There’s a meme going around about your #firstsevenjobs — so I thought it might be a fun thing to discuss. (A lot of celebrities and business leaders have answered, including Sheryl Sandberg, Buzz Aldrin, Stephen Colbert, and more.) My own answers kind of highlight my upper middle class youth, I guess — there aren’t many paid jobs in there! Still, it’s nice to look back on them and remember…
Ladies, what were your first seven jobs? What can you learn by looking back at them? (I included “unpaid internships where I had a boss” in my list — these days a similar position would have to be paid!)
1. (Paid) Lifeguard / Swimming Instructor, age 15-19
I loved swimming when I was a kid, and took pretty much any swimming class they had to offer. Synchronized swimming, lifeguarding, sure! Right after I finished my lifeguarding class they were opening a new pool in my hometown and had signs up everywhere to apply to be a lifeguard — so I applied. I did the interview in my JV tennis uniform (an early WTH moment in interview attire, I’m sure) and started work a month or two before I turned 16. My memory may be a bit wonky here, but — in my memory we had problems getting the chlorine mix quite right, and from time to time would have to clear the pool and open the pool deck doors to let fresh air in. Because it was winter, the cold, crisp Ohio air would mix with the warm, humid air of the natatorium, and create an instant fog — some of my best memories from that time period are climbing up on a lifeguard stand and feeling like I was sitting on top of clouds.
Like all the other lifeguards, I taught swimming lessons — and I turned down opportunities to do private lessons, probably missing out on some great money. I made minimum wage (just around $6, if memory serves), and kind of viewed lifeguarding as an extracurricular activity. I’ve always looked back on it fondly as one of my best jobs, and I’ve always felt like I got a slightly broader view of my high school community beyond my sheltered little honors classes/nerdy activities like mock trial and the school newspaper. I went away to school for college, but kept lifeguarding during summers and even a few holiday breaks until I started interning in NYC in my summers.
I also did a wee little bit of babysitting in this time period, but at the time the going rate for babysitters was $2/hour (!!!) and it seemed like a lot more work than lifeguarding, so I didn’t pursue babysitting too much.
2. Unpaid Intern: Very Local Newspapers, Sun News, Cleveland suburbs, age 19
As a journalism major at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, it was obvious that I should go get an internship — at the time the school encouraged us to offer ourselves as unpaid interns to newspapers and magazines. (They had some whizz-bang template for a cover letter that included some gag-inducing phrase like, “I can offer you all this, AND MORE, because I’m free!”) I worked for the local newspaper for the summer — they published a separate edition for each suburb, so my time was spent mostly visiting various local suburban police stations to round up news for the week by reviewing incident books, reported on a few local town meetings and Fourth of July parades. One of my headlines for the police blotter was something like “Dog Follows Adage, Bites Postal Worker.”
3. Unpaid Editor (as far as I remember): INSider Magazine, Skokie, IL, ages 19-20
As far as I remember, this was also unpaid — I was “co-fashion editor” for a local for-profit college magazine based in Skokie, IL, along with another NU student. (It had no affiliation with NU, though.) Our “spreads” were laughable, but we put together a few stories. I mostly remember taking a city bus to get to Skokie from Evanston and hanging out at some pretty questionable bus stops along the route, all the while listening to radio like The Spice Girls (zig a zig ah).
4. BARELY Paid Intern: Sportswear International, NYC, age 20
I forget how I heard about Sportswear International — I think it was through INsider magazine, but it could have been from one of those big Writer’s Market books. I knew ahead of time that they featured a ton of club clothes (again, think Spice Girls), and I totally panicked because I was a size 12 Midwestern college kid. (I went to Nordstrom’s teenage department — then Brass Plum, now .bp — and stocked up on the weirdest stuff, like lime green crop tops, cheap palazzo pants, and fake Doc Martens.) I realized only after I got there what a B2B magazine it was, with the target audience being people already working in the fashion industry.
This was my first time ever living in NYC, and I nearly didn’t take the internship because of that. I chickened out after my phone interview went well and they offered me an unpaid internship — I kind of went radio silent for a few weeks, if memory serves. The editor called me and said, “So are you taking this or not?” and I squeaked out something about “um, yes!” and how I was just trying to find a place to live in NYC for the summer. I had visited one of my best friends from school in NJ over the summer and we’d ventured into NYC to do touristy things like see Letterman, but I truly had no idea about the city. My editor responded, “Oh I’ve got a great place for you — my girlfriend used to rent a room in this woman’s apartment but now we’re living together so she doesn’t need it. It’s $500 a month, on 86th and Broadway.” “Is that Harlem?” I asked.
My parents gasped when they found out the price — $500! for a room! — and swore they’d give me no other assistance that summer other than helping me with my rent. I lost 15 pounds because I’d frequently have only a street pretzel for lunch ($1) or, for a Friday night, buy a $4.95 Chinese food special in a big styrofoam box — fried rice, sweet n’ sour pork, egg roll — and then spread that out over the next three days. (I also usually walked to work because the woman who rented the room had told me to take two buses that took 60 minutes to get to work, whereas just walking took about 35 minutes. I took the subway a few times, but in general it seemed expensive, hot, and scary.) I had zero idea how to cook beyond scrambled eggs and Chef Boyardee ravioli — and I knew zero people living in the city other than my fellow interns (who I’m still friendly with today).
The big project I worked on that summer was the “Encyclopedia & CD-ROM of Denim” — we looked at denim from every conceivable angle. Historical: Cloth de Nimes was originally used as a sail cloth in the 1500s… Trivia: There used to be an extra rivet at the base of the zipper until Levi Strauss himself stood too close to the campfire one night… Sociological: It was the first item of clothing both men and women wore (in solidarity with soldiers home on leave). We did brand profiles, and talked about trends. In my memory I wrote about 80% of the Encyclopedia… and they spelled my name wrong in the credits. Ah well.
One of the big “perks” of the job was the Fashion Closet — brands would send a ton of stuff for use in editorial spreads, and the fashion editors cleaned the closet regularly, letting the lowly editorial staff have first pick. I got a pair of absurd blue patent leather platform boots (pictured) that, once I got back to college, I used as a vase for fake flowers.
I say I was “barely” paid because it was intended as an unpaid internship. I was working late one night and it was just the publisher/owner of the magazine left and some of the other guys playing pool (they had a big pool table in the middle of the loft). The publisher basically asked, “Who are you and why are you here?” and when I said I was his unpaid intern he started giving me $100 a week in cash — which was hugely appreciated!
5. ASME Intern, Family Circle, NYC, Age 21
My first real paying gig, other than lifeguarding! I heard about a fairly prestigious journalism internship through the American Society for Magazine Editors — they hooked you up with good magazines, helped you find affordable summer housing with the other interns offered a lecture series and other networking — and it promised $300 a week for 10 weeks! WHOA! The competition was so tight that each school could only submit two entries, so the real challenge was getting picked at Northwestern. When I got accepted to the program I got a little sheet with a brief description of about 40 magazines and what kind of internship they were offering — some of the “sexier” titles like People Magazine were only offering fact-checking and copy-editing, but I really wanted to write. Family Circle magazine was far from sexy, but they offered the chance to write stories. So I listed that as my first choice, and got it.
6. Editorial Assistant/Assistant Editor, Family Circle, NYC, Ages 21-23
I continued freelancing for FC when I went back to school — I had enough AP and other credits that I only needed to finish one quarter at NU for my senior year, so I was thrilled in December when my editor at FC told me her editorial assistant had just quit. Did I want the job? I did zero negotiation on pay — I don’t think I even knew my new salary until I got the official offer letter, home in Ohio after finals: $24,000 a year. “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH ALL THAT MONEY?!?” I screamed as I ran around the house giddily. (My parents, meanwhile, were facepalming hard.)
I assisted two editors during my time there — one who focused on travel (which meant I got to go to a thousand press events for travel-related things) and books (which meant I got to go to a thousand book-related lunches), and one who focused on “Women Who Make a Difference,” a monthly column profiling women who’d set up charities and other endeavors, and other newsier stories. My work with the books editor gave me a window into the NYC world of publishing houses — we got galleys to read in advance to see if we wanted to bid for subsidiary rights for an excerpt; part of my job was filing the catalogs every publishing house and imprint sent, and I got to be privy to a few fun lengthy excerpts/edits (Stephen King was memorable). The books editor was also in charge of a stand-alone co-branded magazine called Mary Higgins Clark’s Mystery Magazine, and we spent a ton of time choosing and editing stories to go in the magazine from well-known mystery authors (I remember being really excited to work with Leonard Elmore). I even got to go to at least one Edgars award ceremony and sit at Mary’s table.
7. Legal Research & Writing Teaching assistant, Georgetown University Law Center, DC, Age 24-25
There are a lot of reasons I went back to law school — the door was open because I’d taken and done well on the LSAT my final quarter in school; I was really excited by some of the legal developments happening around them (my final school project at NU had been on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), and I got kind of jaded with journalism and the publishing world. I got into Georgetown and, like all 1Ls, had to take Legal Research & Writing. Because of my journalism background LR&W was a fun and interesting class for me, but I particularly loved our small group section of about 15 students because my teaching assistant was another former journalist trying to figure out how she’d marry a journalism degree and a law degree: Savannah Guthrie (yes, that Savannah Guthrie). She was (is, I imagine) really cool, whip smart, and I looked up to her tremendously — so much that I decided to apply to be a teaching assistant during my 2L year. I was accepted to the program and, as a bonus, got paid — I think it was something like $3000 a semester, so not a ton, but it all helped.
(If we’re only counting paid jobs I guess my #firstsevenjobs would look like: lifeguard, ASME intern, editorial assistant, teaching assistant, legal intern (MLRC), summer associate/litigation associate (CGR), staff attorney (MLRC) — and my eighth would be publisher of this blog!)
Ladies, what were your first seven jobs? Looking back on them, what are your thoughts?