7 career lessons from Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”

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Celebrities don’t always make the best role models. For every Bono and Oprah Winfrey there is a real housewife of [choose your city] screaming at her supposed friend in a busy restaurant. Celebrities don’t always make the best authors either. Just because someone can sing or act doesn’t mean they’re capable of writing a stellar autobiography either. It doesn’t even mean they have an interesting story to tell.

Fortunately that’s not the case with Tina Fey’s half-autobiography/half-musings “Bossypants.” In one chapter she explains how the fundamentals of improvisational comedy are great guidelines for everyday life. Later, when she recounts some of the hurdles she has faced as a woman in comedy and as the head writer on a historic TV show, her struggles sound remarkably like those of many non-famous workers. After I was done being upset that this fun, leisure reading had been interrupted by unintentional learning, I realized that Fey’s lessons reached beyond the confines of improv.

In case you don’t get the chance to read “Bossypants” or you’re currently too busy rereading the “Harry Potter” series in preparation of the final film, here are seven lessons every worker can learn from Tina Fey:

1. Agree and say yes
Fey explains that the first rule of improv is to always agree with your scene partner. Whatever scenario your acting partner has set up is the one you have to follow because otherwise you end up with two people onstage bickering, and then nobody laughs. Being agreeable is, of course, not the easiest thing to do and not the appropriate reaction in every scenario. However, it is a good jumping off point.

“[The] Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place,” Fey explains. “Start with a yes and see where that takes you.”

You’re going to strongly dislike many people you work with or for. You’re probably also going to think your ideas are always better than everyone else’s. Even if you’re right, give other people a chance before automatically dismissing them or their ideas.

2. Yes, and…
In scene with your improv partner, you aren’t just agreeing with them, you’re also helping them move the story along. Therefore the best response to give is actually, “Yes, and…” The reason is that a simple “yes” is neither helpful nor entertaining. Journalists avoid simple yes or no questions if they want their interviews to be exciting and conversational.

“To me, ‘Yes, and’ means don’t be afraid to contribute,” she writes. “It’s your responsibility to contribute. Almost make sure you’re adding something to the discussion.”

Good bosses don’t just promote nice workers; they promote employees who are ready for the next level. Clocking in and clocking out every day and doing the bare minimum means you’re doing your job, but no one is going to take notice. If you offer your own ideas and contribute to the conversation in some way, you help move the organization along and leave your mark.

3. Think of solutions, not questions
In improv, you don’t want to riddle your scene partner with questions. If your partner presents you with a scenario, then then say, “Yes, and…” followed by an assertion. In “Bossypants,” Fey explains that asking question after question makes your scene partner has to think of all these responses alone. No one likes that much pressure.

The adage “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions” holds true here. You’re in a situation at work and you know there’s an issue that needs attention, don’t run to the boss saying, “This project is going to fail and we’re going to lose millions of dollars.” Think about how you can fix the problem first and then bring up the problem. Telling your boss, “This project has some serious setbacks, but here’s what we can do to fix it,” is a much better way to do business (and keep your job).

4. Make statements
Fey notes that woman, in particular, should speak assertively and not with self-doubt. Women in the workplace still face men ready to disregard their contribution, unfortunately, but her advice is good for anyone who is hesitant to speak up.

“Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions,” she writes. “Make statements, with your actions and your voice.” As she explains, no one wants to hear their doctor say, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure?”

5. There are no mistakes, only opportunities
This lesson sounds like one of those atrocious affirmations people tell themselves every morning while looking in the mirror, but it has merit. If you’re improvising and think you’re acting out one thing but everyone perceives it differently, you can’t stop and tell them they’re wrong. Their perception is now the scene you’re acting in and it’s your responsibility to go with it.

“In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents,” Fey writes.

In the workplace there are accidents. Horrible, terrible, someone-make-it-stop accidents. We’ve all been there. However, there is no Ctrl+Z button to undo these mistakes. Once a mistake happens, it happens, and whining about wanting a do-over doesn’t change anything. It’s now your responsibility to make whatever mess you’re in work.

6. You’re going to fail sometimes
Fey says that Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels often told her, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” His point was that the show is live and will be on the air at 11:30, whether or not you think everything is perfect. That’s why sometimes some terrible sketches make it on the air. The writers and actors didn’t have time to perfect each line.

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute. (And I’m from a generation where a lot of people died on waterslides, so this was an important lesson for me to learn),” writes Fey. “[What you write] will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live TV.”

If you’re too afraid to make a mistake, you’ll never get anything done, which means you’ll never have any successes either. Sometimes the misfires happen and, although you’re upset, your life isn’t ruined. Make sure the successes outnumber the failures and you’ll be fine.

7. Be smarter than your critics
Fey points out the many critics who have declared that women aren’t funny. Surprisingly, her attitude is that she doesn’t care what they or any critics think. Unless the critic is your boss, their negativity isn’t worth your time. If they are your boss, obviously you need to deal with their criticisms of you, whether that means discussing it with them or with someone who can help. But if they’re not, think twice before focusing on their negativity.

“So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism … ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”

Ultimately that’s good advice for all workers: Know the difference between someone who can hold you back and someone who is just distracting you from reaching your goals.

So, do you think the career lessons of a comedian are applicable to your career? Or would these lessons not work for you? Let us know.

9 Comments
  1. Great article! Tina’s experiences, as you’ve presented, are truly universal. And it sounds like her gift for storytelling makes them easy to absorb and implement.

    Each of these 7 points is valid in any industry – like sticking to classic clothing and updating with accessories. These are swipe and deploy strategies.

    I wasn’t aware of her book and I appreciate the overview. Sounds like a great read for this holiday weekend while lounging in the sun!

  2. Love Tina Fey and it sounds like she may have some good advice to share, but what’s with the sloppiness of this article? It reads like it was edited from a much longer piece in a hurry and never proofed. I won’t even mention the missing or incorrect punctuation, but consider the following sentences lifted verbatim:

    Just because someone can sing or act doesn’t mean they’re capable of writing a stellar autobiography either. (Did you mean ‘too’?)

    “Almost make sure you’re adding something to the discussion.” (I think ‘Almost’ is supposed to be ‘Always’.)

    If your partner presents you with a scenario, then then say. . . (Proofing would have gotten rid of the second ‘then’.)

    In “Bossypants,” Fey explains that asking question after question makes your scene partner has to think of all these responses alone. (Bossypants is a book title so setting it off with quote marks isn’t appropriate. Also, the word ‘makes’ should be ‘means’.)

    There are many other errors here that “get in the way” andreflect poorly on writer Anthony Balderrama and CareerBuilder. I expect better.

  3. I heard from another blog her book was funny
    and I ordered it on line yesterday, with a few
    others. Now I am anxious to read it first!

  4. I personally did not learn anything new but this article is full of useful facts for the employment world and life in general. It also looks like her book is filled with even more practical knowledge…

  5. Listen to the audiobook if you get the chance – she reads her own work, so it adds even more to the experience. I was able to listen to it at work, and I would catch myself chuckling out loud from time to time : ]

  6. You can’t believe everything you here or read for that matter. The only thing i can agree with is the part about doing your job and being on top of thing to move to the next level.

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  8. Tina Fey is a brilliant woman who has created a great career because she is not only funny but she is smart and knows how to contribute to a job and solve problems.
    I have met many funny and talented people who don’t quite have the skill set that Tina has.
    i would love to work for her (Tina – if you’re reading this by any chance, please look at my website, http://www.EllenOrchid.com, and click on ‘Media”).
    I do stand up and playwriting and I’d love to work for your as a writer on “30 Rock” or as an intern in the writer’s room. I’m a mother of 2 teens and I am efficient, grounded, funny, collaborative and contribute to solutions. If there are too many folks ahead of me for such an opportunity, can you use a personal assistant? I work extremely hard and would greatly enjoy doing whatever chores, note-taking, etc. that was needed.
    In the meantime, Bravo and congratulations. You are a marvel and an inspiration. Please keep those books and shows coming.

  9. Magnificent goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely wonderful. I actually like what you’ve acquired here, certainly like what you are stating and the way in which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still take care of to keep it sensible. I cant wait to read far more from you. This is really a tremendous website.

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