Everyone has to start somewhere. Nine times out of ten that "somewhere" is not very glamorous. Having graduated only two years ago, the intern experience is quite fresh in my mind. As a current young professional, every day is a lesson in what it means to "start from the bottom" (does anyone else have that Drake song stuck in their head right now?). I have said before that one of my goals for this blog is to document my experiences at the bottom of the totem pole for my future self. I think its important to always remember where you came from, and appreciate the experiences of those who are a few steps behind you.
The truth is, being an intern sucks sometimes. Actually, let me cast a wider net and just say that being in your early twenties sucks sometimes. Post collegiate life is just as much of a mess as everyone told me it would be and even though I'm only three years in, I really hope it gets better...fast. This is a time of life where everything is uncertain and you have little to no security in your circumstances.
This messiness sometimes carries into work. Now in my second year as a professional (non intern) interior designer, I am hopelessly aware of how much I don't know. While I have gained so much confidence in some areas, I feel terribly incompetent in others. I want to do my best, but when you are working with people who have been in the industry for thirty years, sometimes you're best just isn't good enough. Its a slow and mistake ridden process, and all you can really hope for is to have a mentor that can teach you the ropes. I have found that all I can do is try my best every single day, learn from my mistakes, and be patient with myself.
I have said in other posts that the best managers I have ever had were the ones that remembered what it was like to be in the first chapter of your career and genuinely want to see you succeed. Then there are the ones who completely forget what its like to be at the bottom, but lets not talk about them. My hope is that when I am fifty and see an intern struggling, I will be able to think back to this post and know how to help.
Here are the things that I want to remember about being an intern when I'm fifty:
1. School teaches you how to think, it doesn't teach you how to do. School doesn't teach you how to do the job. It provides you with the skills that are needed TO learn the job. Learning how to select furniture that will meet the client's needs will not teach you how to specify product and issue a purchase order. This stuff has to be learned somewhere else (i.e. on the job).
2. Recent graduates don't know that they don't know anything. Let me paint a picture for you: A boss asks an intern to complete a task. She happily says "Sure! Absolutely!" and spends the next two days on it. When she turns it in to her boss, it becomes obvious that each person had a very different idea of what work was being done. The boss is furious that the intern has just burned two days of project time and now has to start over. Trying the remedy the situation, the boss asks "If you didn't know how to do it, why didn't you just ask?" The intern doesn't know what to say. She thought she did know how to do it. She was completely unaware that her understanding of the task was wrong. Nothing quite this drastic has ever happened to me, but on a small scale, little slip ups like this happen all the time. Sometimes you just don't know what you don't know.
3. Its hard to do your job well when you don't know what is expected of you. This goes hand in hand with number 2. Even though, the boss assumed that she had made her expectations clear, something fell through the cracks. If the boss had provided an example from a past project or walked the intern through company standards, the whole mess could have been avoided. It takes more time to do so, but it is worth it in the long run.
This problem rings true in design development as well. I find open ended assignments extremely difficult. If I don't know what the basic project parameters are or what the client wants...I am completely paralyzed. Its hard to find inspiration when you don't know what you're looking for. I don't necessarily need to know the exact location of the finish line, but if I don't even know which direction its in...I can't get off the starting line.
4. Intern's lives are real. In a lot of ways, the person who controls your income controls your life. Especially when you have a very little income. When you have a house, a family, a stable job, and a lot on your plate, its really easy to forget what it was like when you were 20 and had none of the above. Its really easy to tentatively schedule a performance review (that will determine whether or not they have a job) and push it back a few days when something more important comes up.
On behalf of all 20 somethings with serious anxiety, please try your hardest to keep your word on stuff like this. When this happened to me, my official internship end date was in fifteen days and I had no idea if I would have a job at the end of it. My lease was ending in a month and I had no idea where I was going to live. I was getting married in six months and paying for the wedding at the same time. My entire life was in the hands of someone who had thrown it up in the air and was taking their sweet time to catch it.
Its easy to look at a happy go lucky young person and forget what its like to live in complete uncertainty. For people with anxiety, its crippling. Though they do not have the same level of responsibility or legitimacy as that of a fifty year old, the lives of twenty somethings are still real. Please don't leave them hanging on a thread.
5. Interns are the last to hear things. In any project, the person at the bottom of the totem pole is the last to know everything. This means that if they are the ones assembling the presentation, they need to be notified when changes happen. There is nothing worse than finishing a presentation and sending it off to your boss, only to have them go "Oh we took that out at the meeting last week" and have to start over.
6. Asking questions is terrifying. It takes actual bravery to be a 23 year old girl sitting in a room full of 50 year old men and raise your hand to admit that you aren't clear on something. It is even scarier to admit that you don't know how to do what is being asked of you. Managers are quick to suggest that young designers ask questions when necessary, but rarely consider whether or not they are creating a culture where it is safe to do so. Or worse, they don't realize that their schedule and work load make them unavailable to provide answers in a reasonable amount of time.
8. Being an intern can be really dehumanizing. Being the Andy Sachs (Devil Wears Prada anyone?) of a company is difficult. I have been that person. The lowly intern hopping from cab to cab trying to track down a specific type of accessory for a project install. I have been the person who had to go pick up pizza for the entire office. I cleaned up everyone else's mess, did everyone else's busy work, and ran all their errands. Luckily, most of my experiences were accompanied by great learning opportunities, but that isn't true for everyone.
An internship should be beneficial for both the company and the intern. It is true that most design firms need someone to organize the library full time (or at least part time) and run errands, but they still deserve respect. Having an intern does not mean that you no longer have to clean up after yourself. Come on.
9. Ordering samples takes 30 seconds. I get that the intern is there to support the design team, but this one is worth remembering. If you are going to go to the trouble of typing out exactly what you want to order in an email, it is a waste of everyone's time to send it to an intern. Just send it to the representative instead!
10. Don't be a hoarder. Anyone who has ever been a materials library intern has experienced that designer. The one who WILL NOT get rid of anything, but orders all new samples instead of looking in the library first. The person who just has hold onto old product binders from 2008, but wants to use the latest and greatest product when sourcing for a new project. Please don't be this person. This person is the bane of every library intern's existence. When there is no room in the library, something has to go.
Now that I have reached the end of this list, it should go without saying that I am in no way claiming that the life of an intern is more difficult than life at any other age. I marvel every day at the women who kick butt at the office all day and go home to take care of their families at night. I thank my lucky stars that I don't have to worry about making sure that our office has enough work, and fly around the country trying to get jobs. Quite frankly, I have no idea they do it and feel completely intimidated by the prospect of juggling it all. But I suppose I'll cross that bridge when the time comes :)