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Don’t Make Tyra Mad! Or, What Reality Shows Can Teach You About Work

Heather | February 18, 2011

So I know it sounds crazy. I know. After all, reality shows exist to help you forget about whatever it is you do the rest of the day, right? Think about it this way, though — while many reality shows revolve around surviving in the wilderness or losing more than half of your body weight, many of them are actually about working, as a fashion designer, a model, a chef, a business mogul, etc. It makes sense that the lessons you can learn, then, as you watch young hapless sorts navigate their careers, are ones you can apply to your own career path, whether you’re entry-level or experienced. Plus, you can feel free to make mistakes, with not a camera in sight! Here are a few of those lessons I’ve picked up:

Never Ever Say “I Can’t”
You may be more than familiar with the way Tyra Banks looks at a model who claims it’s too hard to pose underwater, or that one simply can’t look pretty while contorting one’s body into inhuman positions. Unfortunately, you might get a similar look from your employer if you claim something simply cannot be done. I’ve seen that look, after telling a former boss that something she wanted me to find simply didn’t exist. It didn’t go well for me.

Now, I know this rule isn’t quite fair. Sometimes, sadly, your employers will ask you to do things that truly cannot be done, or at least cannot be done in the time frame they have in mind. Here’s what you have to remember: just saying “I Can’t” makes you look lazy. It makes models who can’t pull off a pose even though all the other models can look lazy. It made me look lazy, even though I had attempted the search before admitting defeat. You want to be able to prove you are trying to do what’s been asked of you. Offer another solution. Ask for task-specific advice. Provide a time frame in which you can get the job done, if the original time frame is too narrow. If you try one of these approaches before admitting you simply cannot complete the task, you’ll be in a much better position to figure out a good strategy for getting the task done, while showing your boss that you do really care.

Safety First
Already, a caveat to that first rule. Saying “I Won’t” is far different than saying “I Can’t”. If your boss, or another higher-up, asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable or that seems unsafe or immoral, you can refuse. That feeling in your gut that something is wrong is valid whether you’re experienced or entry level, and you should follow it if you feel it. Similarly, make sure to keep all your practices safe and ethical. The easiest way to go home on a cooking show, after all, is to fail to clean up after working with raw meat. It simply does not matter how good your work is if you’re putting yourself or others in danger by doing it.

Own Your Responsibilities
Here’s another situation that never ever does impress any of those judges: “I could have done a better job, but my partner/ team member/ neighbor messed things up.” While it’s true that sometimes your own team members, desk mates or other co-workers will prevent you from getting something done, explaining that to your boss is not going to help you. How do you feel about those designers on Project Runway who blame a mess of a dress on a partner, especially if he or she let that partner run the show? Those designers are looking for excuses or think they’re better than the project, yes? Right. What you can do, to avoid this situation, is to carefully map out from the beginning what your responsibilities are. If your co-worker is hogging all the tasks, and you feel you’ll need to report that to your boss, address it at the beginning of the project, not after it’s completed. If your boss wants to know why you haven’t completed a report, let her know what you need to add to it once you get it. When you know what your responsibilities are, you can far more easily defend yourself without naming other names later.

Personality Matters
While there are many shows that clearly choose contestants who will rile each other up, there are also many that consider a contestant’s behavior towards others when evaluating her performance. Starting fights, bragging, or sulking never help bring about unity and a sense of community in those houses, and they won’t work at your job either. So when you’re interviewing, try to evaluate the place for yourself. Ask yourself if you like the people, and if you can work well with them. Once you’re there, do your best to stay positive and amiable with your co-workers. You’ll get more done, and you’ll be happier.

There are Many Ways to Achieve Your Dream
As members of Gen Y, we were perhaps the first generation to have been almost universally told as children that we can be anything we want to be as long as we work hard enough. Often, though, it feels like that just isn’t true, and we end up with the frustration of settling for something we don’t really want. After all, not everyone can be America’s Next Top Model, Top Chef, or Project Runway winner. Does that mean that the hopes and dreams of all those other contestants are dashed? Many of those models, chefs and designers found their way to their dream in another way, often with the help of the exposure of the show. What can you learn from their experience? There are many different paths to the same place, when the same place is your dream job. However, if you don’t learn the basics of your industry and specific job, and if you don’t take opportunities to get yourself into that field, you won’t be on the path at all, and that is a far sadder place to be than sent home in the finals.

What else have you learned about your career from your favorite reality show? Share in the comments!

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