THE GENERALIST ESSAYS > ENTRY LEVEL
2001. I was 17 years old and starting an internship at Billabong USA. If Nervousness and Awkwardness had a skinny middle sibling, that was me. I was painfully shy and was dropped in this middle of this big, awesome machine; so lucky to be there, and so grateful to all the kind people I worked with.
I remember I had no idea what I wanted to study until I worked on a shoot with the Marketing team and that solidified it for me. I wanted to create. I wanted to manage how people saw and interacted with the company and product. I wanted to build the image of the brand.
Spending a few months in California wasn’t the episode of 90210 you’d imagine. Annoyingly shy, in a strange personal situation and only surrounded by people older than me, I went with the flow more than deciding my own way forward. Don’t get me wrong; it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I was very privileged to receive and I had a great time. I just wasn’t in a position of control. I wasn’t in a position to make my own decisions.
This context is important. It’s why I just put my head down and worked. I tried to absorb as much as possible. I listened and asked questions. I organised rooms full of buttons and samples.
I soon realised that I was another task for people. ‘What are we going to give Candice to do today?’ was not a vibe. So I took the initiative and tried to be proactive. Instead of just organising the buttons, I developed a better system. I labelled things that they hadn’t gotten around to and I catalogued the massive magazine wall. I was an extra pair of hands across multiple departments and it was my first experience of being a generalist.
I am so grateful for the kindness of the team at Billabong. Much of my approach to my colleagues is borne of that experience.
After Billabong I worked as a bookkeeper and general assistant at a gas station and then a receptionist of a luxury beachfront hotel. These roles were really two sides of the same coin.
I was the face and first point of contact for the company. There’s responsibility in that. Working directly with customers for the first time, taught me diplomacy and temperance.
I started developing specific skills and taking ownership of my role. I learnt the value of time and responding quickly.
In both roles, I had a specific number of tasks and the rest of the time was sitting behind a desk. So I learnt to seek out more. I also learnt to pace myself; to focus on the task and assess if there was a better way to do it. Inevitably, I got bored so I started studying part-time and planning for my future.
So, what did I learn then that I still use now?
- Team support: Realising that no task is too small if it contributes to the business goals
- Managing up: Listening so to understand what people need and proactively problem solve
- Meditative work: The power of finding the flow (even if you’re only sorting buttons)
- Presentation: Being customer-facing taught me to quickly assess and respond to different situations
Starting your career as a generalist gives you a diverse skill set. It anchors your experience not to one point but to many, giving you a solid and stable foundation.
Celebrate that. Lean into it. There is nothing wrong with figuring it out as you go.
I still am.