What my Charlotte ‘job’ has in common with Robert DeNiro and the French

What my Charlotte ‘job’ has in common with Robert DeNiro and the French
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Today was a day of luxury. I met my fun friend Jenny in the middle of the day to take in a matinee movie at Birkdale Theaters in Huntersville. It definitely felt a tad bit exciting and a whole lot of irresponsible to be in a theater in the middle of a weekday. There are dozens of productive things I could/should be doing – cleaning my house, working on my blog, organizing my garage, putting together the last 10 years of my kids’ photo albums – but this type of avoidance was way too appealing. After securing our obligatory bags of salty, buttered popcorn (and my required Diet Coke), we settled in to an otherwise empty theater to enjoy the new movie The Intern, starring Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway.

Now you need to know that I’m one of these people who doesn’t watch previews if I can avoid them. I’d seen the movie poster for The Intern and knew that DeNiro and Hathaway were the stars, but that’s it. Based on this information, I’d made the assumption that Hathaway was playing the intern in the movie. You know, because interns are all in their 20s. But such is not the case in The Intern. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know the plot — well, you’ll want to stop reading now. [Consider yourself warned.]

Intern_Poster2

The main story revolves around DeNiro’s character, Ben. Ben is a retired, 70-year old widower who is looking for something to fill the void in his life. He’s tried traveling, golf, lessons in this and that – and wants something more. He learns about a program at a nearby start-up company for “Senior Interns” – individuals over the age of 65 who would like to work without pay and learn about the techy side of an online-shopping business. Ben applies, gets one of the positions, and we enjoy a couple of hours watching his old-school business perspective intersect with a new age of digitally-literate, more-than-casual employees – who might just learn a thing or two from a man more than twice their age.

Here’s the thing: I have a lot in common with Ben. Six years ago, after raising four boys, I went back to graduate school at UNC Charlotte. It took me three years to get my masters degree, at which point I was offered a position doing what I’d thought for years was my dream job: teaching college classes.

I prepared syllabi, tests, lesson plans, assignments, readings, and even observed a colleague teach the same classes I would be teaching the next semester. I faked my way through the first days of classes, acting the part of the confident, veteran professor (though I was terrified at being found out as a new, inexperienced teacher) and continued to do so every day for the rest of that semester. There was a lot about the position that I enjoyed. I loved interacting the students, running classroom discussions and activities, and sharing the knowledge I had about the topics we examined. However I found that I was also highly stressed on a regular basis.

The grading, class-prep, and angst over assigning grades was incredibly time consuming, energy-zapping, and demanding. I loved being in the classroom with the students but found that this was a relatively small percentage of the job. Halfway through my fourth semester, I knew this was not a long-term fit for me. I let the department know I would not be returning for the following term.

But then what? This was the only plan I’d had. I’d loved teaching in a variety of capacities for years and was sure it would be my lifetime career path. I wasn’t sure what to do next. As my degrees are in communications, I started looking at jobs online. I searched “communication specialist” and “communication consultant” on job sites to see what types of positions were available. “Social media experience a must,” said some. “Ability to launch a successful online media campaign,” stated others. All of them seemed to want experience with social media. But social media was nothing I was versed in. I had a Facebook account. That was about it. I’d never tweeted, Instagrammed, Linkedin, Youtubed, or Snap-chatted in my life. Yet these were all skills that businesses seemed to want from a communications professional.

So I called my friend Laura.

Laura and I had gone to grad school together and she had recently started working at a small environmental start-up company here in Charlotte. During our get-togethers over the past few months, I’d told her how I felt about my teaching position. She’d let me know that if I ever wanted to I could get experience working pro-bono with her at the start-up company. Suddenly this seemed like a great idea.

And so at the end of my fourth semester of teaching college, I submitted my grades, cleaned out my office, and showed up at my new … uh … job. But it wasn’t really a job. After all, I wasn’t getting a paycheck. I didn’t have an official position. I was simply doing voluntary work in exchange for professional experience. And so I started … uh … working. I learned how to post on Twitter and Facebook for the company, and how to update their LinkedIn account. (Note: The first time I published a post on Twitter, I threw up my hands and declared, “I tweeted!” It was a big day!) I wrote a press release (that got media attention, I might add – woop woop!) and a company newsletter. I did research on competitors and customers, helped host an event, and even assisted in some marketing strategy. I would go in twice a week and do whatever was helpful on that day. And I loved it!

In the meantime, my friends started asking me what I was doing now that my semester was over. And I wasn’t sure what to tell them. Was I a volunteer? Was I an employee? Was I an intern? “Intern” didn’t seem like an accurate description, as most interns are college kids. I have children in that age group. But as I got dressed up and drove across town every Monday and Wednesday to go to “work,” I wondered what and who I was.

So I came up with what I thought was a good response for my predicament. I started telling people I had a “fake job.” It usually got a laugh, following which I would explain what I was doing and why. Then one day, after “working” at the start-up for about a month, I opened the local newspaper (Yes, I read an actual, newspaper… made of paper…) to evidence that I was not the only person in the world with a “fake job.” In fact there are hundreds of “fake workers” out there! The article was about a piece that had run in the New York Times earlier this year discussing how many individuals in France have fake jobs due to the unhealthy economy of the country. The idea is that individuals who have been out of work for months or even years can keep up their job skills by holding “fake jobs” at “fake companies.” A side benefit that had resulted from this practice was that these “fake employees” ended up feeling more fulfilled in life. They had an easier time finding a reason to get out of bed and feel good about themselves when they had a place to go and responsibilities to tend to. Even when they knew the company they worked for wasn’t real.

So this is interesting, right? Robert DeNiro’s character needed to find fulfillment so he went to work — without pay. In France and across Europe, thousands of individuals report everyday to fake companies without expectation of payment in order to find a reason to get up each morning, feel fulfilled, and keep their job skills honed. And here I was doing the same thing. Hoping to learn some new employable skills, become qualified to have a “communications” job, and find a new direction to go in life, I was showing up twice a week to work for a company without any expectation of monetary compensation.

And so now I know who and what I am. Thanks to the French, I’m proud to have my “fake job.” Thanks to Mr. DeNiro, I finally know I’m an intern. (Although if he was a “Senior Intern” at 70-something, maybe I’m technically a “Middle-Aged Intern” at 40-something …)

NOTE: The other day, one of my fellow-employees (one of the ones who actually gets paid) was introducing me to a visitor at the office. He said, “And this is Sherri.”

The visitor said, “Nice to meet you Sherri. What do you do here?” When I responded, “I’m sort of an intern,” my fellow employee interrupted. “Sherri, you’re much more than an intern around here.”

And that felt fulfilling.

Sherri Walker is an intern who does communication and social media support for EC0-H2O/SAROS, an environmental startup company in Charlotte. 

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