I survived the internship from hell

I can't believe anyone would treat me this way!

Published September 1, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I graduated from college this summer, and because I couldn't find a paid job, I got an internship, which I quit twice, because of my boss's horrible character. Now I feel confused about my decision and wonder if there was something I could have done differently that I could have kept the internship but improved the conditions.

I worked nearly full-time for my internship, and was at the beck and call of my boss at all hours of the day and all days of the week. He would contact me through phone calls, SMS, Skype, email, Gchat, everything he could to keep in contact with me. And he would do it whenever it was convenient for him and when it was most inconvenient for me, such as when I am at home at night or out during the weekend. And he would ask (but he wasn't really asking) me to do an amount of work that consumes me not only during the office, but at home as well. The quality of his communication and guidance were, at best, unknowingly incomplete. He would use me as a sounding board on his phone, often while he is engaged in personal activities, such as riding his bike in New York traffic or exercising at the gym.

The more obedient and efficient I was, the more he demanded. The harder I worked, the more he ignored my presence at the office. I'd also like to mention that all the things he assigned for me to do required specialized skills and experience involving computers, Internet, social media, and Web design and marketing, which fortunately, I do have, but usually are paid for, if not expensive, services, and require multiple people. Even when I produced results to his satisfaction, which I often did, he would always put me down by criticizing that I didn't keep him in the loop, when I never have a chance to voice myself, since he always is the one talking.

He also mentioned things to me that made me uncomfortable, such as the status of his romantic relationship, drug use in our specialized industry, and his dissatisfaction with other people in the company. He also would spread negative gossip about what's going on in our industry, and it made me feel unhappy that I was working with this kind of person. I can describe him as an egotistical, Ivy League graduate in his early to mid-30s, insecure because he has yet to be in the core of the cool crowd but arrogant because of his privileged upbringing.

When I found out he was paying other interns who  do barely a portion of what I do for him, I quit. He immediately changed his tone, expressing respect and gratitude,  and offered a stipend and fewer work hours, because he finds me very valuable and holds me in high regard. So I went back. He said he will not be able to give me a stipend until three weeks later, because of some fiscal matters in the company. During those three weeks of unpaid work, I still was working more hours than we had agreed, and he broke many of the promises he made to me. I think he forgets many things he says, but other times, I think he deliberately lies to me, which I always find out because he's given me access to a large portion of the company's records. I think he forgot that he gave me access to that too.

I decided to quit for a second time, on the week that he was supposed to start paying me. He offered me $70 a week, which I was willing to accept, but it also happened that he became increasingly more critical and demanding. I had asked him to tone down his demands, not only because he had promised to, but also simply because I couldn't handle that much responsibility. He responded that since he's paying me more than other interns, I shouldn't be complaining. I didn't want to be enslaved for $70 a week, so I quit, lying that I had been offered a full-time position elsewhere, this time by email, because I couldn't bear to see him or listen to his voice anymore. This time, he was not pleased and sent back an angry, rude email.

There are now a few reasons I am confused about my decision to quit. I don't think I regret it completely, but while I have found another more laid-back internship, I feel a strong lack of direction in my life. At the first internship, I was extremely challenged, albeit to an inappropriate, agonizing degree, and I was working in an industry I was interested in. Also I later found out that he was paying someone who was my peer in terms of the amount of responsibility we had and also not much older than me, $500K a year, and that peer had just quit. This makes me feel even more horrible, because not only did he lie about what the competitive salary in his company was, but did I miss out on that money? I know that considering his character, there is a strong possibility that he would never offer me such a salary and would rather keep that $500K to himself, but I am still 100 percent financially dependent on my parents. I understand how fortunate I am to have a supportive family, but it is also still very unclear when or if I will ever have any kind of stable salary, since I seem to be qualified only for internships right now, and I don't know when I'll be independent to any degree. I've worked very hard, and want to continue to work very hard, but the internship I had was incredibly painful, and I feel guilty that I couldn't find a better job opportunity. Now I am disillusioned.

Did I make a mistake in quitting my first work post-graduation opportunity too quickly? Why I am having a hard time getting over it? What should I do to work through the bleakness of my future?

What Just Happened?

Dear What Just Happened?

What just happened? You got exploited, that's what happened. Did you quit too quickly? No, I don't think so. You jumped out of a burning building. You got out in time.

But you are having a hard time getting over it. Of course you are. You were exploited. Exploitation violates something deep in you.

It can happen suddenly when we leave school: We have learned a certain civilized way of relating. We have been doing work that matters to us, and we have been looking forward to doing this work outside of school and being paid for it.

Then we encounter the world of businesses run by crazy people. You expect a business will be a mini-institution with its own set of procedures and principles and standards -- like a school. But it's not. It has no set of ideals, no code, no board, no governing agency, no accreditation. It's just one crazy guy with a checkbook. You walk into his world.

Have you ever walked into a family house where they're screaming at each other and threatening violence but then they invite you to sit down with them for dinner and you're thinking there must be something terrible going on here but it is like this every day with them? Businesses can be like that.

That does not mean that your future is bleak. It does mean that your future will require you to struggle, often in ways that involve personal conflict and adversity. If you expect businesspeople to be rational, you will go mad.

You may think that at least your skills will stand you in good favor. But there will be times when those you are working for do not even want the best thing you can produce. Instead, they want the worst thing. It is crap that they want. They are paying you to give them crap. It is hard to believe but it will happen to you. Their dreams may suck. They may have very stupid, lowly dreams. But they will fire you if you don't give them the crap they want.

It's good to be fired a few times for not giving people the crap they truly want. It makes it clear how things work. We may think we understand but when somebody fires us then we really understand.

The working life is crazy and perverse. It's nothing like you imagine it will be.

So if you can find a place to work where the people who run the place want similar things to the things you want, where you are paid for producing things that you might produce on your own anyway just for the joy of it, then you are lucky. For instance, Salon is such a place. But such places are rare. I have worked at a lot of places. Most places suck. I think, overall, it has to do with how we're organized economically. I'm not the first person to think that. So we keep trying to come up with better ideas. Then when we try them out, something always goes wrong. So we have this: Capitalism. It's what we do. It's insane but it's our thing.

Meanwhile you struggle, driving a cab or riding a messenger bike or working in a print shop. Once you realize that this is what the world has planned for you, it's not so bad. You can be an artist or thinker or dreamer, or theorist; you can do complex math deep into the night in your apartment surrounded by garment factories; you can fill notebooks with all your visions; you can befriend the few rare people who do not seem to be total bullshitters. And you can wait. We old-timers go over the cliff and make room for you eventually.

It's not a bad way to live. You struggle to see the world clearly. You remain skeptical. You remain true to yourself. You stick with good people with good dreams, and one day one of you finds a spot on a good ship and brings you aboard.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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