Creativity Features Ideas

Icy (Unpaid) Internships

Back in my youth, I was a precocious and ambitious achiever who parsed the NY Times and political blogs with the enthusiasm of a child scrutinizing the back of a Fruit Loops cereal box. Maybe it was genetics, maybe it was circumstance but probably it was my poor athletic skills and the futility of a career in ping-pong that motivated my interest in politics.

Fortunately, I fell into Cornell’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations (ILR) like an icicle falls into an Ithaca gorge after it outgrows its elevated perch. I was absorbed by a Career Services department that trumpeted “Resumaniacs Resume Critiques” and “Mock Interview Madness” before it even knew my name. They say ILR is a fiercely pre-professional labor school and while I didn’t sleep with my CV under my pillow while waiting for a Recruiter Fairy to deliver me a job, I was indoctrinated into this occupation-obsessed bubble.

So during summer 2009 I did what any spoiled, ambitious achiever would; I capitalized on the generous support of my family and plunged into the icy waters of unpaid internships. Armed with an inflated resume and naïveté, I pounced on job postings and began selling myself to political organizations in Washington D.C.

With the lascivious constituent outreach that has come to define dodgy politicos, I won’t make too many explicit metaphors linking my internships to prostitution. The metaphor doesn’t hold anyway because I was selling my services for free, far below escort market value.

Ultimately, I settled into the swanky offices of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) housed in an abandoned nook of the World Wildlife Fund headquarters. For purposes of brevity and loyalty to the (now defunct) SAVE organization, let me explain just one section of my internship.

SAVE, a non-profit advocacy group, frequently lobbied legislators to support Gen Y economic health. By the end of the summer, I was leading hill action meetings where I would present gloomy data about youth employment and fiscal security. One of my main talking points was an impassioned critique of one of our country’s greatest acts of economic exploitation: the unpaid internship.

The irony dripped down my shoulders alongside the sweat from a swampy D.C. summer and anxiety-inducing Capitol Hill meetings.  I was an ambitious icicle swimming in a pre-professional gorge but suddenly I was melting. The system demanded proactive prostitution complete with cover letter and ironed collar but it reeked of inequity and exploitation. I reeked of privilege as I padded my resume with internships and my stomach with Pinkberry all on my parents’ dime. It was not good.

Now I sit in a job that is partly facilitated by my unpaid internships. I somehow prevented myself from melting long enough to send a polished resume and cover letter to the Governor of Illinois. I ironed the shirt and I spit out my mock interview honed answers. My brother’s an actor but it runs in our blood; I got the job.

So now I’m in a position of (slight) power and it’s time to sound the alarm from within. Unpaid internships and the terrifying thrills of “Mock Interview Madness” are not available to everyone. The new data shows the rich and poor sprinting in opposite directions. New icicles keep forming and falling into pre-professional waters. Meanwhile the unlucky icicles shatter onto neglected ground. It’s a self-propagating system that needs to be put to bed and the antidote must come from inside.

Oh and to finish my D.C. summer 2010 story, I figured if I was already sweating profusely in Capital City I might as well make a buck. I applied to be the McGruff the Crime Dog® mascot for the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. It was great and at least they gave me ice packs.

Editor’s note: While the Institute for Workplace Studies & Smithers Institute has interns, these interns are compensated with credit through ILR’s Credit Internship Program

Leadership Videos

What is the Internet Hiding From You? (video)

If you are at all curious about the invisible flow of on-line information you need to see and hear this TED talk by Eli Pariser. It will make you take a second look at the Internet and your place within the new world it is shaping.

Oh and I should also note that I stumbled across this video in my Facebook feed today. Trust me, after you watch the video this seemingly minor bit of information will become much more than just a personal aside.


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9 Great Leadership Quotes from 9 Not-So-Great Presidents

It’s pretty easy to put together a list of great Presidential leadership quotes if you rely on Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR and Reagan. But how about extracting inspiring words from the less famous (and in many cases far less talented) Presidents? Well believe it or not, the forgettable have actually said some memorable things. Please enjoy 9 Great Presidential Quotes from some of our lesser Commanders in Chief.

1. “It is not strange… to mistake change for progress.”  Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) 

2. “Frequently the more trifling the subject, the more animated and protracted the discussion.”  Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

3. “It would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe.” Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

4. “Failure to accord credit to anyone for what he may have done is a great weakness in any man.”  William Howard Taft (1909-1913)

5. “The bold enterprises are the successful ones. Take counsel of hopes rather than of fears to win in this business.” Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)

6. “The government should not be guided by Temporary Excitement, but by Sober Second Thought.” Martin VanBuren (1837-1841)

7. “A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.”  Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)

8. “It takes a great man to be a good listener.” Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

9. “It’s not necessary to fear the prospect of failure but to be determined not to fail.” Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

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Creativity; it’s what people are constantly clamoring for. Over the past couple of decades we have incessantly urged to “think outside the box” and “stretch the paradigm”.  Organizations are demanding new fresh ideas at every level,  so it would only seem natural that to be elevated to the exulted level of leadership you need a strong streak of creativity running through your every thought and decision.  Here’s a bit of a shock, it’s not really the case. Turns out that people do not always equate creativity with leadership.    In his  insightful and somewhat surprising article, Are the People in Your Organization Too Smart to be Creative?, Chunka Mui, the co-founder and managing director of the Devil’s Advocate Group, discusses the idea that most people within organizations are still unable to draw a direct line between creativity and leadership. Check it out and let us know what you think. And don’t worry, we want you to be creative.

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Leaders & The Thanksgiving Contradiction

This Thanksgiving there’s some bad news and good news when it comes to leadership.

Let’s start with the bad news…

The Bad News

When you look around the world today–you realize, from place to place, that leadership, in terms of really moving agendas, in terms of tenacity, persistence, and leader’s capacity to take teams all the way, has become, at least in the public arena, a rare phenomena.

Everything seems to be frozen and no one seems to know where they should take the next step. It is, to a degree, a failure of courage. Decision makers are endlessly debating what micro-steps  need to taken so that no one will be offended, constituents won’t be lost and moderates and fringe groups won’t be alienated.

Leaders throughout the world seem to be accountable to surveys, standings in the polls–they seem content to shift deck chairs on the titanic.

No matter how stuffed the closet is we still keep packing things in just  as long as we can get one more problem out of site. Consensus and the search for consensus has become an excuse for processing things to death.

That’s true in the Middle East, that’s true in Washington, and that’s true in almost any other place. And the dialogue is simple: one party says you’re moving too slow, one party says you’re moving too fast and nothing ever gets done.

There is a certain incapacity to climb up the crow’s nest and see that there is a damn iceberg coming. It reminds me of the scene in Dr. Strangelove when, on the brink of doom, world leaders are sidetracked debating the minutia of survival–instead of fixing the larger problems. It seems, in many ways, that this is a period in which we are nickel and dimming each other too death.

That’s the bad news.

But there’s always another side.

The Good News

The good news comes can be found in my wonderful students from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) that I teach at Cornell thanks to the ILR’ International Programs Office.

They are a delightful group of young people from India and, admittedly, we have very little in common. I’m certainly much older than they are and they are fresh-faced and on the eve of their first career. I grew up Brooklyn and they grew up in a part of the world I know very little about.

Before teaching I was told and had others warn me about how I must be a bit guarded with my New York style and humor. I was told my sort of folksy approach wouldn’t translate and wouldn’t be corporate enough–a warning I have heard for years. So when I first started teaching my young colleagues from India I took a distance, hid beneath my Ferragamo tie and blue Oxford shirt, and reached deep for that nonchalant, low-key, self-assured approach which is corporate enough to be boringly universal.

After a while After an hour I loosened my tie and a few jokes about my childhood in Coney Island came out. I told them how little I knew about their culture and they told me how little they knew about Brooklyn culture and together we got down to the wonderful experience of learning from each other.

What we both learned was that race, religion, culture, and all the divides of globalization, can be quickly overcome with quality of content, sincerity, and a style that allows you to be authentic.

Now, I even notice that they visit this blog from time to time.

It’s Not All So Bad…

So here’s the great contradiction for Thanksgiving. In a world where leaders are too scared, too cautious, to reach out beyond their chairs of power, in a world where we all sometimes have a sense that we’re just tinkering around, in a world where everyone tells us that globalization is tearing us apart, there are still wonderful opportunities to be authentic, sincere, and supportive of each other.

Photo Credit: Arimoore