It took me several weeks to decide to buy a $4 pretzel. Every other Saturday, browsing the mall and savoring still another mouth-watering sample, I contemplated my choices. There was quite the array. Eventually I settled on Parmesan, with honey mustard on the side.
I spent more time deciding on a pretzel than a college major, which is one reason I wound up with a degree in engineering. Lucky for me, I also had three internships in school -- construction work, railroad design engineering, and manufacturing plant management -- so I knew for sure by the time I graduated I wanted nothing to do with engineering.
I was sold on internships, though. The chance to try on a job before you signed up for full-time employment -- why wouldn't you do that? Well, okay, the pay isn't usually very good if you get anything at all -- and most people have to do other work to support the supposedly free trial. But to sample a new job before committing to it? Truly, in my opinion, priceless.
You don't necessarily have to be a student to intern, and there are other ways of sampling careers. Do volunteer work. Help a friend, whose work intrigues you, on the weekends. I know people who tried on a new career just by entering a contest. My first sale as a writer was a 25-words-or-less essay, submitted for a "Back Home for the Holidays" contest sponsored by Good Housekeeping. I said I wanted to go back home to Minnesota because... my new husband has never looked out the window of a Mary Tyler Moore house and watched kids playing hockey on a frozen neighborhood lake. I didn't win the grand prize, a trip back home -- but I won a dishwasher. As a feature writing teacher pointed out, home is where the dishwasher is.
"It doesn't surprise me that you won," a friend said. "It surprises me that you entered." I thought about that for a long time. Haven't you always wondered who really wins those contests? It didn't matter. The fun I had putting that sentence together! You can have your dishwasher and the home that goes with it. I just wanted to keep writing.
It was in the feature writing class that I learned the power of a good letter. After turning in one assignment, the instructor asked me to help him with a book. Now that's an internship, I remember thinking. This opportunity might take me somewhere I actually want to go. I'll never forget one weekend afternoon, helping Vince. I was using the same computers real writers used to file real stories -- heaven. I wasn't getting paid, unless you count the appreciation from someone who became a good friend -- and the chance to work on something that had meaning for me. "I could spend my whole life at a sales job," I told him, "and never get the satisfaction I'm getting from my tiny part of this book."
I interned to get into radio, too. I worked at the Minnesota News Network in St. Paul. I didn't spend all day wishing I was doing that kind of work, because I was finally doing it. No one pulls you aside to tell you that you're too intense. You're supposed to be intense. I had found my people.
Going into radio -- or writing -- means taking vows of poverty, at least to begin with, at least in my case. When I interned at MNN, I barely made enough from a waitressing job to pay my rent. But I was happy. I didn't even know I was happy until a friend took still another job as a sales rep -- which wasn't exactly her calling, if I'm remembering this right. "I want a nice life," she told me. That part I remember for sure. Because my next thought was, "I'm glad I got that out of my system. I want an interesting life."
We try on clothes, we test-drive cars. When the stakes are higher -- 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week for maybe decades -- we might do ourselves quite the favor by approaching our careers the same way.
This essay is from The Career Clinic: Eight Simple Rules for Finding Work You Love.