The games interns should play

Matthew Reeves on why going for gold might not be your best option

The night before the assessment centre for an internship, a good fistful of years ago now, I entered an expensive-looking hotel kindly provided for me by my potential employer. A lofty young chap approached with a Wallace & Gromit smile and a body so skinny that it almost looked as though he could be folded down and perfectly flat-packed away into his small wheelie suitcase.

Being the promising bright spark he was, he'd recognised that seeing anybody who wasn't grey from the "five days on two off, if you're lucky" shift work we call a professional career was probably also here for the youngster event. We were the under-21s trying out for the big league. One day we too could have a sub-standard second phone, if we could just pass this next test.

During the process of checking in, four more of the '"new generation" arrived. The six of us had yet to visit our respective rooms when it was suggested that we should "do something" this evening. Fantastic! I thought. In my book, "something" usually means a pint or two and some food. Then: "Fancy a swim? I'll race you!", the first chap I'd met earlier exclaimed. And this kind of unabashed competition continued throughout the internship we sadly both got.

We were assigned a group project to work on outside of client work which, in hindsight, was simply a test to see who was most willing to sell their time to the marketing department. Our particular little bark-rubbing exercise was to come up with "a new graduate marketing idea" for the company.

Only after the competition was long over and I'd rejected my job offer did I find out that my aforementioned colleague had taken this extracurricular tomfoolery so seriously that he'd even managed to convince poor Gemma in HR (her real name has not been changed to protect her identity) that he needed a follow-up "handover meeting".

Time has passed since those tedious, faux-competitive months, and I now have to deal with interns myself. Nobody really likes having interns. They're like income tax in that I realise why we have them in theory, but the experience is usually tedious in reality. They've been fed the HR cornmeal about how being invasively eager, willing and competitive, and suggesting "better" ways to do stuff is a surefire route to winning. The reality is that the procurement department don't care what app is great for tracking expenses.

If HR would just leave the force-feeding to me, the interns would quickly realise that the way to success isn't doing the career equivalent of charging through the pool like Ian Thorpe, but by sitting in the water quietly and eating, like a duck that's being fattened up for foie gras. That is, the real game interns should play is not trying for the gold medal, but contributing to something bigger than themselves. Nobody wants a fitness freak around when we're trying to make dinner.