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