With season 5 of “The Americans” premiering on FX on Tuesday, we’re reminiscing about some of the dangerous, daring and downright brilliant moments on the show.
It also made us realize that the show — about two Russian spies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) living in America in the early 1980s — also has some unexpected career lessons. Here’s what you can learn about work by watching “The Americans.” Spoiler: many of the lessons are about paying a bit more attention to the people around you.
It’s all in the details
From the music playing over montages or in the background of a scene, to the soft drinks casually sipped during a family argument, to the magazines furtively flipped through, every single detail about “The Americans” captures a specific moment evocatively. The clothes are authentically awkward and sometimes perfectly chic. The hair (those wigs!) isn’t always pretty, and the makeup is frequently overwhelming —but it’s all perfect for what it needs to be. The Americans captures a zeitgeist before a line of dialogue is even spoken.
What you can learn: When trying to create your own personal brand, pitch or even social media presence, pay attention to the myriad details that make up the person you are, or the professional persona you’d most like to project, and build from there.
Don’t trust appearances
On the surface, Philip and Elizabeth are the typical couple next door. They’re a little bit bland, with their average home, somewhat successful travel agency and just-cute-enough kids. They also happen to be trained in subterfuge and expert assassins.
What you can learn: It’s likely most of your colleagues don’t have a secret criminal life. (We’re guessing.) While workplace friendships have become more transactional, according to management expert Adam Grant, they can still imply a certain amount of intimacy that crosses some lines, as work spouses sometimes do. Not everyone is living a secret second life, but try to make it a rule to be both wary and polite with co-workers and supervisors until you know them better — and never assume they’re exactly what they seem to be at the office.
Be a flexible work ally
On “The Americans,” alliances shift quickly. The Russians are spying on the Americans, who are in turn hiding information from each other. Stan and Martha, co-workers at the CIA, share space but not crucial information. On occasion, Stan has been known to collaborate with his former enemy Oleg, to try to rescue Nina. Confused yet? That’s exactly the point. Different alliances meet different goals, and there’s no use in burning bridges.
What you can learn: Your work friends are not like your real-life friends. You may share an office, but you don’t share all the same common goals. They may like a boss that you loathe. You may get a promotion they wanted. But always keep an open mind; because as we’ve learned on “The Americans,” even rivals can work together when they share a common goal.
Know how to spot good mentors
Elizabeth and Philip’s KGB handler Claudia is part mother figure and part mob boss. She’s by turns gentle or ruthless, matter-of-fact or scathing. Gabriel returned from retirement to take over and seems constantly worried or fussing over the spy-tastic duo.
While both Claudia and Gabriel have been in and out of Philip and Elizabeth’s lives at different points, they’ve both been a constant, mentoring presence for the long haul and care deeply about the spies and their families.
What you can learn: Good mentors are people you’d like to know long-term, and they care about you as much as you care about them. There are people with whom you will trade transactional advice or help, but true mentors will answer your emails when your career is rocky — and you should be there to support them too. That doesn’t mean they have all of the answers every time—but it can mean they see part of the bigger picture that might seem elusive to you right now. Choose wisely.
Keep your family out of it
Family and work rarely mix, creating a roiling stew of emotions and ambition. (Most corporate dynasties, including the old Anheuser-Busch, prove it.) “The Americans” shows just how dangerous it can be to mix family and work: Philip and Elizabeth weave complicated webs as colleagues and spouses. Emmett and Leanne, those fun, friendly, fellow spies, were killed by their son Jared when they tried to protect him from joining the KGB. Family life is incredibly complicated for everyone on “The Americans,” much as it is in real life.
What you can learn: Work is complicated enough. Unless you actually work in a family-owned business, you probably shouldn’t mix family too close with work, except at some required events where spouses are expected to attend. Family members are also rarely objective sources of advice. They may blindly champion your side without being fully aware of the nuances of office mores and politics — or they may remind you of how your behavior now reminds them of what you did in summer camp when you were nine years old. When faced with a work challenge, try to get neutral advice — and spare your family by always leaving work grievances at the office where they belong.
Communication is key
Despite the fact that the computer is a fairly new item in the Jennings’ household, it’s more decorative and amusing, rather than useful. On the show, neither spies nor spooks have smartphones, laptops or any of the daily communication tools we take for granted these days. They do have keen senses of observation and subtle forms of communication. A look. A nod. A slight hand movement that can signal life or death.
What you can learn: Look up from your phone or computer and talk to the people around you. Rather than sending an email or an emoji-filled text message, catch up for a quick chat face-to-face. You may be surprised how well you learn and listen when you can evaluate voice, tone and body language. Will the CIA recruit you? Maybe not.
Know who to vent to
Poor Paige. Being the daughter of two lovable — but murderous! — spies is hard work. She confesses to Pastor Tim and almost gets him killed. The two main characters have to be circumspect about their lives all the time. On a show where no one is what they seem, one has to be extra careful about confessing anything from teenage angst to deep dark murderous secrets.
What you can learn: When at work, resist going into confession mode — even in off hours, even over drinks. No matter how tempting it might be to vent about the boss, or pick apart your supervisor’s wardrobe, don’t do it. Those relationships don’t reset after 5 pm or again the next morning at 9 pm. An errant confession, three beers in, can sometimes turn off a friendly coworker as TMI. Ranting about a perceived enemy could offend a colleague who considers that person a friend. And of course, all confessions can travel around the office later. Then it’s awkward forever. (This is why office parties are full of pitfalls). If you need actual help with an issue related to work, talk directly with a supervisor or mentor. If it’s a sticky situation, seek out a qualified professional without office ties.