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The awful intern

by Christopher Ming

It’s difficult to admit when you’re awful at something.

But wow — I was an awful intern.

I didn’t realize it back in 2005, when I bussed twice a week from New Brunswick to Maxim Magazine, in a high-rise on 6th Avenue.

At Maxim, I line edited Heineken advertorial copy, pitched Keystone “insert” ideas, and sorted the magazine’s archive. At the end of the day, I bussed back to New Jersey feeling, in my humble opinion, that I rocked that internship.

But when the semester concluded, they didn’t ask me to return. Or recommend me for another internship.

What had I done wrong?

One decade and a dozen entertainment jobs and internships later, I think back to that Maxim internship. And cringe.

I was awful. I never came with ideas on how to make my employer’s life easier. If I wasn’t assigned work, I was satisfied checking email and Internet surfing. My focus was always, “what am I getting out of this?”

Today, sitting on the side that hires and manages Hollywood interns, I realize there are only two types of interns. The first is the amazing intern. The amazing intern is someone you recommend to all your friends. You make a dozen calls, trying to get them hired.

The second is the kind of intern I was at Maxim — the awful intern.

It’s easy to tell which you are. If you aren’t getting put up for jobs after your internship, then you’re the second type. The awful intern.

We’re smothered by articles of the millennial-struggle to cast off the chains of unpaid internships, earn livable wages, and follow our passions. While I empathize, contrary to all the bad press, internships are the best opportunities to stand out. So little is expected of the unpaid intern, everyday is an opportunity to shine.

Which begs the question… how many of the unemployed millennials featured in those articles fall into the category, the awful interns?

Did executives turn to them when the presentation deck needed to look impeccable for a client meeting? Did agents ask them to cover the desk when the assistant was sick? Did assistants think, “Damn, I wish they were here,” on the intern’s days off?

If the answer’s “no,” then why should anyone hire them?

Long after my time at Maxim, I learned what an amazing intern “looks” like – it’s the same “look” across any industry: restaurants, non-profits, marketing. In Hollywood, I asked dozens of assistants and CEs who moved up from internship roles — “How’d you stand out from other interns?”

Their stories were all different, but everyone shared what I call the “religion,” or the guiding principle behind their work. They understood what differentiated the amazing intern from the awful intern was this behavior:

Don’t stop at finding the problem. Find the solution.

Ridiculously simplified, I know… but how many interns come to work, offer empty hands and say: “Whattaya got for me?”

That was my religion at Maxim. I found problems.

When copy editing, I stopped at: “I found three typos,” instead of following up with “so I made the changes in ‘Track Changes’ for your review. We also used a similar headline last July, so I suggested three alternatives.”

When facing computer problems, I stopped at “I called the IT guy, he fixed it,” instead of following up with, “and I took notes and added it to the manual, in case it happens again.”

When your religion is finding solutions, the world looks different:

“No work? The talent agent needs his book alphabetized before the staff meeting, I’ll do that.”

“The copy room was a mess, so I spent the morning organizing it.”

“We spend a lot on shipping, so I compared service rates. If we switched messengers, we’d save $500 a month.”

The amazing intern doesn’t ask permission to save time, save money, or make work more enjoyable. They’re focused on finding solutions.

If your internships haven’t yielded to paying jobs yet, keep that in your back pocket. Enter the office asking, “How can I solve this problem?”

Then, solve it.

Christopher Ming

About Christopher Ming

Christopher Ming is the writer's assistant to a NYT bestselling author/screenwriter. Chris shows young Hollywood how to build their entertainment careers from scratch by creating immense value at Fighting Broke. How? Bulletproof habits + deep research. Follow him on Twitter @thisisming

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