Started from the Bottom and Now We’re Here

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.

 

Hillary LP Eason lives and writes in Washington, D.C. Photo: Marcin Wichary

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9 Comments / Post A Comment

barsen (#970)

I love this! You’ve summed up the entry-level environment in DC pretty well. I’m glad you stuck with it and learned how to use your past work in the search.

Also, I live in a group house as well (in Arlington) and when I try to explain my living situation to extended family in other parts of the country they have the same kind of reaction as your sister. I guess it’s a thing.

I’d add that most people you meet who are in their first Fancy Job are more than happy to try and help out their friends in any way possible. We all know what’s like out there and how hard it is to get a foot in the door. Just ask!

THIS, THIS, A THOUSAND TIMES THIS.

This is why I hate people saying “well just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that’s what I did!” No, you were lucky. Somewhere along the way, you were lucky enough to have a connection or learn what questions to ask or have an opportunity come to you that the other person hasn’t. So many people take their good luck for granted and get so confused about why other people haven’t “worked hard” like they did.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@polka dots vs stripes Well, it can be both. That’s what life is for alot of people. ALOT of hard work mixed in with some luck. Some people catch breaks at certain points in their lives, others catch breaks at other points in their lives.

And truth be told, there are alot of people out there that don’t want to work hard. Not everybody is great at their jobs. There is alot of mediocre and inept people out there in the workforce. Some in high-level positions.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

I have a very similar background to the author – Global Studies degree, prestigious study abroad scholarship – and am not in DC mostly because I watched what happened to my friends who graduated the year before me who were not from the east coast. Most took service jobs and an unpaid internship and lived on someone’s couch in DC for 6 months to 1 year before they were hired anywhere. That sounds like hell to me, and if a counselor had told me that was the cost of entry to most of the careers associated with my major, I would have studied to be an accountant or a programmer or really anything else instead.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@MissMushkila Why? 6 months to a year of living on a couch sounds like a great deal if it’s an entry into the profession that you are passionate about. Especially, if it leads to a lifetime of meaningful work.

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

I so needed this today. I graduated from a good college with pretty good work experience, but most of my heartfelt cover letters to places in DC have gone unanswered. Meanwhile, a number of my classmates from college got hired almost immediately to be “experts” of some sort at impressive-sounding places in DC. At age 22!

I had the opportunity to meet with a high-level woman at a big nonprofit in DC, and when I told her that I couldn’t afford to move there and work for free, especially after two dead-end internships elsewhere, she said, “Well, you might just have to.”

Eric18 (#4,486)

Yeah, I’ve found that DC has a very high number of people who like to puff up their chests and talk about how important their job is. But the truth is, most people are doing normal, boring office work. The competitiveness and humblebrag culture in DC is notorious.

e (#734)

Knowing people is key to getting jobs. A friend of mine just got a job, because another friend went to a meeting at a place about a year ago, asked some questions, thought, “this firm is pretty cool, I bet friend A would love it…” then he was at a party with a guy from the cool firm, started to ask him questions about the skill set, like, “oh hey I loved visiting your firm, i have a friend who does some of that kind of stuff but he’s not professional, would you be able to tell him about what you do and your training?” and the guy at the firm said, “what stuff does your friend do? send him to me!” and now friend A is starting his first week there full time- he’s starting at the bottom, but his base skills and a tryout were enough for them to hire him and he’ll learn so much there. And it all came of some party chit chat.

If you are in a new field or new place, try and nose in. Go to happy hours for the professional association, volunteer places that have people from the field you like (accountants for humanity or something like that), consider going to things that networkers go to- join your neighborhood council or a local church and then just ask questions about what the people you meet do, and how they got there. Take a class in a skill that relates- you can never learn to do too many computer programs in any field. Then suck up to your professor. People are very flattered when you say, “oh wow you are a ! I have always loved !, What kind of work do you do on daily basis? Do you mind if I ask what kind of training you had?! That sounds so neat! Would you come to lunch with me sometime, I have so many questions!”

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