Unpaid Internships: There Are Better Uses Of Your Time

When I see articles like this one, I'm reminded of the challenges I had finding work before I landed at Shopify. Here's a few things I wish I learned sooner:

Stop looking for a job. Start looking for a company where you can make a positive contribution. This sounds like buzzword bullshit, but I mean it. I've said many times that job hunting isn't that different from dating - if someone came up to you and said "I really don't care who you are, but I've gotta nail someone and you look like you'll do." you probably won't be too impressed. On the other hand, someone saying "Here are some things I really like about you. Let me tell you some things about me, and explain how that unique combination means we would have crazy awesome sex." would probably fare quite a bit better. No one ever says in an interview that they really don't care about the company as long as they get paid, but if you're not making a case for why a specific company is a great fit specifically for you and your skillset, the person interviewing you is going to assume that you really don't give a shit. Sometimes they don't either, and I had that turn into a gig for a few months at one point. It wasn't fun or productive, except as a learning experience.

Speaking of experience, you don't need anyone's permission to get experience. This is probably where I most dislike the whole internship model. You want to demonstrate that you can do something... do it. You might not get paid, but that doesn't stop people from taking internships. Take initiative and make something cool for somebody. Maybe it's a blog. Maybe it's throwing and promoting an event. Maybe it's starting a drop-shipping business to prove you can sell. Whatever it is that you want to make, the barriers for entry and doing it yourself are lower than they've ever been. That's not to say it's easy. That's not to say there aren't fields that require capital investment that you may not be able to break into on your own. But if your options are to follow instructions and not get paid or to do your own thing and not get paid, take the latter. Just make sure you actually push yourself to do the thing, and if it sucks, take the time to figure out why, and push yourself to do it again without making those mistakes. Self-motivation and iteration through failure are things that employers love to see - it demonstrates that you're not afraid of doing the work.

Learn how to work a room. You're only awkward if people think you're awkward, and they won't think you're awkward if you don't act awkward. Deep down, most people are scared of seeming awkward or inadequate, so when you're talking to someone, try and focus on giving them opportunities to talk about how awesome they are. Don't worry if they seem to be full of shit. Most people are, but it doesn't help to call anyone on it. Indulge them, leave them smiling, and when you see them later with other people, you'll have a way into a conversation with people who are hopefully less full of shit. Unless someone's really deep in conversation with someone, walking up and saying "Hi, I'm _____. Mind if I join you guys?" works pretty much 100% of the time, because blowing you off would be a dick move, they don't know who you are, and it's not worth the risk of pissing off someone important. With practice, you'll get better at initiating conversations, excusing yourself when they're going nowhere, and detecting bullshit... but the only way that happens is through practice.

I could say a lot more, and I undoubtedly will, but this is enough for now. Wrap your head around these three ideas and you're already ahead of most of your competition.

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  • One thing I don’t often see pointed out in the discussions of unpaid internships is that they are actually unhealthy for the very businesses that use them to exploit inexperienced workers. One may think that free labour is inherently beneficial to a business, but in the long run the function is that it effectively eliminates individuals who can’t afford to do unpaid work (i.e. those without reliable parental or spousal support) from your pool of candidates and eventually from the industry. We’ve seen this in journalism, where because unpaid internships are “just the way things are done”, over time the industry has become occupied almost exclusively by those who come from a position of relative economic privilege. And in an industry that lives or dies based on critical thinking and vibrancy of perspectives, eliminating that diversity comes at the expense of the industry overall. So, an individual paper may benefit from unpaid internships, but the industry as a whole is crippling itself. Thank goodness for blogs: without them, papers would have an even tougher time finding and recruiting those who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) work in the traditional unpaid internship model.

    • Chelsea Edgell