my intern thinks he’s great at things he’s terrible at

A reader writes:

I have an intern who is book smart and a very hard worker. But there’s one big problem: he’s bad at things he thinks he’s a superstar with. A few examples:

– He thinks he’s an amazing writer, but his writing is awful. He misspells words, leaves out words, has no organization, and generally writes in an unprofessional manner.

– He thinks he’s great at public speaking. In reality, his presentations are disorganized. He speaks very quickly and loudly and uses a lot of insider language that most other people don’t understand. He’s also completely clueless about when he’s lost his audience.

– He thinks he’s good at digital. In reality, the social media posts he’s written are cringe-worthy. His attempts to edit websites have often resulted in me spending hours fixing his work. His photos and videos are blurry, have bad lighting, and aren’t framed well.

I’ve tried talking to him about slowing down and being more thorough with his work. I’ve also gone through all the changes I’ve done to his work so he understands why they were necessary. I’ve put him on different types of projects that he claims to be brilliant at so I could find his strengths and make sure that he is lightening my workload instead of doubling it (which is what is happening now). It’s not working.

Even worse, he’s applied for a full-time job with my company and is convinced he’s going to get it, but his interview was awful and he failed his writing test.

I work in a creative industry. I think he has a lot of potential. But I fear he’s just not a good fit for our industry. Any suggestions on how to manage him for the rest of his internship? Is there a tactful way to let him know I think he’s great, but he’s just not good at this work?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 202 comments… read them below }

  1. Charlotte Lucas*

    And that intern went on to become my manager… (Luckily, he doesn’t try doing creative work, but he’s still pretty convinced that he’s great, when he really just is not.)

    1. Kat*

      Please tell me you’re joking?! He got kicked out as an INTERN and they brought him back? As management? I’m so sorry.

      1. Random Dice*

        That’s exactly what I expected too.

        This young person had so much unearned confidence, and the poor judgment to BRAG, as an intern, to the folks who were there to teach him.

        Just amazing.

        The fact that as an intern he managed to make an error so big that it pulled in the President, CEO, and SVPs *is* kind of impressive, though. Something he actually is amazing at!

    1. redflagday701*

      “During that day, my intern needlessly made a HUGE mistake that ended up needing to be cleaned up by a team consisting of our company President, CEO, and all of our Senior VPs.”

      This is so amazing to me. I want so badly to know what a lone intern did — unsupervised for a single — to require this level of damage control.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        I’m just imagining the scene in Community when Troy comes back from getting the pizza and everything things is chaotic and on fire.

        1. Beany*

          Or in Father Ted, when Dougal goes off to do a funeral service, and next thing the cemetery is filled with police, ambulances, fires, and staggering, wounded parishoners.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        It is like the news story from a few months back of the US Army private who walked into North Korea. The best observation I saw was that it is truly remarkable when a private can screw up so badly that the Secretary of Defense is personally briefed on it.

        1. Wintermute*

          the funny part there is he was so annoying that North Korea GAVE HIM BACK. No prisoner exchange, no demand for concessions or aid, they just straight up dumped him back on the US.

          1. Industry Behemoth*

            MASH had an episode in which the North Koreans captured Frank Burns, then let him go.

            “We don’t need a hostage that bad!” :-D

        2. BubbleTea*

          I thought he was trying to avoid prosecution in the US for a crime, and assumed North Korea wouldn’t deport him?

          1. still not a developer*

            Yep. The US was originally saying it was in relation to a bar fight – but it was actually for possessing material involving minors. Apparently once the US provided that information North Korea got rid of him post-haste.

          2. Burger Bob*

            O_o Why on earth did he think being a foreign detainee (and US military, no less) in North Korea would be BETTER???

            1. goddessoftransitory*

              I’m guessing both his moral compass and assessment of long term consequences are both–not good.

        3. Princess Sparklepony*

          I went even darker because I had recently read a story on a guy who went “postal” at the bank he worked at. He had been a golden boy in high school and college. His dad pulled strings to get him a bank job, he was failing miserably. His godfather worked there and they arranged a special job for him that was easier and he failed at that too. He ended up having a body count. Not a good end.

      3. Smithy*

        This part here….I do get that there are some fields where internships are a very formalized part of a professional education process (thinking medicine, law). However, an intern left with this scope of work always leaves me with a bias of a workplace or industry using internships as a way of bypassing entry level hires.

        Instead of formally hiring junior, entry level staff – smart/eager to learn students are brought in, given a wide range of tasks at a wide range of seniority levels with hints that it can turn into a fulltime hire if they’re good enough. Not saying it always works out badly, but it is wild to think of having any intern in a position where they could make that much mess in one morning.

        During undergrad, I had a workstudy position that was split between 2 supervisors. At that age and with my school schedule, I was very competent and professional with one part of the job – and never quite shined at the second. I am forever grateful that the way the position was set up, I was allowed to change my duties and just work with the one supervisor where I was doing well. It was straight forward data entry and let me put on my headphones and zone out 16 hours a week. But I showed up on time, followed instructions, paid attention to detail, and a number of other basic professional skills.

        The job where I was struggling required a lot more fluidity and no set of tasks was the same one day to the next. As a student worker, I found this difficult. Today, that reflects my job and I do almost zero data entry. While I get work study and internships aren’t quite the same, I do think internships that have too much emphasis becoming an immediate job can overshadow the benefit of learning how to advocate for yourself to just show up, be competent and professional.

      4. Charlotte Lucas*

        Since he seemed to have access to the company’s social media and website, I can just imagine.

        1. RVA Cat*

          Yeah now I’m remembering some epic viral tweets over the past few years. I think it was a major airline’s social media that told Kanye to eat a bag of (male anatomy) long before he went off the rails. Knowing what we know now, maybe that person should have been promoted…?

          1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

            Or the comms intern who took a trip and posted just landed in Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS. That kind of thing would require a lot of clean up at a high level — and firing of the intern as I remember.

            Here I think the intern decided of course they could do something and just did it while the boss was out. Like the person who went behind her boss’ back to get approval for the project that her boss had already said no too. That person thought it showed initiative and was amazed they got fired. Same here. The intern was convinced it would be great for the company. It was everyone else’s fault it went wrong.

            1. mmmmmmary*

              #hasJustinelandedyet but I think she was a full employee, not an intern, who posted her racist nonsense on her personal twitter.

              1. T*

                You and the person above you are remembering that tweet wrong. You should look up the “How one tweet can ruin your life” Ted talk.

              2. Boof*

                I think it was intended to be an ironic parody of racist things other people say but of course no one knows your intentions when they see a single tweet especially when it’s gone viral about how horrible you are while you’re on a long flight

                1. AnonORama*

                  Yes, that’s correct. She was an established professional, not an intern, making fun of the racist assumptions made by others. Should’ve included an /s tag!

        2. redflagday701*

          Yes, I actually can too. But it’s still remarkable (or maybe depressingly unremarkable) if a kid with his history (“the social media posts he’s written are cringe-worthy”) was kept around long enough, with that kind of access to the digital assets, to achieve this magnitude of screw-up. In retrospect, I wonder if OP was too nice and optimistic about the whole situation, and truly erred by not letting him go (or trying to) much sooner. Or maybe he just went absolutely rogue while OP was out, in a misguided attempt to prove his unappreciated genius to his employer and the world.

          1. Princess Sparklepony*

            Maybe not letting him go, but not letting him have access to a lot of things. Everything he did needed to be pre-approved instead of trying to clean it up later. He had had earlier screwups so it would have been justified.

          2. Random Dice*

            Oh gosh do you think they let him post to their social account without approval?!

            I just assumed he wrote and sent to his manager the proposed posts, that his manager didn’t post.

        3. Green beans*

          I have an intern who helps with social media and while the position has access for scheduling, they aren’t allowed to post anything I haven’t looked at.

          1. Princess Sparklepony*

            Exactly. That is the way to do it. Especially with someone who is still very much learning.

      5. bamcheeks*

        I don’t know, if he had access to the website and social media I can imagine a LOT of things.

      6. Olive*

        Another possibility – if I were teaching an intern the ins and outs of a client facing project, I might copy them on some types of correspondence with the client’s permission. While hopefully a client wouldn’t take something an intern said as company policy, it’s not impossible that they could take it upon themselves to send an email back that was so rude and inappropriate that it would require apologies all the way up the chain.

        1. H.C.*

          It depends on the internship & type of presentations; on the more common side are informal, internal presentations with fellow interns or the teams they embedded with about the projects they’re working on/recently completed.

        2. AngryOctopus*

          I think many people have the interns present on their projects (or a small project) to help them get presentation experience, both setting up and speaking. Or in small company meetings, letting the intern lead on a part so they can participate in the meeting.

        3. The Starsong Princess*

          Our intern program includes a formal presentation at the end and the intern is expected to present to their leader and team to get practice as they are going along.

      7. Itsa Me, Mario*

        This. I’m hard pressed to figure out what an intern even could do that would be this high-stakes, and also why an intern would be covering for someone with direct reports during their time off.

        In my line of work, interns make copies and stuff.

    2. RVA Cat*

      The one thing that gobsmacks me about this update – how was the intern working on something it took the C-suite to fix?! How did he even have access to make mistakes of that magnitude?

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Excellent question. Could be something like sharing terrible products with an important client.

        1. tangerineRose*

          Or saying or writing something horribly inappropriate to a client. Even an intern isn’t supposed to communicate with clients, he still might have been able to.

      2. Nethwen*

        If he has permissions to post on social media/the website and thinks that’s part of his job, I could see him posting something racist/completely opposite of company position or simply misleading to the point that it caused shareholder panic. If a stakeholder noticed, that could mean the C-suite needed to do damage control.

        1. Kes*

          Yeah, my guess is something relating to their online presence. Either messed up their website or posted something wrong or bad on social media or something like that, that could very quickly have a widespread problematic impact for the company

      3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        Some places interns have access to a lot under the guise of learning all about how the business runs. Then I can see one with a lot of confidence but not too much sense going Hey I can finish off this project while boss is out. They will be so grateful they will offer me a permanent job on the spot.

        Then it spectacularly goes down in flames and the intern goes well you shouldn’t have given me that kind of access in the first place and no one told me I couldn’t.

      4. kiki*

        I had that question too. I have a suspicion it might have been social media-related or perhaps he reached out to a client un-prompted? In the update, the LW says that the intern “needlessly made a HUGE mistake,” so I suspect the intern went out of his way to do something nobody asked him to.

        But a lot of times, yeah, if your intern is able to mess something up so badly the c-suite must step in, you are giving your interns too much responsibility or access. In this case it sounds like it was just the intern, though.

      5. GreyjoyGardens*

        That’s what I wonder. I’m with one of the commenters who surmises that interns are brought in to do what (paid) entry level staff used to do.

        Sure, the intern was A Very Naughty Boy, but what was he doing on a project like this, and how was he allowed so far that he made such a mess? I think the company was at least partly to blame here.

        1. Random Dice*

          At my company interns are paid, decently, and require a lot more management than entry-level because they need to get as much (or more) out of the internship as we do.

          That means understanding their schooling, career interests and goals, helping them get exposure to programs of interest, mentoring, LinkedIn profile coaching and recs, etc.

      6. sarah*

        It’s not that hard to imagine without any wrongdoing by the company. Say the intern answers the phone and instead of just taking a a message he says something really wrong or bad to a VIP or important client.

      7. AcademiaNut*

        I’m thinking he did something that was physically possible, but so out of left field that they didn’t anticipate it. Sending emails to external clients which set policy or offer terms, contacting media outlets to make a statement on his own initiative, that sort of thing. Most companies wouldn’t think to block an intern’s email account so that he can’t send mail externally without it being approved by his manager.

        I’m thinking of the entry level LW who, after asking about attending a conference and being told no, slipped herself onto the internal attendant list by devious means, took vacation/paid her own way and showed up at an invitation only industry conference for high level executives, in her official company name badge. (and was subsequently fired).

      1. RVA Cat*

        …with a side order of Dunning-Kruger!

        Somehow I can’t imagine a female intern being this catastrophically arrogant, just like how I doubt a woman CEO would let OceanGate happen.

            1. ReallyBadPerson*

              Thank you for saying this. I get so annoyed at those “If women ran the world” posts. The truth is that if we did run the world, we’d just screw it up differently.

              1. Cruciatus*

                Yes, women do stupid things, but we haven’t really been given the chance to run the world and see how that goes.

        1. Platypus*

          That’s a weird thing to say. I absolutely have seen female employees act like this, as well as others.

          1. La Triviata*

            At a previous job, I worked with a woman who thought she was The Best … with no supporting evidence. She seemingly wrote a romance novel and it was rejected with a note that it was the worst thing the publisher’s person had ever read.

            1. Renna*

              Ohh, the bar is *low* for romance novels. One of my writing profs paid the bills by submitting to Harlequin when she was a poor broke student and she was always told to edit, and I quote, to “dumb it down.” My sister also works going through the slush pile for a publishing firm and she has never said anything so harsh, including to the person who didn’t know she would be reading his work and had a different piece online calling her the Antichrist. Between the two standards, it must have been BAD.

              I’m employed as a writer and I have to say the amount of people who think they can write and really can’t is a plague. It’s something you need some sense of intuition for, and exposure to really good writing to understand. Everyone I know who is a not-quite-writer who thinks they’re the best exclusively reads trash.

              Trash books are a lot of fun, mind you, and fun is plenty valuable in our super-stressy world with so many different worries. It just doesn’t help people proficiently write if they don’t also read, and like, the literary equivalent of their vegetables.

              1. MsSolo (UK)*

                I would say it’s not that the bar is low, but that the style is different. You’d be shocked how many people think romance is easy to get in to and try to publish stories without a Happily Ever After; could be a great novel, but it’s not a romance novel. It’s a pretty strict genre in terms of tropes and what is and isn’t acceptable. Harlequin’s rejection metrics are pretty similar to other publishers out there; they just get a lot more subs than the average literary press.

              2. Random Dice*

                I once wrote a romance novel, while on holiday.

                It was achingly, painfully terrible.

                It really taught me to respect the skills required to write books!

              3. AngryOctopus*

                This is why I have a long list of mystery novel plots I’d like to see written, but I’m not going to write them myself, because that would be awful.

              4. La Triviata*

                Just to clarify, the woman – not an intern, not in an entry-level job – would routinely send out internal emails with misspellings, improper usage, just badly written. There were two instances in which she insisted on something that the rest of us knew were bad but she was so persistent that others caved in just to shut her up. One we heard about for at least two years.

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        “He has a lot of potential” = “He is a great employee”
        No, the woman who took all the work because “she hated to delegate and it was easier to do it herself” is not a great employee.
        No, the guy who works around the clock even though you told him not to because he is going to burn out and create unrealistic expectations is not a great employee.
        The intern who cannot string together a spoken or written thought, deflects blame and does not listen does not have potential to succeed in a creative field.

  2. SuperStar ;)*

    Something like this:

    “Here are some scorecards from industry/association X showing what different competency levels for digital marketing/public speaking/whatever topic look like from beginner to world-class”. Thought you’d find it useful to benchmark where you are. Happy to have a discussion with examples on where you are at and what the path to world-class may look like”.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I’m sure a lot of the items he was working on had hard deadlines, but I think I would have stopped fixing his work and giving it back to do over at some point. (And keeping him out of anything that was highly visible.)

    2. Snow Globe*

      That’s a start, but this is not a person who will look at a rubric and correctly assess where his performance falls. The manager would need to explicitly state where she thinks he is and why

        1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

          Better yet, Homer singing “I am so smart, S-M-R-T” while literally starting the house on fire.

    3. OldSoldier*

      I am an executive in the software industry, specifically program and product management. I inherited an employee similar to the intern and used this method of self-assessment to gauge how they viewed themselves in light of severe performance issues. I was seeing a PIP incoming and was starting those conversations, while they rated themselves at Director level for pretty much everything. I tied back actual performance metrics and expectations with contextual examples of where they actually were vs. where they thought they were.

      I created a framework for the employee to close gaps in their performance and presented that to generate some hope and collaboration, instead of just hammering them with bad news. There was lots of arguing/defensiveness on their part, with me standing my ground on my assessments, until they stopped and accepted reality.

      In the end, their skillset was completely devoid of the advanced requirements for the job, and they got let go despite all of the coaching, mentoring, and guidance. I feel good about setting them up to succeed elsewhere because they now have a plan of where to build the skills they are lacking. It still sucked and was the HARDEST challenge as a people manager I have ever faced.

  3. Richard Hershberger*

    I wonder what the LW meant by the intern being “book smart.” People who read a lot generally know what good–or at least competent–writing looks like.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I think they mean he knows the information but doesn’t have the experience. So, he can’t apply the knowledge.

      1. Platypus*

        But this confuses me because the intern is described as being very incompetent. Even just on a basic level of writing terribly.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          He can do calculus and can tell you what year the Battle of Hastings was, but doesn’t have enough sense to not cold-call the CEO of an important client (or post cringey things to social media or whatever the hell else he did).

        2. metadata minion*

          Reading ability doesn’t always correlate at all well to writing ability. Especially given the errors described, this sounds like someone who might either have some executive functioning issues or be so convinced of their own Briliance that they don’t need to proofread like normal mortals.

          1. metadata minion*

            And of course I just misspelled “brilliance” and didn’t proofread my post. I’m going to pretend that was on purpose. :-b

    2. Ink*

      I’d guess a bit adjacent to the meaning you’re using- good at theory, say, but not application. Someone who knows many of the guidelines to produce good work in their chosen field, and maybe even knows how to recognize where OTHER people’s work fails to meet them, but can’t carry that through into their own work

    3. redflagday701*

      “Book smart” doesn’t mean that you read a lot of books, but that your knowledge comes mostly from secondhand research rather than real-world experience. A book-smart person can tell you exactly how the manual says to do it, but unlike his more seasoned colleagues, has no idea that the manual’s way falls apart as soon as you actually have to do the thing in real life.

    4. Lady_Lessa*

      While not in the same field, here is an example from chemistry. My co-worker (in prepping for student labs) was very book smart (ended up PhD in theoretical physical chemistry), but could not figure out how to dissolve Sodium Hydroxide pellets in water for the under grad students to use.

    5. Rose*

      My impression is she meant “he’s not good at the practical aspects of having a job but saying or implying he’s dumb is mean.”

    6. Hats Are Great*

      There’s a whole universe of people who have great taste in OTHER people’s writing but can’t write for shit themselves.

      The ones who think they’re fantastic writers nonetheless typically have not gotten a lot of constructive feedback (they were an A student in high school so teachers just skimmed their essays and handed out As as long as it looked plausible, and/or their writing teachers focused a lot on “finding your individual voice” and “there’s no wrong answer.”), orrrrrrr they’re so egocentric and solipsistic that they’re totally impervious to feedback.

      Recently was dealing with one of these at my local writing group, and this one guy who writes hugely pompous fiction in a weird, over-formal register got the feedback from *every* woman in the group that in the chapter of his we read, all his female characters were very one-note and stereotypical in uncomfortable “Men Writing Women” ways. He flatly rejected this feedback, and said he’s “known for” (by whom???) writing realistic female characters that people rave about, and that it was too bad that we didn’t know anything about women’s life experiences, or we might recognize that. Totally impervious.

      (And he’s unpublished so he isn’t “known for” anything, except maybe by his parents. In writers group, he’s known for using $10 words everywhere he can, to show off his superior vocabulary.)

      1. MassMatt*

        This reminds me of when J.K. Rowling was asked whether any of her characters were based on people she knew. She said yes, and surprisingly it was the pompous, incompetent braggart, Professor Lockheart. And she said he was so dense and convinced of his own greatness that she knew he would never in a million years ever realize it, even if he read that very article.

      2. Lenora Rose*

        Did anyone push back on the “known for” with that actual question in the moment?

        I recently saw a pro level writer point out that generally you want a writing group, where possible, where everyone LIKES everyone else, and everyone else’s writing — obviously not to the point of being unable to give necessary and occasionally sharp critique, but enough to not be constantly slogging through work you hate — or dealing with someone who isn’t listening anyhow. And I definitely think it can suck the passion out of the room to be coping with someone who can’t take critique at all (struggling sometimes with specific advice is one thing…)

        1. Hats Are Great*

          One of the women said something like, “Regardless of what other feedback you’ve received, what you’re hearing right now from the women in this room is, it’s not landing for us.” Which is how he ended up saying that we as women were unfamiliar with women’s lived experiences and that’s why we couldn’t understand that his women were particularly well-written.

          This is a community-sponsored workshop-type series, so it’s difficult to exclude people.

          Personally I think he’s an absolutely awful writer, who not only doesn’t understand people whose lives are different from his, but doesn’t seem to understand how a reader’s POV is different from the writer’s — people spent AGES trying to convince him two sessions ago that when he writes a twist, it doesn’t work, because he either gives it away in the first sentence of the story so it’s not surprising, or because he signals NOTHING in advance so it feels very Deus ex Machina. In that case got all condescending about how we all must be too dumb to appreciate Agatha Christie’s genius if we can’t appreciate his.

          I don’t think it’s possible to get through to him so I try to give one nice comment and one constructive comment when it’s his turn, and then just tune out. But a lot of the people at this are so NICE and they really think they can HELP him if they just explain more. Fundamentally, I don’t think he’s there for help or feedback; he’s there to be admired by a captive audience, which is why he gets so upset when he receives back anything but admiration and adulation. And he has a very specific view of himself as an extraordinarily nuanced observer of the human condition who can write in ways that draw out others’ emotions and whose plots are so clever and subtle that people are always wowed, and just — none of that is true. But I kinda think his entire self-concept is based on it? So he’s super-resistant to realizing he’s full of shit.

          1. La Triviata*

            In college, I took a course on literature written by women. There was one young man in the class of 20 or so. For one novel, he stated something that EVERY woman in the class told him was wrong and some explained why it was wrong. He said, basically, that nope, his take was accurate and the women didn’t know what they were talking about.

            1. BubbleTea*

              I had a similar issue in a seminar class with only two men in the group. One of them insisted that something was the case in relation to accessing birth control pills that was simply not true. He was, that day, the only person in the room without a uterus. He was the only person in the room who had 100% definitely never experienced the process of accessing birth control pills. And yet he truly believed he was the one most likely to know what it involved.

          2. Hrodvitnir*

            Woooooooow. That would be infuriating to experience, but is kind of incredible secondhand. What a muppet.

          3. goddessoftransitory*

            We’re watching Adventure Time, and this reminds me SO MUCH of Lumpy Space Princess! Just utterly convinced she’s irresistible by all the “boys,” but the boys are actual literal ants crawling on her and a buzzard waiting for her to die.

          4. Lenora Rose*

            Yeah, workshops are harder. I think the writer in question was talking about the kind of writing group you make with the workshop participants you liked enough to keep networking with.

            That guy is… sadly believable from my own experience, though at least my own clueless guy experience was mostly just someone who couldn’t take advice in general, and not sexist on top of it. (I filled his first chapter with notes, assumign a lot of the advice would carry over in his rewrite to the other 3 he’d given me – he fixed exactly and only my few specific suggestions and maybe changed a word when I gave him a paragraph of more general advice. He could not extrapolate from one example even as far as the very next sentence, ever mind the next chapter.)

      3. sub rosa*

        Oh gosh. I had one of these would-be Prousts send me a love scene “to critique” once.

        It took every ounce of willpower I had to not reply to his submission with “So are you trying to tell me you’re still a virgin?”

        (I think it was supposed to be a pass, but… EW.)

      4. Writer Claire*

        Oy. I’ve met that type far too many times. As the saying goes, God grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man. (See also, Brent from The Good Place.)

      5. goddessoftransitory*

        Reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon Anne Lamott quoted in Bird by Bird: one guy at a party saying to another, “We’re still pretty far apart. I’m looking for a six figure advance and three book deal, and they’re refusing to read the manuscript.”

    7. Rex Libris*

      I took it to mean he probably did well in his degree program but it didn’t translate into actual work competency. It could explain his false sense of his own ability to actually do the job and produce the things.

      1. AnonORama*

        Agree! As someone who aced the booksmart stuff (including graduating with honors from a top-ten grad school and passing the licensing exam with flying colors) and then SLAMMED into a wall of real-world failure, he’s taken one of the two problem paths. You can double down on your own awesomeness, which will likely bite you in the ass; or you can take the path I took, which was deciding I’d never succeed and walking away despite a huge investment of time and money. I’m sure there’s a healthy middle ground, but it won’t be found in this story!

      2. AngryOctopus*

        He also probably feels that his degree has granted him that oh so nebulous thing (to new grads), EXPERIENCE, and that the company would be crazy to not take advantage of his EXPERIENCE that he has. So the moment he’s left alone he decides to use his EXPERIENCE, which of course lands us all here.

    8. Velomont*

      A few examples:
      One former coworker who eventually got a PhD in our field but, at work, has always been completely ineffectual.

      Another former coworker who could always be relied upon to cause a short meeting to become a well overlong affair as she expounded upon related theory. She never produced anything at the job. I also had a male coworker version of this. Both were disruptive and toxic but boy did they ever sound brilliant.

    9. As You Wish*

      These days my kids (high school and college students) are getting an awful lot of assigned homework to watch online video lectures instead of reading a textbook. In theory they could be “book smart” now without reading. (IMO, not a positive educational trend. It should be videos to supplement reading, not as a replacement.)

      1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*


        I mean, yes, that’s how we all learned. Does that mean it’s ideal? My dyslexic kid learns much better by listening or watching a video rather than reading. His listening and narrative comprehension is outstanding, but decoding written material is slow and difficult for him. Isn’t what matters that students learn the material, not how they learn it?

        1. Hrodvitnir*

          Oo, I can answer that! Because replacing one medium with another just flips the group that struggles. I despise videos except in very specific circumstances, and am lucky enough to learn best through a combination of books and lectures.

          Something about the video format slides off my brain – and certainly when Googling things I do not want to have to listen to 10 minutes of rambling for a single question.

          I have reflected on whether in the future we will return to basically having scribes, as a niche skill. And I guess that’s neutral! But there will always be people who prefer writing to visual media, and having a mix of learning materials is basically always going to be best.

        2. EchoGirl*

          I feel like ideally, there would be a choice between written material and videos, rather than videos becoming the new default. As someone who’s the opposite of your son, I often find the constant barrage of VIDEO VIDEO VIDEO frustrating when all I want is the information in written format (this extends beyond school — Google results have this issue as much as anything I’ve ever seen), but I’m all in favor of it being offered as an option for those it works better for.

          1. AngryOctopus*

            Yes! I don’t want to watch your stupid news video! I want to read a news story, because that way I’m going to retain it. Videos are for watching animals be adorable derps. But if someone does better with a video, it should be available to them!

      2. Jaid*

        Dunno, I always failed math in HS, back in the 80’s, but the videos of today helped me to understand some concepts I couldn’t grasp back then.

        Ideally, the teacher should figure out what works best for each kid and help them learn individually. But with so many options and so many kids in a class, I can see why one or the other is used, instead of a tailored mix.

    10. ReallyBadPerson*

      When I use the term, I usually mean someone who has a lot of facts, but not a lot of wisdom in applying them.

      1. Dinwar*

        Intelligence is knowing that Dr. Frankenstein isn’t the monster, he’s the one that created the monster.

        Wisdom is knowing that Dr. Frankenstein IS the monster.

        1. AngryOctopus*

          Hilarity is the joke where Dr. Frankenstein enters a body building contest, only to realize he’s got the wrong end of the stick.
          (sorry, but I love that joke)

    11. Renna*

      I mentioned this in a different comment, but the quality of what people read matters too. And unfortunately, being able to write well does take some measure of intuition that a few people just completely lack.

    12. Dinwar*

      I got my first crash-course in the difference in Book Smart vs Real-World Smart in Field Camp. We had to map a geological unit, which is fairly basic stuff. Having just taken Sed/Strat, we attempted to map every change in lithology–every change in bedding, every change in ripple marks, every change in grain size, everything. We were rather pointedly informed that we were mapping THE UNIT–as in, one whole package of rocks that was different from the other whole packages of rocks in fundamental ways. It wasn’t that we were over-zealous, we fundamentally misunderstood what we were there to do.

      I’ve also dealt with drillers who were extremely good at the physics of drilling. They had everything calculated out to within an ounce of force and were frankly better at lithology than the geologist I had logging the soils. Unfortunately they weren’t very good at actually drilling, as in pushing rods and getting production (which is how drillers are paid, at least sometimes). It was amusing to watch a bunch of guys with GEDs (at most, some didn’t have that much) patiently teaching a dude with an advanced degree how to do his job.

  4. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    Why do you think he’s great? He’s terrible at the work needed for your field, despite all the different things you’ve tried.

    Is there any benefit to either you or him in continuing with his internship, other than that you don’t want to hurt his feelings by ending it? It would in fact be kinder to explain to him that he is unsuited for this field and if you think he has qualities that would suit other fields, then maybe help him to apply for an internship there.

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      oh, old post. Not surprised at the outcome – if you allow a total incompetent who thinks he’s great to remain, then he must be micromanaged every day to ensure he doesn’t screw up or exercise gumption

      1. Inkognyto*

        I mentored and trained a contract to hire once that had every certification you could want under the sun for my field. A few major botches later in applying said knowledge from certifications later, they did not get hired. But they did get told their contract was terminated.
        It wasn’t even arrogance. They were coached, had written documentation on all process, had people to ask etc. Didn’t meet the basic requirements which was not a high bar, it was “follow documentation”.

    2. Fluffy Fish*

      A twist on the classic – “Bob is a great employee but here’s 5000 issues that explicitly show Bob in fact is not and never was a great employee”

    3. Indigo a la mode*

      Yeah, it surprises me when a manager goes on about how someone is flatly terrible at all major aspects of a job and then says they have great potential. Much is coachable, of course, but if this guy simply can’t write, present, connect with an audience, do web, or do social, that is not promising in a digital creative field.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        Technically, every lump of coal has the potential to become a diamond. The question is how much of your life do you want to invest in squeezing them?

        1. Indigo a la mode*

          That’s a fair analogy. At the same time, coal is suited to become a diamond. If you have a lump of coal and want a pearl, no matter how much you squeeze, you aren’t going to get that outcome.

  5. Irish Teacher.*

    The update says pretty much what I expected, that…this guy really doesn’t sound booksmart or like he has great potential.

    When people say somebody is booksmart but not doing well at work, it usually indicates they are a really good writer, are very knowledgeable about the theory and usually speak fairly well, but just can’t put their knowledge into practice. Somebody who writes badly, can’t present his ideas well and doesn’t realise his own mistakes doesn’t strike me as somebody likely to be booksmart but as yet inept with the practicalities so much as somebody who is just bad at their job.

    Of course, it would be possible to be really knowledgeable about the theory of a job without having good writing or speaking skills or being able to implement that theory or even to recognise that what they are doing is not meeting the standard, but…I would think it unlikely. Plus, I would wonder how the LW could even tell. If somebody cannot articulate their knowledge in spoken or written form or actually show it in the work they are doing, I think it would be hard to tell if they had the knowledge.

    I wonder if there’s a little bit here of…well, the intern’s completely unrealistic view of himself nonetheless having some bit of impact. I’m thinking of a time when I was going to move a small amount of money into a separate account and the bank official asked, “so how much do you want to move? All your savings?” I said no, I needed to retain access to most of my money and then they said, “so about half?” and I nearly ended up moving significantly more than I intended because it felt kind of weird to reply to “all or half?” with “maybe 5%.” In the same way, I suspect it might be hard to respond to “I’m brilliant at everything” with “no, actually, you are useless at everything and arrogant to boot.” OK, I know you wouldn’t literally say that, but I mean there is a tendency to compromise and to react to “I’m brilliant at everything” with “yeah, you are really good at x but you need to improve on y.”

  6. Heart&Vine*

    I recommend reading Radical Candor by Kim Scott. She addresses exactly what you’re dealing with (she also shares a great example about “Bob” in her TED Talk). You’re using what Scott would call “ruinous empathy” with your intern, in that you’re trying to teach them with a soft touch… so soft that they completely miss the severity of your message, i.e. their work isn’t good enough and needs to improve greatly if they want to advance their career. Instead, she encourages using “radical candor” in which you’re still kind but honest (“It’s not mean, it’s clear”).
    Alison got it right that you need to be more direct and explicit, but please don’t think that will come off as mean. What would be really mean is letting your intern go into the world with this inflated sense of self that will inevitably get him in trouble and tank him professionally.

    1. As*

      I came here to make the same recommendation! My first thought in reading the post was “ruinous empathy.” Whil

      1. As*

        This site’s layout shifts drives me NUTS. I was trying to say that while it’s not solely on the shoulders of the manager, the OP’s update that none of it was on her was troubling.

    2. Random Dice*

      I hadn’t heard about that term, ruinous empathy, thank you. I’ll check out the TED Talk.

      I think that’s a big part of how I’ve grown thanks to AAM – learning to see hard conversations with struggling direct reports as being kind. It’s a big shift in perspective.

  7. Rose*

    The update to this one seemed strange to me. LWs takeaway was “it was never me, it was him.”

    Your whole job in managing an intern is teaching them how to function and be successful in the real world, while getting some useful work out of them. It sounds like this guy did nothing but add to OPs plate and OP never gave the kind of blunt, wholistic feedback he needed, and didn’t push him out when she should have.

    If you’re writing in to say that your employee thinks they’re fantastic but they’re horrible, the problem is usually at least partially you.

      1. Rose*

        Why? Because I acknowledge the fact that OP didn’t seem to be managing this situation very well (unless she was leaving out a lot of details about things she was doing to coach him)?

        That’s very common in the comments here. I didn’t say OP is a horrible manager or bad at her job. But it sounds like she managed this situation fairly poorly.

      2. Itsa Me, Mario*

        I think it doesn’t go far enough. The *first* time the intern makes a big mistake with actual consequences (vs. getting the office supply order wrong), you change their level of responsibility so that their mistakes can’t escalate any further. I can’t imagine writing this letter to someone and then having that same intern fully cover for me while I had planned time off.

        1. AngryOctopus*

          As a note, I don’t think the intern was intended to “fully cover”. I think the intern took it upon himself to fully cover for the LW, thus resulting in the update. It’s very “you don’t need to press the red button while I’m away, we’re all set” and the intern is like “IMMA PRESS THE BUTTON YAY” the moment LW leaves on vacation.

      1. Rose*

        You might think it’s unkind to point out that this was partially a management issue on OPs part, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

    1. Rex Libris*

      I don’t see any fault on the manager’s part. It’s ultimately true that you can’t teach someone who already thinks they know everything, and this sounded like a textbook example of that.

      1. MassMatt*

        I think the truth is somewhere in between. Yes, the intern seems like a deluded incompetent, but I think (without being as harsh as the poster above) the manager was not direct enough. Even after his monumental screw-up that required massive intervention by the C-suite he was simply “convinced to leave the internship 3 weeks early. I was counting down the days”. What does it take for someone to get fired?

        You can’t teach someone who thinks they know everything, true, but when you find out this is who they are you can fire them.

        1. Rose*

          This is exactly my point. I didn’t say the intern had no fault or sounded like a great employee. I just found the takeaway of “it was him all along” when it seems like OP never had any of the hard conversations with him to be alarming and a little bit frustrating.

          I also think it’s hard to unequivocally say someone is not coachable when you’re not really doing very much to coach them. She was spot correcting his work, but I think that’s reasonable to expect as an intern.

      2. Rose*

        The fault is exactly what Alison outlined in her letter. OP was giving her intern one of feedback on improving his work when she needed to be sitting him down and explicitly saying “ right now, you are not meeting expectations for this role,” following it up with an email saying the same, and either letting him go or significantly adjusting the work that he’s given eg he’s now the coffee and copies guy. That is your most important job and obligation when you’re managing someone who is failing.

        An intern should expect to be coached on their work, and it’s very unfair and unkind to expect an intern to intuit that being given feedback means they’re failing in their role. OP never mentioned having a more serious or clear conversation in her update, and she “convinces” him to leave early, but not as early as she wants. Her own update paints her as still being far too passive and she doesn’t mention actually having had any of the hard conversations that Alison pointed out need to happen, just giving more support and feedback.

    2. Portia*

      If this person came to the position persuaded that he’s Superman and great at everything he tries, that was obviously an attitude he had long before he ever took an internship. LW could have been blunter, but it’s unlikely any amount of feedback from a single manager is going to change someone who’s that far up his own … self.

      Unjustified confidence appears to be an aspect of Intern’s personality and self-perception, and changing those things is not within a manager’s purview.

      1. Rose*

        I agree, he seemed a bit delusional and I don’t think one conversation was going to turn him into a fantastic employee. But someone super early in their career who has very little work experience hearing “you are not meeting expectations for this role and you are going to be fired if your work does not improve” can have an impact, sometimes a really big impact.

        I don’t think it’s the managers job to change anything about how the employee feels about himself, but it is absolutely her job to very clearly let her employees know when they are failing. It seems like she never did that and walked away with the lesson that there was nothing more she could do.

    3. Fluffy Fish*

      Really unfair to OP. I promise you there are people who absolutely positively suck at every aspect of their job and are immune to feedback.

      Good on you that you’ve never encountered this before, but it’s very real and there is nothing a manager can do about someone who refuses the very concept that they can improve.

      1. Rose*

        I know there are people like that, but most people will realize their manager does not think they’re doing well if their manager literally says “ you are not meeting expectations for this role and I will need to let you go if your work does not improve.”

        I’m where there are delusional people who will hear that and still think they’re doing well in their role. But most will not. That’s why I said “usually.”

        1. Fluffy Fish*

          Yes there was room to be more direct however most people would also understand when they are being given feedback that their work needs to improve.

          It’s not like OP was telling the intern he was doing a good job – they were giving feedback most reasonable people would have understood. What I take exception with was that the employee not doing well was OP’s fault in some capacity. Even if OP said hey your work is absolute garbage and if it doesn’t improve I will fire you this particular intern would not have been receptive.

          There’s people who can improve with direct feedback and people who wont even if you draw them a picture – this intern was the later.

          Where I do agree OP could have done better is that, same as most similar letter writers with terrible employees, is that they should be let go much much much earlier.

    4. Irish Teacher.*

      I dunno. This guy sounds like the type to think he’s fantastic, no matter how much blunt, wholistic feedback the LW were to give him. He seems like the type to just assume she’s too stupid to recognise his great genius or that she is “jealous and threatened by him.” People like this often take harsh feedback from their superiors as confirmation of their genius: “clearly, they are threatened by me and fear I will take their job some day, so they are trying to get rid of me/undermine me.”

    5. Web of Pies*

      Yeah I agree, the post and update are both oddly passive, you ‘convinced’ him to leave early? It’s not his decision!

      I also think it’s HUGELY valuable to make folks who are learning redo the botched work themselves, multiple times if need be. That way, they both learn how to do it, get practice doing it, and realize the impact if they do a crummy job (more work for THEM). It sounds like the entire company was covering for this guy, so you really didn’t do him any favors by sheltering him from the impact of his screwups.

      1. StarTrek Nutcase*

        I agree with Rose and Web of Pies. Sure the intern was extremely misguided in his awesomeness, but a significant part of an internship is having an assigned manager/trainer. That person is responsible for providing all necessary training and feedback to ensure intern gains real work experience.

        It isn’t the time to soft pedal; it calls for extensive oversight until competence is proven; and sometimes immediate early termination of the internship. This intern was a tool (maybe due to age) but the LW failed in her responsibilities to the intern.

        Perhaps this was LW’s first intern and she didn’t fully recognize the time investment and difficulties. I was in this position before and found it was much more time intensive (and frustrating) than managing a small team.

    6. Myrin*

      I actually think the “it was never me, it was him” part of the update touches on something that can be found almost solely between the letter’s lines, not directly spelled out (which is kind of ironic given we’re talking about OP’s using direct language).

      OP seems to have put a lot of thought and energy into finding something that’ll be up this guy’s alley, that will finally make him be successful, that’s his niche, and she failed at that and blamed herself. The closest she comes to actually saying it in the letter is this part: “I’ve put him on different types of projects that he claims to be brilliant at so I could find his strengths and make sure that he is lightening my workload instead of doubling it (which is what is happening now). It’s not working.” but I actually feel like it oozes out of the whole letter if you pay attention to it.

      And I reckon that’s the context for the final paragraph of her update: “I also stopped kicking myself — I was sure that he was failing because I was doing something wrong as his manager. I was sure that I wasn’t giving him the tools he needed to succeed. But now I know that I tried my best and bent over backwards to do everything I could to make him a success.”

      And you might say – and I would agree with you – that she DID do something wrong as his manager, in the exact way you’re suggesting, where she never actually sat him down and gave him clear, direct, authorative feedback, but I don’t actually think that’s what OP is talking about in this paragraph. If my impression is correct, OP was looking for a magical set of words or actions which would make the intern successful, but the fact that he screwed up in such a visible, massive way made it clear to her that that never would’ve happened, no matter what. So in that sense, it wasn’t her (failing to find the magic combination to make him A Good Worker), but him.

  8. Amber Rose*

    Dunning-Kruger strikes again.

    Someone who knows a lot of facts but can’t apply them is not book smart. Anyone with memorization skills can be good at trivia. It takes a little more effort to qualify for the smart part. I suspect this guy was just good at parroting information.

  9. Jessica*

    Lol, you KNOW a woman in the same industry wouldn’t get the same infinite number of chances. The reaction to a woman expressing confidence in her own skills and expertise *in things she is actually an expert at* is usually negative.

    Do not hire him, do not soften your feedback, tell him straight out that his writing and presenting are not even reaching the minimum bar for a professional. Do what you can to ensure that this walking manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger principle doesn’t become yet another man eternally failing upward.

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      My immediate thought was “I bet this guy is an upper-middle class, neurotypical, white dude, who ‘looks the part.'”

        1. BubbleTea*

          It is neither racist nor sexist to observe that white men are most likely to fail upward. It’s true.

    2. Goldenrod*

      “Do what you can to ensure that this walking manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger principle doesn’t become yet another man eternally failing upward.”

      THANK YOU for saying this. This letter made me sad, because it made me remember all the men at my workplace who have been mediocre or sub-par, but seemed to be listened to a lot more than women, and valued more. Even when they had the same (or worse) skills.

      I know it’s not every man – I know there are delusional women too – but sometimes I wonder how it would feel to not have to work so hard all the time to be listened to and taken seriously.

  10. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    Wondered if this was a writing project from the perspective of Rory Gilmore’s manager until I saw the update.

    You can lead a horse to water etc etc

  11. Frodo*

    This is the kid who got a trophy in U9 soccer when their team came in dead last, and whose parents always told him the teachers were wrong. They grow up so full of themselves that they can’t fathom the idea that they’re incompetent.

    1. i like hound dogs*

      I get your larger point, but I’m so tired of this cliche overreaction to participation medals. My kid (age 8) loves to get a medal when he finishes a season of something (he does not get the winner’s trophy or championship ring, obviously, unless they win that season). He hangs them on a hook to remember all the different seasons he’s played. I myself have dozens of medals from road races and marathons I’ve finished. Did I win any of them? No. Are my finisher medals harming me or anyone else? I just … don’t think so.

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        I agree. Especially as those sports teams are for fun and the kids are also in school which is probably one of the more competitive environments. I think most kids are well aware that sports are games and that for most people, it really doesn’t matter whether you are good at them or not; kids play sports for a break and to get exercise, not to be evaluated on how good they are. They get enough of that in school.

        Believe me, the kid with a learning difficulty who fails every test and is constantly in trouble for not paying attention because they have concentration difficulties does not think they are brilliant at everything because they get a medal for participating in a match, even though their concentration issues affect them there too and they never manage to score a goal.

        And the kid who is brilliant academically but poor at sports…heck, even if that kid doesn’t get a participation medal, they are still at risk of thinking themselves brilliant, because society pretty clearly tells them that sport doesn’t matter compared with academics. I don’t think a participation medal is likely to greatly increase that child’s risk of thinking themself above criticism.

      2. Fluffy Fish*

        Not to mention the whole thing about valuing effort. Not everybody can be the best at something and a lot of kids who excel at things do so because of some natural aptitude. And then reality comes crashing in years later that aptitude doesn’t often cut it and effort is what gets you places. Ask any former “gifted” student.

        Also it’s fine to enjoys things you arent the best at.

        No kid is mistaking a participation token for being the winner.

      3. londonedit*

        Totally agree. Let’s not forget that it’s the adults who are giving out these so-called ‘participation medals’ – it’s not the kids’ idea! Even children can understand when they’re just being given a pat on the head for taking part. And participation medals are totally a thing in the adult world, too – the vast majority of organised running events include a medal or a t-shirt as a reward for completing the race! You can even do virtual running challenges now, where you run a certain distance or a set number of miles in a month or whatever, and then send off for a medal. I agree that there are people who grow up with a sense of total entitlement because they’re never challenged or told that they’re wrong, but I don’t think getting a medal for competing in your school Sports Day is the root of all evil.

  12. Sally Rhubarb*

    Some people are beyond help, sad to say.

    I worked with a couple of people (cis men in my case but I don’t think being a pigheaded ass is gender specific) who thought they were God’s gift to the masses when in reality, 5 yr olds could excel in areas they were failing in. I think it takes a real come to Jesus moment to get them to change and if the fallout from of this dude’s internship didn’t wake him up, I’m unsure what will.

  13. Copyright Economist*

    I work for the Canadian Federal Government. The rule is that all new, permanent hires from outside have a one year probation period. If you pass probation, you become permanent and getting rid of you becomes much more difficult. If you don’t pass probation, you are let go, although you can ask the union to help you grieve this decision.

    OPs description of the intern reminds me of a recent hire we had, whom I’ll call Alex. Alex had a master’s degree, but he was unwilling to learn anything from his colleagues (ours is a very specialized office). Not knowing what you don’t know is a cardinal sin, in my opinion. We decided that Alex would not pass probation on this basis. He DID grieve this decision, but I don’t regret it one bit. I think the OP should let the OP go, by analogy.

    1. Cee S*

      I’ve encountered a few individuals with postgrad degrees who have been unwilling to learn from the colleagues at work. There’s an inbred culture in the academia that they’re superior than others. Some folks, including those in tenure positions, lack social and business skills to succeed at work.

  14. Pizza Rat*

    I would really like to know why this intern was hired in the first place. The arrogance LW describes sounds like something that would be hard to miss in an interview. It doesn’t sound like he brought anything to the table so why was he there?

    1. ScruffyInternHerder*

      Can only speak to a non-intern that I saw in and old job who definitely hit this level of arrogance:

      He was hired by a similarly arrogant failed-up manager. The amount of downhill fecal matter that was rolled by both the arrogant manager and the arrogant report in the direction of anyone who didn’t buy into their bovine fecal matter was…astronomical.

      Yes, the hiring process was adjusted after that – and I’m not sure it was for the better, either. What those adjustments did was make things harder for managers to bring in people who they know are competent and a good fit within their group.

          1. Pizza Rat*

            despite not actually being able to finish typing my handle, I have not yet had any alcohol today.

  15. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    I feel very much like this is the intern that we had that was fired from his first internship and my office hired him after he finished his internship with us. It. Has. Not. Been. Going. Well. The head of the agency he left sent their condolences when they heard we hired him.

  16. Person from the Resume*

    Based on the update, the intern was probably my untrainable, but I’m wondering if the LW was ever telling him the big picture “you’re bad at writing and presentations and marketing on social media.”

    If you try to fix bad writing of a delusional person by correcting each little mistake that’s not necessarily telling him that he’s bad at something and needs to improve everything about it.

    1. AMT*

      I agree—it’s possible that the intern was so willfully blind to his failings that he was able to ignore even blunt feedback, but it could also be one of those situations where the LW was giving feedback that a *typical* person would pick up on, but not someone with that level of self-delusion.

  17. Red Flags Everywhere*

    I’ve had to deal with this in different contexts over the years and it’s always difficult. In one case it was a new hire who persisted with unrealistic self-evaluations despite nearly-daily coaching on all the things they weren’t doing correctly after multiple training sessions with varied approaches. Ended with termination. Another case involved an existing employee who was actually really, really good at their job and was eager to expand the role into areas they had experience doing in prior positions. Turns out they were really, really bad at some of those responsibilities and even when it was all falling apart they kept insisting they were great in those areas. Ended up reworking the position to capitalize on the things they were actually good at and gave up trying to coach on the other topics because they just weren’t open to accepting the criticisms. There are certain ways their role will never expand again, however.

  18. Pita Chips*

    I have questions.

    The biggest one is just what was the intern responsible for that required CEO involvement to fix? If he’s been showing himself to be sub-par at everything, why did he have so much responsibility?

    Where does the shine? Is he truly incompetent with everything? Something must have stood out somewhere for him to get hired.

    While I don’t doubt he was a problem–I’ve met plenty of people with that level of arrogance–why was LW changing his work instead of making sure he understood why it had to change? Most interns don’t come with the basic understanding of how to function in the workplace, and when you’re working with them, you often have to get basic and explain things that you’ve been doing for years because they have no reason to know.

    1. Marcella*

      There’s a lot of nuance in marketing. I can explain to some people why their social campaigns are ineffective, why their writing is stale, why their design UX is confusing. But at some level, they may just not have the chops while viewing their work as genius. I’ve worked with plenty of young would-be creatives who will never have the talent and judgment to succeed no matter how much coaching they get. Internships are often where they find that out.

      1. Itsa Me, Mario*

        No intern should be brought in at a level of responsibility where the answer to anything is “this is unteachable, you just have to know”.

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          I agree; that is an area which really does need more experience/knowledge. I again wonder if this company was trying to cheap out by hiring interns for positions that entry-level paid employees should have.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      It read to me like the thing the CEO had to fix was the intern doing something he was not remotely responsible for but chose to do anyway.

  19. Itsa Me, Mario*

    Granted it sounds like this situation was resolved in a way that leads away from my initial thought process here, but…. am I the only one who read this and thought “well, he’s an intern.” In my experience, at least half of all interns think they know a lot more than they do, have little to no understanding of how to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in school to real world applications, and need a lot of polishing before they can be strong contributors to a team. That’s why they’re interns. You usually aren’t supposed to task them with key presentations, important social media campaigns, and the like.

    I feel like folks here, including LW, are judging this person as if they are 3-5 years into the working world rather than literally not even qualified to be considered entry-level yet.

    I’m also wondering if this company is maybe relying a little too much on its interns, if these situations are even able to arise in the first place.

    1. Myrin*

      I totally see what you’re saying but I think it’s the sheer magnitude of both self-confidence and unteachability that’s the problem – he thinks he’s “amazing”, “great”, and “brilliant” at things but is actually extremely bad at those very things (that disconnect alone is a flag IMO; like you say, it’s definitely not unusual for people to think they’re better at stuff than they are but not by such a margin), and he’s not improving at all, despite being put on several what sounds like very different projects in different areas.

      1. Itsa Me, Mario*

        My first thought about managing this person is less how to tell them they suck, actually, and more to just put him on less projects and make the few projects he’s given be low stakes learning opportunities. It sounds like that didn’t happen, and instead he was allowed to fail up until he crashed and burned. And yeah, it’s fun to point and laugh at the clueless intern (we’ve all done it), but it all just seems so avoidable.

        When I was an intern, my work was mostly faxing (im old lol), ordering lunch, a few errands, and then I was tasked with figuring out how to create this unique lighting effect that the cinematographer thought would be interesting but wasn’t sure how to actually execute. Without which the movie would have been fine, or they’d have done it in post, or whatever. And I was doing that bigger task in collaboration with another intern. I had no idea what I was doing, but the lighting effect thing was mostly trial, error, and figuring out how to run sheets of acetate through a copier. (It went off like gangbusters, for the record.)

      2. ClaireW*

        Yeah exactly this, it’s not just that he’s struggling at things (all interns do, that’s kind of the point) but that he’s both so over-confident and so unaware that there is no level of teaching/managing that’s going to help him. In order to learn things you first have to acknowledge that you aren’t already an expert at those things.

    2. Uranus Wars*

      You aren’t alone!

      I definitely had the same thought…and firing an intern isn’t always easy unless they have done something really egregious….because they are there to learn and that’s what the argument with HR will look like. So they aren’t great at what they chose to do…part of an internship is finding out what a role/field is like.

      While I don’t think the feedback was blunt enough, I also feel like the expectations by the commentariat and the OP might be a little skewed.

      I also think, though, that the thing with the CEO might have involved some rogue activity that came out of left field…not something he was assigned that he just screwed up.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        This is what I’m thinking, too. A little too much expectation that the intern won’t perform like, well, a newbie intern needing instruction and coaching! But, on the other hand, this intern was no prize, and might not have been very coachable, and may well have gone rogue and took it on himself to reach for something way outside his grasp. (Which raises the question of how he was allowed around such sensitive information.)

  20. TootsNYC*

    when my daughter was about 5 or 7 or so, we went to a swimming pool, and she said, “I’m great at swimming.”
    Reader, she could not swim at all.
    But she was applying that encouragement from daycare (“you’re so great at coloring!”) attitude to herself. She did it for lots of stuff.

    I sat her down and told her how important it was that she be honest: that she cannot swim at all, and grownups need to know that.

    This kid sounds like my daughter at that age.

  21. Addison DeWitt*

    Seems to me that his three problems are the same problem. He can’t organize his thoughts or an argument well, so his writing is bad whether he’s writing a memo, a speech, or a Facebook post. The good news is that all three can be dealt with the same way, since they are the same.

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