Gorgeous, turquoise-blue waters and white sand is what attracts most people to Hawaii. As a 15-year-old, Maeghan Smulderswas keen for her family to take their vacation at the tropical paradise, but not for the palm trees and warm sun. She was a fish fanatic, with three fish tanks in her bedroom and dreams of becoming a marine biologist. Thrilled to be at the Maui Ocean Center, the teen shared her fish knowledge with other tourists, who mistook her for an employee at the aquarium. She just laughed and told them she was a 15-year-old from Canada.
Nearly a decade later, Smulders reflects, “If you’re interested in learning something and have a curiosity about it, do whatever you can to learn all you can, then make the decision on whether you want to continue with it. Or maybe it leads you in another direction altogether.”
Smulders didn’t end up going down the marine biology road.
Instead, she studied business at Mount Royal University. But her same passion for finding the perfect career is still alive and thriving. By the time she graduated last June, she had 29 job offers. She didn’t take one of them. “A lot of my friends were taking jobs, and it just got to the point where they weren’t happy with the ones they were given,” says Smulders. “I didn’t want that for myself.”
Wanting to pick the job that was right for her, Smulders vented to her personal mentor, Patrick Lor, president of the stock photo and video company, Fotolia, saying that she wanted to try out all the jobs. Lorreplied, “Why don’t you?”
The ambitious grad decided to do just that. She created Project ONE12, a venture to complete ten internships in 112 days. Sounds crazy, right?
Undertaking the project was especially difficult because it meant Smulders had to leave the job she had since she was 14-years-old, when she started working part-time for Calvert Home Mortgage Investment Corporation, a company in her hometown Calgary. Smuldersshared that one of the hardest days of her life was when she decided to leave the comfort and security of her guaranteed job.
She loved the company, loved the people, and was comfortable with the responsibilities her job entailed. “But I knew if I stayed, I would always be considered the kid, because I grew up with that company. Which is a really difficult, and as my boss says, mature observation at my age.
“Most people are happy with that security and that sense of being comfortable with where you’re at. I know that if you’re comfortable, you’ll never grow as a person. And so when I told [my boss] that I was leaving and that I have this crazy endeavour I was embarking on, I was so afraid to tell him about it because I didn’t want to upset him. And I, truthfully, wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go.”
But Smulders pressed on, deciding to start the next stage of her life. A rather busy stage.
She asked the community and Mount Royal University to sponsor her. While contacting various companies and pitching the idea of Project ONE12, she also asked them if they’d be willing to sponsor a portion of the trip, if they knew of a place that she could stay, or if they could donate some money to the work she was producing for them.
After calling more than 20 companies, she had lined up the initial seven internships.
First stop: Fotolia in Calgary, her mentor’s company. On September 25, 2011, she woke up really early – 6:00 am – and was one of the first people in the office building. “The first day was overwhelming, especially because I didn’t know how things were going to work out. A week seemed like a good amount of time. I knew it was short, but I didn’t realize how short it was.
“On day one, when you’re given all this information on the company, you’re on high adrenaline all day because not only are you trying to fit in, learn everything, keep an open mind, but you’re also trying to work on stuff too. So by the end of the day I was exhausted.” Day two is when Smuldersstarted actually started getting the work done. Day three? Panic.
“Day three was terrible because that’s when I was like: oh my god, I’m halfway done and I still have so much to do! I started doubting myself.” Smulders approached her boss and told him she was a bit overwhelmed, but was going to try and work through it. He told her she was doing a great job, and to keep up the good work. And she did, by the end of the week, Smulderssays “They were really, really impressed with the stuff I did, which gave me confidence that I could do this.”
That adventure and learning experience was only beginning though, as her second internship was in San Francisco.
Smulders says travelling is one of the most difficult aspects of Project ONE12.
The ten different internships were in six different locations. For each new place, she figured out a new transportation system and accommodations. It’s challenging, she says, being away from the things she’s comfortable with, but at the same time, she noticed how much she grew throughout the situation.
The project’s obvious challenge is the fast turnover between internships. “Every Monday I start over and it’s challenging, but the reward I’m getting from it surpasses any challenges I’ve faced so far,” says Smulders, just past the halfway point of Project ONE12. Her longest internship was two weeks, but most were one week.
Her advice for young employees adapting to a new workplace is to keep a positive attitude. In a new job you can get overwhelmed, nervous, disoriented, and uncomfortable. But if you have a positive attitude, people want to be around you and it’s easier to ask questions, says Smulders. “I find that as soon as I have a negative thought, you almost shut down. But just having that positive attitude and working toward what you’re capable of, that really stands out within itself. Attitude does wonders in the workforce, especially for first impressions and learning. It’s huge.”
Smulders isn’t the only person to say attitude is what has helped her on her journey.“If you think you can’t be Smulders and you don’t have the smarts, then you’ve got the wrong message,” says Lor, Smulders’ mentor. “The message should be look, you can do this. All you have to have is the right attitude. And anyone can change their attitude.”
While Smulders learns the ropes of a variety of different industries – media advertising, non-profit, business consulting, website design, and more - she has also been edging closer and closer to the whole purpose of Project ONE12: to find a job she’s truly passionate about, that’s perfect for her. Halfway through the endeavour, she says this process has largely helped her figure out what she’s not interested in, which allows her to focus her energy on what she does like.
Hopefully, this will help Smulders narrow down her career path – especially since she was offered a new job almost every day of the project. She says companies have been contacting her to discuss Project ONE12 and say they really admire it. Some of them have asked her to quit the project to come work for them, while some of the companies she worked at for the project have offered her full-time positions when she’s done.
Lor meanwhile points out three distinct lessons recent graduates can take away from Smulders' experience with Project ONE12. “You need to go out and choose the job, not have the job choose you. And that’s probably the number one lesson.” Employers tend to hold most of the power, and as Lor points out, many people will take whatever is job is offered to them. There’s a small percentage of people who get to choose their job, but they’re basing their decision on minimal information about the organization.
“People spend, let’s say, five or ten years at a job,” says Lor. “Would you want to make that five or ten year decision based on a one hour interview? And that’s essentially what’s happening out there. So I think that this is an absolutely fantastic thing for [Smulders] to sink her teeth into, so that she can make an informed decision.”
The second lesson Lor identified from Project ONE12 is to get specific about what you want to do. He says a student telling him he or she wants to be business person is the same as a 6-year-old telling him they want to be a fireman when they grow up. “Get specific and show that you’ve done some research, that you care about the next thirty years of your life, and that you care enough to put some research into this.”
The final lesson? Be passionate about what you do. Smulders had 29 job offers upon graduation. She says she’s been offered a job almost every day during Project ONE12. Her most important goal however, was to find something she truly cares about.
Project ONE12 ended on January 20, 2012
It took Smulders seven internships to find the field she’s truly passionate about. In her blog, Smulders highlights the fast pace and creativeness of the technology industry as very appealing to her. And no line ups for the women’s washroom. In fact, her last three internships she lined up in the technology industry, to figure out if she’d rather work for a start up, medium, or large-sized tech company. When she graduated from Mount Royal last spring, she was “dreading” her career. Now, Smulders says she’s not only confident in the direction she’s going, but excited to find a career.
Along with her new career passion and skills, Smulders says she has learned even more valuable lessons from Project ONE12. “When things get tough and scary, it’s so easy to just quit and go with something that’s easy and comfortable. I’ve learned that I can work past that and can go beyond that. I think that little tidbit within itself is probably one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had with this project. If I really really, want it, I can get it. And even if I fail the first time, I can make it work the second time. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Now she has another project in mind.
She hopes to talk with students about the opportunity of thinking bigger than just a degree and thinking about what they’re truly capable of — and interested in — doing. “My hope is to create a mentorship program that does what I’m doing now, but in a more realistic time zone,” she said.
It would allow students to meet with people who have the same degree as them and see the job path that they have taken. It would also allow them to establish connections so that they’re able to work in industries that they’re interested in, rather than falling into the first job they’re offered.
“It shows a lot of ambition and a lot of credit for the students who are willing to put in the effort to say, ‘this is really what I want to do,’” says Smulders. “And it’s a value for employers because they have people who want to be there and love what they do. And so I hope I can really push toward making a project like that.”
Project Mass Happy Workers? There’s probably a decent market for that.
UPDATE: After completing 10 internships with Project ONE12 — paying her dues with everyone from Google to Adobe — Maeghan landed a Montreal-based position with Beyond the Rack, a Canadian start-up named the fastest-growing e-tailer by Internet Retailer magazine. She'll be heading department focused on marketing and new business opportunities — a position created for her after she completed an internship with the company.