When I was 23 I learned, very quickly, that I had no idea how to get the job I wanted.
It was January of 2009, and I had moved to D.C. after six months in Appalachia, where I lived with my parents and wrote two cover letters a day. When no one in my chosen field (international development) called me back, I started applying for positions in education; I’d spent the past year teaching English to a thousand indifferent-to-hostile middle schoolers on an island in Korea, and while I wasn’t dying to repeat the experience, I was dying to move out and try a new city. Finally, I found a charter school with a teacher that had quit in the middle of the year, and despite my parents’ reservations (“When we lived in Charlottesville, back in ‘89,” my father said, “there was a segment on the news every night that tallied the number of murders in D.C.”), I packed up my belongings and moved into a group house on Capitol Hill. Shortly before I left, I overheard my younger sister describing my living situation on the phone.
“I guess she’s living with people she met on the Internet,” she said. “Maybe it’s a thing? Yeah, I don’t know either.”
And thus began my introduction to work in the big city. It was the very coldest part of winter, and even though my salary would have gotten me a one-bedroom apartment where my family lived in Tennessee, it only paid for an attic room in a five-person house with limited hot water in the District. But I was delighted to be there at all: I was convinced that my possession of a job—any job—was nothing short of a stroke of phenomenal luck. What I discovered, though, was that there was apparently a Secret Job Finding Society in Washington, and that its members included everyone in the city but me.
“Oh, I just got hired to work on a program that promotes the rule of law in Africa,” a girl told me casually one night at a party, in someone’s backyard in Columbia Heights. I asked her if she was a lawyer; she responded in the negative; I asked her when she had graduated, and she responded, “last year.” I saw the hundreds of job applications I’d sent flash before my eyes, and briefly wondered if there was a way for me to drown myself in a keg full of Yuengling.
Before we go any further, let me establish that D.C., like a lot of other large cities in the U.S., has a high number of employment opportunities that can’t be found other places. In my head, I started referring to these as Fancy Jobs. I was raised in the suburban South, and everyone I knew had a career with a fairly straightforward path: restaurant manager, accountant, doctor. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those careers. What I didn’t know growing up, though, was that there was an entire world of work that better fit my particular interests and skills (trust me, you do not want me to do your taxes). And even when I graduated, I had no real idea how to work with any of the organizations I’d learned about, except to apply for positions that seemed to be out of reach.
In other words, I was naive. Which is probably why, for the first six months of my time in Washington, it seemed that every single person I met was doing work I’d never imagined was in the grasp of a recent college graduate: they did lobbying work on the Hill, or they combated human trafficking, or they were consultants for giant corporations. Meanwhile, I had a degree in international relations (and, if we’re talking about stupid credentials, had spent the previous year abroad on a reasonably prestigious government grant), and while I actually did enjoy teaching, I sort of wanted to do the work I had studied for. Also, one of my students kept trying to break my finger, and I was concerned that one day she might succeed. Clearly I was missing something.
So I started asking questions. At first this proved difficult, because I also wanted to make friends. And, as it turns out, many people—especially young people who are just starting out—prefer to project the image of a wunderkind. Given the choice between “I got hired straight out of college” and “My parents paid my rent for six months so I could do an unpaid internship,” most people will offer the former. (The same is true of “I’m a program coordinator” versus “A lot of my job involves booking flights for other people.”) But over time, and as my own work experience grew, I learned a few important things.
The first was that my career training had a serious hole in it: logistics. I went to a small, rural liberal arts college, and while we had plenty of appointments available to review our CVs or talk about local internship opportunities, there were literally no resources on the practical elements of getting a foot in the door of a chosen company or field. Nothing addressed what to do if you didn’t already live in the city where you wanted to work, or you didn’t have the money to live without a job. I would have traded a thousand individual counseling sessions for one seminar entitled “Debt: Are You Ready For It?” or “Selling Your Parents on the Idea of Couch Surfing.”
The second was that there was no reason for me, or anyone else, to have an inferiority complex. First of all, I found my day-to-day work immensely rewarding, even when I was on the receiving end of profanity from a seven-year-old. And despite their fancy titles, many of my peers were doing entry-level work, and their days weren’t always as much fun as mine were. Secondly, skills are skills, and it’s what your experiences teach you that matters. I learned diplomacy by mediating disputes between teachers. I showed resourcefulness when I had to make kid-approved Halloween costumes in under an hour with nothing but a pair of scissors and three packs of Hanes extra-large undershirts. (We had a lot of ninjas.) Of course these differed in scale from Fancy Job work, but what these ordeals gave me was determination and confidence that I could grow in these areas. Believe me, you haven’t felt workplace stress until a preschooler asks you, tauntingly, “What, am I in trouble ‘cause I said I was smoking crack?”
And the third, and most important, thing I learned was that I wasn’t crazy or alone in not knowing any of this. “You know, I moved here for an internship because I didn’t know what else to do,” one of my friends told me the other day. “I was sort of desperate.” A surprisingly high number of people have told me that they were clueless too and just lucked out—that a family friend offered to host them, or that they saw a flyer about a paid internship program. Or they acknowledge that they had to wait and save up money until they could support themselves enough to pursue the career they wanted.
Eventually, I left my job and went to graduate school, proud of the work I’d done but ready to commit myself to my original field. When that was done, I came back to the city. At times, I’ve had to do the same type of job search I did before, but I can do it with more confidence now. Because I realize that I wasn’t surrounded by Mark Zuckerbergs back then; I was surrounded by people who were the same as me or anyone else, but who’d just had the right connections or life circumstances or luck. And luck, I have since learned, is something that you can sometimes make yourself, if you’re willing to ask the right questions.