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Works Well with Others: An Outsider's Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You

October 05, 2015

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Ross McCammmon's book of career advice is fast-moving, funny, and will help fortify you against feelings of inadequacy.

Ross McCammon doesn't take himself too seriously. In fact, he may at times have not taken himself seriously enough. He has always seen himself as a bit of an outsider in his own career, as if he doesn't really belong. In fact, when he got a call from a recruiter for a job at Esquire (he was at the time an editor at an in-flight magazine), he thought that it must have been a mistake, or perhaps an elaborate hoax.

Perhaps because he doesn't take himself too seriously, the book of career advice he's delivered, Works Well with Others: An Outsider's Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You, doesn't take itself too seriously, either. It is self-deprecating and hilarious rather than (as most career books are) self-aggrandizing and ambitious. McCammon tells you early on that "This is a self-help book for people who don't like self-help books." And what a relief.

The advice given isn't about how to build a career or move up the ladder in a big organization. It doesn't have an overriding philosophy or a series of steps to get you where you want to go. It doesn't even presume to know where it is you should want to go. It is about all of the remarkably important stuff in-between the supposedly big moves and moments in your career. It is about "how to reckon with the small customs of professional life," such as how to behave in a job interview, how to talk to a recruiter, and how to enter a room of people you need to make a good first impression on. Speaking of the importance of making eye contact in this scenario, he writes:

[L]ook people in the eye. Before you shake their hands, before you smile even.

Because what you're suggesting is the most underrated virtue in business: curiosity. I don't think there's a virtue in business more underrated. If you're curious about something, or even better, someone, you establish a crucial foundation for the meeting. And it's important to set the tone early—even if it's not about the business at hand.

And this is not something that you should try to fake. You have to know as much about yourself as you do about the people in the room, and why there may be a good professional fit between you. In this sense, feeling like an outsider is "not something to be overcome" but something you need to harness in your favor. You should "Embrace your outsider status" as a chance to learn something new, and perhaps bring something new to the table. You have to learn to "feel and seem comfortable even when you don't think you belong."

McCammon has had plenty of these moments in his life. And as a native Texan with, well, let's just say not an Ivy League pedigree, and from an in-flight magazine in the unglamarous environs of a suburban Texas office park, arriving at Esquire in New York City was certainly one of them. In short, he felt like he has always felt when he found a modicum of success—like an impostor, undeserving and soon to be found out, like so many of us do.

But, speaking of one of the most important realizations he has had in his professional life, one that dawned on him a few months into his life in New York City, he writes:


[A] few months after working in New York, a truth came into focus: Everyone around me was an impostor, too. We all have insecurities. And I think successful people are successful because of them. Not in spite of them. There's great energy in the spot on the Venn diagram where awkardness and ambition overlap. There's a great energy in weirdness.

Hugely important rule: Everyone is weird and nervous. No matter how famous or important, everyone is just really weird and really nervous. Especially the people who don't seem weird or nervous.

The problem, as he sees it, isn't in your inadequacies, it's "in letting your inadequacies get to you." So he teaches you how not to do that, mostly by sharing stories of exactly how—at times—he has. By describing his own foibles, he teaches simple things like "How to Have a First Day on the Job."

I now know that the best way to start working at a new job is to act like you've already been working there. To arrive and start working and seem comfortable even if you aren't. Not cocky. Just comfortable.

So much of this book comes down to that word, comfortable. It's about being comfortable with yourself, with your coworkers—both the ones you like and the ones you could do without, as well as those that clearly resent you being there, which if you feel like an impostor already, you could easily think are justified in their feelings.

Of course, being comfortable and getting along within the office walls is only a part of our lives, and only part of our working lives. Even though we spend more time with the people we work with than anyone outside our families—and sometimes more waking hours with them than with our family, we're often also required or feel compelled to interact with them after office hours, as well. And it's important that we know how to behave at those times, whether at a company dinner, other "work thing," or just grabbing a drink with a coworker after work. After all, these situations have an effect on your career, as well, because they help form deeper relationships and make friends and allies. McCammon begins by describing a dinner with colleagues his first day of work in New York, at which he feigned knowledge of something he had absolutely no knowledge of, and then proceeded to go mute for the rest of the night, he reminds us that the rules are different after work, and the important lesson he took from that night.

I was trying to play a part. I was trying to fit it. But they didn't need me to fit in. They needed me to be authentic. I was trying to apply the rules of business to the rules of dinner. But the workplace is not the same as a restaurant. We talk about things we don't understand all the time in business. To condemn bullsh*t at work would be to condemn the very foundations of the enterprise. But bullsh*t doesn't work at dinner. They needed me to be an interesting conversationalist. They needed me to be an authentic human being. Being nervous and intimidated is fine. But you have to be authentic. You cannot be an interesting conversationalist if you are faking interest in something. It's not possible. If you don't know who Werner Herzog is, admit it. You will be compensated for the points you lose for ignorance with the points you gain for being conversationally fearless.

Feeling like an outsider turns you into a kind of anthropologist of the office. Because nothing comes easy, you constantly and carefully study the smallest details and interactions. And McCammon writes about these things: how to smile, how to have meaningful interactions at lunch and in an elevator, how to make small talk even if you hate it, and things to never say in a professional setting.

There's a chapter on each, and all of these chapters are quick and concise. He tells you what he thinks you need to know, and nothing more, and moves on. And yet as sparse as it is in length, he finds ways to make it funny and engaging. He tells you very quickly why overly passionate people can come across as unprofessional. He'll tell you how to shake a hand, how to find a good bar to drink at after work, and how to properly order a drink. He'll tell you what kind of work you can try to do at your chosen bar (satellite office) after work, and when to stop drinking. At a "work thing," this is always before you think you are ready to go, and he'll tell you exactly how to leave. But, if you're at a work thing, he'll tell you how to give a toast or a speech. And he'll make you laugh as he does it.

He will also tell you how to work with a**holes, and even to embrace their presence. What he won't try to do is tell you how to be you, even if you are an a**hole, or can sometimes be a prick as he can be. He will also tell you how and when to use all the profanity I've been putting asterisks in.

He will, quite simply, tell you how you to adapt to that foreign culture that is the modern work environment. So  Works Well with Others could best be described as a book on professional etiquette, which covering etiquette for Esquire for many years makes him uniquely qualified for. The impostor, it seems, has become an authority.

We have 20 copies available.

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