Tales from the Un-Interned
Mine were the only pair of Converse sneakers on the 8:08 AM train from Port Washington to Penn Station in Manhattan. I looked, attentively, at the ground for a solid 46 minutes. From the moment the train left the tracks at Port Washington, my small, suburban waterfront hometown on Long Island until it pulled into Pennsylvania Station on 34th street in New York, my eyes scanned the train for another pair of rubber-soled, classic looking Converse. In most experiences my life has presented me with thus far – high school, summer camps, college – I have always been able to spot another pair of Converse sneakers in my immediate vicinity. But on this early Tuesday morning, mine were alone, unaccompanied, out of place. Sort of like me.
This may seem an insignificant detail. It is an insignificant detail. However, it represents a larger issue that many 20-somethings are currently facing: the plight of the internship. My current relationship with said plight is that I don’t have one. I was on the 8:08 train into Manhattan to take a class ¬— not a hard class, but a drawing class, that met twice a week and consisted of 8 students meeting up to doodle in various locations in New York. Not the most demanding or productive use of my time, but it was something. It got me out of bed in the morning. But my fascination with the footwear of those around me was a reflection. It was a manifestation of the fact that I seemed to be among the only of the twenty-something crowd without towering espadrilles or shiny leather lace-ups on – without an internship or job to head to. I wondered — as I sat among the crowd of sleepy, plugged-in undergrads on their way to their low-level internships at whatever big company their parents had a connection to — if I should be ashamed of my Converse sneakers.
To be clear, I have a job. I am a sailing instructor for a summer camp at a yacht club in my town. My job pays well; I am aware of the good grace that has allowed me to be earning the $12 an hour it provides, and I am not belittling that. My job doesn’t require me to wear anything nicer than khaki shorts and a collared shirt. My job will get my hands dirty. My job won’t get me any connections other than to mothers looking for babysitters. My job won’t do much for my resume.
So what is a 20-year-old at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast supposed to do with their summer? If you ask every single one of my friends, peers, and most of the adults I know, they’ll tell you what every parent tells their kid, at some point in their lives: get a job. But that age-old phrase has changed, some. We’re supposed to go get an internship, and somehow, that’s different. We’re supposed to be spending our summers testing the waters, or getting our foot in the door to some company that we hope will lead us on our path to achieving whatever it is our professional goals may be. Either that, or spend lots of money traveling the world in some way that will educate you about what it is you want to be doing. Our summers are meant to be roadmaps. We are meant to be furthering ourselves, continuing on the path to our ultimate goal. Which is a very good thing to be doing — unless, of course, you don’t have one.
The not-so-recent universality of the social media has made it increasingly easy and enticing to line yourself up against everyone you know. Being aware of the occupations and travels of everyone you’re connected to makes it easier than ever to compare yourself to others, and to feel like you may be coming up short. It also makes it increasingly easy to feel like the odd one out in a sea of people who seem to have figured it all out, who have a clear goal and direction, and who know what they want to do with their lives.
The reality is that few of those who are headed into “work” in Manhattan or Boston or any other hub of business, or those who are busy traveling in their destination of choice don’t really have any of the answers. What many of them are doing is finding out what aren’t the answers – discovering what it is they don’t want to do. And that can be done from anywhere. Someone once told me that if you don’t know where it is that you are going, any road will take you there. Meandering along a path that seems wrong or feels lonely may be a step in a direction that will define the rest of your life. What’s important now is stopping to look around and do what you enjoy. Figuring this out might be harder than you imagine, but it’s worth it. If that means getting coffee for CEOs in midtown Manhattan, so be it. If it means mowing lawns or taking a drawing class or teaching 8 year olds how to sail, that’s fine too.
Defining yourself through the status quo is nothing but dangerous, and will leave you feeling lost and wrong among a sea of people with the “right” answers. For now, I’ll wear my Converse with pride. My life may bring me to heels and skirt-suits, but not quite yet. If I grow out of my sneakers, I’ll know it. Until then, I’ll walk on.
Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/larimdame/1436804/in/photostream/