A couple of days ago, I spotted a group of kids in summer camp t-shirts and remembered my favorite summer job ever as a camp counselor at the Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Mariah.
Annually about 300 teenagers from New York City’s five boroughs head upstate to the beautiful countryside and, in addition to camping and swimming, they start to learn some of the basics of building a career.
What I loved the most about that work, even when it was hard, was that I got to mentor girls like I’d been mentored and teach them what I thought I knew as a college sophomore about following their dreams and conducting themselves with grace in the world.
I decided I loved writing when I was young. While I loved the creativity and expression in it, I was always fully cognizant of the business side of a person’s passions. I drew lessons from a broad range of sources—from Madam C.J. Walker to Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey to Tyra Banks. My mother always had a hustle, even when she didn’t necessarily have a job.
So, I learned that to be successful in business I should work harder than everyone else, or smarter. I would probably fail, but life would go on. It appeared that the best business people were great listeners who had cultivated patience, passion and their own unique vision. As Neil Gaiman put it recently, they kept walking toward their mountains.
I was lucky to have a combination of humble and down to earth mentors in real life and to understand how it important it was to be careful about who you take your cues from in the business world. What works for everybody else may not work for you, especially if you are a feminist.
For example, during the second session of camp, I had a couple of girls in my cabin that were multitalented singers and dancers. When I watched them at lunch or when they weren’t in classes, I worried about their self-consciousness and all the body images that can keep a girl from relying on her brain and her heart instead of her body for affirmation. When I was 13, I wish someone would have told me that booty shorts and tight shirts were not the only way I could get attention.
Without judgment or shaming them, I encouraged them to augment their physical attributes with internal ones. I told them that people should be attracted to them for the contents of their characters, not what they looked like. My message was particularly directed at Tina, who sang with a lovely maturity beyond her years.
Tina was also a huge Mariah Carey fan and could sing all of her songs, word for word, pitch perfect. She wanted to be Mariah Carey when she grew up.
Since it was her camp, sometimes Mariah made a trip to visit. I was as excited as the girls were, since I had been following Mariah’s career since I was in middle school and I also sang as a hobby. I thought she was an excellent businesswoman, too; she had the princess story of legend—she had been working as a waitress when she was discovered and gradually, because of her hard work and refusal to give up on her dreams, she became a megastar in the pre-Lady Gaga era.
Anyway, after a summer of telling my girls that it didn’t matter what they wore, but it was the quality of their characters and the depth of their talent that matters, Mariah Carey showed up in a white halter top and white booty shorts with stiletto heels. She looked fantastic. The camp was wowed. I don’t think anyone heard a word she said, though I think she told them they could grow up to be whatever they wanted, or something along those lines.
I sighed heavily in frustration. My attempt to steer the girls in a different direction appeared thwarted. But I learned that it would ultimately be up to them to choose their actual and virtual mentors for operating in business, social and cultural milieus.
Who taught you the values you associate with work and business? What are some of the most helpful things you’ve learned? I’m interested in your favorite summer job, too, for a follow-up post, if you’re so inclined.