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Coffee Talk

The unexpected jobs that helped our careers.
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For this installment of Coffee Talk, we're sharing the unexpected jobs that helped our careers. You know the ones—the unglamorous, early-career stints that somehow managed to teach us some key lessons along the way (don't forget to share your own at the end!).

Emily: When I was a junior in college, I wanted to secure an advertising internship for the summer while I was in San Francisco. Of course I'd waited until the last minute before I started looking for one, at which point there were hardly any available. Lesson #1: Always be proactive when seeking out positions you want. There was one agency, in particular, where I really wanted to work: Goodby Silverstein & Partners (they were responsible for the "Got Milk?" ads from the '90s among a lot of other impressive campaigns). They didn't have an internship program, but I was able to get them to agree to let me come in for an informational interview. I was so enthusiastic and prepared that they offered me an internship on the spot. Lesson #2: Even when something doesn't seem possible, don't give up. It was my first "grown-up job" and I remember feeling positively overjoyed at the opportunity. I spent a good portion of my savings on a new work wardrobe (P.S. I probably looked ridiculous) and showed up early on Monday morning. But since there wasn't an internship program, there was a lack of structure when it came to whom I was supposed to report and what I was supposed to be doing. I flailed around for about two weeks, in awe of all of the smart, cool people around me, but contributed virtually nothing in that time. I was probably such a pest, constantly checking in and asking what I could do instead of simply finding tasks and handling them. Lesson #3: Make yourself useful and always be as proactive as possible. As a surprise to no one but me, I was let go from that internship after about two weeks, but what I learned in those ten days will stay with me for the rest of my career.

Geoffrey: I firmly believe everyone should have at least one retail job, because working directly with customers is the most informative and humbling experience. I worked throughout college, but the one job that left the biggest impression was being an Assistant Manager at Starbucks. To provide some context, this was 1994, there were only a handful of Starbucks opened in L.A. at the time, the latte craze was just starting its climb, and customers were losing their minds with the new lingo (short, tall, grande - venti didn't exist yet) and the ability to customize their drinks in the most unpleasant ways possible (grande, two sweet & low, two pumps of hazelnut, no-foam, latte). Anyways, I usually opened the store on the weekends and my role was equal parts server and pre-dawn therapist, providing a boost of energy and an ear that could listen to a person's problems. It's interesting what people will share with a stranger when they're being provided a service that comforts them and the main lesson I learned was listen when people talk. As a young college student, I was so excited to share my own thoughts and opinions, that I often failed to fully digest other people's insights, but working in a service job, where the customer is tended to, forced me to shift my behaviors and concentrate on the information being shared. It's something I've carried through my entire career, but it all started in a coffee shop.

Alina: Being a project manager for the Food & Drug Administration is something most people are really surprised to learn I did, seeing as I'm now an editor/creator of content on all things fashion, beauty, and lifestyle in the digital media landscape. Though it sounds pretty random and totally different than what I do now (which I also did on the side while working at the FDA), it actually was not that different except in subject matter. It helped further my career because it gave me on-the-job, 9-to-5 training with the most important skill you need (other than writing/taste) in the fast-paced digital content creation landscape: the ability to manage an insane number of moving parts. As a project manager at the FDA, my entire job was to manage large-scale projects with extensive internal action items, public deliverables, competing schedules, and constantly shifting deadlines. You need the ability to wrangle people with finesse, delegate, manage-up, prioritize, adapt, keep track of changes, and make sure it all comes together exactly when it needs to. That's pretty much precisely what I do as an Editorial Director, so though it's pretty unexpected, my job as a civil servant at a public health agency whose mission was to ensure the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs to the U.S. public actually set me up perfectly for the skills and experience necessary to my career now. 

Leslie: I have had a lot of random jobs—from my barely profitable $5-per-lawn mowing business, to sorting shades of white envelopes at a stationery store on the Third Street Promenade. While there isn't one job that stands out as the most meaningful, they've all added up to one invaluable lesson: No matter what you do, give it 100 percent. Whether cleaning up puppy accidents at the vet I worked at in high school (they actually gave me a name tag that said "O.S.C." which stood for "Official Shit Cleaner") or board-folding shirts at a Hollister, I learned that treating every job seriously taught me a lasting work ethic and always resulted in references that helped me get the next one.

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