It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a student working gratis in any given internship might suffer a number of existential crises daily.
Rather, that is what Jane Austen would have written if she were in her mid-twenties juggling university, unpaid work, family expectations, unrealised personal goals, and the impending doom of unemployment come graduation, all whilst deciding whether to get out of bed or not.
What appears to be a habitual feeling amongst students begs the question: what is it about internships that bring out the most sinister introspection within us? Is it the mundane and often useless activities abandoned and disliked by professionals themselves that make us internally probe the meaning of life? Or perhaps it’s the professionals’ own disdain towards their lives and chosen careers that make us uneasy about our own? There’s something in the act undertaking these menial tasks that your mentor couldn’t care less about, paired with being mindful of the fact that not only is this not the first or the last time you’ll be expending hours of effort without reimbursement, that forces us to question whether the choices we’ve made in terms of education and career have been correctly made.
Within the environment of university, surrounded by other fresh-faced and eager students studying curatorship, we easily accept the falsehoods of stability and confidence professors feed us. “Is there anything better than working in the arts sector?” they crow, and you gladly reply with as much enthusiasm as possible, “hell no!” You’re told again and again that results can only come from hard work, and you agree, and you spend most of your time trying to achieve and achieve and achieve all that you can, but again comes the unpaid work, the volunteer positions, the entry level job applications that require a minimum of two years experience that leave you feeling deflated.
It’s not just networking and career building that leaves me stunted and afraid. As someone who wants to immerse myself entirely within the art world and be readily embraced by all it has to offer, I do find myself reflecting on my own situation in life and my capabilities. Am I really suitable for this career? You watch as your fellow classmates go above and beyond for any morsel of recognition; they eat curating for breakfast, breathe aesthetics and critical theory, and worship museums like the gods they deserve to be.
And here I am. With my insecurities never leaving my side, I feel as if my own aspirations and struggles cannot be as grand in comparison. It makes me personally wonder whether any aspect of museum work is worth all this toil.
Within the 21st century you’re told that there are no longer any class systems nor disparities amongst social groups, that dreams can manifest into reality only if you are willing to work. Labour is the key success. This idea translates itself entirely into secondary education where you’re only given a single chance to perform well. If you work, regardless of your personal, social, and economic circumstances you can succeed.
You’re made to believe that by the age of 16,you know exactly what career to choose. At 18, your university pathway will lead you to that goal you made when you were a teenager, and your degree is the only shot you’ll have at making it into the world. You’re toiling away at your studies, you’re involving yourself professionally, meeting new people, and all the while, these same people are reiterating the idea that you have to be utterly committed to that decision you made at the age of 16 or else you’ll never flourish. How can that be so? How can you be so decided?
The other day, during one of my existential moments while interning, I tried to recall the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a curator. There was no defining moment where, utterly inspired and moved, I took upon myself an absolute vocation towards curating. Instead, a series of unconnected images and minor details from my years of education flashed by me, but ultimately I was left disappointed.
I’ve never had a life long passion or the certainty that museums were where I belonged. When I was 16 I thought my obvious talent at making scrambled eggs indicated nothing but an innate genius at cooking that obviously meant I was destined to be a chef. At 17 I wanted nothing more than my acne to disappear. Christ, I could list every single job I wanted and believed myself to be naturally gifted in. A journalist, a florist, a photographer. In the end, I settled on being an archaeologist. Last year, I persuaded myself that my love of art and history combined meant that curatorship was my calling.
All these changes, all these uncertainties, how could any of this indecision compare to the dedication my classmates feel and professionals I’ve grown to know maintain they have?
This isn’t an attack on those very students who are working to realise a dream they’ve had since they were shitting themselves in diapers. I’m not taking their parade, all their hard work, and setting it alight. I can only admire and sincerely wish for myself, to emulate their dedication towards their careers. I look up to these people in nothing but awe. What I’m writing of though, is an outwards projection of my own insecurities that have flared, like a bad rash during the summer, whilst undertaking internships.
I tell myself that curating is an amazing opportunity to revolutionise stagnant institutions – and it is! I tell myself that I want to be a curator because I want to make culture accessible for all – and I do! It’s just that, in being new to the museum world, I find myself hesitant in professing a dedication to the cause because unlike others, I lack in the experience and career-focused determination. I feel like a fraud, a phoney. I see all these other people my age, who have taken the necessary measurements in determining their happiness in their career-choices in the museum field whilst I feel like a frazzled novice constantly trying to find my feet in this world.
If you were expecting an agony aunt-esque column with soul-healing advice, this is not the place to be. What I can feel comfortable in suggesting is, that our insecurities are amazing forces of good if understood and wielded right. That dealing with these insecurities is, for a lack of a better world, entirely normal. What makes me question myself and my own abilities also happens to motivate me. I know that I’ve created an imaginary points ladder which my brain screams at me to conquer in order to be on the same plateau as my classmates. In being aware of this however, I can see the folly of all my comparing.
We’re taught from a young age that every individual must face a set of homogenous goals: graduate from secondary education, obtain a university degree, start a career. Society forces us to believe that there’s only a single way to achieve this, that the goals set before us are vulnerable to expiring, as if our lives are like tubs of yoghurt. We have to cross certain things of our checklist before a certain time otherwise we’re failures. Except life isn’t linear. It’s not a single projection that we find ourselves following. Our circumstances influence how we act, how we think. No two people journey through the same obstacles in life. Hence, change is only a natural. My own indecision doesn’t make me any less than someone else – this is something I have to remind myself of.
There lies a reward in acknowledging that I’ll never be the best, that there will always be someone who is better than me. What is important however is understanding that I am still worthy regardless. The dread that interning drudges is grounding in the sense that the effort I and we collectively speaking, as students expel has to go somewhere. It’s not all for nothing, even though at times it certainly feels like it. The passion of others that I fear I lack will come eventually.
All I need is time to develop and grow just like everyone has.