Ever wonder if it’s possible to get fired from an internship? The short answer is yes. For the longer answer, read on as Melissa Nguyen talks to Stephen Ma about showing up late, slacking on the job, being told not to bother coming back to work the next day, and how that entire experience ended up having an unexpectedly positive effect on his career.
After college, I had had enough of words and red pens. Three publishing internships under my belt and a short stint at a publishing house left ellipses in my life where exclamation points should have been. So I thought I’d try something new. I took to the internet and applied to every kind of entry-level position I could find. Of course, 90% of those listings were in sales because sales departments are generally big, offer training, and need eager folks to pitch their products and services.
So I pulled up my anchor that was previously wedged tightly in publishing, and pushed off into the horizon that was to be my new career—my second wind—and sailed right into sales. After a phone interview with the creative director of a small, but quickly growing software company, I attended a group event at their office, and a final in-person interview with two sales directors. The entire process took almost two months (that’s two months of eating on a $.10 ramen budget!) until finally, I started my new career.
Or so I thought. After just a week of trying to prove I could sell software despite my passive personality and, frankly, impassioned pitches, they did not ask me to stay. This was the first time I had ever been let go from a job. I felt inadequate and questioned everything from my intelligence to my social skills—where had I come up short and what did this experience say about me?
This is an experience many face as they take the first steps and stumbles on their winding career path. Whether working internships while still in school or embarking on that first job, it’s a time of exploration and learning, even if it means taking a few falls.
Stephen Ma is an actor I met in New York City a few years ago while attending a university summer program. He graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics in 2011 and is now in sales and marketing at Stanley Black & Decker—thanks in part to being let go from his first internship. We chatted recently about the career path he’s on now and the dramatic leap from theater to working for a large power tool producer.
In his second year of college, Stephen heard about a theater internship from his university’s career center. The application process consisted of an essay gauging his interest in the arts and then a one-on-one interview with the playhouse’s festival director. The focus of the internship was to market the theater’s annual festival, skills required were good communication and willingness to meet and speak to new people, all skills that Stephen, as a trained actor, excelled in. He landed the three-month summer gig.
“I thought the internship would get me into the theater industry as an actor. I went into it wanting to be discovered, to network with fellow actors and directors, and really get my foot in the door. What I didn’t expect was to do work. In my inexperienced head, I had built up an image of work to mean daily interactions with big name creative folks, a handshake here and an exchange of contact information there. I thought it would be invitation after invitation for stage work.”
Instead, Stephen found himself behind a desk doing office work. His role at the theater house consisted of posting on social media networks, calling vendors, folding flyers, and other more administrative, less creative tasks.
“Since day 1, I began slacking on my assignments. The internship was nothing like I had envisioned and so I was completely uninterested in my work. I showed up 30 to 40 minutes late every day and never finished a task on time. I didn’t care.”
Within four weeks of starting the marketing internship at the playhouse, Stephen was fired. The director called him one day after Stephen left work and told him not to come in the next day.
“I felt pathetic, like a failure. Sad, depressed, and not worthy, but oddly enough a little relieved too, because I really didn’t like what I was doing every day. I went into the internship for the wrong reasons and I knew I wasn’t performing well.”
That hint of relief Stephen felt after being let go from his first internship led to a larger revelation; there was a silver lining in the hard life lesson of getting fired that led Stephen to pursue work that he was genuinely interested in and wanted to show up for, on time, each day.
“I learned to be honest with myself. I had these grand ideas about getting discovered as an actor—an end goal that was actually kind of ridiculous and far fetched. I wasn’t willing to put in any hard work and on top of that, I wasn’t interested in the work that I was given. Retrospectively, I know now that it’s about the journey, and you can learn anything from any opportunity you can get. Maybe my end goal could have happened if I stuck with it; I was in a really prime location for actors and in a really great place to learn about marketing and theater administration. I realize now the missed opportunity to learn the inner workings and other side of theater. At the time, I should have pursued what piqued my interest and made valuable connections. Instead, I didn’t take the time to explore and fully understand the kind of work I was getting into versus the kind I actually wanted to do, and as a result, I burned some bridges and wasted my time and theirs.”
I share the same sentiments as Stephen; after I was let go from the software company, I realized I was never meant for sales. I had no interest in it and therefore was terrible at it. I wish I had spent the eight weeks looking for editorial work (which I knew I was interested in, I just had to figure out what type of editorial) instead of hopping on the first opportunity I was given without doing thorough research as to whether it was a good fit for me. And this is something Stephen learned from his experience, too.
“Moving forward, I really did my research before committing to something. I made sure I was in it for the right reasons and that it was work that I could take pride in and enjoy. After being fired from the theater internship, I took what I liked about it—meeting and talking to new people—and found work centered around that. I became a program assistant on my university campus, helping students find their path, being a leader and mentor. I loved seeing students in my shoes, navigating college and post-college struggles and relaying lessons that I had learned.”
With the experience as a program assistant on his résumé and the life lessons he had learned beyond the classroom, when it came time to look for that first job, he knew what to do.
“After I graduated, I pursued work that again aligned with my interests and the fact that I loved talking to people and got into sales and marketing. It’s funny and comes full circle because my focus as a sales coordinator is really similar to acting. You have to figure out how to send a message—whether it’s sell more product or how to portray a character—that catches the attention of as many people as possible. There’s a competitive drive and creative force behind both marketing and acting that fascinates me, so continually pursuing my passions and interests led me to a career better suited for me.”
[Editor's note: Stephen is not the only one to find similarities between acting and sales jobs. Read this interview with AfterCollege's Director of Sales, Matt Baum, for more info on how actors make great salespeople.]
Stephen’s final piece of advice for those setting out to find that perfect job:
“Don’t worry so much about end goals. Instead, focus on smaller steps and what excites you. When I was at the playhouse, all I thought about was being picked up as an actor. Maybe if I had clued in on what it was I enjoyed as an actor, I could have found parallels in marketing and took more interest in that first internship. Or of course, I could have directly looked for an internship with roles that I knew I liked and bypassed the whole getting fired thing altogether—that may have been easier.”
Homework time! Take a moment to think of a time when things didn’t work out the way you expected. Maybe you got fired, didn’t get a job offer after an internship ended, or decided to change direction completely. What did you learn from that experience? Spend some time reflecting on that “failure” and how you can apply what you learned to your life from now on. FYI, mastering this type of introspection will give you a HUGE advantage at job interviews.
Melissa Nguyen is a magazine editor and freelance writer—and as an ex-software salesperson, former retail worker, failed barista, and four-time editorial intern, she knows you’ll always find your way back to what you’re most passionate about. To see more of Melissa’s writing, check out www.writingsbymelissanguyen.wordpress.com.