By Amanda Jean Black
After jumping from the small, obscure Dallas publishing scene to the New York offices of Esquire a decade ago, editor and writer Ross McCammon has learned a few things—some common sense, some trial and error. His journey has led him to compile his experiences/lessons into a book: 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. From shaking hands to attending a business lunch, McCammon has you covered in this humorous page turner about the publishing world all the way down to the small talk—McCammon has made all of the mistakes so you don’t have to and discusses the book with Ed.
I’m sure you know of the term “getting schooled;” was there a standout moment in your career that inspired you to write the book?
If there’s a moment, then it’s my interview for Esquire. I spent so much time worrying about how to play the part that by the time I actually did the interview, I’d envisioned this impossibly difficult and pressure-filled situation. Ultimately it proved to be an interesting, revealing, and totally human experience, full of mistakes and small… triumphs is too strong a word. (There should be a word for minor instances of professional glory.) This book is really all about the interplay between rules and authenticity. For me, that balance was very difficult to figure out ahead of time and it caused a lot of angst.
Why did you focus on making the book part autobiographical rather than just strictly a how-to guide?
- I like stories. And the memoir part provided a story.
- Presenting the book as only a how-to guide would imply that this is a book of definitive rules. And while I offer up rules, there’s a slightly subversive bent to it. One book reviewer has called the book “an amalgam of satire and practicality,” and I love that description. Any time someone tells you “this is how you’re supposed to behave,” you have to be skeptical. I wanted people to understand just who they needed to be skeptical of. I think every ostensible etiquette guide should provide that kind of context. In some ways I think it’s more helpful: You understand that these are rules that apply to a person who’s been working in the media in New York City since 2005. If you’re a young sales rep in Kansas City, some of the situations will have to act as stand-ins for your own experiences. But I think it’s still a very helpful book, even if you don’t find yourself in every situation described.
- The jokes. You provide yourself with a lot more opportunities for humor if you get your own story in a book.
The publishing world and job market have drastically changed over the past ten years since you arrived in New York. How did you factor in those changes while compiling your guidance?
I really didn’t. My job description has broadened a lot in the last ten years, but that didn’t seem important to address in the book. The only chapter that I wouldn’t have written ten years ago is “Why Strident Postures on Social Media Are, at the End of the Day, Probably a Bad Idea—Especially if You’re Looking for a Job.”
One of the most prevalent pieces of advice, especially for an Ed2010 reader, is dispensed in chapter four, when you discuss interviewing and how candidates shouldn’t look to force the fit; what other advice do you have for aspiring editors?
I think it’s important to seem visually curious but not necessarily verbally curious. To seem like you’re listening just as much as the other party is. Also, looking back, I have only hired people who seemed to have an authentic, singular personality. Nothing is worse than an interviewee who’s dressed according to whatever the generic interview is and who’s exhibiting the robotic worker vibe. It’s like interviewing C-3PO or something. I guess the point is: Don’t stifle your personality for the sake of getting a job. Because I just don’t think that’s going to work out too well once you’re in the position.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest issue facing young people entering the professional realm today?
I don’t think that the “young people” entering the workforce right now are any different than any other crops of young people—despite the fact that they are growing up in a world that social media has totally revolutionized (to steal a phrase from an editorial meeting I just got out of.) If I had to give an answer it would be: Making money. It seems tougher to advance and make a good living for yourself early on right now.
Note: “Crops of young people” is a bizarre, off-putting phrase, and I’m sorry for putting it that way.
Since reading the book, I’ve become aware of just how much my eyes wander when I talk—especially when I’m nervous. Do you have a trick to stop restless eyes?
You know, a lot of business is just uncomfortable. There are so many awkward situations in your professional life. I think this book is about is accepting that reality. The point is: If it feels awkward to look people in the eye when you’re nervous, the solution is as follows: Look people in the eye when you’re nervous. There is an acceptable level of fakery that happens in every professional situation. So just do it. Know that you will be able to avert your eyes as much as you want when you get home. Here’s a bonus rule inspired by your question: If you avert your eyes too much at work, you will eventually run into a wall.
There seems to be a fine line between being genuinely fake or gracelessly genuine, especially in the professional realm. What are your thoughts and advice for being confident, but staying humble throughout your career?
So every time I do a radio interview for the book I’m tempted to talk about this “fine line” you’re talking about. But let me tell you: Live drive-time radio is not where you want to get into any sort of discussion that could be described as “nuanced.” I find myself struggling to propose rules for things without adding a really huge “HOWEVER!” One host called me a “master of small talk” and I almost spit out the water I was sipping from a little Dixie cup in between answers. As he’s saying that, I’m thinking, “Whoa, I am NOT a master of small talk. I just know that it’s inevitable, and I’ve figured out ways to cope with it and navigate it.” I’m obsessed with this fine line you’re talking about—this idea that we must be fake and genuine at the same time. And obviously we must. That’s just how work… works. If the book is funny or poignant or helpful it’s because I’ve figured out some truths in that tension. I think people will have to read the book to see if I got it right.
For more tips and tricks, you can find Ross on Twitter at @rossmccammon.
Photo: Spencer E. Cohen/Courtesy of Dutton