The best thing you can do for your career.

The best thing you can do for your career.

I’m heading home today from the annual gathering of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, where I spent the weekend immersed in the world of books and publishing.

At any conference like this, there’s a lot of shop talk, and this gathering in particular is known for being intimate, fostering collaboration and mutual support between the authors in attendance, mostly novelists.

The conversations I sat in on with authors this weekend were usually about one of two things: how to do the writing, or how to get it out into the world. The craft, or the business. How to do the work, or how to work with your publisher.

The recommendations for the craft were many and diverse: everyone has their favorite tip or trick, their unique plotting style, their individual writing process.

At dinner one evening, someone pitched a question to the 5 or 6 authors gathered at the table: “What’s the best thing you’ve done for your career?”

The conversation didn’t go the direction I expected. No one talked serious strategy or ninja marketing tricks. At this table of successful female novelists, the overwhelming answer was a variation on this: be kind.

One highly successful historical novelist said being nice is the smartest thing she’s done for her career: nobody likes to work with jerks.

Another writer said saying thank you made her stand out from the crowd. Not just the thank yous to the “important people” in their careers: their editors, their publicists, their agents—everyone remembers to do that.

She made it a point to thank everyone who helped her: the support staff, entry-level workers, and interns at her publishers’ office who make things happen every day for their authors. They get stuff done. But because they don’t have sexy job titles, their work often goes unrecognized by those same authors.

Saying a simple thank you to them made her stand out from the crowd.

My favorite story was from Kim Wright, author of The Canterbury Tales. She told us about a conversation she had with her publicist when she was getting ready to launch her book Love in Mid Air.

Kim is based in Charlotte, and her publicist, a fellow Southerner, made an off-hand comment about how much she missed authentic North Carolina barbecue, because it was impossible to find in New York.

On a whim, Kim found a barbecue place that would ship out of state, and she sent genuine North Carolina barbecue to her publicist’s whole office.

She immediately became known as “the author who sent us the barbecue,” and from that point forward, everyone who ate lunch that day bent over backwards to make sure her stuff got done.

I’m sure there are many complicated and savvy things you can do to build your career, or just improve your life. But the most important thing is the simplest: be nice.

And sometimes, send barbecue.

P.S. If you have your own version of Kim Wright’s barbecue story, I’d love to hear it (and/or general thoughts about careers and kindness) in comments. 

P.S. What makes a relationship work? (It sounds a lot like this.)

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33 comments

  1. Susan in TX says:

    Love is the Killer App by Tim Sanders is about this very thing – being nice, sharing resources, contacts, etc. as a way to be more successful in your career. Worth the read for the business-minded.

  2. When I was in high school my family went to Universal Studios. It was super hot, and the lines were long. At the end of the day we got in a line that’s wait time was just past when the park was scheduled to close, probably 45 minutes. My mom flagged down a worker and asked if he thought it was worth standing in the line or if we’d have to leave before getting to the front of the line. And this young man said, “oh no, we’ll stay and make sure that everyone gets to ride the ride.” And my mom was immediately very sympathetic to how this would make for a really long day for the workers, since they’d have to stay so late, and how she felt bad about this. And then the worker looked around, lifted the rope divider and told us to follow him. He brought us through a special lane to the front of the line, and we were on the ride in about 45 seconds. I know that my mom was just being kind, she had no intention of getting us on the ride faster! But I’ll always remember how genuine kindness and sympathy can really make a difference!

    • Beth Anne says:

      Oh Amy I love this story! We’ve been to several theme parks here in California this summer, and Universal was by far our favorite, because the staff there are so kind! It’s really true. Between LegoLand, the Zoo, Sea World, and Universal – there was a stark difference. Our son has a disability, and at some of the other parks, they act like his wheelchair is this big inconvenience and eye us up like we’re trying to cheat the system. At Universal, they offered us a backstage tour of the transformers ride, and a chance to ride again without waiting. At the Minions ride, they remembered us from one day to the next and said, “Hey Holden, good to see you!” And any time we stood in line to meet a character, they would immediately flag us down and tell us to come to the front. They were so kind we felt bad… we didn’t always take them up on their offers of kindness, but I have to say, for a kid who struggles to keep up on a daily basis, it was nice that he was treated like a king while we were there. Seriously, the young college kids and twenty-somethings working at Universal are the BEST. Hands down. I’m not sure how they train them or what they tell them when they start working there, but I want to know… because it’s working, and every company should have staff like that.

  3. Allison says:

    When my children were coming of age and starting to get odd jobs, working part-time etc., these were the types of values my husband and I focused on: work hard, be reliable, and be kind.Now that all three boys are men in the workforce, they have seen all this come back to them double and triple times over. In addition, they have also seen what happens with those co-workers who are NOT kind, NOT reliable and don’t do their jobs. It doesn’t matter what profession is being discussed; the one who is kind, reliable and gets the job done will, (with rare exception), always get ahead.

  4. Rachel says:

    I love this, especially Kim Wrightms story, and I can relate. Over a decade ago, when I was first starting out in my career, an older, much more experienced coworker told me to be polite to everyone I worked with, and that ‘the person you’re training today is hiring you tomorrow.’ And lo and behold, over 10 years later, someone I trained 4 or 5 years ago, and only worked with for less than a year, remembered me and highly recommended me for a very coveted position working where she works now.
    I was taught the Golden Rule at home and at school, and it hasn’t failed me yet! A good dose of thoughtfulness (and BBQ!) goes a long way.

  5. s says:

    absolutely love this – kindness and gratitude are so simple to execute but in a very cut throat high speed world, we’ve been encouraged to be competitive, to make sure we are one step ahead.

    I work for a very large corporation and we are expected to work hard and continuously do more, innovate, improve for the bottom line. In a company wide meeting that was broadcast from a particular location, one of the questions posed to the leader was what would they recommend to advance your career – his answer resonated with everyone and shows that the culture shift in our company is truly at work – “Show up and help” – I think that is such a wonderful piece of advice because as he stated, you can’t lose when you pitch in and help out at any level.

  6. Anne says:

    I shouldn’t be surprised, but isn’t that something? The publishing world seems like an awfully big deal to me, but it’s kindness that they talked about. On the other hand, of course it is what they talked about. I know how much I appreciate kindness. Fun to read about your thoughts from this event. Thanks for sharing, Anne!

  7. Dana says:

    Anne,
    It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday. Your interview with Elin Hildebrand was terrific. I enjoyed the entire day very much. In the Women’s Fiction panel session, they told the story about Kim Wright and the barbecue. I loved that! I had a chance to meet many of the writers both at the Moveable Feast, the smaller sessions, book signings and at later at the Meet-up. They were all so kind, polite, helpful and generous with their time and advice.
    I came home with renewed hope and energy for my own writing plus a whole bagful of new books!

    Thanks, too, for the reminder about kindness. It does go a long way in a work that shows too little of it.

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad I got to meet you there, and happy to hear you enjoyed it. (Also I’m jealous you were in the women’s fiction panel—I was down the hall but heard I really missed out!) Thanks for coming out. Wishing you all the best in your own work.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I am an elementary school teacher. August is when we’re in our classrooms getting ready and it is brutal. Every year, before all the other teachers come back, I buy lunch for the custodians one day- anywhere they want. If I need something moved, they are prompt to do it because they know I care for them. If someone vomits in my room, they are the ones to clean it up. THEY are the ones to keep happy. When I had a student teacher, I taught her the three most important people in the building: 1. custodial staff 2. secretary 3. technology fixer. I keep those people happy so when I need them, they know before-hand that I appreciate their work.

  9. I feel like being reliable is something that should be a given but isn’t. Do what you say you’re going to do and be where you say you’re going to be (at the time you are supposed to be there), and you’ll be WAY ahead in your career. And yes – be gracious and friendly!

  10. a says:

    My dad used to tell me every time I left the house, “Be nice. Have fun. Try to learn something.” I have worked in vastly different fields, and in my reviews, my bosses (men and women, no matter the industry) have told me how much they appreciate my kindness. I believe smiling kept me in a job during a transitional period, maybe two different times (now that I think of it). Thank you for your kindness to your readers in comments, by the way. It’s one thing (of many) that has kept me reading.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Wonderful post! I recently graduated college and now have a job as a nurse. I greatly appreciate it when my co-workers are kind or even just take the time to ask me how I am because it is a stressful job and when kindness is present it makes the job so much easier! I also make sure to say thank you and be kind to my co-workers because without them I would be able to do my job effectively.

  12. Xo A. says:

    My Father has a job that got us to move around several countries, so we didn’t normally stayed in a place for more that two years.

    When I was about to finish my senior year of highschool, I went to a friend’s and I came back to a party at my house: It was a birthday party someone planned for my Dad at the office!(his birthday is on Valentine’s Day, so we never did much other than stay for dinner and have family time). It was fun to see all those gifts and people enjoying their Valentine’s at my Dad’s.

    Later on, we were about to move… and as we attended a farewell party (again, from the officemates to my Dad) I noticed a lot of people, including the custodial staff burst into tears. When Dad asked them what was going on, they replied “You have been the only manager that has ever said ‘good morming’ to us! and even brought us warm dinner when it was cold”. I burst in tears too.

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