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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Things You Learn as an Assistant That You'll Use Forever

It’s not always fun to be the lowest person on the office totem pole, especially when you're ready to take on a whole lot more. As a receptionist, office assistant, or intern, you’re the one stuck doing the busy work, answering phones, sorting mail, and getting coffee—all the while daydreaming of the job you’d rather be doing.

But while this gig may just be a pit stop on the way to your dream job, you can still turn it into a learning experience. Take it from me—before my time as a writer, I once toiled away in office assistant obscurity. And while the work itself wasn’t necessarily invigorating, the lessons I learned were invaluable. Here are three things you’ll pick up as an assistant that will be useful for the rest of your career.

Nothing is Beneath You

As an assistant, you’ll no doubt get stuck doing a lot of things that no one else wants to do. Whether it’s because these tasks are boring, hard, or gross, one fact remains: You’re the one who gets to handle them. Sealing 500 envelopes? You’ll do it! Vacuuming the conference room when the cleaning guy cancels before a big meeting? No problem! Doing literally almost anything your boss asks (within reason)? Well, you kind of have to do it if you want to keep your job.

This whatever-it-takes mentality comes in handy later on in your career. For example, I’ve often had to re-do pieces multiple times because an editor changed her mind or because we decided we had to add in new information. Is this boring or frustrating? Of course. But I suck it up and do the work—because it’s part of the job.

Bonus: After being an assistant, you’ll be a lot less likely to be the co-worker that pawns all of your difficult, mind-numbing, or menial tasks off on others just because they’re “beneath you,” which will win you lots of points.

How to Deal With Anyone, Ever

I dealt with a lot of nasty people in my assistant days. There was the caller who dubbed me an idiot when I wouldn’t put his calls through. The man who yelled at me ad nauseam about our website (which I didn’t maintain). And the plenty of perverts who flirted with me and made me uncomfortable. But when you’re faced with unsavory characters like these, you don’t have the option of crying, running away, or hanging up on them—you just have to deal. (Okay, so I totally hung up on that guy who called me an idiot—I’m not perfect!)

Later on in your career, you’ll still have to deal with plenty of clients or co-workers who are mean, rude, or just total weirdos. Whether I’m e-mailing editors or getting feedback from readers, I regularly converse with people who don’t always make niceness a priority. But thanks to my assistant days, I’m always able to answer them calmly and professionally. Trust me—when you’ve handled the abuse that comes with being on the front lines of an office, you can handle pretty much anything.

How Not to be Right

The assistant is the scapegoat for every office problem. Those clients didn’t get their invoices because you forgot to send the mail out. Your boss was late to her meeting because you forgot to put it on the schedule. The copier isn’t working because you jammed it. It doesn’t matter that your boss didn’t give you those invoices to send out until this morning, or that you put that meeting on her schedule a month ago, or that you know for a fact that Brad from marketing broke the copier. As an assistant, you just have to accept the blame and move forward to find a solution.

This skill is incredibly valuable later on when you actually mess up (as you inevitably will) at your dream job. Recently, I caught an error in an article I wrote right before it went to publication. While it wasn’t a major disaster, it was definitely inconvenient to fix, and it caused more work for everyone. But still, I ’fessed up, accepted the blame, and did what I could to help fix my mistake. No one likes a person who points fingers—but everyone’s impressed by someone who works quickly to find solutions.


While you may feel like you’re whittling away your time working as an assistant, try to remember that the skills you’re learning will come in handy—not just when you finally snag that dream job, but in your everyday life, too.

Photo of assistant courtesy of Shutterstock.