5 Career Lessons I Learned From Dirty Dancing
It was summer break of 1987, and the new Patrick Swayze movie was finally available to rent at my local video store (remember those?). Even though my mother strictly forbade me from watching the movie in theatres—it is called Dirty Dancing, after all—I simply had to see it.
To me, it was an instant classic. And 25 years later, I’m happy to report, it hasn’t lost it’s appeal one bit. What did surprise me, however, was how many career lessons I learned from the movie.
I know, it sounds a little risqué—but as it turns out, Baby, Johnny, and the rest of the gang knew a thing or two about managing your career. Here are my top five:
1. Sometimes You Need to Break the Rules
When starting out, following the rules and sticking to a well-traveled path is usually a good idea—but as the saying goes, fortune favors the brave. And that’s exactly what Baby did. Known for being the perfect, do-gooder child, Baby quite literally stepped off the path, and ventured into an exciting world that would soon change her life.
Your career, like life, requires careful planning, but staying in the same lane as everyone else, because that’s what’s expected of you, limits your opportunity for excitement and opportunity. Occasionally taking a risk and breaking with convention gives you the chance to interact with people and projects you’d never even know about if you’d stayed on the main road. (That said, breaking the rules should still be done with a fair amount of caution and consideration. Veer too far off the path, and you could find yourself in hot water with your boss, which is lot less fun than being in dutch with your parents.)
2. Money Isn’t Everything
Yes, a fat bank account and summering in the Hamptons is nice—and the boss’ son, Neil, tries his hardest to impress Baby with his stockpile of hotels. Not surprisingly, though, she’s not inspired. Corny as it may sound, she trusts her heart, and that leads her right into the arms of her true love, Johnny.
Our careers aren’t so different. We often look to our salaries as validation of our success, but there’s some truth to the saying, “money can’t buy happiness, it can only rent it.” If your career goals are anchored to your salary, you run the risk of simply quantifying your success, rather than being deeply committed and invested in your aspirations. While it’s important to make sure you’re paid what you’re worth, don’t let money pull you in directions that don’t follow your gut. Your heart will thank you later.
3. Determination is Your Best Weapon
Within the span of about three seconds, Baby goes from insisting she “can’t even do the merengue!” to accepting the job as Penny’s replacement as Johnny’s dance partner.
If you’re anything like me, all it takes is one hint of doubt, and my competitive side takes over, insisting I must now prove to the entire galaxy I can, in fact, do the work of four people all by myself. OK, so that’s not something I’d really advise, but I will say that over the years, that determination and drive has fueled work that’s led to several promotions and raises.
As Baby proves, just about anything can be learned if you’re determined. The next time someone implies you might not have the chops for a task, consider proving them wrong. At a minimum, you’ll pick up some new skills, and hey, you might end up with show-stopping results.
4. Don’t Put Yourself in a Corner
Arguably the most quoted line from Dirty Dancing, there’s a lot more to this than you might realize at first. Feeling defeated, Baby ends up in the corner, sadly watching the talent show with one notable absence—Johnny. She’d given up, and found herself wedged in a corner, hiding from the rest of the room. It takes Johnny busting in on the performance and declaring to the entire audience what she should’ve remembered for herself: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” And as soon as she realizes that one setback does not equal defeat, she’s on her toes, impressing everyone with her savvy samba skills (or was it the merengue?).
Throughout your career, you’ll no doubt encounter a few bumps in the road, and when that happens, try not to let defeat get the best of you. Win or lose, you’ve gained valuable skills, insight, and experience that should be celebrated and put on display—not tucked away in a corner.
5. If You’re Wrong, Say So
Probably my favorite moment in the movie is when Baby’s father tells Johnny he’s sorry for making assumptions about him. He apologizes for the mistake, and you can tell he means it.
Although it’s not fun to think about, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes throughout your career. That’s OK. What’s important is how you handle them. Know when you misstep, and be sure you own up to the mistake. Acknowledging one’s mistakes is unfortunately still a rare quality, but in my experience, one that has been consistently met with respect and appreciation.
When you think about it, your career is a little bit like dancing. You start out a little wobbly on your feet—but with practice, time, and, of course, great instructors—eventually you end up gliding through the room as if you were born with dance shoes glued to your feet. Keep with it, remember your true goals, and you’ll find yourself the star of the show before you can say cha-cha-cha.
Want More Advice Like This?
Sign up and follow us on Facebook to get everything you need to succeed in your career from The Muse.