At the tender age of 17, I was convinced that if I ever wanted to amount to anything in life, I had to obtain work experience right then, right now.
My ambition was to work in the media industry as a journalist and I was spending every afternoon glued to CNN, reverberating from the excitement surrounding the 2008 presidential elections.
And so, set on finding my path to the door of a reputable news organization, I combed through job boards for media internships, desperate to find anything that would give me the beginnings of a portfolio. To my disappointment most everything required college credit.
I was still in high school.
So I scoured Craigslist until I came across an unpaid internship at a small media company in Koreatown, Los Angeles with wonderful supervisors who would let me write whatever my heart desired and didn't care about petty things like school credit. Every Friday after school, I would drive two hours on local streets to my worksite because my mother would not let me take the freeway. That was internship number one.
In the next three years, I ended up accumulating a grand total of 12.
I had three internships that started at 5 a.m. in the morning. I doubled up on internships multiple times. I worked at a radio station, a national television network, three local news stations, a reality television production company, a politician's press office, a weekly newspaper, a national newspaper and at a food start-up. I was also heavily involved in my college newspaper.
Here's what I learned:
If there's a will, there's a way. Some of the rules out there regarding interns are ridiculous. You can't have two internships in a semester and sometimes you actually have to pay thousands of dollars to get credit for your internship. (That's outrageous!) I get it. It's a legality issue but I was desperate for work experience and didn't want to front money for my free labor. So I found loopholes, programs that would give me credit for free, or I would just turn in paperwork and never follow up with the community college that signed my papers. Work experience is invaluable. Fight for your right to have it.
It's better to work for a smaller company that gives you more responsibilities than a larger, more reputable one that only lets you fetch coffee. My favorite internship was when I worked directly under an editor at a weekly newspaper. He would let me write five real blog posts a day, sit down with me, edit in front of my face, and publish it right away. Yes I was an intern, but he treated me like an equal and that made me all the more determined to push myself and impress. It also gave me tangible writing clips to show future employers. On the other side of the spectrum was my time at a large network news station in New York City. My only job during one of my semesters there was to usher celebrities into hair and makeup and make sure they were comfortable and caffeinated. It was fun - don't get me wrong - but I learned more about the odd tendencies of certain personalities than I cared for.
Be proactive and enterprising. Most of my internships were not obtained through traditional job postings or job database systems. I found those to be a huge waste of time. I simply researched publications I admired and emailed relevant editors and producers directly. Be proactive. Ask someone if they're offering an internship even if they don't have a posting up. You never know what opportunities may arise if you just ask.
Cast a wide net and expect to be rejected. I am not an exceptional person. A lot of people see my resume, are impressed at how I landed so many opportunities, and chalk it up to some sort of innate talent or stroke of luck. Wrong. Here's the truth: I applied for at least 30 internships every semester and would get rejected from 90% of them. Sometimes out of 30 applications, I would only get one interview. I've been rejected more times than I've been accepted. That's just the reality of life. The key is to not get discouraged.
Diversify your experiences. I got a good taste of the different facets of my industry because of my 12 internships. I worked in radio, television, print and web. I covered local news, national news, politics, reality television, food and business. And so when I graduated at 21 years old, I already had a good idea of what wanted and what I never wanted to ever do again. My experiences (weird ones include: fetching a polar bear suit, ice-picking out our news van that got stuck in the Bronx, and being stalked by a Hummer) made me all the more wiser and clearer on what I need in a full-time job.
Make sure you create something. People don't care so much about who I worked under as opposed to what I have accomplished as an individual. My most important asset is not my resume, but my portfolio. Set yourself apart from the flock. Make sure you have something you can take home and show people after your internship.
Stop the self-doubt and get working. I have a difficult time reading articles I wrote in the past. There are pieces I have published that I wish I can delete and I know that ten years from now, I will probably cringe at the stuff I'm producing right now, at 23. But it doesn't matter. The more I write, the better and faster I get at it. I don't stress out too much about how good of a writer I am in comparison to my peers; I just grab as many opportunities as I can and give it my best whirl. Just keep swimming. Don't look back. You'll just be wasting time with the anxiety.
Know when to move forward. There came a point when I eventually got sick of interning. It can get depressing. As an intern, there's a certain sense of inferiority you have at the office and you're often the one who ends up taking up the menial, brainless tasks. After all, someone has to update the spreadsheet and add in the metatags. By my junior year, I began thinking about the next step forward and decided to pitch to local publications as a freelancer. By senior year, I had bylines from CNN, LA Weekly, USA Today and the Village Voice under my belt. Know when it's time to challenge yourself and take your experiences up to the next level.
And lastly, be kind. The working world can get dizzyingly competitive. People are nasty to each other and love stacking up resumes, comparing every little detail and sabotaging each other. I've found that when I do the complete opposite and help my competitors, amazing results happen. You become a team, you help each other network and at the end of the day, you'll feel so much less alone in this cut-throat ecosystem we call the working world.