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5 Career Lessons from Your Favorite TV Shows

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A box tv.

They say you can’t believe everything you see on TV, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t nuggets of truth hidden in the storylines.

Because we see career lessons everywhere, we found five from your favorite TV shows. But before you go any further, we have two warnings:

  1. Watch out for spoilers.
  2. Clear some time on your calendar—because after you read this post, you may feel the need to watch these featured episodes in one sitting.

Lesson 1: Be yourself

Source: “The West Wing,” Season 1, Episode

In the second year of his administration, President Bartlet and his aides are frustrated by their lack of accomplishments. Toward the end of this episode, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry confronts the president, accusing him of retreating from bold actions that could yield accomplishments out of fear that he could lose re-election.

An emotionally exhausted President Bartlet admits, “I don’t want to feel like this anymore… I want to speak.” And then, Leo comes up with a strategy for the rest of the President’s administration: “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.”

No longer will the President let fears of re-election or the conventional wisdom of what he “should” do dictate his actions. Rather, the President will be true to himself and do what he feels is right, regardless of the political consequences.

Applying this lesson in your career

How can you be more true to yourself when interviewing for a job, networking, or building relationships with coworkers? You may also want to check out our tips for developing self-awareness, which can help you figure out what’s important to you and make decisions according to your values.

Lesson 2: Be inclusive

Source: “Friends,” Season 4, Episode

While in between acting jobs, Joey Tribbiani takes a job as a docent at the Museum of Natural History, where his friend Ross Geller, PhD, also works. Joey is looking forward to eating lunch with Ross, but he soon finds out that that the doctors sit at one table, the tour guides sit at another table, and the gift shop employees sit at a third table. “That’s just how it is,” another docent tells him.

Joey has a hard time accepting the lunchroom divide, and his discomfort inspires Ross to overthrow the system at lunch the next day. But in real life, breaking up office cliques is a lot harder, which is why it’s better to not start them in the first place.

Applying this lesson to your career

Our Workplace Friendship Dos and Don’ts can help you build healthy work friendships instead of cliques. And when it comes to shared space like the lunchroom: Don’t hog it!

You can help everyone feel more comfortable in shared spaces by avoiding gossiping around the coffee pot and inviting people to eat lunch with you when they come into the room, regardless of what position they hold.

Lesson 3: You can make your own dream job

Source: “Parks and Recreation,” Season 6, Episode 20

This episode finds Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana, struggling to decide whether to accept a job as Director of the National Park Service Midwest Region. The job would be a huge promotion, but she would have to move to Chicago.

When Leslie confides in her polar-opposite mentor and boss, Ron Swanson, that she wishes she could stay in Pawnee and take the National Parks job, he says to her, “You can’t have everything you want.”

And that’s when Leslie realizes: She can have it all.

In the next scene, Leslie tells the National Parks representative, “I think the best version of me working as Midwest Regional Director is not in Chicago. It’s right here, in Pawnee.”

She then presents her case, citing Pawnee’s lower cost of living and proximity to most of the national parks in the Midwest region. She hands her boss the rest of the evidence in a signature Leslie Knope binder titled: “A National Parks Office in Pawnee: The Best Option Hands Down.”

Fast-forward three years later to the final scene of the episode, and her dream has come true—because she made it happen.

Applying this lesson in your career

What does “having it all” look like to you? Do you want to work remotely? Do you want access to more professional development? Do you want a more flexible schedule?

Like Leslie Knope, you’ve got to build a case to demonstrate to your boss why your proposal is beneficial to the organization. The binder is optional, but the preparation is essential. Check out the Idealist Careers posts above for tips on how to make each of these requests at your office.

Lesson 4: Make an effort to understand the community you’re serving

Source: “Insecure,” Season 1, Episode 2

Issa, the star of the show, works at a nonprofit called We Got Ya’ll where the “we” are mostly white people (Issa being the only person of color) and the “y’all” are kids of color in low-income communities. We Got Y’all focuses on helping the kids succeed in school and life.

In Season 1, Episode 2, Issa gets the opportunity to propose a field trip to expose the students to new experiences. After her half-hearted and vague proposal to take them to experience “the arts” falls flat, Issa hits it out of the park by drawing on her own lived experience and connecting it to the population she serves. She recalls that her best friend Molly, who grew up in the same area as the students, didn’t go to the beach until she was 18. Issa realizes that the students in her school probably haven’t been to the beach either, so she proposes a beach cleanup that allows them to experience something new and perform a community service.

Once they get to the beach in Episode 3 (which holds other important lessons about racism and microaggressions at work), it’s clear that Issa’s idea was right on target: The kids have a fun and meaningful experience, and Issa was able to make an impact.

Applying this lesson to your career

When you’re engaged in direct service, connecting with the population you’re serving will help you deliver services that make a real impact. One of the best ways to get to know the population you’re working with is to spend time in the community. Ask people what’s important to them, and listen to what they have to say.

Developing your self-awareness skills can also help you understand the experiences and strengths you bring to the work and find ways to authentically apply them.

Lesson 5: Just because you don’t get your dream job right away doesn’t mean you’ll never get it

Source: “How I Met Your Mother,” Season 7, Episode 2

When we first meet Marshall in Season 1, he is studying the law with dreams of becoming an environmental lawyer. But it’s not until Season 7, Episode 2, that he actually gets his dream job (which is offered to him by guest star Martin Short).

The road to that point wasn’t easy. Taking his first post-law school job at mega-corporation Goliath National Bank was one of the hardest decisions Marshall ever made, but he ultimately realized that saying yes to the job in front of you doesn’t mean saying no to your dream job forever. It just gives you an opportunity to build your skills and experience before going after your dream job later in your career.

Applying this lesson to your career

If the job you have right now isn’t “the one,” find ways to make the most out of the position while still pursuing your passion. And learn from the people around you who seem to have found their dream jobs—chances are they didn’t find their dream job right away either, and their advice could help you figure out your next steps.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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