Why Working as an Assistant Makes Me Great at My Job Today

From post-grad lore to films like “The Intern” or “The Devil Wears Prada,” we all have a certain lack of enthusiasm around the dreaded “assistant” position. It feels both inevitable and yet drastic when the the only jobs posted for what can be your very limited experience in a given field all begin with those three words: “Assistant To The.” I don’t know just why it is so, but assisting has gotten a pretty bad rap. Everyone, it seems, has a horror story or two of an in-need-of-anger-management boss or a scullery-maid-like role buying tampons at midnight.

And yet, I still count assisting as one of the most vital and relevant positions of my twenties, and I should know: assistant to the actor, assistant to the editor, assistant to the producer. I’ve been thrice the A and in every spot I learned invaluable lessons.

The truth is, I still have patterns of thought and behavior that come from that observation-heavy, quick-response position, and that’s possibly what makes me good — even great — at my job now.

Here’s a few things to remember if you’re ready to take the job “a million millennials won’t kill for:”

1. You’ll learn to read minds.

By the end of my first week working for an actor between jobs, I realized that I was — clearly — ticking them off. My lists of questions and to-dos were left unanswered and my constant reminders unheeded. I took a deep breath on the Friday, followed them to the coffee shop in the West Village and realized the time might possibly be ripe… in the course of conversation I began throwing my queries their direction, and within ten minutes had all the information I needed. It turned out, walking between tasks was when this woman became the most productive. I ceased sending emails and had little scribbled notes of to-dos that I took everywhere we went. We crushed it.

The best of the best know without asking what to do or what is needed, but you won’t start out that way. Before you read minds, you learn to ask important clarifying questions, and my roles working with such varying personalities hammered this skill home.

The best of the best know without asking what to do or what is needed, but you won’t start out that way.

You can’t always just image what would be most helpful, so you need to ask — as succinctly as you can — the questions that will lead you to ascertain what you can do to help the ones you’re working for.  Find out what form of communication they hate or love. Find out what irritates them. Ask what’s most important for their work to happen efficiently and then, without being pushy, make sure you help them complete those tasks.

2. Your invisibility can be a superpower.

It’s funny that what so many Millennials and Generation Zs are the most concerned about is that we will be seen as unique, individual and invaluable. I care about that too, and when I worked supporting another person, sometimes I absolutely hated that I could be standing there on set for hours and nobody would acknowledge my presence.

Until I realized that nobody was acknowledging my presence.

Think Violet from The Incredibles: You get access to private information, to the inner workings of the organization and to observing the dynamics that form companies and leadership structures. If you use this time wisely, and pay attention, you will gain skills and knowledge that a more “prestigious” or even “visible” job away from the central hub would take four times longer to get.

3. Chameleons survive, and so will you.

If assisting is about anything, it’s about adaptation for survival. That, and research. You just might be looking up new grammar AP changes, scurrying around town for the cheapest cork board or taking notes in a super-secret meeting between world-changers. Each call for different shoes, new clothes and multiple demeanors. Let it shape you, teach you the art of malleability and surprise you with the stamina you can bring to a job that isn’t immediately “your passion.” It’s worth it. Believe me, I’ve done everything from untangling over 500 hangers to calling celebrity stylists to selecting jewelery at Fred Lieghton.

When you undergird someone else’s position, your mentality is more “team.” You live to help somebody else thrive, learn organization skills and practical tips from a pro and how to juggle (or not) the work/life balance. When you’re the one leading or even founding your own company, these are the mentalities that will make or break your personal — and corporate — success.

Lastly, I leave you with this last piece of advice. I remember sitting in the chair opposite a producer at Lakeshore Entertainment and after a ten minute interview where there was a long line of other applicants in the waiting room, I was offered the job. Amidst my surprise, I couldn’t help but ask why he chose me, as I had little to no experience actually working in film. He responded with, “Well, the way I see it I have to spend between 8-15 hours with you every day. You have the skills if not the experience, but in the end I have to like spending time with you, and you’re funny.”

Turns out, being likable still counts. And to be fair, he was pretty ok to be around as well (so long as the files were done). So go out, shrug off the stigma and get that low-level, high-payoff job as Assistant To The.

Have you had an assistant job? What was your experience?

Images via Mikayla Lune

Teresa works as Darling's Managing Editor for print and has her BA with honors in English Literature and Art History from Vassar College (NY). Born in London, England, she is currently settled in Los Angeles after living in Tauranga, New Zealand. She loves to travel, write, sport her grandmother's couture from the 1940s.

  • Steph October 24, 2017

    Your article is spot on. I worked as an assistant to a CEO of a start-up in my 20’s. It was like getting an on the job MBA. I learned so much! However, you have to have the right attitude that this is a learning experience and be curious. I got the most value from asking questions and volunteering to take on projects that I didn’t have the experience but I had a boss committed to coaching me.

    • Melanie Loon November 7, 2017

      Haha I’m an EA at Darling and feel the same way about this being my MBA! I never thought I would go to business school (and really still don’t), but my role right now has taught me SO much beyond the skill set I thought I’d have at this point. Thank you for sharing!

  • Natalie Ann Redman October 21, 2017

    I’ve actually had this job and it’s horrible. Wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but it definitely helped me learn a few lessons.

  • Lorna October 16, 2017

    Wow, I’m currently an Executive Assistant to an entrepreneur at a startup and this is so spot on! It’s not easy and often times thankless, but the insight you get to success are priceless.

  • Ana October 15, 2017

    I would love to know in this position! I know… it’s a difficult one, but I think that there would be a lot of good stuff in return!
    I’m looking for a job right now. Any one in Darling needs a social media manager or… assistant? 😀

  • Andrea Evinger October 11, 2017

    This is such a great piece. I am currently an admin assistant (really an executive assistant) to a dean at a rapidly growing liberal arts school. This piece gave me great perspective and hope that my job is not useless. It is a lot of grunt work, but the experience is invaluable. Thank you for this post!

    • Teresa October 11, 2017

      You’re so welcome. It did strike me as something I should share more about, since so many of us go through these jobs. I’m glad it resonated.

  • Krystal October 9, 2017

    I have had several assistant positions: in non-profits, academia, and arts organizations. As the article notes, adjusting to communication styles was essential, and I liked learning the human resources infrastructure through my interactions with various organizational entities. Now that I have a different role, the experience helps me appreciate and empathize with the assistants in my current organization.

    • Teresa October 11, 2017

      You’re so right that empathy is another by-product of this role, particularly if you stay aware and don’t get too “hardened” by the job. Great additional point!

  • Madison October 9, 2017

    This article is everything about my job that I struggle to communicate when someone asks what I do – the opportunities and lessons learned are so far beyond the stereotypes of the role, especially as Assistant To The is a far cry from my career goal. An excellent stepping stone that doesn’t get enough respect. Thank you!

    • Teresa October 11, 2017

      From one former-assistant to a current: I so respect what you do! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • Leah October 3, 2017

    Omg, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been an assistant at three different magazines, first in a sales assistant role, then as an editorial coordinator. It was traumatizing at times, but in hindsight I’ve totally learned these lessons AND I’ve bonded with others who coincidentally worked at the same big pub companies. You feel like you have a shared toughness for having gone through it.

  • Jill-Dulcinea Davis October 3, 2017

    Working as an office assistant for a corporation, at first I got anxious and hasty cause every job arrived as important with close deadline. One day a woman who had been there s few years smiled at me hurry and said “it’s just another emergency!”

    I started observing that the higher up the manager the more calm and low key they were. I slowed down and focused on excellent work. On time. And staying calm. Began to get promotions. Never asked for promotion. If higher up assistant left, manager would request me.

    I’m still basically a nervous type but remember to do my best to be both organized and calm. As a writer this helps me organize out distractions and keep focus amid inevitable more challenging times.

    • Teresa October 3, 2017

      I love this! It’s true that with so many jobs if we feel inadequate but can work to grow, being uncomfortable serves us and stretches us. Congratulations to you for learning to adapt and grow!

  • Anita October 2, 2017

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time. And I’ll just leave my comment at that.

    Thank you! 🙂


    • Teresa October 3, 2017

      Great news – thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Anonymous October 2, 2017

    Depending on what kind of assistant job, if it is an executive assistant position, take it. The position pays well, the learning experience is priceless and the network potential is phenomenal. If your goal is to eventually go into management, what better way but to learn from the ground up. Good luck!

    • Teresa October 3, 2017

      I didn’t mention the network potential, but that is really right on–great addition.

  • Victoria October 2, 2017

    What a cool article! I’ve had a couple assistant jobs in the past and definitely learned a lot through them! I agree that it’s something everyone should try.

  • I’ve never had an assistant job but have always admired those who do. It’s not as easy as it sounds – you’re right, it requires an ability to read minds – which I do NOT have, haha!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog