When I was sixteen I interviewed for a job at McDonald’s and didn’t get it. Before that I’d worked as a phone solicitor and before that, a babysitter, yard worker, necklace stringer and flower-seller, and I raised and sold baby rabbits, and made nachos to sell at fairs. When I was in college I worked selling pizza, painting houses, making sandwiches, assisting an elderly couple, being a photo double, selling ice cream, selling kites, selling my own blood and once (unwittingly) appearing as a clothed extra in an X-rated movie. After college, I worked as a temp in L.A. while doing comedy open mics at night, but struggled to maintain enough work to support myself. At the age of 23, in a burst of desire for a steady income, I talked my way into an Admin Assistant position in a hospital marketing department, with benefits and everything.
I really wanted to succeed in this job, but aside from being smart and funny and a fast typist, I had very little idea of what would actually earn my employer’s respect and get me promoted. Growing up poor, I had some wrong ideas about workplaces, bosses, and how to act. Gradually I had to figure it out. I’m still figuring it out, but here are ten things I learned:
- Attire-wise, “sexy” is not the same as “business-y.” Yes, high heels and dresses work with either look, and both are very beautiful, but different kinds of high heels send different messages. Same with different kinds of makeup, clothes and hair. You can’t help but be naturally sexy, but if you look like you’re trying to look sexy, it may appear to some at work that you are troubled, low-class, flirting, or manipulating. There is a time and a place for all this but not at work, not when you are trying to get ahead.
- While we’re talking about clothes, it should be noted that “money people” can wear clothes that express their personality, edginess and quirks, but if you grew up poor, you are burdened with a bit of a trust deficit in the workplace. So you may want to play it vanilla. A plain and sexless NPR kind of vanilla — in the first year, at least — without visible tattoos, piercings, unnatural hair coloring, studded belts, long or colorful nails, etc.
- If you are political or religious, don’t talk about it. If you are anti-political or anti-religious, don’t talk about that either, even if everyone else is talking about it. You can just nod vaguely and then smile brightly (to show you’re not judging) and lightly change the subject. Unless politics or religion is your job, the risks and pitfalls are way too high to risk your professional progress at this stage.
- At some jobs there are times when most of the team will have a drink together. It may not be a great idea for you to drink though. First of all, the trust deficit. You are already at a disadvantage for having grown up poor. And you may in fact have a cultural difference. In poverty culture, we have some room to talk about very personal things, get loud, cry and get angry, wherever we happen to be. Not so much in money culture. Also, if you grew up poor there’s a high likelihood that you grew up around alcoholism, and so other people drinking could be weird for you. I’d just say, if you’re trying to get somewhere professionally, you need all the wits about you that you can get. Order a non-alcoholic drink without calling attention to the fact you’re not drinking. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn about a company when everyone is drinking except you.
- If you were poor and this involved a crappy childhood, you are more at risk than money people for “rocky life events” — depression, broken relationships, financial trouble, anxiety, rage attacks and logistical mayhem around home, family, moving, parenting, holidays, etc. If you have childhood PTSD these events will be even harder to avoid or contain. I really couldn’t tell you if poor people have more drama in their lives than money people, but I know there is more pressure on poor people to prove they are smart, trustworthy and emotionally stable. So get support from friends and professionals who can hear the horrible details and love you anyway. Then create a sturdy emotional “filter” that let’s you create mild, socially acceptable stories about what’s going in your life that you can tell at work with a little smile and virtually no details.
- Try never to gossip, even if other people are gossiping. This means not saying anything negative or disclosing personal information about a person not present. Even if it never gets back to the person you talked about, those who heard you will lose a little trust in you.
- If you resent your boss (and sometimes you will, especially if you grew up in poverty culture) you need to do everything in your power to get over it, or else change jobs. When I tell people this they think I’m too harsh, but think about it: Unless there is a problem with harassment, criminal activity or abuse, your job is to make your boss successful. If you do that, it is very probable you’ll rise. And trying to make your boss successful is generally the most direct path to learning about your job, your company and your industry. So your promotion will be earned.
- When your boss does not appreciate your contributions, or you think you could do better elsewhere, it is your job to recognize that and make it happen. This sounds really simple, but a lot of us leave that decision — without really being conscious of it — to others. And then we resent them for denying us the opportunities we deserve. You may agree with me on this: I, and I alone, am responsible for my advancement.
- Make a decision that your paycheck is a contract, and “own” your side of the contract. Don’t treat yourself as a victim, and don’t treat your employer as an adversary. You agreed to a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time, so if, on the job, you are chatting, checking your phone, browsing online, or not performing your job to the best of your ability, you are technically stealing from your employer. A lot of workplaces tolerate this behavior but you will know. These tiny “shame things” will keep you from holding your head up high, if only just a little, and cut short your confidence at critical moments. Set things right wherever you can. The absence of shame makes you stronger.
- Accept that as a person who grew up poor (and maybe with some crappy difficulties in your past) you may have some things that are awkward and struggly. Try not to let this set you against the world, or to use it as an excuse. Be kind, open-minded and courageous, and keep trying! Everyone is supposed to be different, and each person’s unique gifts are needed in this desperate world. When you aim to strengthen the goodness in yourself, your past experiences are transformed into a strength that can be shared. And that, right there, could just be your purpose.