Don't Do What I Did (Tips from an Intern)

Don't Do What I Did (Tips from an Intern)

The first day I walked into my internship site I was overdressed, nervous, and uncomfortably sweaty (as if there is such a thing as comfortably sweaty). I arrived 30 minutes early to find the office door locked and no one around. So, instead of waiting by the door like an anxious puppy (I had recently shaved so I was feeling especially childlike), I opted to hide in a bathroom stall for 25 minutes and casually wait it out.

 

When I finally infiltrated the office, my suit and tie were juxtaposed with my boss’s Nike shoes and painter jeans. While my boss gave me a tour, I declined his offer for a soda even though I definitely wanted one (I’m a sweaty diabetic guy, I always want a soda). Finally, I sat down at my desk in an area of the office my boss affectionately called the “Bull Pen." Now I can only speak for myself, but I wager that most people don’t have positive associations with a place named the “Bull Pen.” At the end of the tour my boss asked if I had any questions to which my sly, silver-tongued self choked out “uhhh, well…I just…no?”


Now, I did a lot of things wrong on my first day of work, and the second day, and the day after that. For about the next month and a half I floundered in uncertainty, inexperience, and general anxiety of what was appropriate for me to say, ask, dress like, joke about, and explain. This is not to say I have found the definitive "Goldilocks" social environment at my work, but I feel comfortable saying I’ve made progress, and the fact that I’m not terrified to go to work tomorrow speaks for itself. So, to help all my fellow nervous wrecks out there, here are some skills, tips, techniques, and mindsets that I have picked up along the way from people and from experience that helped me climb that mountain of dread we call workplace dynamics.

Courtesy of Giphy

1.) Ask all the questions

You may feel like an idiot, but please ask that dumb question before you burn the coffee or print 15 copies of what was supposed to be handout on full sized poster paper. Your boss will appreciate your thoroughness, curiosity, and lack of fire alarm in the kitchen. If you’re an intern you are even more in the clear. Your boss has already assumed you know very little and expects you to have an unending stream of queries and gaps in your knowledge. This is the one time in your professional career when you can be completely clueless and it’s kind of endearing.

 

You’ll save time, too. This past week, another intern and I were working on a project for hours and hours. The project had lasted to the point where I usually start to question my own sanity, when I decided to ask my boss for clarification on what he exactly wanted. Turns out, we had finished the project about 3 hours ago and had since been learning what it felt like for people stuck in purgatory. Moral of the story: ask questions first.

 

2.) Don’t hesitate to adapt

When I arrived in D.C. I expected to be wearing a suit and tie every single day, but now I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve put on a tie for work. You may feel the need to always present yourself as a die-hard professional, and if that is your jam then go for it, but don’t feel like you have to keep up the image of a perfect professional. You can dress down some days.

 

This advice goes beyond your attire as well. If your boss comes to you everyday telling you about an enormous praying mantis he saw on the roof (like my boss does), ask to go see it! You don’t have to always talk about how much you hate Mondays, or which font size you think is the most professional. Your boss and your co-workers are people too, and they hate surface-level banter just as much as you do. This is not permission to start talking about your relationship problems or that weird growth you found on your foot, but feel free to expand your conversation topics from what you put on your resume.

 

3.) Manage Up

This is one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve learned for working in a professional environment. Quite often your boss or supervisor will fulfill the archetype of the absent-minded professor. They may be brilliant and incredibly good at their job, but because of their position, they may often forget many of the smaller details that you, as an intern, have to worry about.

 

Basically managing up is learning to manage your manager. So, instead of just saying “Hey, can we talk sometime about ______”, you’ll have to say “We need to talk about ______, does 3pm work for you? Here is a Google calendar invite that will remind you.” In this way, you actually make your boss’s life easier by preemptively planning a meeting for them, instead of them having to do it themselves.

 

Another common situation is when your boss or supervisor asks for something, but doesn’t really explain what they exactly want. Working at a PR agency I run into this a lot, where these brilliant campaign managers and strategists will come up with an idea on the spot, point to an intern and say “make this happen.” This is where managing up comes in. Instead of repeatedly trying to interpret what they mean and failing give them options of what you can do.

 

Again, this makes your boss’s life easier, because suddenly they can just choose from a list instead of trying to figure out what they mean (idea people don’t like too many specifics). It may seem diminutive to manipulate your superior like this but this is all part of being a good employee: anticipating wants, simplifying decisions, working ahead. Your boss (and co-workers) will appreciate how you take care of problems before they arise and will recognize your preemptive actions as exemplary coming from an intern.


Starting on the lowest rung or the lowest ladder is honestly terrifying and more than a little humbling. You may hide in the bathroom on your first day, say something that doesn’t make sense on your second day, or work on a pointless project for 3 hours on your 63rd day. Hopefully, though, these tips will help you avoid the same mistakes that I made. This way you can make your own unique mistakes!


Good luck friends,
Noah


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