21 Aug 2012
Must Be Nice: The Secret to Success Isn’t Really a Secret
Written by Danny Bonvissuto
Graphics by SeeMeDesign
Throughout the early 90s—when I was still rocking the home-permed poof a la Elaine on Seinfeld—I listened to professors explain how to make it in the wide world of work. They’d start with the basics—stay in school; apply for internships—then I’d uncap my extra-fine ballpoint, ready to scribble down their secrets for success. When class was over, I’d look down and see a few hearts and a smiley face.
I wanted a blueprint. A flow chart. A map with arrows leading me straight to Successtown, a happy place with a nice office, flexible work schedule and paycheck with lots of numbers before the decimal point. As it turns out, there is no map. As it turns out, the secret to success—bust out those ballpoints, folks—is being good to others.
That’s it. Really.
Okay, there’s one catch: If you’re good to people because you want something from them, the Gods of Niceness will sniff you out and send you straight back to square one. They didn’t get to be the Gods of Niceness by falling for sneaky work-arounds and tricks, so don’t even try.
Education is important, as is experience. But people will open opportunities and propel you to places you couldn’t have gotten on your own. Think about it: A pinball can’t go anywhere without those mighty silver flippers shooting it to all the right spaces, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people who pushed me to places I never imagined.
People like Julie, the empathic operations manager at Nashville Scene, the cool-kid newsweekly in my hometown. Julie looked past my post-college résumé of restaurant jobs and hired me as the receptionist. I answered phones and made friends with the assistant editors, who let me be the “she” in a controversial he said/she said column. My first byline.
People like William, a blind date with whom there’d be no second date. We kept in touch and he called when he heard a new daily newspaper was hiring. William helped broker an interview with the publisher, Brian, whom I told I wanted to write about people and food. He showed me to my desk. I was the lifestyle editor and restaurant critic for the next six years.
When I needed a letter of recommendation for a senior editor and restaurant critic position at The Atlantan, a monthly luxury magazine, I asked Jim, my former Scene co-worker and landlord. Jim wrote a letter so beautiful it still makes me cry and I stood out from the stack of candidates—which was good because my other option was a magazine about waste management.
While covering a social event for The Atlantan, I chatted up a woman named Kate who turned out to be an editor at Food & Wine. Kate not only assigned me a feature about Atlanta—my first national byline—but she gave my name to her friend Christine at another magazine. And that’s how I scored a byline in Travel + Leisure
Then there’s Nancy. Nancy changed everything.
Two months after Nancy took over as editor-in-chief of The Atlantan, I moved to New York. Instead of saying hello and goodbye, she suggested I stay on as a freelance contributor. I’d always wanted to freelance full time, but never thought I could make it work financially. Nancy sent me so many assignments over the next three years that I made as much writing freelance as I had on staff—and she took care of me off the clock as well. After a death in my family, she overnighted me a chocolate chip Bundt cake. When I gave birth to my son, she sent a slew of gifts.
She even acted as a reference when I applied for a staff job with Food Network magazine during my there’s-no-way-freelancing-will-pay-the-bills phase. Maile, the editor of what was then a brand-new publication, thankfully didn’t hire me, but she threw me a little bone of a byline as a consolation.
While working for Nancy out of a satellite office, I met James, a curt New Yorker who warmed up to me after we shared a closet of an office. James did freelance editing on the side for a major publishing house, and thanks to him my portfolio now includes names like TDAmeritrade, MSN.com and Star magazine.
Nancy also hired Felicia, with whom I worked solely via e-mail. Felicia is now the editor of HGTVGardens.com and was kind enough to think of me when putting together a stable of freelance writers.
Call it fortune cookie philosophy, but there are angels in this world dressed as normal people and if you’re good to them, they’ll be good to you. Do you still have to work hard? Of course. Will you still make mistakes? Absolutely. Can you be nice to everyone all the time? Definitely not.
Twenty years ago, I tried to figure out every step between College Student and Gainfully Employed Writer. Not famous writer. Not sipping-tea-in-Oprah’s-green-room-while-waiting-for-my-book-club-segment writer. Just someone who gets paid to string together pretty sentences for a living. What I’ve learned is that there are two steps, and they apply to every industry:
Download this coupon in pdf format, print it out and stick it on your computer. Make some copies and pass them out like Starlight Mints. Hell, have it cross-stitched on a pillow or tattooed on your forearm—maybe with a few hearts and a smiley face for good measure.
And now for the flow chart I always wanted: