From Minimum Wage Newspaper Intern to Professional Blogger – What I Did Right (And Wrong)


Dear Sarah Von,
I’m a sophomore in college in an odd transition period – I’m transferring to a college in the Pacific Northwest in the fall and studying abroad this spring to get away from where I am. I am curious about your college-to-current-career path story, you’ve said snippets of it on your blog but I want details! Politely requested, of course!

Oh, dude.  You flatter me!  The story of my career is (like most people’s) a series of wrong turns + lots of hard work + a generous sprinkling of luck.  But I’m totally happy to share what I did and the lessons I learned.  Also: may I suggest reading my two posts on how to become a grown up?  Cause that ish is help.ful if I do say so myself.

So.  Here’s my (summarized) professional history and what I learned from it.

2000
Intern at my tiny hometown newspaper, earning minimum wage and answering phones.  But I also get to write stories that appear on the front page, interview people, take photos, proof submissions, and re-write press releases.  The pay is so low I have to get a second summer job managing the local thrift store and I feel deeply jealous of my friends working at bars and factories making $16+ an hour.  Befriend a co-worker who eventually recommends me for my next internship.
Lesson learned: Connections and work experience are worth way, way, way more than cash.

2001
Intern at a local ad agency.  Again, minimum wage.  I do all sorts of boring intern things like stuffing envelopes, place follow up calls, fax press releases.  But I also get to write press releases and copy and things that appear in national media.  Sometimes I get free tickets to ridiculous concerts.  Like Michael Bolton.  Obviously, I attend said concerts.
Lesson learned: You are never above any type of work

Summer of 2002
Teach English in Brazil.  Go to the rain forest by myself.  Fend of dicey host dad.
Lessons learned:  What you think makes you happy and what actually makes you happy are quite different.  Also: you are so much tougher than you thought.

Autumn of 2002
Work as an event planner at a fancy agency in Minneapolis, earning so, so much less than you think event planners earn.  Boss is The-Devil-Wears-Prada caliber awful.  Spend almost every night and weekend working events.  At one point, I stay up for 36 hours straight.  I start to get anxiety stomachaches every Sunday night.
Lesson learned: It doesn’t matter if your job seems cool and fun, if you hate it and it’s making you sick, quit.

2002-2009
Burn out on the corporate world. Become an ESL teacher.  Teach in Taiwan, Italy, New Zealand, Peru, Nepal, Thailand, Minnesota.

2008
Start Yes and Yes because I can’t find the type of blog I want to read, so I figure I’ll just start one myself.  Instead of using the journalistic or pr or academic writing voice I’ve used in the past, I write in my own voice about the things I want to talk about.  Somewhat surprisingly, people seem to be totally into it.
Lesson learned:  As cliche as it is, being yourself and doing what you like really can lead to success.  Not always – but when partnered with lots and lots of hard work you can get there.

2010
Companies and individuals start to approach me about writing for them and helping them navigate the internet.  Because I’ve been blogging seven days a week for 2+ years and I have a background in pr and marketing, I feel like I can help.  So, I do.  And it works!
Lesson learned:  Skills you learned outside of the office are just as useful as all that spreadsheet stuff.

early 2011present
I officially hang out my shingle, start promoting myself and my services and taking on more and more clients.  I tell my friends what I’m doing and they refer people to me.  I tell my blog readers what I’m doing.  I write guest posts for other blogs. I have a million coffees, with a million people who want to ‘pick my brain.’  When locals want my help and can’t afford me, I tell them to buy me dinner and bring a notebook and I’ll just tell them what to do.
Lesson learned: Tell people what you’re doing.  If they don’t need your help, maybe they know someone who does.

Whew!  So that’s how I got from $4.75 an hour, writing about firefighter competitions to working with million dollar brands.  I hope you’re still awake.

But tell me about you!  What are the lessons you’ve learned in your professional journey?  Are you surprised at where you ended up?

16 Comments

Tara

I think that your point "You're never above any kind of work" is SO true, and yet something that people so often forget! I interned at a music magazine and started out writing news items and announcements and worked up my way to doing actual interviews and stories, but a lot of people didn't stick it out once they found out they weren't going to be interviewing the music star of their choice in their first week!

Excellent article as always! x

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Sarah Rooftops

I second this. It was slogging away and impressing people with my good attitude which got me better roles, not stropping out in a huff when I was asked to change the photocopier toner. (I wish I'd realised that earlier than I did!)

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Trisha

Thank you for this very helpful article! I will be graduating with my Masters degree next April,and am always curious how others got their start. Can you offer any advice on becoming an ESL teacher? I want to make sure I choose a reputable course, and safe travel experience!

Kindest regards,
Trisha

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Chelle Lynn

"Connections and work experience are worth way, way, way more than cash."

Super hard lesson to learn. I toiled away in part-time library clerk hell for four years, thinking that it was getting me nowhere. I had essentially given up on library work as the worst form of torture, when BAM! Supervisory position with an office and hella benefits. Patience is, indeed, a virtue.

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Lara

"As cliche as it is, being yourself and doing what you like really can lead to success."

Along my career path I had always made time to teach one-on-one music lessons because that's the educational area I liked best. The one thing that has blown my mind is that the more time I gave to lessons, the more students I ended up teaching. This year I made the leap from having a 'real job' and a teaching gig to just teaching. It's amazingly wonderful! It does take a lot of work, and a lot of faith, but the rewards are worth it.

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Angie

"Lesson learned: Tell people what you're doing. If they don't need your help, maybe they know someone who does."

This is what I struggle with…talking out loud about my passion. I really need to get over that! Thanks for this post!

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Sarah Von Bargen

Angie!

Yes!

I find it's easier to think in terms of how I describe what I do, rather than trying to pitch people. I pretty much only ever talk about my job if people ask me, point blank, what I do.

It's really important to be able to explain your job in a concise, easy way. I say "I'm a professional blogger with my own blog. I also help small businesses and entrepreneurs make a name for themselves on the the internet and promote themselves in a way that doesn't feel gross."

And then lots of people say "Oh! I need help with that!" or "My sister has a boutique and her Facebook page is terrible. Can I have her call you?"

It's easy!

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Anonymous

I kind of did everything in the "right order" – finished high school, did a degree and then a masters… but in my spare time I joined a comedy dance troupe and did a massive stage production! And did 6 weeks of archaeology in Greece! And started a ridiculous band and did tours of people's lounges! And now, it's the mad skills I picked up doing those things that set me apart from others and got me my dream job planning events at a museum. Yeah I have the academics and a thesis and internships, but not many other people put their hand up and say "I can build a make-shift lighting rig using torches and electrical ties" or that they can teach 25 kids how to decorate cakes as a weekend workshop. Never neglect the quirky skills you have – they're the skills that make you amazing!

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Maria

BE NICE TO EVERYONE – no matter how crappy they are to you! You're so right about the connections you make being so much more important than cash. And keep in touch with these people. You never know when you might need their help. And yes, you're absolutely right about no job being beneath you. I slogged away working for free at a big movie studio for months until I was there at the right place at the right time and I was offered a full time job as a publicist. I made myself indispensable and before you know it, I was on the red carpet with the A-listers. Don't get me wrong – it REALLY isn't as glamourous as it sounds – but it was a hell of a lot of fun (most of the time!).

Maria xx
http://www.cheekypinktulip.blogspot.com

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Kerry

I love this! It's so great to read about how successful ladies got to where they are now. I got my wonderful paid writing job because I wrote for free for a long time while working at an unfulfilling job to pay the bills. So the lesson I've learned is that it's okay to have a "day job" that's totally unrelated to what you want to do! There's NO SHAME in supporting yourself, and as long as you're doing what you want at night/on weekends/whenever, you're awesome!

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Kat

The most important thing I've ever learned is have something on the side from a day job. Anything from some babysitting to crafts you sell, even one single freelance client. Besides having multiple sources of income, which is always useful, it also gives you an opportunity to think a different way and get validation that you might not get from your main job.

Plus if you decide to go fuck it and leave your day job *cough* not that I have experience with that….*cough*, at least you know you can probably eat, if not house or insurance yourself.

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sudha elumalai

I love this! It's so great to read about how successful ladies got to where they are now. I got my wonderful paid writing job because I wrote for free for a long time while working at an unfulfilling job to pay the bills

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