Pick Yourself: How to Avoid the Unpaid Internship Trap

During the first night of my junior year in college, I had a conversation that I'll never forget.

It started when a friend asked me what I did over the summer.

"Two unpaid internships", I told him. It seemed impressive at the time.

When I asked him the same question, he smiled and showed me his hands. The palms were scratched and rough. I could see long, deep lines where the skin had cracked.

Then he said, "I decided to build a dock".

Shift Your Thinking

After that, I stopped applying for unpaid internships.

It amazed me that my friend had done something tangible with his summer. Unpaid internships decrease your perceived value, and thus the chance that you will do something tangible. That's a problem.

Employers hire on tangible. Businesses are built on tangible. Skills and experience can only be developed by doing real and important work.

Most of us know this instinctively, yet the demand for unpaid internships still far exceeds the supply. Why? Because it feels good to be picked.

It also feels safer. But are you really more secure when you put your fate into someone else's hands?

In one of his landmark posts, blogger Seth Godin writes:

"If you're hoping that the HR people you sent your resume to are about to pick you, it's going to be a long wait. Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound."

The idea that there is security in the work force is an illusion. So is the idea that you will somehow have a leg up just because you spent your summer fetching coffee.

pick yourself seth godin

Don't Wait To Be Picked

Instead, pick yourself. In the year following that conversation with my friend, I shot a road trip video and licensed it to a campervan company, started my first blog (and failed miserably), raised over $5,000 towards a friend's rehabilitation, and became an independent contractor for one of the firms I had interned for.

I'm not telling you this to brag. There are people who have picked themselves on an even larger scale. The point is that you have options if you know how to identify a problem.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Start blogging
  2. Start freelancing
  3. Start fundraising

The list goes on and on. You just have to start.

But wait: What if you already have an internship?

Be Proactive

I actually don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with internships. I really don't. The problem is the mindset that they create in most people.

Just because you have an internship doesn't mean you are allowed to be passive. You still need to pick yourself. Here are three ways:

  1. Choose something you are passionate about changing, then take the initiative to change it
  2. Get paid for specific work (this can be harder at a large company but it's still possible)
  3. Find yourself a great mentor and give away as much as you can to that person, for free

Your time is incredibly valuable. Start acting like it. If you aren't willing to be deliberate, you may as well quit now.

But if you do decide to pick yourself, I think you'll be surprised at the results.

What will you build this summer?

Greg Faxon

Greg Faxon, 2829 Connecticut Avenue NW (Apt 513), Washington, DC 20008, United States