The title of this post was going to be “Resident Idiot,” but I’m working hard on (and very occasionally succeeding in) eliminating the self-criticism and negative self-talk, and calling myself an idiot isn’t very nice (even if I’m joking). It’s not something I’d say to a friend, and really, we should treat ourselves in a friendly way, right?
I spent some time in this post talking about what it was like when I started out as a graphic designer. What it was like learning how to be good at that job. Time spent doing things wrong, or at least doing them very inefficiently; the process of building up a stock of experience, tips and tricks and lessons learned until I felt like I could tackle just about anything. And how it was going to be hard to be back at square one with a new career – feeling clueless, having the wrong answers, knowing how much there is still to learn.
It is hard. I was really good at my old job. I could take a client’s half-formed idea and work with it all the way from concept to finished product. I was fast. I was pretty much a software ninja. I understood different printing and production techniques. I even had extensive experience in the weird, specialized world of signage and wayfinding design. I was always a valuable member of the teams I was on. I did a good job. I was useful. I was needed.
I fear that this sounds like I’m building up to something negative. I’m not. But I’m just trying to explain the mindset difference I have going into this career as opposed to going into my first one. When you come out of college the first time, you have little or no experience and probably haven’t had a professional job before. You know you’re clueless. You don’t know what it’s like to not feel that way. You’re 22 and everyone knows you’re going to require a little hand-holding.
But when you’re 33 and have already had a successful ten-year career, on the inside you think, “I should know more than this. I should be contributing. I should be a valuable member of the team because that’s what I’ve always been. People must be counting on me. I need to deliver.” The problem with this internal self-criticism (this is what I was talking about) is that it’s completely untrue and completely counter-productive.
The purpose of an internship is to learn. To be exposed to as many new things as possible in a short window of time. To help out where you can, as much as you can, with lots of guidance from people who know and accept that you really have no idea what’s going on. And they do accept it. I’ve been on the other side of the fence. I’ve worked with graphic design interns. Never did I think they were stupid for not knowing something that I knew. Instead I was excited to show them little tricks and give advice if they needed it. That’s the process and the whole point.
When I’m able to let go of the need to “be useful!” or “be impressive!” and when I can stop panicking for five seconds about all the things I don’t understand, I can sometimes take a deep breath and marvel at how much I am actually learning this summer. I’ve had some excellent experiences. My supervisor has been really great about sending me to all kinds of meetings and discussions and making sure I’m able to see all the projects and repairs happening around the plant. In fact, everyone at the plant has been extremely accommodating and friendly when I ask to see things or if I need explanations. Though I may have been the only person who was excited about it, one of the units went down this week due to a boiler tube leak so I’ve been able crawl around inside all sorts of equipment that is normally inaccessible. Scaffolding is up all over the plant. Covers have been removed and doors have been opened. I’ve been walking around and seeing all sorts of things I can’t normally see and it’s been fascinating.
I have been useful this summer. I’m working on a valve documentation project that I really think will be useful to the operators once it’s finished. I assisted with the boiler inspection. I got to put on a tyvek suit and assist another engineer with pulling catalyst samples from the SCR (selective catalytic reduction) unit. I may have opportunities to help with some other tasks before the unit goes back into production. I’m not doing anything epic. Certainly no one is relying on me. But I’m available and eager to do what I can, and I’m learning to be okay with that. I will have my entire career to experience the pressure of being relied upon. My job right now is to just get comfortable saying, “Hi, I’m the intern. Would you mind describing what you’re working on?”