Career Lessons From NBC¿s The Office

For those of us who toil away under fluorescent lights, working on projects that don't always inspire, alongside coworkers with questionable social skills, nothing eases the pain--other than a ginormous raise, of course--more than knowing we're not alone.

In an age of cubicles, the characters from NBC's The Office have come to represent our everyday lives (oddly enough, at desks sans cubicles). Asking how to succeed at The Office, then, is not just a hypothetical question--it's what a lot of us are trying to do every day.

That is why U.S. News picked the career-challenged denizens of the hit comedy to illustrate how to solve the common problems that prevent many of us from getting ahead or finding jobs that make us happy in today's workplace. The central conceit of the show--about to resume a strike-delayed fourth season on April 10--is that it is, in fact, a cinéma-vérité-style documentary about an actual office environment. And both the style and substance of The Office make for a pretty true-to-life depiction. Dunder Mifflin, the fictional regional paper company at the heart of the show, is facing an increasingly competitive marketplace. Like many smaller players, it just can't compete with the low prices charged by big-box rivals like Staples and Office Depot, and it seems to be constantly bleeding corporate customers that are focused on cutting costs themselves.

Amid this struggle to retain clients, the Scranton, Pa., branch, where most of the show's action takes place, is under constant pressure from the company's New York headquarters to boost sales and has already narrowly escaped being shuttered. (Instead, it merged with the Stamford, Conn., branch.)

In addition to those familiar economic pressures, employees must suffer through modern-day office culture, including team-building exercises, malfunctioning PowerPoint presentations, and an incompetent boss--Michael Scott--who loves practical jokes.

The surest path to success in such an environment, at a branch that seems destined for certain failure, might be to get out as quickly as possible. Indeed, that is what many career experts would recommend. Jim Halpert, for example, a smart 20-something who seems constantly bored at work, should probably make a fast break for a different industry altogether. Jan Levinson, of course, had no choice but to pack up and leave after she was fired from her executive job at Dunder Mifflin corporate; it's now up to her to reinvigorate her career by first figuring out what she truly wants to do with her life, besides draining boyfriend Michael's bank account.

But leaving Dunder Mifflin isn't the only way. Someone like supersalesman Dwight Schrute, who dreams of being boss, should probably consider picking up business classes at night while taking on some little management projects. For those with a hobby that could be a career, such as receptionist Pam Beesly, devoting more off hours to it might be the quickest path to a satisfying profession. Michael could benefit from management courses, and perhaps a therapist's couch, which may lead him in a new direction altogether. (High school basketball coach, perhaps?)

And for those who plan to stick out Office life indefinitely, there's only one thing to do: laugh.

By Kimberly Palmer