The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl

Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use


By Karen Burns

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ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 31, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A useful and fun book for any woman who has ever wanted, needed, lost, quit, hated, or loved a job. “Working Girl” (a.k.a. Karen Burns) has held a total of 59 jobs (so far), including housekeeper, cigarette girl, paper “boy”, model, ditch-digger, bank teller, editor, brochure writer, artist, and corporate drone. She made mistakes along the way, but extracted one important lesson from each job she has held. Working Girl now shares her hard-earned wisdom for the modern working woman with this series of 59 humorous yet practical vignettes, including guidance on:

Risk-taking and why it’s good
How to build self-confidence
Tips for managing your boss
When you’re not appreciated
Causes and cures for burnout
Balancing baby and boss
When it’s time to say adieuand 52 more!

Whimsically illustrated with Working Girl cartoons, this is a fun, accessible advice book that deals with the real issues that are on the minds of working women (and not just those who are striving for the corner office!). No matter where a girl finds herself on the job ladder (from the bottom to the top), she’ll find that The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl will give her both perspective and a plan for success.


Front Matter
Who the heck is Working Girl and where does she get off handing out career advice?
Working Girl got fired from only one of those jobs (and it wasn’t her fault).
Working Girl has made a lot of mistakes. So you don’t have to!
Here’s the kind of stuff Working Girl (one person) has done:
• dug ditches in communist Czechoslovakia
• worked 19-hour shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts (while also attending high school)
• got paid $50 an hour just for being American
• typed the same letter 535 times
• taught French generals how to lisp (not on purpose)
• modeled plus-sized bustiers
• got paid only $5 for 3 months of work (one of the mistakes)
Are you looking for a job? Do you have a job you hate? Are you afraid to quit your job and look for something better? Have you, God forbid, never had a job?
Take heart. Chin up. It’s going to be okay—Working Girl is here to help. As you read this book, you’ll laugh, learn, and feel a whole lot better about tackling the bewildering, weird, and wonderful world of work.

How to Read This Book
WORKING GIRL HOPES YOU ARE NOT READING THIS PAGE. She hopes you went straight to “Moonlighting” (page 72), or “Perverts at Work” (page 150), or “Friends” (page 196), or “Great Expectations” (page 51). Because this is the kind of book you open in the middle, read a chapter or two, say “Hmmmm,” flip backward (or forward), read another few chapters, put it down, come back later, and read some more.
If you do decide to start at page one and keep going, you’ll see that the 59 chapters correspond to Working Girl’s 59 jobs and are arranged in three sections:
• Clueless. Simple yet important lessons learned the hard way.
• Confident. The basics (interviews, résumés, clothes, salary, networks, etc.).
• Carefree. Secrets to total job bliss.
Each and every chapter tells an excruciatingly true job tale and offers advice based on that tale. The chapters are not in chronological order by job. That would be boring. Besides, we can be confident when we’re 18. Turn clueless at 25. Discover carefree at 33. Slip back to clueless for a spell. Then get confident again. Working Girl did. You will, too.
Have fun.


Stress Test
CONTRARY TO WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK, the jobs with the highest stress levels are the ones with the least amount of responsibility and pay.
An illustration: When Working Girl was 12 she earned $1.25 an hour cleaning house for Mr. and Mrs. Fox, a sweet 80-something couple living next door. Every Tuesday afternoon she vacuumed, dusted, scrubbed, windexed, swept, and polished their one-bedroom apartment.
You’d think this job would’ve been simple. But there was one big problem: As far as Working Girl could tell, Mr. and Mrs. Fox’s apartment was never dirty.
It looked the same after she’d cleaned it as before.
Each week, your eager-to-please-yet-still-clueless heroine rearranged knickknacks to show she had dusted, grooved the carpet with vacuum cleaner marks to show she had vacuumed, and switched the position of pillows to show she had fluffed. Is that what Mr. and Mrs. Fox wanted? Working Girl never really knew. They never commented one way or another. And of course, back then, WG was too wussy to ask.
Yup, despite her tender years, Working Girl had achieved Level 6 on the Work Stress-O-Meter (see right). How did this happen? Because:

Stress Comes from Feeling Powerless

You may have a challenging, demanding, busy, even at times overwhelming job, but if you have a sense of power over it, you will be able to handle the stress.
Where does this sense of power come from? At a minimum, you need to:
• enjoy the work
• feel able to do, or learn to do, the work
• be given the resources you need
• be able to see results, and
• be recognized for those results.
work stress-o-meter
Yeah, it’s also nice to get a good salary, work with people you like, set your own hours, and have a bit of job security.
But the five points above are the essential formula for a happy work life.
Easier said than done, you say.
Read on, dear fellow working girls, and learn how to get happy and love your job.
“I work at a computer all day. When I just can’t stand the stress of sitting there another minute, I go to the ladies’ room and do fifty jumping jacks. It gets my blood flowing again. People wonder why I always come out of the bathroom all pink and breathless!”

Miss Manners
YOUR BOSS NEVER SAYS “PLEASE.” Customers call you “Hey You.” Co-workers interrupt you while you’re on the phone, borrow your supplies without asking, and steal your lunch out of the fridge. What do you do? You deploy the secret weapon of every working girl: etiquette.
Yup. Etiquette is more than just the social graces. It’s a powerful tool. It can be used to control people and situations.
Example: In high school Working Girl had a part-time job minding the cigarette counter at the corner drugstore.
The worst part? The leathery 50-something men with yellowed fingers who came in every night for their Marlboros or Lucky Strikes. They reeked, they winked, they leered, and they called her “Babe.” If she hadn’t been standing behind a chest-high countertop, they would have pinched her, too.
Working Girl was sorta scared of these men but tolerated them until one evening enough was finally enough, and she got up the nerve to try something new. Two minutes into her shift, the first customer shuffled up.
She took a deep breath, lifted her chin, looked him in the eye, and said in a loud-but-pleasant voice, “Good evening, sir. May I help you, sir?”
The customer wore a mullet and a T-shirt that read, I’M WITH STUPID. He was clearly a winker and a Babeer, and had probably never been addressed as “sir” in his entire life.
“Uh,” he said.
Working Girl would have bet a week’s pay he’d been just about to mumble “Apackamarlborosbabe.” Instead he removed the cigarette from his mouth and said, “May I have a pack of Marlboros, please, miss?” No Babe. No wink.
Do you want to stand out from the crowd? Do you want people to treat you with respect?
Say please and thank you, smile, shake hands, look people in the eye, learn to pronounce their names correctly (ask them how!), listen with interest, be punctual, and take five minutes to write a thank-you note. You know, the basics.
Etiquette puts people at ease and makes life run more smoothly. Etiquette shows people that you expect them to treat you as well as you treat them. And it’s free.
Are you feeling guilty about all the times you’ve been less than perfectly polite? Never mind. Good manners do not come naturally to anyone. From this point on, please learn, and do, the basics.
The workplace has its own basic business etiquette. It’s not complicated. Start with Working Girl’s Daily Dozen and stand back. The results will amaze you:
#1 Introduce yourself with your first and last name. Shake hands firmly.
#2 Say “good morning/afternoon,” not “hi.”
#3 When introducing/emailing people, start with the name of the senior person.
#4 Don’t shake hands across a desk or table (stand up and walk around).
#5 Regardless of gender, the first person to reach a door opens it.
#6 Regardless of gender, the person nearest the elevator door gets off first.
#7 Treat everyone the same—well.
#8 Thank people.
#9 Praise sincerely.
#10 If you hear gossip, instantly forget it (don’t spread it).
#11 Even at boring meetings, show some interest.
#12 Don’t wear a gallon of perfume, or bring smelly foods for lunch.
It’s truly as simple as: Treat other people with respect and other people will treat you with respect.
If they don’t—if they still call you names, interrupt you, or swipe your lunch, you have another problem entirely (see “Hell Is Other People,” page 201).

Growing a Spine
THE OFFICE. Chances are good you have worked, are working, or will work in one.
Working Girl got her first office job the summer she was 12. At 12 you work so cheap it doesn’t matter if you are unqualified. And Working Girl was.
She couldn’t type. She couldn’t take shorthand.1 She couldn’t even answer the phone because she had such a teensy little voice no one could hear her.
But she did know the alphabet, so she spent the long, hot days filing. Which she hated, of course. On the bright side, it left her plenty of energy to hide.
Yup, Working Girl was shy. So shy that when Boss Man barged in every morning at 8 and boomed, “Good morning!” she could answer with only a little squeak. Her transition from home life, where you are pretty much loved for yourself, to work life, where you are loved for what you can do, was brutal. Her co-workers had no idea how terrified she was.
One fateful day, Working Girl and Boss Man were alone in the office. The worst happened. BM spoke to her.
“Is there any more coffee?” he said.
Working Girl, who did not drink coffee, didn’t know. But the percolator (this being pre-Mr. Coffee) was in fact empty.
“Would you make some more?” he asked.
Working Girl had never made coffee before, but, naturally, she was too chicken to admit it. So she got up and took the percolator from his hands.
“Great,” said BM, “bring me a cup when it’s ready.”
Working Girl had often watched her mother operate a percolator. So she discarded the used grounds. She filled the pot with water up to the brown stain mark. She filled the filter with Maxwell House. She plugged the thing in. It sighed and began to gurgle.
When the gurgling stopped, Working Girl poured what she prayed would be coffee into a mug and took it to BM, just as she had seen his secretary do.
He took a sip. Then he slammed his fist down on the desk.
“Where did you learn to make coffee, young lady?” he demanded.
“Eeep,” said Working Girl.
“This is the best cuppa joe I’ve ever tasted!” BM thundered. “From now on, you’re making all the coffee around here!”
Working Girl was horrified. But she was put in charge of the percolator for the rest of the summer. And eventually was able to make coffee without wanting to go home and hide under the bed.
Dear reader, Working Girl devoutly hopes that you never feel as inadequate as she did. But she suspects that sometimes you fear that you just can’t manage what’s being asked of you. Don’t we all? Of course, like you, she’s always heard that confidence comes from believing in yourself. That’s what the experts say.
But, she wonders, what if you don’t believe in yourself? What then? Can you go to a store and buy confidence? Can you go online and download it?
No, but you can get it another way: By accomplishing something. Even a small thing. Like making coffee.
Or, nowadays, keeping the Starbucks order straight.
Self-confidence is the memory of success.
“I keep a running list of my accomplishments in a text file on my desktop. Whenever I do something worth remembering, I open up that file and jot it down, with the date. When the time comes for my yearly review, or when I want to revise my résumé, I go into this file. It’s very handy. I know I would not remember a lot of this stuff otherwise!”

Fear & Loathing
Working Girl truly, madly, deeply hated her first 21 jobs.2 Example: clerk in the books section of a department store.
She should have enjoyed it, because she loves books, but . . . the mind-numbing, soul-destroying tedium! No customers, no duties, not even a co-worker around to talk to. Reading the books was, of course, forbidden.
Here’s how it went: Punch in at 6 p.m. Take up post behind cash register. Straighten bookmarks. Wander around. Flip through bestsellers on front table. Gnaw on hangnail. Reflect: “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if food and shelter and cute clothes were free?” Check watch: 6:01. Repeat until 9 p.m.
What to do when you hate hate hate your job?
Consider this fact: The probability of you leaving any job is precisely 100%. Really. You are positively absolutely going to leave that job, whether you quit, are fired, retire, or die.
So, given that you are going to leave the job you hate, you have two decisions to make:
#1 When will you leave?
#2 What are you going to do until you leave?
You are in the driver’s seat. Don’t be like Working Girl—take control of your life!
So set a deadline. Whether it’s tomorrow or a year from now, identifying a clear cutoff point to the crummy job will help.
Then decide on how you’re going to act in the meantime. Here are some tricks:
• Find a thing you do like about the job. Even if it’s only the tapioca they serve in the cafeteria or the fact that the walls are a nice shade of white, focusing on the positive will make you happier.
• Every day, do something that brings you closer to being able to say, “I quit.” Save five bucks. Take a class to qualify for a new job. Update your résumé.
• Do something nice for yourself before you go into work. Put blueberries on your cereal. Plug in your iPod and dance around the house in your underwear. Stop for a double latte with chocolate sprinkles.
• No matter how much you hate the job, give fair labor for your pay. It’s good for your self-respect. And you may find that the work seems less horrible. Tip: Identify the hardest part of the job and do that thing first. The rest of the day will feel easier in comparison.
• After hours, explore healthy ways to vent stress:
See a friend, exercise, redesign your Facebook page, go dancing, take in a movie.
In other words: Don’t stew, do!
“My first job was clerical and I hated it. Without even realizing, I stopped caring about my hair or what I wore. I started being late to work for no good reason. Unsurprisingly, I was soon fired. Today when I notice that I’m becoming habitually tardy or starting to slob around in sweatpants a lot, I know it’s a sign of self-sabotage and that something bigger is wrong.”

Picky Picky Picky
ONE SUMMER, WORKING GIRL’S BOSS (she worked at a fabric shop at the time) let her have a bolt of unbleached muslin for nothing. Always looking for ways to scare up a few extra bucks, she decided to take that bolt of muslin and sew and sell halter tops.
To make them look less boringly beige, she embroidered the fronts with flowers, ferns, and butterflies. Hopes high, she took her creations to the local hippie boutique. The manager fingered the cheap fabric and glanced at the hand embroidery. “Where did you get these designs?” she asked.
“I drew them myself,” said Working Girl.
“Your art is insufficiently complex,” the manager said. “These will never sell.”
Everyone’s a critic. And it’s hard not to take criticism personally. No matter who you are or what your work is, criticism always feels like someone just ran over your new puppy with a Hummer.
So when you are criticized—as, sooner or later, you will be—your first action should be a nonaction. That’s right. At the meeting where your presentation is panned, at the annual review where you are told you’re not cutting it, you should say this and only this: “Thank you. Let me think about your comments and get back to you.”
Then smile, look the person in the eye, and leave.
When you get home, feel free to let your emotions all hang out. Cry, whine, rant. Do fifty jumping jacks. Watch a mindless sitcom.
• Don’t ignore it.
• Don’t make excuses.
• Don’t get visibly angry.
• Don’t attack your criticizer.
• Don’t let it make you timid.
• Don’t obsess.
Once you’ve got that out of your system and you’re still at home in your bunny slippers, answer this question: Was the criticism accurate? Be honest.
Way more than half the time, the criticism is going to be justified in some way (if not, see box below). Say, for example, your criticizer complained you didn’t do X. Maybe you didn’t know you were supposed to do X, you tried to do X but failed, you disagree X is the right thing to do, or you just hate to do X. But if X was your job and you didn’t do it well, you need to recognize the problem. And fix it.
If the criticism is unfounded:
Analyze it with the same logic you use for justified criticism. Then say: “I have considered your remarks about X. To the best of my knowledge, I have done X! Please help me understand where you believe I have gone wrong.”
If the criticizer has an evil agenda and is just trying to hurt you:
You should still consider whether the criticism was accurate. It’s possible! If so, fix the problem. If not, proceed as for unfounded criticism (above).
The following day, or as soon as possible, go see your criticizer. Say this: “I thought about what you said and I recognize that I did fail to do X. Here are some ways I’ve come up with to correct the problem. What do you think? Do you have anything to add?”
Then stop talking. Do not belabor your point. Do not apologize a million times. Focus on the solution, not the problem.
Your criticizer will be blown away. You’ll have shown yourself to be the rare human being who can take criticism and learn from it. It’s a very cool skill that requires lots of practice. Don’t despair if you can’t pull it off the first time, or even the tenth time.


  • Publishers Weekly Online
    "Burns is encouraging and funny, but also a hard-nosed pragmatist who isn’t about to do the work for you."

    The Seattle Times
    “Working girls (and boys) will likely find something to relate to in Burns' part memoir, part self-help tome for career professionals…”

    The Bookmonger
    “The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl is a book that promotes spunk, common sense, courtesy, curiosity, and ethical behavior.”

    Penelope Trunk, Brazen Careerist
    “A funny, smart book that gives you permission to make mistakes and start over again.”

On Sale
Mar 31, 2009
Page Count
288 pages
Running Press

Karen Burns

About the Author

Karen Burns has held fifty-nine jobs over forty years in twenty-two cities and four countries, including being a writer, editor, illustrator, and marketer. She has adopted the persona of “Working Girl” — a sassier, bossier version of herself — to impart work wisdom on her popular blog while also running her own greeting card company that features her art ( She has legions of fans for both of these venues, and lives in Seattle, Washington.

Learn more about this author