Opinion | My Times: Career Advice From a Career in the Trenches

When I got my first full-time job at The Detroit News, I decided that it wasn’t enough to learn to do my job, I needed to learn every job connected to mine. There were researchers in the graphics department. I made them an offer: I would get their lunches and run their errands if they would let me watch them work. They never asked me to do the menial tasks, but they did let me watch them work with sources and even pitch in. I was working two shifts every day — one for free and one for pay — but the experience I gained was invaluable.

This suited me. I wouldn’t call myself a workaholic, but I like my work, and I was young. Young people should work as hard as possible because there will come a time when the aging body simply can’t handle it.

Find your workplace tribe.

The Times I arrived at 30 years ago is a far cry from The Times of today. I once heard it described as “a knife fight among valedictorians,” with managers who were mean and who seemed to have been rewarded for being so.

That kind of hostile work environment would never be tolerated at The Times today, but if you ever find yourself in such a situation, remember, you’re probably not alone. Anywhere you go, you have to find your workplace tribe — the other earnest, good-natured employees who can be your sounding board and source of support.

Hopefully we are all coming to understand that the skulduggery of office politics is unfair, unnecessary and creates a counterproductive environment. But with help from my tribe, I survived that period, and I have to admit, I thrived. It was sport to me. I never picked a fight, but I never ran from one.

Everyone you work with or for is a reference.

It is estimated that up to 80 percent of job listings are never posted. Often, someone looking to hire simply asks trusted people if they know of a good candidate. When those opportunities arise, you want your name to be at the top of their mind — as someone smart, collegial and hard working. This is why you must give your all in every job you have, no matter how small, no matter if it has nothing to do with your ultimate career and ambitions. And you must treat everyone around you with respect. Because anyone who knows you could give you a reference, without you being the wiser.

No one cares about your disadvantages. Overcome them.

I didn’t go to an elite boarding school or an Ivy League college, but many of the people whom I would work with did, and many of the people I would compete with did. I resolved early on that I would have to compensate, as much as I could, for any deficiencies in my educational pedigree. I read the classics that had never been assigned to me and as many new books as possible. I watched documentaries nonstop as well as the news. I visited museums and took classes if time permitted. I told myself that no one would ever make a reference to “The Merchant of Venice” again without me understanding it.