I never had an internship.
That’s only because I learned, after moving to a major U.S. city to intern at a theatre company (which I am not going to name because being a theater company is hard enough as it is without getting slagged in public), that my internship had been canceled.
In one afternoon I went from Promising College Graduate With A Career-Related Plan to Person With Absolutely No Plan At All.
That’s how I ended up telemarketing for another arts organization I am not going to name. Let’s just call it Big Orchestra.
Technically, I was doing subscription sales for Big Telemarketing Company, but we all knew what it really was. After all, when the phone picked up, the first words out of my mouth were “Hi. I’m Nicole, and I’m calling from Big Orchestra.” Sometimes I used a different name. The person at the cube next to me once dared me to call myself Clover for an entire shift. I didn’t get in trouble for that quick conversation, although I did get in trouble for others. The bosses didn’t like to see employees talking, unless we were on the phones.
It was not my first job — I had been working summers since I was 13 — but it was the first job that had to provide enough money for me, my cat, and my studio apartment.
It was also my first experience with the concept of the “real job”: sure, I’d manned the counter at a Wild Birds Unlimited and served coffee at my hometown Elderhostel, but those had all been fake jobs, in a way. I did real work and I got real money, but I was also a teenager who got these jobs because one set of parents knew another set, and when your boss is a friend of the family, the employer/employee dynamic is different.
I got paid $9 per hour plus commission. I also learned a series of lessons that have dogged me at every job I’ve had since. Some of these lessons have been very good. Others, I wish I hadn’t learned.
Sit down and shut up.
I had always thought of myself as a good kid, and really I was. I was respectful to others, I was a team leader, I was a joy to have in class — everyone wrote that down when they wrote about me.
But, to borrow a cliche: the skills that make you a joy to have in class also make you a terrible employee. Doing basic things like suggesting ideas drew angry glares, and I quickly gathered that nobody was interested in my thoughts, my leadership, or my feedback.
This wasn’t just about me being an entitled young’un, either. You might have seen that Planet Money episode where they interview a company that tests potential call center employees. Turns out inquisitiveness is an indicator that a person will be a bad call center team member. (Creativity, interestingly enough, correlates with high performance.)
And yes, asking too many questions about your job, or even about how to do your job, is never a good idea. I figured out all too soon that it wasn’t my job to come up with ways to improve, or — as I actually suggested, early in my telemarketing career — to organize a system of peer trainings in which co-workers could help each other build sales skills.
My job was to sit down, shut up, and follow the script. And learning how to sit down and shut up is one of the most important lessons a person can get.
This game is for keeps.
Early in my telemarketing career, I went out on a parody of a date with one of the other team members. Neither of us could really afford restaurants, so we hunkered down in a sticky, dirty sandwich joint and tried to pretend it was attractive.
At one point my date mentioned he had just turned 30.
I spoke without thinking. “But … what have you been doing for all these years?”
It took a few months of working for the telemarketing agency before I fully began to grok that this wasn’t an interlude before I started my real life. This game was for keeps. Whatever choices I made now affected everything else.
I actually often wonder how my life would be different if I had found a first job that wasn’t telemarketing. I applied for many of them. If I had started in an office job, or as a library assistant, or a proofreader, or an arts administrator, or a children’s theatre instructor, or any of the other jobs I applied for with varying levels of qualification, I probably would have had an entirely different perspective on what jobs could be. I might have found an office where I was valued, rather than an office where my ability to follow the script was valued.
Because, as I learned far too late in life: Following the script gets you a job, but only finding a place where you are valued will help you build a career.
In the end I ran straight from that year in Big City into grad school, as a way to push the reset button. I didn’t want this job to be the first step on my staircase. I didn’t want everything that followed to derive from this experience.
In many ways, it did anyway.
Lie. Or, if you prefer, consider that everything can be made true.
One of the most awkward moments in the telemarketing office came when the boss tried to guide a soft-spoken, painfully nervous older man through a call.
“Say it’s like Mozart,” she hissed at him.
He put his hand over his mouthpiece. “But it’s not,” he said. “Bartok is nothing like Mozart.”
“Say: It’s like Mozart,” she repeated. Big Telemarketing Company staff were not trained in music history, but everyone, including this woman, had heard of Mozart.
“It’s not true,” he said, his voice trembling. “I could say —”
She didn’t let him finish. “It’s like Mozart.”
“It’s like Mozart,” he said.
That man did not make very many sales. But I did, because I quickly learned to lie, or to understand that everything can be made true. I could make you believe that if you love Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, you’re going to go nuts for Bartok’s boundary-pushing, mixed meter Concerto for Orchestra. (It’s actually a great concerto. You’d love it.)
I also said, without flinching, that the seats I was offering you were one of a handful of remaining seats available (they weren’t) and that this was your only chance to take advantage of this offer (it wasn’t). These were the lies I was asked to tell. But these lies could be made true, if you thought about them the right way. My definition of “handful” simply referred to a very large hand.
Learning that the ethics of the working world are different from the ethics you might want in your own life is an awful lesson, and it changes you. It changed me. Or maybe the person who was willing to lie over the phone to make a sale was always there, and the telemarketing agency just brought her out. Either way, I hate this part of the story.
This is just how things are.
Yes, I was one of those shift workers who was asked to arrive ahead of schedule to turn on and warm up our cantankerous and ancient computers; the clock started when we made our first call and ended when we made our last one, although there was additional work to be done on both sides.
But I never thought that was wrong. It never occurred to me to think that it was.
There’s a type of essay you’ll see over and over again. Let’s call it the “I was surprised that jobs suck” essay. The Atlantic ran one recently about a guy working at a retail store (“nasty, brutish, and poor”) and this week we had Sarah Kessler’s piece about the gig economy. Barbara Ehrenreich made two separate books out if it.
When your first real job is telemarketing, you’re never surprised that jobs suck, and that nothing in the workplace is designed to benefit you. You are astonished that other people do not know this. You expect a level of suck, and you don’t think about pushing back because this is just how things are. I’ve had jobs where I’ve had my bag searched, and where I’ve been required to carry a see-through bag to and from the office. At the telemarketing job, I had to ask permission to use the restroom. This is how the world works, you learn to think. Why are so many other people surprised?
(Later, when I got my first office job, where I could use the restroom when I pleased and earned the same amount of money every hour no matter what happened during that hour, I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I just sat there grinning, the entire first week.)
Rejection is nothing.
If there’s one good thing that came out of my experience telemarketing for Big Orchestra, it’s that it made me absolutely impervious to rejection. When I was working there, I got rejected eighty times an hour. I got yelled at, and cursed at, and called names. I got a lifetime’s worth of rejection and hatred squeezed into my very first experience in the real world.
And now I don’t care. Not about job rejections, or pitch rejections, or dating rejections, or any other kind of rejection. I’m sad they happen, and sometimes I look to them for constructive criticism, but I don’t carry them with me. I know that when you get rejected, you just dial again.
And again, and again, and again, until you finally close the sale.