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Three Ways Short Unpaid Internships Are Great For Your Long Term Career

Now looking back I can see how my short unpaid internship was one of the most valuable experiences of my career.

You know the saying “It’s not what you know, it who you know?”

I didn’t understand the truth in this statement until a few years ago, but now that I’m “middle aged” and can draw upon nearly three decades of adult life experiences, it’s become clear to me how true it really is.

25 years ago, in order to graduate from my college program, I had to participate in an UNPAID 6-week internship.

I didn’t really like the idea of being forced to “work for free”, but in my case there was the potential for a paying position at the end (if I wowed them during my internship, and they had the need for a junior), so I convinced myself I WOULD be offered a position at the end of it, and I would begin my fairy tale career there.

It was hard (for me), and I was really young and unprepared for the opportunity. At the end of a very long, hot Summer (it was only 6 weeks ending in June!), they did not offer me a permanent position and I walked away breathing a sigh of relief – I was finally done holding my breath working for FREE, and ready to get a great paying job!

It didn’t really hit me until recently, but that 6 weeks of time I “wasted”, just because I showed up, became a key valuable time in my career!

Here’s what I mean:

Getting Used To A “Normal” Adult Schedule
I was forced to start living like a “normal” human being who works, and is awake M-F, 9-5 so I had to start going to bed earlier than 2am-3am (except weekends), and this pushed my eating into a more normal schedule as well. From a physical perspective things “normalized” into a more adult schedule, instead my previous student schedule that often included very late nights of TV, followed by naps through class the next day.

Permission To Be Bad At Your Job

During the internship I was allowed to “work through” some of the terribleness of my work, when I was straight out of school and highly inexperienced in life. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to do great work, but I didn’t have enough experience with anything (that I could see) to be able to produce anything exceptional, it was all very intern-like. I have since learned that no matter what you do in life, and eventually become great at, when you 1st started, you were probably terrible at it and had to simply work through the learning curve.

All the other employees working there, each had to demonstrate and prove their professional experience to get the job, and would eventually be fired for not knowing “how” to do the job properly.

Learning How To Socialize Professionally
And, by being there with them EVERY DAY Monday to Friday 9-5, like every other employee, I had access to the community and rising stars of the time, the growing mid level managers, the superstars of today (who were then new young executives), some of the most wise and enjoyable department heads, and many of our prospective clients.

I attend the weekly team meetings (8am Monday!) and occasional events and corporate meetings (we were a small office of a LARGE company), and participated as much as I could… But I hardly understood what I was doing in my assigned tasks, or how it would help them.

Even though I was the worst “employee”, I still had the opportunity to be there with them, every day as we lived our lives. I learned about workplace stress when I saw a team member crying in her cubicle, and another colleague talking with her about the issues.

I was introduced to office politics by the other staff members, when the daughter of the company founder (who was a young executive, on the board of directors), came to our office for a week.

One day, my direct manager in the internship, suggested that I go to the bookstore and buy a copy of Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, which I did that day at lunch at the used book store. It was probably one of the first non-school, non-fiction books I ever bought and somehow put the purchase receipt in the pages of the book, so I know it was June 13, 1995. At the time I couldn’t appreciate it.

Funny thing about that book – 20 years later when I was struggling with mindset and motivation in self-employment, I was reading Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker, and saw it directly referenced Think and Grow Rich. I was reminded of that used and almost forgotten copy, still mostly unread, on my bookshelf and that year I read it cover to cover, and my mind was blown.

So many of the struggles and challenges I faced and survived during the previous 20 years, suddenly I realized they were the proof and demonstration that the ideas included in Think And Grow Rich are accurate.

And now writing this article, I recognize how much truth there is in the book Think and Grow Rich, that was being demonstrated to me throughout my life, following my “unpaid internship”.

  • That same person who was my direct manager as an intern, 15 years later when he started a business of his own, hired me directly (without competition or intensive pitching), to setup all their social media channels – because he already knew me. Even though I wasn’t “great” at my job as an intern, I was still a nice, intelligent, passionate person and he could see I had grown my skills.
  • The person who was our office leader, continued to grow his career and positions for the next 20 years and there were many times in the following years when I was able to negotiate a better deal for my clients, because this person remembered working with me so many years ago.
  • Just having the name of the business on my resume, in a close-knit community, gave me social proof and provided the basic “trust triggers” that allowed me to win so many new positions and opportunities in the last 25 years of my career.

If your kids are struggling with the idea of working “for free” to complete their school training, remind them of the truth they may not recognize yet – when you show up honestly, everyday for work, and you keep in mind the long-term outcome you want to create, you will find that the “work” you’re doing will ALWAYS pay you in benefits eventually, even if you feel underpaid at the time.

This is why my unpaid internship was one of the most valuable experiences of my career.

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