THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD INTERN
By Chris Ward
Your career will be unpredictable. Everything will change. You may become a Mantern.
Here’s why that’s ok.
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“When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”
“But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, to his friend Hume Logan in response to a request for life advice
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A short five years ago, I began pursuing a career as a creative professional at Weber Shandwick, a global PR agency. I was coming in hot to the job market as an apple-cheeked, naïve, enthusiastic … nearly 40-year-old intern. I stuck out a little.
It then dawned on me that my last internship was a full 16 years prior in a world without WiFi, iPhones or Dank Memes. Fresh out of college as a journalism and broadcasting major in 2003, I landed a writing job at a pop culture print magazine published by an office full of fellow twentysomethings. We had a nearly 40-year-old intern at that job, too. We made wisecracks behind his back. We called him “The Mantern,” or “Green Mantern,” or “21 Jump Street.” A decade and a half later, it was now I who had become The Mantern — surrounded by freshly-graduated communications majors looking at me with eyes that say “he doesn’t even GO here.”
The universe has a funny way of keeping us humble.
Now, five years and counting, I have escaped my Senior Intern position and pushed on to a Senior Copywriter position. I lost nothing in this strange process, but gained a unique perspective along the way.
YOU HAVE TIME
If there is one thing that has remained constant in my professional creative career, it’s this: absolutely nothing. Still, over nearly 20 years, I’ve transitioned, pivoted, shifted gears, and translated skills more times in my career than I can count. Most of the skills I have now didn’t even exist when I was getting that piece of paper from a university. Also, do they still hand out diplomas on paper these days, or do they text them to you?
Still, every experience I’ve had — no matter how contrary to my degree — has led me to where I want to be. Staying flexible, curious to learn, and rolling with the punches will always help you. When faced with the opportunity to become an almost 40-year-old intern at an agency, or choose from a handful of less risky pursuits, my friend Chris Reimer (author of “Happywork,” a book about business and purpose) had a pretty simple answer: “Are you crazy? Take the agency job!” Even if it meant swallowing my pride and working a second, less glamorous job to make ends meet, I did what I had to do and trusted my gut that the ends would justify the means. In this case, the risk paid off. Had it not, I’d still be glad I tried. As Lemmy from Motörhead said, “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.”
When younger interns (IE: not approaching 40) join our agency, one of the things I hear most often is a panic in their voice that they just don’t have enough time, or that time is running out for them. That if an internship doesn’t go exactly right, it will delay a job hunt further. That if their professional life doesn’t start now it may never at all. Many also seem to be under a ton of (self-imposed) pressure to “succeed,” and are worried they’ll never go anywhere at all — afraid they’ll suddenly wake up and be as obsolete as the Palm Pilot I used in college. No one in their early 20s should ever feel this way. Of course, it didn’t stop me from feeling that way 16 years ago, either. This perspective just takes time.
To those same interns in an existential crisis, I sometimes ask “Well, what do you REALLY want to do?” That question catches an intern off guard, but it’s an important one to consider every single year, at every age and stage of your career.
When I decided to take a risk and move a thousand miles from home during my first internship, a friend of mine — knowing how adverse I was to making epic, life-changing decisions — gave me a letter about life’s purpose written by Hunter S. Thompson. The gonzo journalist’s parting words stuck with me, chilled me to the bone, and have informed most of my life and career choices: “No one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life,” he says. “But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.”
THE LONG AND CHANGING ROAD
I am a Xennial — still not a Millennial, not yet a Gen Xer. Born in 1981, I’m one of the strange ones who remembers life before Al Gore invented The Internet. I never use two spaces after a sentence, but I still punctuate my texts. I don’t know what a PewDiePie is, or what it does.
Sixteen years ago this month, I was slouching around campus post-graduation and freaking out, as I realized I would now be forced to put my double major to use. I Xeroxed newspaper articles I’d written into stacks of physical portfolios, stamped and ready to mail. Any articles that actually existed online, I printed out from my monolithic Packard Bell PC and ink jet printer. CH-CHUNK! CH-CHUNK! CH-CHUNK!
I panicked as no publications were returning my calls on my cherry red Nokia with the little antenna.
But it finally happened…I got an internship, and eventually a staff writer position for a whopping $23,000 a year. Naturally, I was over the moon. Set for life as a magazine writer: my dream job.
And that’s when things began changing and never stopped. Though I proudly cut my teeth writing incredibly long, dense, feature stories…people were beginning to want less copy altogether. Those darkroom photography skills and analog audio splicing classes? Ditched for digital. I once made close to $600 a month writing a few short video game review pieces. But, when blogs took off, I was offered $10 a post instead.
The magazines all folded. The freelance rate dried up. MySpace launched. YouTube started being taken seriously as a platform. And on the sixth day God created Facebook. As I bounced around in a post-publishing, new media world, my resume began to make me look like a frenzied, mediocre virtuoso: Magazine Staff Writer. Certified Pharmacy Technician (don’t ask). Travelling Dance Videographer (long story). Comic book writer. Cartoon Blogger. Jimmy John’s Delivery Guy (a man’s gotta eat). Nonprofit FM-Radio Social Media Marketer.
And suddenly one day, I’m 16 years out of college. 16 years working, grinding it out, hustling, and hunting for creative work. I felt extremely experienced, but it was also like being fluent in multiple Star Trek languages — very skilled at something, but of what value to anyone? I was developing Imposter’s Syndrome. Adrift.
KNOWING YOUR VALUE
It was my current boss, Dave, who initially reached out during this existential crisis and said “I think you’d be a good fit at Weber Shandwick.” Way back then, he saw that traditional PR agencies were moving out of their swim lanes. Doing more boundary-pushing creative work. Stretching into more digital and social media work. Solving client problems through creative thinking. Even dipping into some forms of traditional advertising. It’s the kind of thing my jack-of-all-trades trajectory had accidently prepared me for.
That’s also when, despite a long, strange and winding career, I realized that no matter what technologies and trends come and go, no matter how agencies shift and change, there will always be value in creative thinking and a person’s willingness to adapt and react.
Great creative ideas will always be held in high value. It’s the number one thing our clients want: more thinking, more ideas, more creative, quicker creative, better creative, award-winning creative, more, more, more.
But it’s an outdated magazine job that taught me how to brainstorm in a room, and how to pitch ideas confidently. That job also taught me the phrase “no job is worth this.” Freelance comic book writing taught me plotting, pacing, and storytelling skills. Delivering for Jimmy Johns taught me that everyone needs whatever they need NOW. Working in a hospital’s emergency pharmacy reinforced that there are always more important things in life than marketing — as a colleague once said, “It’s PR, not ER.” Blogging and social media taught me about the economy of words (“he says, continuing to write this longform piece…”) and how to be nimble. And dance videography taught me…well, not much. Never go into the dance business.
I’ll always love writing. I’ll always consider creative writing my passion. Still, I watch the news, and you also can’t rule out that we may be entering a post-writing-and-reading society.
Don’t laugh…emojis were just the warning shot.
And when that day comes to pivot once more, I look forward to channeling all my experience yet again, adapting, and trying to be the best 60-year-old Mantern I can be. The weird one, off to the side mumbling about Napster.
Or maybe I’ll switch courses again and do something crazy like, oh I don’t know, open up a small pizza place.
After all, no one HAS to do something they don’t want to do for the rest of their life. But, then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it.
You’ll have lots of company.
— Chris Ward is a Senior Copywriter at Weber Shandwick