Why Your Summer Job Was Better Than An Internship

Photographed by Georgina Martin.
Elisabeth Egan is the books editor at Glamour. Her first novel, A Window Opens, was just published by Simon & Schuster.

Twenty years ago this month, I sat down in the backyard with my dad to go over my first-ever résumé. I wanted to work in publishing, but my only relevant experience was from one summer internship at a magazine, where I wrote a short piece about gel-bead body washes and learned how to clear a paper jam in the fax machine.

Naturally, a description of this three-month, part-time, unpaid gig was the centerpiece of my résumé, and it was padded with active verbiage from What Color is Your Parachute? about successfully navigating, organizing, and analyzing (translation: I opened mail and filed it correctly).

My dad didn’t mince words that night at the picnic table, or ever. He drew a line through the bulleted list and said, "This is bullshit." In the margin of my résumé, he penciled two words: "lifeguard" and "waitress."

“Dad, nobody in my world cares about those jobs.” I snatched the sheet (100% cotton, elaborately watermarked) and huffed off to rewrite my entire work history.

What did my dad know about publishing, anyway? He didn’t own a scrap of seersucker or even a bow tie. In his entire life, he’d had exactly two jobs: one at Howard Johnson’s, where he worked as a short-order cook during high school and college, and one as a lawyer. He talked about the first job all the time — the second, not as much. Until the day he died, he got misty-eyed over a greasy paper boat of seafood. Proust had madeleines; Jack Egan had fried clam strips.

Last month, as I was hiring a young editor to work in my office, I remembered my dad’s commitment to “real-life” jobs. I’ve hired babysitters before (too many to count) and interviewed candidates on behalf of colleagues, but always as the second opinion — offering a bottle of Poland Spring and soliciting stories about a future employee’s semester at the University of East Anglia. This was the first time I had posted a job and sifted through résumés. So many creative fonts! And so many internships! I noticed that many prospective candidates had résumés more robust than I do at 41.

I noticed that many prospective candidates had résumés more robust than I do at 41.

As the descriptions started swimming before my eyes, I wondered, Where are the ice cream scoopers and golf caddies? Where are the camp counselors and clerks from J.Crew? Not to put too fine a point on it, but where are the kids who have to sock away paychecks to pay for textbooks, or tuition, or even their own phone bill?

Reading the descriptions of these positions — embroidered with the same old words like “facilitated” and “maximized” that I once used to explain my internship experience — made me nostalgic for my college summers, when I worked as a lifeguard. I guzzled powdered ice tea and contracted horrible sunburns (ill-advised); but I also taught swimming lessons (mentoring), monitored the chlorine level in the pool (chemistry), and kept an eye on people's lives from my perch 6 feet above the water (a supervisory role if ever there was one). From the exhausted parents hovering over their kids at the shallow end, I learned about vigilance, commitment, and true love. From my boss, an irascible spark plug known as Champ, I learned to toughen up. He’d announce over the PA system, “We have a Code Brown situation in the baby pool. Egan, it’s your turn to go fishing for floaters.”

From my colleagues, a ragtag crew of teenagers in red Umbros, I learned how to drive, how to turn a pair of Guess jeans into a life preserver, how to fold a flag, how to take the itch out of a bee sting, and what to call that golden, late-afternoon time when the sun is still up but the temperature finally drops. It’s the magic hour — and there were many during those summers. At that job, I also got my first inkling of the kind of man I wanted to marry. Watch a 17-year-old boy teaching a bunch of pollywogs how to blow bubbles and you’ll know what I mean.

Some of the candidates I met got flummoxed when I asked my favorite question: “Do you have any work experience not listed on your résumé that has shaped the way you look at your career?”

“You mean like waitressing?” asked one earnest woman, surprised that I wanted to hear about her part-time gig hefting cocktail trays at a local bar.

"Yes," I said, "Exactly."

'Do you have any work experience not listed on your résumé that has shaped the way you look at your career?'

Internships can be draining, but I think office work is a breeze compared to the challenge of balancing six piping hot plates of surf and turf on your forearms, using your hip to bump through the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room, then navigating through a packed restaurant to a table of mildly appreciative strangers who might be difficult or drunk — or both.

On busy days at the magazine where I work, I still channel my inner waitress, even though I haven’t worn a waist apron in two decades. Communicating revise instructions to a weary writer is a little bit like reciting the list of specials to a ravenous four top. Triple checking the byline and making sure the research department has backup for photo captions isn’t so different from remembering a steak knife and extra tartar sauce. These details make the page, just as the service makes the meal. To this day, when I hear a magazine editor tangling with the art department, I think of the waitresses I worked with who offended the chef. Their jobs were about to become a lot more difficult.

I’m the first to admit that the world has improved since I applied for my first job. Now you can apply at the click of a button, saving yourself a mint on résumé paper, not to mention the stress of worrying that your roommate might not answer the call waiting when your future employer calls. Clearly all these improvements have had a positive effect on the workplace, because the youngest women in my office are also some of the most mature, curious, intelligent, hard-working colleagues I’ve ever worked with.

Recently, I found myself beside one of them, facing the vending machine. As we surveyed the options, she said, “Looks like the Fritos are 86'd. Think I’ll go for Cheez-Its.” I felt a jolt of recognition, hearing the lingo of restaurant kitchens. This colleague was probably learning to read around the time I had my first baby, but it turns out, we share the same hustle and gumption that comes from being “in the weeds” and finding your way out.

I went back to my desk, called the former waitress and offered her the job. She accepted on the spot.

we share the same hustle and gumption that comes from being 'in the weeds.'

Did waitressing and lifeguarding help me land my first job? Did they make me a better editor? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But on hot nights, when my train home slows down by the town pool, I press my nose to the window and watch the lifeguards. I envy their bare feet and laconic whistle-twirling, the way they strut around like they own the place — which they do, at least until September. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and plenty of time to formulate, generate, and negotiate. For now, I hope they enjoy the luxury of sitting in one place, honing a different set of skills: listening, watching, and thinking. These are virtues in my world, and I’m guessing they are in yours, too. I know my dad would agree.

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