Mindy Kaling is a funny, fabulous actor, but she's also an important chronicler of the 21st century American workplace. As a writer of 24 episodes of The Office — the equivalent of more than an entire season — she tapped into the unspoken truths that lurk in the underbelly of office culture, and she spun those insights into sitcom gold. The Office is arguably one of the most incisive sitcoms about work life ever created. Now, as the creator, producer, writer and star of a new Fox series called The Mindy Project, the fictional workplace she's invented and inhabits has gone from a realm in which she had no first-hand exposure (paper manufacturing?) to something a little closer to home. Her character, Mindy Lahiri, struggles (as we all do) to craft some kind of work/life balance, all while building her career as an OB/GYN — a premise based in part on observing her (real) OB/GYN mother's juggling act. In a recent phone conversation, I asked her what she'd learned about real work from inventing fictional workplaces. Here's what she had to say:
On Work/Life Balance
Nothing makes people preemptively yawn more than hearing a show about 'balancing professional and personal life'. Also, so many shows that tell women-centric stories sacrifice edginess and comedy for softness, and viewers get bored of that. But there is a reason why these stories keep getting told — because they are relatable. My strategy for a fresh take is simple: write honest and original observations about something that I am going through.
On Speaking Your Mind at Work
My character is impulsive, opinionated, and outspoken. She gets to do and say things on the show that I wish I could, but don't have the nerve to do. (I think smartly-executed wish-fulfillment is a great form of entertainment.) That comes from a kind of innate confidence that gets her into trouble, but is also very admirable. I hope people watching envy Mindy's confidence.
On Her Character's Busy Professional Life:
I chose to make my character an OB/GYN because I grew up with a mother who was an OB/GYN, which was essentially 33 years of research on the ins and outs of the lifestyle of an incredibly busy professional. Workplaces are a great thing to write about because even with our high unemployment rate, a whopping majority of people go to work everyday and have funny stories to tell about it.
On Her Own Busy Professional Life:
You wouldn't think that being an OB/GYN has much in common with being a network show-runner, but there are plenty of similarities between my work life and my character's work life. For instance, while my mother and I had very different jobs, our professional lifestyles have been very similar. I could call her from L.A. at 11 PM PST and she would be at the hospital in Boston waiting for a patient to give birth at 2 AM EST. Both jobs paid well and didn't give either of us very much free time, but we loved them. Neither is the kind of job you can do unless you really, really love it.
On Doing Her Market Research
Twitter is helpful, not so much for people sharing stories about their jobs, but for feedback — both positive and negative — about story lines they love. People use Twitter to quote lines they love, so it's the single easiest way to identify the funniest lines of a show.
On Being a Boss
At the risk of sounding like Michael Scott, I think I am a pretty damn good boss. I was a little worried about it at the beginning, because my inclination is to want everyone to like me. That always seems to get me into trouble, because I make promises I can't keep just to please everyone. But now there is simply no time for any of that. Because I am doing so much more on this show than at The Office, I have learned a cheerfully direct way of talking. I'm incredibly impatient, and while that's been a detriment in the past, it's an advantage as a boss, because it keeps things moving quickly. I recommend it to any leader: be impatient. By quickly and nicely shutting down lines of argument, and being decisive, I save the entire production hours and hours of work and money.
On Being a Female Boss
One thing I have noticed — and this is really the first time I've noticed how being a woman has affected my job — is that sometimes, after I've made a decision about something, there's a level of discussion that people think I am willing to entertain that probably wouldn't happen if I were a man. I have learned that when I make a decision, sometimes I just need to leave the room.
Follow the conversation at Harvard Business Review.