It’s the classic Catch-22: You can’t get a job or change careers without the necessary experience … but how are you supposed to gain experience if no one will give you a chance?
The answer: find an internship or temp job! And this advice applies not just to recent graduates, but to ANYONE at any age, at any stage of their career.
Doing an internship or a temp job will give you practical, real-world experience, get your foot in the door (or get it back in the door) of the working world, lead to your developing some new relationships and new skills, and help you figure out what it is that you really want to do and (equally important) what you really DON’T want to be doing.
Early in my career, I worked at a series of (unpaid) internships and (low-paying) temp jobs. Some of them were pretty miserable. But without them I most likely would not be where I am today.
For example, during the summer between graduating with my B.A. and getting my masters, I did an unpaid three-month internship as a researcher at NBC. It actually cost me money to work there, as I had to pay for my commute and lunch every day, not to mention the costly dry cleaning bills I racked up.
But although that internship had some downsides, it had many more upsides: I gained valuable work experience and discovered some of the things I liked to do and was good at — and a few things that I didn’t and wasn’t. I made some useful contacts, built my confidence, got a rush of excitement going to work at 30 Rock every day for three months, and was now able to put “NBC” on my resume.
A couple of years later, a series of eight temp jobs in eight different departments over eight weeks at Disney led to an amazing assistant job in TV comedy development, working for a writer/producer.
Looking back, I can honestly say that each and every one of my internships and temp jobs turned out to be a valuable and memorable stepping-stone in my career. They left me with some valuable lessons that I’d like to share with you today, in four simple phrases:
1. Look, Listen, & Learn
When you start something you’ve never done before, in work or in life, EVERYTHING is new: the place itself; the people; the policies, processes, and procedures. Be a sponge! Take it all in. Every interaction, every conversation, everything you see, hear, and feel –- seek to look, listen, and learn.
Be alert. Be aware. Be self-aware! Look around you — up, down, and across. Step outside yourself. See what you are doing, and how you are doing it from others’ points of view. Seek feedback. Look for best practices. And worst practices. Take a mental (or written) inventory of Do’s & Don’ts. Absorb the culture. Discover which behaviors are acceptable and embraced, and which are not. Make everything, every day, into a memorable experience and a teachable moment.
While your time in this position may only be brief, what you learn, both positive and negative could last a lifetime if you pay attention. And just as in the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” you never know where it might lead.
2. Do & Try
It’s one thing to learn by looking and listening. But people learn most -– and learn best -– by DOING. So seek to do, and try to do, as much as possible. Stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. Take some risks. Get your hands dirty, even though they may sometimes get a little battered and bruised. It’s all part of the learning process.
Don’t expect perfection the first time out. “Trial and error” is a common phrase for a reason. As Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” The key is to have the confidence to do and to try and to fail. You are going to make some mistakes, so just expect that, and accept that. It will make it much less painful when (not “if”) it happens.
3. Ask Questions, especially “Why?”
It is said that knowledge comes not from answering questions, but from questioning answers. So never be afraid to ask who, what, when, where, how, and (most important!) why.
You aren’t expected to have all the answers. So leverage the knowledge and experience of those who’ve been down this road before. Seek advice, feedback, coaching, and mentoring. Everyone had to start somewhere, and now it’s your time, and your turn. Be curious. Seek to understand. Dig deeper. That’s the only way to learn and to grow.
I remember asking the guy who hired me for that Disney job why he chose me over all the other candidates he interviewed, even though I knew that a few of them had better resumes than mine. He replied, “Because you asked good questions.”
4. Build Relationships
We’ve all heard that “it’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know.” Well, you definitely still need to know stuff – we don’t want to minimize that. But you can’t underestimate how important the “people” part is.
Someone may have the highest intellectual intelligence in the world, but without emotional and social intelligence -– the ability to know ourselves, and successfully interact with others and develop relationships -– we are not going to get very far in the business world.
And it’s not just about who you know, but also about who knows YOU. So be seen. Be heard. Seek to become an expert in your area of interest. Be passionate, and demonstrate that passion. Be interesting, but also be interested. Be recognized as someone who can add value.
But remember that when it comes to building relationships – in work, as in life – it is about quality, not quantity. Seek to form real, genuine, authentic personal connections. Be generous. If you seek to give more than you get, it will eventually come full circle.
One final thing to remember: While some internships and temp jobs are stimulating and exciting, others may not be. The key is to frame your thinking as, “I am going to try to make the best –- and the most -– of my current situation, knowing that it is just one stepping-stone along what will most likely be a long and winding career path.”
If you think of your career as a journey, and try to make the most of the trip, you’re more likely to successfully reach your desired destination.
So “begin with the end in mind,” remember these four tips, and try to enjoy the journey along the way.