My agent told me that my 11th book proposal had been rejected. Without a significant following, I was DOA. I was 44 and had to reassess everything. The stretches between freelance writing assignments were getting longer. After spending ten years writing three books, dozens of magazine articles, a society column for a since folded local newspaper, and ghostwriting introductions for celebrity cookbooks, I needed more than reinvention. I needed a personal renaissance.
At that point, I had already helped some students write college essays, working, in some cases, to offset a mediocre GPA and test scores. I intended to earn a certificate in college advising and open a practice. Over the following two years, I took eight classes, cramming them into gaps in my kids’ schedules. I tried not to think about the 8-week internship requirement meaning I would be someone else’s lackey/bitch/gofer at 42.
Interns are young and energetic. They can party all night and work all day, and function on 4 hours of sleep. They typically don’t find themselves working for people ten years younger and are usually content to get coffee, do filing, and read email. But I had already done that kind of work in my 20s and was not looking forward to going back to unpaid grunt status. It seemed unavoidable, though, as I would not earn my credential without it, so I tried not to think about the steps backward I would have to take to move forward.
I cold-called and emailed all the college advisors with practices in my area and found one willing to take me on. She had been in the business for decades, and I assumed I would learn just being in her office as she nudged kids along in the college application process. As expected, I was older than most of the folks in the office except the boss, who was quite a bit older than me. I was sent to the file room and told to go through all the files to get acquainted with the work. After a few weeks using none of what I had learned in my classes, the boss lady asked me to sit in on a call with a student.
An hour later, I was stunned and disillusioned. I could not believe that I had spent two years learning about college admissions only to hear one of the doyennes of the business do little more than inquire about donations and contact with development officers. That was not what I expected to hear as an intern. I had more hours to complete, so I had to keep my disgust to myself.
The following week, the boss lady called me back into her office and asked me to call her competitors, masquerading as a potential client, and ask about pricing and services. I am a terrible liar and knew that I would give myself away in seconds, but afraid that she would send me packing if I said no, I went to work.
I prepared a document with competitors’ information that I had made up. I didn’t make one call; I just wrote down prices slightly higher or lower than the boss lady’s services. I handed it to her and got out of there as fast as I could. I was done being an intern.
While my internship was not at all as I expected it to be, it was tremendously helpful in a surprising way. I learned exactly how I didn’t want to advise my students. Perpetuating the role of privilege, money, and connections in admissions is not for me. I also learned that it is OK to bullshit my way through a task I deemed morally questionable. I never want to compromise my integrity to make my work easier.
I now have my own intern. I pay him fairly and treat him with respect. I don’t have a file room, but I wouldn’t tell him to occupy himself in it if I did. So while the boss lady turned out to be pretty unimpressive despite her long tenure in the business, I am good at what I do, in no small part thanks to what I learned as a 40-something intern.
TOP FIVE TIPS FOR MID-LIFE INTERNS:
- Suck it up. You may be working directly for someone half your age. It can be wholly awkward, but the benefits should hopefully outweigh the misery.
- Dress as you see fit. If jeans and a sweatshirt are standard attire for your office, dress as you would have for a job when you were last in the workforce.
- Ask questions! If you’re given an assignment, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback when a task is completed. Don’t wait until the end of your internship to discuss your performance and the quality of your work. The sooner you ask, the more likely it is you will be given meaningful feedback and improve your work product.
- If you are working in a new industry sector, learn to ask for clarification on a task. Better to ask than do a task poorly or incorrectly.
- Don’t be late. Be early. Don’t leave early. Stay late. Bring your coffee instead of ducking out for some mid-morning. If you sneak away to get some lunch, make it quick. If your boss eats at his or her desk, you should too.