what favor you ask, he will do it. He always dresses nicely, he’s a great listener, and he takes an interest in everyone he meets. He seems to be friends with everybody, too.

The question answers itself. Speaking generally, the Snakes of the world struggle at work. Their supervisors aren’t eager to promote them, and if given the smallest opportunity or reason to do so, their bosses might even lay them off. Similarly, customers aren’t excited about working with Snakes either.

Wills, on the other hand, are always going to be in high demand in the workplace. Both supervisors and customers love working with people like Will.

How do you avoid (or escape) being like Snake and start becoming more like Will? Simply deciding to do so is a great first step. Next, a great way to begin improving your image in the eyes of others is by increasing your self-awareness.

Start by asking yourself a simple question like “How do I look today?” This is not to say you need to focus excessively on yourself. To the contrary, we will touch on that subject further below when we cover individuality. But your appearance is important.

Take pride in your grooming and wardrobe, and do so consistently. Your efforts show others that you care about your image.

Next, in your journey toward being more like Will and less like Snake, ask yourself how your friends and family see you as you interact with them.

Okay, let’s see. What’s going on here? How am I doing? Am I being as considerate to this person as I should be? Am I listening to what they’re saying or just waiting for my turn to talk? Am I trying to appreciate and understand them; am I taking their point of view into account?

Only by learning to see yourself as others do are you able to make any necessary adjustments in how you interact with people. Cultivating self-awareness in this way is a big first step toward earning dignity.


Dignity is a measure of one’s worthiness of esteem and respect. Dignity must be earned. It is not determined by factors such as your financial position, your family name, the neighborhood you live in, or even your employer.

One could write a book about establishing dignity. In fact, that has been done; just pick up any Boy or Girl Scout handbook—the older the better.

Meanwhile, for the sake of brevity, here is a one-paragraph primer that will help you enhance and round out your dignity.

A great starting place for cultivating dignity is grooming. Trimming your nails and brushing your hair, for example, are important self-maintenance tasks. Next, dignity extends to one’s wardrobe. Wearing laundered and properly fitting garments helps you command respect. Further, dignity is a function of your conduct. Like Will, be kind and considerate to others. But do not stop there; dignity is also a function of how you treat yourself, such as through rest, diet, and exercise. Finally, dignity comes from how you act on the job. To gain the admiration of your coworkers and supervisors, challenge yourself to pursue all assigned tasks eagerly and with pride—especially the unpopular and challenging ones.

As you can see, raising your dignity requires thinking about yourself and taking actions to enhance your esteem and respect in the eyes of others. These actions can be both healthy and helpful. Before moving on, to keep these self-improvement efforts in perspective, let’s talk about two related concepts.

First, dignity is not the same thing as individuality. Second, it is not the same thing as style. Let’s quickly cover these distinctions in more detail.

Is Individuality Important?

Individuality is a GREAT attribute. It would probably rank very highly on most people’s lists of favorite personal characteristics. And good news—we all have our own individuality, whether we feature it or not.

For whatever reasons, however, some folks more than others strive to make their individuality a large part of their public identity. How? Unusual fashions, creative hairstyles, and doubting attitudes are three examples.

Although individuality is something most of us appreciate, it is not a highly valued attribute for many entry-level employers. Most supervisors are looking for more from their employees than rebellious clothing, colorful hairdos, and sarcastic points of view.

In fact, many employers view such attributes as distractions, not attractions. (Remember Snake? “He seems only to be interested in himself.”) Meanwhile, somewhat ironically, many employers are delighted with employees who demonstrate interest in the individuality of others. (Remember Will? “He seems to take an interest in everyone he meets.”)

If expressing your individuality is a hobby for you, or even a passion, that is probably just great (unless it is an unhealthy obsession). However, to round out your appeal in the entry-level job market, begin taking an equal or greater interest in the individuality of others around you.

What About Style?

When speaking of personal qualities, a close cousin to individuality is style. This is another attribute many young adults strive for. Yet, much like individuality, for many entry-level employers, a fancy haircut and spectacular wardrobe are not especially important.

Style is great, and if it is an interest of yours, or even a passion, there should be no reason you cannot pursue it and still get a good job. But again, like individuality, style alone probably won’t get you far in the entry-level workplace. You need to combine it with other basic work skills.

This brings us to our last closely related topic for choosing your best you: work ethic.

Work Ethic

Simply being at work is not working; working is working.

At work, your attitude about work is very important. If you’re looking for a job at which you can study, play games, or otherwise goof around with your friends while working, you should probably stick to house-sitting.

Inconveniently, you probably won’t be able to practice or demonstrate your good work ethic until you start working. But an eagerness to work hard ties in closely with this chapter about taking personal control over your direction in life.

Simply deciding to work hard and being aware of when you are not putting forth your full effort are two great first steps to strengthening your work ethic.

Once you do start working, maintaining a good attitude about your duties and working enthusiastically will help you earn favor from others. And here is another hint: during slow periods, ask your supervisor what else you might do to fill the time.

A good work ethic increases your chance of promotion, leads to better wages, and insulates you from being laid off in case of a company downturn.

Finding Your Place

Hopefully, you are interested in personally plotting your own course, polishing your dignity, and demonstrating your work ethic.

Once you have decided to pursue these objectives, it’s time to begin assessing potential employers. Clearly, you want one who will take you in the direction you hope to go.

But what do you personally have to offer such a company? Why would a company need you?


© 2021 Greg Kagay

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