My internship has been pretty monotonous lately. You get into a groove when you develop programs and materials for a new exhibit. It’s almost like a conveyor belt: you research using new resources — you fit the new information into the themes and learning objectives identified for the exhibit — you figure out how best to disseminate that information in engaging and relevant ways. Great in terms of learning new things, but not so much for writing fun blog posts.
So instead, I’ll write about something that’s been on my mind lately: soft skills. I’m talking about everything that’s not explicitly taught in school — what “business casual” means, how to make a phone call, how to write professional emails, how to work with people from different departments… All skills that, most often, students and young professionals are expected to learn on the job and pick up from other people.
I’ve been thinking about this because, at NMAJH, we’ve taken on two teen interns from the Cultural Alliance’s Bloomberg Arts Summer Internship program. In this program, interns spend three full days at a cultural institution, and two days learning professional skills and preparing to apply to college. While they’re working on projects that involve multiple departments, they have been reporting directly to me, and the nature of the program encourages me to be a mentor figure to them.
This puts me into a bit of a peculiar position — not only am I an intern myself at another institution, but I am very new to this career, and this is my first managerial position. Also, the transition from part-time/temporary/intern to full-time staff has been a difficult one for me, as I deal with mental health issues, impostor syndrome, increased responsibilities, and other adjustments.
So I feel like I’ve been more in tune with identifying these soft skills — what do I wish I knew when I entered the working world, what are these teens’ needs, and how can I make this truly a learning experience for them?
So far, this has included things like explaining why I’m making various decisions, describing behavior for sitting in on potentially-boring meetings, explaining aspects of our office culture in relation to broader trends, and trying to be as honest as possible as often as possible.
That honesty about how I’m feeling — in general but also about certain tasks like public speaking — I’ve found has become more and more important as I navigate the professional world while dealing with mental health issues. The “fake it ’til you make it” facade of responsibility and functionality is so pervasive in the working world. Of course, that’s important for productivity, but can create a burdensome environment for those struggling with mental health issues, who are led to believe that they are suffering alone and thus are failing at their job.
This issue has been in the news lately, with one woman sharing an email exchange with her boss about needing a mental health day. Part of this story’s popularity is the sheer surprise that the CEO of a company would acknowledge the existence of mental health needs, let alone supporting a day off to do self-care. In fact, I had a conversation with a different (college) intern about this issue — she was so scared to confess a mental health need to her boss that she cried while doing so. We had a great conversation about the importance of communication, about validating our respective mental health needs, about how yes mentally ill people exist in the workforce.
Not only does being open and honest about mental health in the worksplace encourage taking care of oneself, but it also acknowledges the fact that most soft skills take time to learn, and that many seemingly-professional adults struggle with phone calls, public speaking, and other skills. Additionally, thinking of these issues and having these conversations have encouraged me to be more honest with myself as well, acknowledging the resources I have, identifying comfort levels, making choices that lead to higher quality and productivity of work.
And, how has this translated to managing the Bloomberg interns? It’s mostly been through casual validation of their fears and concerns. The projects I’m giving them involve a lot of research, socializing with strangers, writing, and other intimidating tasks. One of my main focuses has been to let them know that it’s okay to be worried or scared about doing these things, while gently encouraging them to push through and try new things.
Not only does this lead them to learning and developing new skills, but hopefully will help with confidence and comfort in general. And, ideally, it will do the same for me too.