At 21, I was interning in one of my favorite cities at a publication for which I worked my ass off to earn several coveted bylines each week. I was living in Manhattan, forking over my worth in rent for a closet-sized apartment near Greenwich Village and living off all the cheap slices of greasy pizza I could afford. It wasn’t the New York I’d seen depicted countless times on the silver screen — you can’t yet capture in a theater the lingering aroma of day-old urine or the sting of overpriced living — but I didn’t much care. It was beautiful in its own right.
In fact, the only thing I did care about was working — a quality I think I shared with many a New Yorker and fellow interns.
I interned for a well-known publication. Its newsroom housed reporters whose talents I aspired to match in my own writing. Because of this (and because I’d saved every penny from a part-time job to spend a summer in New York City), I pushed myself to the limit.
Most days, I’d have to be across town to cover a second event before my first event had culminated. By the day’s end, I’d typically solicited at least a dozen cops for directions and finessed countless interviews out of actors, city officials or the casual bystander at a protest. One time, I walked 12 blocks home with a complete stranger at 12:30 a.m. just so I could seek cover from the rain under his umbrella instead of forking over cash for a cab. Typically, I’d make my way home by midnight, at which point I’d have not one but several early-morning deadlines to meet. The stunts I pulled are really not unique to those pulled by countless other interns. I did those things to get ahead, spare a dollar and make it back to my apartment in a semi-dry state.
Of course, the work didn’t come void of perks. Twice, I traveled to the Hamptons to write stories about soirees that were later published in print on half a page (so kind of a big deal in intern-newspaper lingo). I imbibed in Chuck Close’s West Village apartment with Mr. Close himself. I even hung out at Russell Simmon’s house once (For an event I covered, of course. He and I aren’t really that close).
I never returned from these events to my Greenwich apartment until most people uptown were heading homeward in clusters for after hours.
But I loved it.
When I caught up on sleep, paraded the streets with newly acquired friends or walked the city at dusk just as the lights began illuminating the city blocks one by one, I was content, even proud, of the work I’d accomplished.
But one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned to date comes not from the myriad bylines or the number of mess-ups all novice reporters are inclined to make. My most valuable lesson came from the editor who oversaw my work as well as that of the other equally hardworking interns. After paying me one of the best compliments of my writing career, he shared with me one of the most valuable — that it’s OK, even encouraged, to take a step back sometimes. My editor, then the managing editor, was not much older than myself at the time, having recently completed his undergraduate career.
He advised me to be picky with my time and talent — advice I don’t think many interns or recent graduates take seriously enough.
In my experience, there’s a difference between being a flake about undertaking new work and understanding when to say ‘no’.
Advancing a career, I’ve found, doesn’t mean one has to drive oneself to the point of insanity. You pick your battles as you pick your bylines. It’s quality over quantity. My editor noted he’d rather have a couple writing samples he’s inexplicably proud of as opposed to a dozen subpar blog posts.
Perhaps this is just the life of an intern. You pay your dues before you can be truly picky. I can’t say I regret any decision I made that summer. I wrote some of my best clips fueled by coffee and sleep deprivation. I also garnered some of my best personal stories from my experiences in the city.
Now, as a recent graduate, I’m still navigating the fine line that separates being a yes man (woman) and being the person who carefully selects what will put a career path in motion.
Being overly picky is hard for me sometimes. It’s characteristic of the millennial generation to want to tackle multiple challenges at once (while simultaneously Instagramming the entire process). But I think it’s OK to sometimes focus on the ‘less-is-more’ philosophy and learn when to tell your hardworking cohorts to follow suit.
I think one of the most intriguing characteristics of a leading industry professional is understanding what opportunities to bypass to make time for the more promising endeavors.