The Most Valuable Professional Lessons I Have Learned

Today marks my 6-year anniversary at Dance Spirit. I’ll always remember the day I started, because I was living in Connecticut at the time and my mom didn’t like the idea of me commuting into the city on September 10 and then, the next day, on September 11.

My very first headshot for the company website. I used to braid my hair at night and then, in the morning, I'd unravel it and douse it with gel and hairspray and OMG DOESN'T IT LOOK AMAZING? No.
My very first headshot for the company website. I used to braid my hair at night and then, in the morning, I’d unravel it and douse it with gel and hairspray and OMG DOESN’T IT LOOK AMAZING? No.

These six years at the magazine have flown by. I got my start at this company by cold-calling the only phone number I could find — for a woman in the ad sales department — and asking if they offered internships. I applied, did a phone interview from my college dorm, and got hired as the only summer intern in the editorial department. It was awesome and I was obsessed with it. Nothing beats seeing your name in print for the very first time.

My first editor's letter! October 2012. Very excited.
My first editor’s letter! October 2012. Very excited.

I stayed in touch with the editors after my internship was finished and continued to freelance from time to time throughout my senior year of college. I specifically remember writing a Q&A piece with a young musical theater girl: I did the interview from my parent’s house while I was home on Christmas break and got paid a whopping $75 when the article was published three months later. (Now, that girl is starring in the touring production of Flashdance and I’m…still making right around $75 an article!)

I lucked out after graduating college. I wrapped up my university days in May 2007, and by September of that same year, the vice president of DanceMedia, the parent company of Dance Spirit, called saying they were creating a web editor position and she wanted me to come in and interview for it.

I took two long trips into the city for the interviews, and at the end of the second one, I was offered the full-time job. It was a dream come true. I would be changing the world by writing e-newsletters and blog posts about High School Musical!

My second attempt at getting a decent headshot. Nothing usable and again, with the hair...yikes.
My second attempt at getting a decent headshot. Nothing usable and again, with the hair…yikes.

I commuted nearly three hours each way for the first three months at the job. I was living in Cheshire, CT, at the time and, at the insistence of my douchebag boyfriend, tried to make the commute work so I could stay in Connecticut with him. I’ll look back now and give that one big “LOL.”

Third headshot. A keeper, I guess. Still, with the braidy-crimp hair look. Also, take note: Wearing a bracelet halfway up your forearm is not flattering.
Third headshot. A keeper, I guess. Still, with the braidy-crimp hair look. Also, take note: Wearing a bracelet halfway up your forearm is not flattering.

In December 2007, my post-grad life really started. I moved into an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — at least according to Craigslist; it was really Spanish Harlem — where my commute became a blissful 40 minutes each way down to the Financial District. I went to events in the city all the time, including countless Broadway shows and New York City Ballet performances — all for free!

Just chillin' with my girl Cat Deeley.
Just chillin’ with my girl Cat Deeley.

Since then, much has changed. So many people, including great friends, have come and gone, and my role at the company has shifted significantly. I worked as web editor for all of the company’s magazines when I started (Dance Spirit, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Pointe and American Cheerleader), and was then promoted to work solely on Dance Spirit.

OK, in my defense, I was only wearing Uggs for this photo because I was on my way back to the office. I'm pretty sure I wore weird Mary Jane-style heels during the shoot.
OK, in my defense, I was only wearing Uggs for this photo because I was on my way back to the office. I’m pretty sure I wore weird Mary Jane-style heels during the shoot.

I was an associate editor and then, in 2009, was told the current editor in chief would be leaving the company and I would get her job.

Holy shit.

I was 24 at the time and it seemed unbelievable. The editor in chief began training me immediately, though it wasn’t until 2012 that the transition actually went into effect. I was finally the editor in chief of Dance Spirit — the job I dreamed about since I was 16.

Our art director made this for me as a surprise a few years ago. The cover lines are all shockingly accurate, and the elf hat is because it was December and not necessarily because she thinks I look like an elf.
Our art director made this for me as a surprise a few years ago. The cover lines are all shockingly accurate, and the elf hat is because it was December and not necessarily because she thinks I look like an elf.

I have gained a lot of experience at my specific company and job, and while that may not translate elsewhere in the world, I have a bit of knowledge swimming in my brain by now. Working on a small staff at a small company has provided unique opportunities and, with them, a massive dance bag filled with lessons. That metaphor didn’t really work. Go with it.

Remember when Mia had short, bright hair?!
Remember when Mia had short, bright hair?! Remember how that dress makes me look like a linebacker with poor posture?!

It’s fitting that on my job-iversary today I’m off doing the ultimate Dance Spirit ritual: flying to L.A. at the last minute to attend the season finale of “So You Think You Can Dance” and then doing a photo shoot with the show’s winners. We’ll also be shooting a handful of other dancers while we’re out here and, hopefully, squeezing in a run along the water in Santa Monica at some point, too.

I save all my old press passes. Brian says I'm a hoarder. I say I'm a "memory keeper."
I save all my old press passes. Brian says I’m a hoarder. I say I’m a “memory keeper.”

Like I said, I don’t know much, but I do know a few things by now. Here are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my six official years (plus a 3-month internship) at DS

On set with all 10 of Beyoncé's dancers. AKA the day I got hit hard with Crohn's and was knocked out for the next six months.
On set with all 10 of Beyoncé’s dancers. AKA the day I got hit hard with Crohn’s and was knocked out for the next six months.

Do your job. Let other people do theirs. Even if you think you can do someone else’s job better than he/she can, let it go. It’s one thing to go above and beyond; it’s another thing to step on someone’s toes and turn yourself into enemy #1.

Shooting a high school dance team. WEARING SEQUINS.
Shooting a high school dance team. WEARING SEQUINS.

Some people just work differently. This was a hard one for me to learn. Once I became “the boss,” I didn’t immediately realize why some people didn’t automatically fall in line as I’d hoped. I am a morning person — many people aren’t. I like to leave at 5:30 PM whenever possible — others won’t. You may never see eye to eye with certain people, whether it’s regarding a creative layout or what constitutes a full workday. That doesn’t mean you’re right or she’s bad. It just means you have different opinions. I’ve learned to let that fuel our staff rather than create tension.


Tuck your shirt in. Trust me, it looks better.

It’s OK to take a sick day when you’re not physically sick — but don’t lie about it. I’m a huge proponent of mental health days. If you are going to take one, simply say you’re taking a sick day. Don’t launch into a diatribe about how you’ve been up all night puking and you have a 104-degree fever and also the food poisoning, OMG. You’re going to show up the next day feeling fine, so don’t fake an illness to begin with. If your company allows for sick days, they’re yours to take.

Never try to make yourself look good by making someone else look bad. No matter how slick you think you’re being, a good boss can tell when you’re throwing someone under the bus for your own benefit. Let your work speak for itself as a way to get ahead. Don’t be an asshole.

With Chloe and Maddie and their dance moms.
With Chloe and Maddie and their dance moms.

Admit your mistakes. This is another one that was hard for me. It took me a while to realize that everyone, at some point in their career, has had to deal with a learning curve. Everyone has made mistakes, both big and inconsequential. It’s OK to mess up as long as you learn from the experience and don’t let it happen again. Don’t try to lie about it or shift blame.

Don’t bother packing your lunch. I mean, you can try. Lord knows I have. But when everyone else is going out for Chipotle, that cucumber sandwich you brought “to save money” is suddenly going to sound like the worst lunch ever.

Negotiate your starting salary. You can, and you should. Doing so will give you a higher jumping off point throughout the entire rest of your career, both at your current company and beyond. It’s scary asking for more money, but the worst that happens is that your boss/HR says no, and the best that happens is you’re suddenly soooo rich. Or, like, $500/year richer.


Don’t dwell on problems. Problems are inevitable in any field. Instead, spend your time actively seeking practical solutions that will benefit as many people as possible.

If you want to be a boss or manager, don’t worry about being liked. The day I found out I was getting promoted, I stopped going to lunch with the rest of the staff. I knew I needed to create distance between us to get them to see me as their boss, not a colleague. Once I felt this relationship was established, I would grab a bite with them from time to time, but I needed to have that barrier in our professional lives. And in most cases, it has worked out great! (Though they might tell you differently…I don’t know.)

Over the years, my coworkers have become some of my best friends. Last week we had a baby shower for one of the editors that included a custom-made Dance Spirit onesie and tutu. I want a grown-up-sized one for myself...
Over the years, my coworkers have become some of my best friends. Last week we had a baby shower for one of the editors that included a custom-made Dance Spirit onesie and tutu. I want a grown-up-sized one for myself…

Don’t pretend to know everything. Just ask! When I started at Dance Spirit, I would always nod along as if I knew who every professional dancer was, and acted as if I was familiar with every dance company that has ever existed. I was living a lie, people! I still have to ask “stupid questions” all the time, but I’d rather ask than get busted down the road when my ballet-obsessed coworker notices I still sometimes forget when to use éleve and when it’s réleve.

Get yourself a haircut, Feller.
Get yourself a haircut, Feller.

People will always remember that time you cried at work. So don’t. Go to the bathroom or, my personal favorite, the greeting card aisle at the Duane Reade downstairs.

Don’t expect a pat on the back every time you do something awesome. You’re not a little kid anymore and not everything you do deserves endless praise. Boo! Some people will manage you by praising you endlessly, which is beautiful, but many won’t. Don’t act surprised and heartbroken when you think you’ve just pulled off the most impossible feat ever and your boss merely nods in acknowledgment.

Put your foot down and set expectations right away. Trying to do so later will be much harder. Make your expectations clear and don’t back down on them.

Deathly ill for a shoot in Arizona earlier this year. That was a rough one. But Jakob Karr, soooo pretty.
Deathly ill for a shoot in Arizona earlier this year. That was a rough one. But Jakob Karr, soooo pretty. He’s wearing Lululemon Wunder Unders.

Don’t lie. Ever. To anyone. Having to remember your lies takes a lot of work, and someone will always find out you’ve been deceitful. Man up and make everyone’s lives less complicated.

Remember that the people you work with are human. They have feelings and personal lives and you may never fully understand what they’re going through. Be compassionate.


Remember that your job is just your job. As I’ve learned this year, it’s probably not worth killing yourself over. I 100% attribute my sickness this year to job stress. I love my job but it can get stressful, as they all do.

I will never forget the day an older and wiser colleague finally said to me, “Alison…it’s just Dance Spirit.” I was so offended. How dare she belittle my beautiful baby! But once the rage settled, I realized she was right. It’s just a magazine. I’m not saving lives. No one will die if there’s a typo in a quiz called “Do you have killer confidence?!” Some of you might work in jobs where people will die if you mess up, but for many of us, the stress isn’t worth it.

Hands down, the best day of my career: shooting Mia Michaels for our January 2013 cover. She was amazing.
Hands down, the best day of my career: shooting Mia Michaels for our January 2013 cover. She was amazing.

Your turn! What are the best professional lessons you’ve learned?



52 Responses

  1. Hello ALI,

    What great advise! I loved everything, even thr raw honesty about calling in for a sick day. Thank you for the great reminders about what is important while still enjoying life and being professional. I would like to talk more about possibly working with the company you are a part of. My e-mail is attached to this comment. Thank you kindly.

    All the best,


  2. This post is awesome! I keep coming back to it and should really print it out. I think the biggest thing I took from it that I try to remind myself daily is that everyone works differently, especially when you work with a group of 20+ women.

  3. Great post. You are wise beyond your years…well except maybe the crimped braid hair. No worries; I went through a chia pet phase (I still cringe). At least yours looks decent.
    Lessons I’ve learned: Listen, listen, listen. Deal with issues when they happen; do not allow thins to fester. Lead by example.

  4. As someone who majored in journalism and grew up wanting to be EIC of American Cheerleader, I am so jealous! But in a good way!

    My biggest professional lesson is “Be careful who you step on on your way up because you’ll see them on the way down.” It’s a great reminder to be nice to everyone and be as helpful as possible. You never know who will remember your kindness and reach out a helping hand in the future. Also, it just makes you a decent person.

  5. Congrats on your jobiversary! Best advice I have is never eat tuna fish at your cubicle. No one will like you and you will smell it for the rest of the day. Also, don’t let your job be your whole life. You will just end up hating your job and your life and that just sucks.

  6. YOU COMMUTED FROM CHESHIRE?!? Sheesh! Gold star to you. My lesson, as a teacher, is be confident, never offer information, but always have an answer. I was TIMID in my first few years and got walked over. Once I found my confidence and (*INTELLIGENT) voice I was respected by my administration (Who still give me odd stares…lesson learned. Never become a principal!).

  7. BEST post. As a person at a turning point in my own career, I appreciated reading this. I’ve been doing this about 7 years, and I’ve gone through a lot of the same things you have. I never sat down and thought about what I’ve learned, though.

    Sometimes, it’s hard to have the confidence that you are ready for that next step, and “fake it til you make it” can only take you so far. You are absolutely right, though. You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know who to ask and then trust others to do their part. Thanks for this.

  8. I will be traveling from DE to Santa Monica this weekend into next week as well 🙂 Maybe I’ll run into you on the beach..

    As far as professional advice: Don’t let work consume you, live a life outside the office!

  9. As a dancer for 16 years, and editorial lover, Ali you are living MY 16 year old self’s dream!

    I may have taken a different path, but the lessons you shared are wonderful. There is no shortage of career advice, but there is a shortage of relatable, tangible, realistic advice and this fits the bill.

  10. The main thing I’ve learned in my nursing career is when to freak out. I rarely get worked up or excited over things….but oddly enough, even in the hospital, most things are not worth getting worked up over. Even when you do everything you can for a patient and they still scream at you and call you a terrible nurse…obviously they’re the one with the problem, not you. (Venting…)

  11. Ali, I am blown away by your advice, not because I didn’t expect such smart advice from you but because they are quite simply, the most true statements I have ever heard, yet so many fall into the trap of not setting expectations, of making it more than ‘just’ a job, and of not letting people do their jobs – that one has to be my fave – let people do their jobs, and you do yours. Amen X10000!!!! And congrats on your job-o-versary…xoxo

  12. Really great, insightful post. Congratulations on six years at your dream job. That is definitely something to be admired. My favorite takeaway is your last point. I think so many people need to be reminded that it is JUST a job. At the end of the day, your health, happiness, friends, family, etc. are what truly matter.

  13. Oh also, try not to date your coworkers. I say “try” because no matter how many times I read this in the past I did it anyway, and no matter how many times I tell people now “DON’T DO IT,” they do it anyway. We’re young, it’s exciting, it’s a bad idea, whatever.

    So I should say, tread lightly when mingling with coworkers. 🙂

  14. Great post, and congrats on 6 years!

    The biggest lesson I’ve learned at the office lately: avoid “the busy trap.” (Excellent write-up on it the other day, here! ) I struggle with being approachable/helpful when I’m swamped, and I can’t help but stammer out an “I’m-so-slammed-I-can’t-help-you-right-now” when I feel overwhelmed, but I know that everyone is busy, and being constantly buried doesn’t make you look like you’re on top of things. I need to learn how to chill out, delegate, and put a dollar in a jar every time I say the word “busy.”

    Another (you’ve got me on a roll): less is more when it comes to e-mails. I get so many 500+ word verbose, carefully crafted emails that could have been trimmed down to a couple sentences. Same goes for trimming down the timing of email chains: a vague “what does everyone think?” to 15 people is going to generate an enormous chain of scattered thought. Email efficiency, people!

    Big +1 to negotiate your starting salary, especially for women starting out. An uncomfortable half-hour for years of slightly more comfortable living? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

  15. Such a relatable [to me] recount, Ali! (I also had an internship that led to a full time job, and was then promoted to manage my peers, and now have been at the same company for 5 years, all in NYC) Thanks for this post!

    Also, great seeing you at the Autism race – I was the VCTCer who screamed “HI ALI!!!!”. Too much excitement, I know…

  16. A great, and well timed post! My biggest lesson from the working world is to ask questions if you don’t understand. There are so many people who are given vague tasks by their bosses, and just try to do their best without even asking if they’re going in the right direction. It’ll save time if you understand what is expected of you, right from the beginning.

  17. People tell me not to be too friendly with people that report to me but I say poo poo to that. I am great friends with everyone on my team and it has to be that way for me. I could never hang out with all the other bosses and keep distance with my team. that’s just me, and so far it’s worked really well for me.

    Another thing is not to stop learning. Managers sometimes focus so much on managing that they lose their skills. You don’t have to be able to do everything that the people on your team can do, but you should know how to do it enough to know when it’s right, recognize mistakes, recognize success, etc.

  18. Congratulations!

    Besides all the good stuff you’ve pointed out, I would add, “Know where your lines are.” Meaning, know what you’re willing and Unwilling to do, know what you want and what you don’t.

    I’ve been in the same company for 22 years. It used to be great. Now it’s ok. But it’s still worth the benefits (like 6 weeks vacation/year, and fantastic job security, for example). Someday I’ll be asked to do something that is Over The Line, and that will be my Z day.

    It’s also been useful for me to know that although middle management is a screwed place to be sometimes, I don’t really want to be an exec here.

    One more lesson: Be willing to learn. Very willing. Learn a lot. Not only does it keep you in the game, it keeps you wanting to play.


  19. I love this post! You hit the nail on the head. I wish I could hire you to do a professional development session on this!!! 🙂

  20. OMG. I used to braid my hair at night and rock the crimped/wavy look for years. YEARS. I thought it was ‘chic messy’ but looking back on photos, I just had crimped hair for a good eight year streak. Love the advice, such a good post and reminder for all of us! I’m celebrating my five year workiversary soon!

  21. This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing all your wisdom. I have to say that your final point about your job just being your job really resonates with me; I’m in Public Relations and I always say, “it’s PR not ER.”

  22. Those are all great lessons! I especially like “setting expectations” – so true.

    I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be perfect. Often times, you’re doing a better job and people have a higher regard for you than you think. Just be yourself and work hard. Everything will work out!

  23. This is a great post, Ali. I think a lot of your lessons/advice can and should be applied to life in general.

    One of the biggest lessons I learned as a manager at my old job was a total cliche saying, but so spot on. People may not remember what you say but they will remember how you made them feel. If your having a bad day and you treat someone like crap, even if it’s a one off, they are going to remember that, always, and it will cloud how they interact with you.

    Congratulations on 6 years doing something that you love so much.

  24. Great post Ali! Congrats on 6 years! I would say that my biggest advice to people JUST getting into the job market is to ask questions and raise your hand if cool projects come along. If you see someone else doing something that interest you, talk to them, hold an informal interview. Ask your manager if you can get involved in some way. It shows motivation and drive, and who knows – you may try something new and it may become a future position.

  25. Don’t decide you can’t do Job X until you actually TRY IT. If you interview and get the job, then do your best. Maybe you’ll be great at it and prove yourself wrong. And maybe you’ll be terrible at it, and prove yourself right, go back to the drawing board, and start again. But you won’t know if you DON’T TRY.

    To an experimental scientist, this seemed to make good sense.

  26. Did you always want to be an editor? Oh I know/read about your dancing growing up – did you ever wanted to be one? Or maybe something else?

  27. you are so cyyyuuuute with your little crimped hairstyles. I’m going to bed with braids tonight.

    And go career woman! Congrats on your huge achievements and hard-earned advice that we get to soak in. My favorite takeaway–leave at 5:30 sometimes! If an EIC can do it, I CAN DO IT! I would love advice on how to make this happen. Time management.

  28. Speak up for yourself but know when to keep your mouth shut. Most of the time the situation falls into the ‘keep your mouth shut’ category!

    Congratulations on your work anniversary! I recently took on a new accounting client ~ a ballet/dance school ~ and Dance Spirit magazine was in the lobby when I was interviewing. Small world, huh?

  29. OK… so I manage a group of six people under the age of 25. I NEED TO PRINT THIS OUT AND HANG IT IN ALL OF THEIR CUBES. And the calling in sick thing… I can always tell who is not actually sick based on the ridiculousness of their excuse. I think I’d just prefer an honest “I had too many whiskey shots last night,” over a lie.

  30. This post is fan-freaking-tastic. I’m taking this advice to heart when I enter the workforce (hopefully) in May! My internship has already shown me that many of these are true, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store. I’m glad you’re feeling better, too!

  31. I’m pretty sure that was all fantastic advice. I forgot everything that I read as soon as I saw that puppy, so…

    Congratulations on the anniversary! Pretty awesome that you landed your dream job and get to keep working there everyday.

  32. Congratulations on 6 years! I definitely relate with a lot of your lessons, namely, work is not everything and sometimes, is just not worth the stress. It is so easy for me to get so caught up in my career, and I just need to remember: there is more to life.

  33. Have you ever read Leading from the Front by Courtney Lynch and Angie Morgan? Your post totally reminds of this book, which I loved so much I used to “strongly recommend” my team have book groups focused on it! The schtick is “how to lead like a Marine as a woman in the workplace”, but I think the whole women-only thing is just marketing. It’s really just common sense stuff like “Find the 80% Solution” and “Don’t Say You’re Sorry if it Wasn’t Your Fault”. I know, I know, business books are often painful, but if anyone is looking for more of this kind of advice, it’s worth checking out! (Umm, I don’t know the authors, and I swear I’m not getting paid for this in any way. I just really really like exclamation points.)

  34. Ask for what you want. More responsibility, bigger projects, promotions – this stuff is out there, and it’s given to the people who say they want it, not to the people who sit back and hope to be recognized.

    If you’re asking for what you want, and you’re not making any progress towards getting it, go somewhere else. Sometimes you’re in a situation in which you can’t shine, either because your skills aren’t a match or for political reason, and if after a sincere effort you don’t make any progress, start looking for a better fit. It’s nice to think we can win any battle with enough work, but life is short. Pick your battles. Maybe in another role, or with another boss, or at another company, you won’t have to fight so hard.

  35. My main lesson from work is to stand up for what you believe in (within reason). Speak your mind but know when to keep your mouth shut. Make friends with EVERYONE. Knowing people and being liked can go a long way in your professional life (and it makes work more fun)!

    And make sure to let your personality shine through! It is one thing to be professional but another to be unapproachable and misunderstood. You are unique so let your quirks and all be known:)

  36. These are all so right on, Ali. Some I haven’t had the luxury (haha) of experiencing, but some I have. I feel horrible taking a sick day when I’m not sick. I wish it were more acceptable to do on occasion because lord knows I need those mental health days.

    Setting expectations and being the boss. Those are two things I have had to learn as someone who manages student workers. It can be tough to separate yourself as someone who is in charge. Sounds like you’re doing a great job at it.

  37. These are fantastic lessons, and congrats on so many years at a company you love! I just passed 4 years at a place I love too. I’ve learned to respond to people promptly because I want to be responded to promptly, as well as to lead with humility and grace.

  38. I celebrated 8 years at my job at the beginning of August, which still doesn’t seem possible. The biggest lesson I’ve had to learn is to ask for help when I need it and accept help when it’s offered. I would have saved myself a lot of anxiety if I just admitted I needed help with a project rather than trying to do it all myself.

  39. My Merrill Lynch anniversary was also September 10! September 10, 2007… best job ever, I miss it so much. Anyway, I loved your post and you are so right about it just being a job. I need to take that advice more often.

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about ali

I’m the creator of the Ali on the Run blog and the host of the Ali on the Run Show podcast. I’m also a freelance writer and editor, a race announcer, a runner and marathoner, a mom, and a huge fan of Peanut M&Ms, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (way better than the first one!), and reliving my glory days as a competition dancer in the early 2000s. I’m really happy you’re here.
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