The Intern of Inexperience

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1960s Ad Campaign – David Ogilvy

     I once had a job where I didn’t know what I was doing.  Or rather, I vaguely knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t know why or how it related to anything else.

I was eighteen and a senior in high school.  It was my best year of high school and I had carefully orchestrated my junior year so that by the time I was a senior, I could participate in what was known as a “work-release” program.  Every day at 11:30 am, I got to leave school and drive promptly to my ultra-prestigious job where I worked as a—well, I’m not sure exactly, the title part evades me now, but I worked at IBM.

I think I may have had a tad of over-inflated ego back then, because while my peers were stuck in jail class, learning how to conjugate verbs and learning useless theories of geometry, I was out and about in the world, co-mingling with grownups.  Yes, I was working with the same generation of adults, my classmates and I spent most of our time avoiding or lying to.

These elders were different.  They liked me.  They respected me and paid me!   I actually listened to them and did what I was told.  In fact, it made me fairly happy to do exactly what they told me, and do it correctly, and on time.  They complimented me on my youth.   They were eager to teach me.  Before you had to worry about being politically correct, or sexual harassment (both real and imagined) the older men found ways to flirt with me without being over the top or skeevy.   It didn’t bother me at all!   I liked the fact that perhaps I possessed feminine charms that others took note of.

Here’s what I did: I went through reams and reams of computer-generated legal-legal sized stacks of paper with alternating rows of green and white with the perforated strips on the side that you could spend hours tearing off!  Do you remember?  The kind that was printed on a dot-matrix impact printer.  Ah yes, the good old days.  Now on this paper were printed lines and lines and lines of code.  I don’t know what it meant.  But I know I did something where I read it, and either left it alone, or drew a line through it.  But I don’t know now what I was referencing as being good or deleteable.

    And another thing, I worked with microfiche and punched cards.  This was the really cool part.  I had to go in a room with a silver box on the door that had a secret 4-digit punch code.  Only “classified” people had entrance to this room.  Apparently, I had clearance to do this job of mysterious description.  It went something like this.

On the upper right-hand corner of the microfiche was a set of numbers similar to this:

F033-346B or BE77-795J or PA17-9946

You get the picture.  And do you know what I had to do with them?  Can you guess?  Let me let you hang a moment in suspense.  OK, I’ll tell you.  I held them up to the light, squinted my eyes as I strained to read them, and then I alphabetized them.   That’s right! I put them in ABC order, or allegedly I did, to the best of my high school ability.  I had mastered alphabetizing hyphenated names, French names with apostrophes and names with titles that nearly mirrored the same names without titles in my Office Occupations class.  But the real world was much more complex than what I had been taught.

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     The last thing I did was visually scan the punched cards!  These cards were sorted, collated, and reproduced on a big computer and then I had the laborious task of visually scanning them and determining which ones were to be saved and which ones were to be trashed.  There was no green movement or recycling then, so don’t send me letters of protest please.  I was just doing my job. 

More complex then filling out a butterfly ballot or dealing with a hanging pregnant chad, I alone had the power to determine whether these cards were allowed to live in archives or were trashed, presumably to be incinerated.

Here’s the thing.  I look back at my first job rather fondly.  While my peers had to wait until after school to sling hamburgers and fries, I was working at an international corporation.  But like many CEOs of today, as well as much of the legislative, judicial, and some would claim executive branch, I didn’t know what I was doing!

    I was a cog in a wheel.  I did my part.  And that was all.  I didn’t understand it then and with the fading of memory, I certainly don’t understand it now.

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IBM – PC2

     What I do remember the most is a woman I’ll call Blaire who loved dogs and shared dog stories.  I remember my boss, a woman I’ll call Grace who taught me all I needed to know with tact, kindness, and a motherly protectiveness.  I remember she shocked me when she told me of the days when she used to see Led Zeppelin in the 1970s when she was a teenager.

I remember a man way older than me, a tender 26 year-old Italian Stallion who flirted with me, and complimented me in Italian.  Perhaps he was cursing me, but I smiled and it seemed like flirting.  I remember Johnny the Comic Collector who had stashes of photos in his desk of a very famous supermodel.  He used to say I looked just like her.

Yes, back before the digital revolution where SEC members could spend hours and hours watching porn, I remember being both amused and weirdly flattered by the almost-retired sexagenarian (in every sense of the word) who spent vast amount of times pining for the super model whom he’d never meet, and telling me the tall tales of super heroes who came to life in his vast comic books collection.  He especially holds a special place in my heart and perhaps is the reason I’ve always loved Spider-Man.

Our lives mirror my first job.  We wake up every day and show up at life.  Most of the time, we have no idea what we’re doing.  We know at the end, we’re going to be let go.    We have to learn to deal with people of all personalities.    But the really cool and confusifying part is certainly the job itself.    Situations happen, and we are utterly clueless how to proceed forward.  More often than not, we spend our days like I did:  Staying extremely busy all day, but without a clear understanding of how our job relates to the others around us.    We are but a thread in a giant tapestry, yet if stretched too tight we break.  We become unraveled.

My prestigious job ended and it only went downhill from there.  Now I’m working FOR FREE but I’m doing what I love.  I don’t plan on retiring from this penniless position until I either go down in flames or wake up in foreclosure.  I’ve had plenty of jobs where I worked for money that were less than thrilling, but I usually am able to muster up enough positivity to make the best of even the less desirable jobs.

I agree with Oprah when she claimed, “Work at doing what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  I say even if you’re working at your job or your life with no clue as to what you’re doing:

  1.  Act as if you do; believe as if you’re promote-able.
  2. Enjoy the process; you’re bound to learn something.
  3. Cherish people, not position.
  4. Surrender the outcome—remember, you’re let go in the end anyway!

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to go alphabetize my spice rack and CDs again.

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3 thoughts on “The Intern of Inexperience

  1. I love this, Liz!!
    This short list should be a guideline to ALL OF US!

    1. Act as if you do; believe as if you’re promote-able.
    2.Enjoy the process; you’re bound to learn something.
    3.Cherish people, not position.
    4.Surrender the outcome—remember, you’re let go in the end anyway!

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