There are several things that have sparked my desire to write this post. What ensues is more than — and yet, in almost every way — a letter to my younger sister. I write with the motivation that these words may play on her mind, as she finds her way in her first and second and third job. In many ways, this post is for her.
It is as well, a letter to my younger self. A letter to those her age now, and even, to those who are mine. It is for those who have just finished uni; who now find themselves scrambling for an internship or for work experience. For those who plan to place an intentional foot in their industry for the first time, and too, for the folk merely filling gaps.
These are three things that I wish I knew. In some cases, three things that I wish I’d said. Not solely to myself, but to friends and to strangers in the same position. I can only hope that my lessons act in a way that builds your strength, enables you to maintain personal pride and most of all, encourages your own self-surveillance when you head into a new workplace.
I write today because I don’t believe that working hard or that working our way up correlates with — nor is interchangeable for — being bullied, being objectified or being unhappy. If you ask me, there is no adequate age, where suddenly we have the right to stand up for ourselves and our careers. If there is, that age is right now: it’s at their very beginning.
- Being at the bottom does not deem you incapable nor sufficient for bullying.
In the very beginning of my working life, I was assured of the fact that my co-workers — even my boss — had some innate “right” to bully or to blame me for things that went wrong. At times, they’d make me feel as small as dust floating the Grand Canyon, all in the name of my lack of experience. Why did I take it, you might be asking? Well, it’s what I’d been told. In fact, it’s what we’re all told: that it’s tough at the bottom and that in order to move our way up, we have to earn respect. There will be no silver platers.
And so I shut up. I did my job and more often than not, I took the blame. While I was clocked on, I let them make me feel small. At the time, it was enough to know that I had built a wall around this belittlement. It had no place beyond the workplace. I look back, and I must say I do credit myself for taking it. For being so young and yet, for being the bigger person anyway. But had I been bigger — in both my head and in my heart — the truth is, I wouldn’t have taken it at all.
You see, gaining respect in your industry is one thing. Being treated with respect as a human being — better yet, as one who cannot control whether they are 13 or 30, inexperienced or decades-deep — is another thing entirely.
If you’re entering a job for the first time, I won’t deny that it pays to remember you’re at the bottom. Even, to claim the empty bank of knowledge with your name on it. With that said, do not find yourself apologising for its hollowness. Do not let yourself be thrown in it’s hole over and over again. Because whilst you may have no knowledge of clothes or sales or food prep, you are human. You are smart. You are valuable. And you are doing just fine.
You will make mistakes. You will be liable to them. But you should be liable all the same to your growth, to your ABILITY to grow and to learn — and finally, to a place that supports you doing so. You should not have to remind yourself of your own self-worth seven times a shift, for the people around you continue to provoke its questioning.
The same logic extends from workplace bullying [a label of which, I admit, you may struggle to apply to your scenario at the time] all the way through to being objectified. The amount of times I let myself be called inappropriate things, be looked at in inappropriate ways and be referred to in derogatory terms.
Regardless of the fact that this was far from the McKenzie everyone knew outside the workplace, my little experience made my quiet within it. It made me shy to stand up. It was as if I thought I was deserving of the words, of the looks, of the actions. That perhaps even, this was a rite of passage for me.
Let it be said: being told by a 50-year-old man that he would “have gone there 30 years ago” with his wife sitting beside him, is not a rite of passage. This is plain disrespectful. It’s also the type of thing that any sane boss shouldn’t stand for, whether you’re well-experienced or a day on the job.
2. Don’t be fooled by the term “internship”. Working almost full-time for 6 months when you’re nearing the end of your degree is not an internship. That is a job.
The amount of people my age, older and younger who seem to be on decade-long internships honestly breaks my heart. Not because you’re wrong to work hard to get to where you want to be. But because so many small and larger businesses are exploiting what it means to be an intern.
Whilst I understand that it differs to qualify for every industry, in more cases than not, you HAVE to set a cut-off point. And you HAVE to do it for your own benefit. When I was 15/16 and I interned, sure, I came into “the office” as much as possible. I returned again each holiday; in fact, I was there any opportunity I had free time. I didn’t care that I wasn’t getting paid. It was enough to receive a taste of the [magazine] industry. There comes a stage, however, when your time [and your skills] can’t be spared so easily. They become far more valuable, not just to you but to those around you as well. The worst you could do for yourself at this point, is to undervalue the two.
My last internship, I capped at a month. Any internship that has since required even three months, I’ve turned down. Not only do I have bills to pay, I also believe that after over a month of training — with a completed degree, a degree in the works or with SOME degree of experience — there is no way that I or you have zero value to a company. If this is the case, it can only mean one of two things: that the employer likely wasn’t in the position to take on an intern in the first place [other than for the sake of free work]. Or, that we haven’t proven yet ourselves.
If the latter, it’d be safe to say we’re doing something incredibly wrong. Before we even consider a 6-month internship, we should probably endeavour to work out what this is. After all, if we can’t prove our value [or even tempt at its potential] after a month, what will 6 months do — but rack up our bills and our eventual disappointment?
You may convince yourself that a 6-month full-time and unpaid internship will be most impressive and worthwhile. It’ll show your grit and your tenacity. But dare I respond that you’re reading into it too much? At the end of the day, that internship will read a maximum of one to three lines on your C.V. No matter the way you choose to word it, those three lines will read as a single experience. A single job. And a single position. My advice: if you’re going to intern for 6 months, at least make sure that it’s going to give you 6 lines. 6 times the experience, 6 times the job history, and 6 times the titles by the end of it.
Note this is probably my impatience coming out — mixed with a dash of my overconfidence. But the truth is, I believe a lot of near-to-fully-qualified students are exploited. Why? Because they underestimate their own value. What’s more, we’re taught this is simply the process of starting at the bottom.
For those who are in 6-month internships, your willingness is commendable and in many ways, I admire you. But, please, don’t stay there for too long. Don’t do yourself the discredit. Get experience. Get a range of it. Work hard. Prove yourself. And then stop feeling the need to prove your worth — and starting expecting something back. That’s okay. In fact, that’s what working is.
We could talk for an entire blog post on the subject of how to exhibit our worth [so feel free to request this, if you want to discuss it more]. For now, I’ll leave it at this: choose how you’ll stand it. Pick something and get good at. Give your employer obvious reason to value you — don’t make it hard. Find something that no one else can bring. This could be as simple as putting your great social skills to work. It could be as niche as your ability to recognise spelling errors. Pick your thing and be great at it. Let it give you confidence when it comes to fighting for something in return.
3. It’s okay to be yourself. And it’s okay to walk away if that self is not accepted.
Another thing I think we’re always taught when it comes to entering the workforce, is the need to mould ourselves [and our image] in accordance with who we’re working for. More or less, this means hiding the real person we are, in favour of the more politically-correct version. Now, that’s certainly an option — but if you ask me, it’s not a particularly pleasing or rewarding one.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the working position I’m in now, is the fact that I work with clients who respect and embrace — not in part but wholly — who I am. I used to take out my upper ear piercing for every shift. I’d be pleasant, smiley and impartial — as opposed to daring, opinionated and creative. I’d sport [if the outfit even deserves such an energetic verb] black jeans and a black top.
Nowadays, I rock around in flared pants and an understated Vertigo Shirt by French Freddie. The devil has never looked so good than in the detail of this shirt. There’s something about it that makes me feel dynamic and sharp; classic and yet, overtly unique. When I wear it to work, I wear the freedom to be that little bit different. That sizeable bit.. me.
These days, I’m liable to a boss who reads my blog — who even watches my vlogs, for goodness sake! My clients could tell you the café I visited on the weekend, the name of my boyfriend — even, the fact that we had a fight recently. They know my love for fashion and blogging and sharing things — and instead of taking me aside to discuss how it’s all too much, they absolutely embrace it! In fact, it’s part of the reason they want to work with me.
Finding bosses or work-mates or clients of this calibre won’t come easy, I’ll tell you that. There are many employers who would likely google my name or my blog and view the results as a reason not to hire me. That’s okay with me. I have no interest in working for someone who doesn’t appreciate, nor find value in the person I really am.
My point is that not only work but life is better when you feel embraced as the complete person you are. The devil in the detail included. Work takes up a great percentage of our lives, so it’d be a shame to spend that time playing another character.
The best person we can play is ourselves. Now, there’s something no one else can bring to the team. Inexperienced or not, I’d argue, that’s a pretty cool attribute.
Don’t forget it.
Photos by Julia Krivoshev [edited by me].