It’s been an adventure these past 37 months. I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to spend 15 of those months exploring the corridors of the professional world and the other 22 months shuttling between classes, the cafeteria and my room while at school.
I started off in the professional world with my first internship at the age of 18. I was so nervous. For the first time in my life, it felt like this adulting thing had really begun and I was scared that I wasn’t ready for any of it.
Today, at 20, my professional experience spans five countries (Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, UK, & Germany) and four industries (education, entertainment, investment banking & biopharmaceuticals). By this summer, through my upcoming internship at Facebook, I’d have covered a fifth industry — technology.
Reflecting on my experience so far, there’s so much that I’ve learnt about myself, the limits of my ability, and about the world of work. I’m excited to be sharing some of these learnings with you.
Here are the 13 key lessons I’ve learnt about the professional world:
1. Travelling for work is very different from travelling as a tourist
While interning in different countries, I tried to make time to explore but work always came first. I once got called into the office on a Sunday and I still had to show up! I couldn’t quote the clause in my contract that clearly prohibits working on weekends simply because I wanted to enjoy my day doing touristy things on that warm afternoon. I had to accept the hard truth that I wasn’t in the country to take pictures, but to work first and have fun later.
2. New job, new beginning
Starting each internship with a blank slate proved very useful. While I may have had other internships in the past, going into any internship with a been-there-done-that attitude would have set me up for failure. By taking each internship as a fresh and unique opportunity to create new experiences, I not only opened myself up to learn from the work I was doing, I also allowed myself to have a lot of fun in the process.
3. Professional communication is an art worth mastering
The world of work is an ecosystem of corporate politics. This is one truth that emerged from all my previous internships. My ability to communicate with people across the organisation at different levels of seniority has played a crucial role in the success of all my previous internships. Being able to communicate for impact allowed me to clearly articulate my thoughts, ask effective questions, and weave through the web of egos that is woven throughout the organisation.
4. Your work [ethic] defines you
Before starting each internship, I was defined by my resume – an airbrushed listicle of my previous professional experience – and my persona which came through during the interviews. But as soon as I started the internship, people began to take notice of my skills, my character, my personality, the results of my work, and my work ethic. These were the things which ended up defining me. Today, if you should ask any of my past colleagues about me, they may not remember my stellar resume or my interview, but they’d definitely remember the quality of my work and the level of professionalism I exhibited. That’s what really counts.
5. Everybody loves a proactive intern
In every industry I’ve worked in, I’ve always had managers who were extremely busy. While they may have loved to sit with me to explain what they wanted me to do, or answer a couple of my many questions, they really couldn’t afford the time to do that. Therefore, I needed to be able to drive projects by myself without needing constant supervision, predict my managers’ needs and address them ahead of time, do my own quick research to seek out answers (Google, what’s up?) before asking anyone. By doing these things, I was able to take some work off my manager’s plate, save time for the team, and also take ownership of my own learning. I’m still making strides to get better at this.
6. Your age really doesn’t matter
Having gone through most of my internships so far as a teenager, the possibility of being undervalued because of my age kept me up on some nights. I was worried that my opinion wasn’t going to matter because I was the inexperienced 19-year-old in the room. However, throughout my professional experience, the value of my opinion or the rigor of the work I was assigned never depended on my age, but on the quality of my thoughts and the strength of my skills. Most times, the people I worked with even forgot that I was the youngest person in the room. Age proved to be just a number while talent spoke for itself.
7. Building relationships across the organisation is valuable
In every space I find myself in, I tend to build a small network of relationships and stick with them. This is because I tend to value depth over breadth of friendships. While this works perfectly with my non-professional relationships, it proved unsustainable in professional settings. At some internships, I lost out on valuable conversations and connections with amazing people in other teams simply because I didn’t establish a relationship with them. I learnt that while the people on my team were great and interesting, there was still significant value in connecting with people across the organisation — even if the interaction happens only once.
8. Hard work pays, but it’s important to play
Most of my internships were intense. During each internship, I was working above my skill level, constantly stretching the limits of my abilities, and growing from the process. I was stuck in a limbo between proving myself and improving myself. This took a lot of blood, sweat, and (sometimes) tears. It was hard but as a classic Type-A, I kept going. I didn’t take the time to relax, have fun, and recharge; I was on full-throttle until the very end of each internship. You’ve probably guessed the aftermath of such foolishness. Yes, I burnt out and it wasn’t pretty. I’ve learnt from that experience and I plan to do better moving forward.
9. When you doubt yourself, others will too
It’s so easy to feel small in a crowd of equally talented people. I lived through that during my internship last summer at a bulge-bracket investment bank. It began with trickles of self-doubt only to eventually become a full-blown impostor syndrome. This decline in self-confidence became noticeable by people within my team. Some of them responded to that by losing confidence in me and giving me less tasks to work on, while others responded by calling me aside and talking me through how I was feeling. Reflecting on that experience, I realised that they only started to doubt me after I started doubting myself.
10. It’s okay to ask questions and say “I don’t know”
There is great pride in being knowledgeable. But there’s even greater pride in knowing the limits of one’s own knowledge. In my case, by working in different industries, I had to admit my ignorance and say ‘I don’t know’ often in order to open myself to learn new things quickly. From my experience, I learnt that there’s nothing more distasteful than someone who thinks he knows more than he actually does, and is too insecure to recognise the gaps in his knowledge. I continuously strive to ensure that I never become such a person.
11. You’re always being assessed; even outside the office
Every internship came with its own fair share of social events: drinks, excursions, and parties. I attended these events with fellow interns and full-time employees alike. These informal events played a major role in loosening us up and creating opportunities for us to connect with one another. Even though they were meant to be informal and relaxed, I observed that our (i.e. the interns’) conduct was constantly being monitored. Just because we were having drinks with senior employees didn’t give us the right to flirt or be overly relaxed (read: drunk). The standards of corporate decorum were to remain upheld whether we were sitting at our desks or sipping out of cups at a bar. It was a psychological contract we all signed.
12. Work life is very different from school life
In school, a lot of our failings tend to be tolerated or overlooked. But at work, they most likely won’t. For example, the cost of misquoting a statistic in an essay assignment is significantly lower than the cost of making the same mistake in a report that’s to be sent to your manager’s manager at work. (Fun fact: I’ve made both mistakes.) I learnt that the bar of excellence at work is much higher and requires a lot more effort than what I put into schoolwork in order to be met.
13. The significance of each experience emerges only in hindsight
Going through each internship, I had an idea of what I was learning and the value of it all. This included the times I stayed late at the office, the mundane work I sometimes did that made me want to pull my hair out, and the training sessions that had no direct application to the job I was hired to do. However, as I have moved on from each internship, I have increasingly found myself in situations where a particular experience or knowledge I had discarded as worthless turned out to be the exact opposite. From this I’ve learnt the importance of going through each internship fully and remaining open to all the opportunities that present themselves even if they initially appear irrelevant. The dots tend to connect looking backwards.
The world of work, I have noticed, is constantly changing and the experiences we have within it are very subjective. However, as I navigate this complex professional world while advancing my career, I’ll be sharing more things I learn along the way.