On anthropology

On new jobs & killing the incompetence game

On Monday, I started an internship in an industry that is new to me. I was nervous, so I wore my favorite pants (you gotta take your confidence boost where you can get it).

On Tuesday, I submitted a completed Excel spreadsheet of social media marketing campaign analytics, listened in on a status call with a client, and formatted a slide pitch deck for a digital strategy plan. Sound a little too corporate to you? Don’t worry, my desk chair is an exercise ball and there’s beer on tap on Friday afternoons—not that it matters. Sometimes, a little bit of corporate, structured medicine (and an education in how to use a PC) is just what the doctor ordered.

Desk with a view.
Desk with a view.

At every job, internship, or activity I’ve participated in over the past five years, the constant has been a focus on writing, on understanding storytelling and news-gathering, and on building a better organization. But not now. Now I’m learning to tell the story of the numbers in a chart, to gather news about relative efficiency of dollars spent and keywords used, and to find where I fit in a large, well-functioning operation.

We forget how entrenched we’ve become in the ecosystems of the intellectual paths we choose early on. In liberal arts college, they call each major a “discipline” because you train your mind to think in certain ways—to approach problems with a particular toolkit, a template for coming to a conclusion. For me, the anthropological approach was a natural fit with the journalistic activities I pursued outside class. In brief, the process is (1) interrogate and investigate the accepted reality, (2) observe and collect in-depth information about the truth of the matter, and (3) present your findings with panache—and without judgment.

But in this industry I’m now exploring, the process—the one-two-three of approaching and attacking a problem—is new. The end goals are different. On an institutional level, the social structure of the place is complicated and foreign. The vocabulary that’s tossed around in the office leaves me slow on the uptake, too: what’s a project manager vs. a brand strategist vs. a media planner? What’s the difference in our partnerships between vendors, creative, and clients? And how is social different from digital different from mobile? I knew what ROI stood for, but CPC, CPE, CPV, DSP, KPI, RFP, and SOW are all brand-spanking-new. The two main things that remain the same across all my working experiences are snarky email exchanges and the expectation to stay late.

Here’s what happens when you step outside your comfort zone: you feel incompetent. You want to apologize for taking up people’s time by asking questions—but if you don’t ask the questions, then the work doesn’t get done (and you have to apologize for that, too). You sit at a meeting and frown, lost before it even started, trying to memorize faces and names. I haven’t felt so young and fish-out-of-water in years. Being a n00b happens to be pretty damn uncomfortable.

But I’m not going to apologize. I’m still convinced my youth is my best asset, and so is my inexperience. It’s early days for me yet, but I have a feeling—in fact, at the ripe old age of 22, I know—that my current (and hopefully just momentary) incompetence is actually a plus. I’m being forced to bend my ingrained ways of thinking into new paths.

So if you’re considering a career you know nothing about, here’s the takeaway: it never hurts to stretch.

It’s kind of like a yoga class. Worst case scenario, you enjoy some undisturbed meditation, take in the chill music vibes, and work on your flexibility. Best case, you kill at your headstand and warrior three and your crow—and you just fly outta that studio, dripping with sweat and ready to take on the world.

 

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On teenagers (& the field of cultural agency)

The other day I went to get a smoothie at a popular downtown smoothie bar in Santa Barbara. I (stupidly) went during lunchtime on a weekday. School around here has just started, and the place was packed with teenagers from the nearby high school.

Five years ago I would have thought that these kids—long-legged super-tan girls in their tiny cut-off shorts and Converse, guys in their skinny jeans and tanks and sun-bleached hair—were totally cool. They would have intimidated me, even as I was one of them (minus the long legs; I’ve always been short).

They still intimidate me.

What is it about adolescence that remains mysterious and foreign, even once we’ve gone through it? I knew I was like them once; I wore my eyeliner like that, talked in those shrill tones, clustered just as they did in a giggling group of five, each girl so careful of the way she stood. What changed about me? When, exactly, did I grow up? And why do teenagers now seem like an impenetrable and opaque species, their motives and thoughts distinct from anything I can now imagine, yet everything they do so clearly dictated by a group dynamic, each one of them hardly distinguishable from the rest? More importantly, would I have ever actually worn shorts that tiny at their age?

These are questions for the ages. I often wonder if I had been born at a different time how different I, too, would be—how much place and technology and fashion and cultural assimilation play into my personality, and how much of it is something I developed for myself. Or maybe everything we call “Self” is a reaction to the outside force of culture; nothing, after all, can be created in a void. I don’t know. I don’t feel like delving into the nature-nurture debate today.

Instead I was looking for the easy way out: a good quote to illustrate and theorize my thoughts. So I flipped open my boy Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production and landed by chance on this gem:

“It would be futile to search for the ultimate foundation of this ‘fundamental norm’ [‘cultural legitimacy’] within the field itself, since it resides in structures governed by powers other than the culturally legitimate; consequently, the functions objectively assigned to each category of producer and its products by its position in the field are always duplicated by the external functions objectively fulfilled through the accomplishment of its internal functions.”

Lost? That’s fine. Breaking it down, we have “teenagers these days” = the “fundamental norm” that creates “cultural legitimacy” within the field of adolescence —in other words, they are the producers and, simultaneously, the product of the field that they are positioned to act within, their functions both limited and dictated by their very identity as teenagers. (That is, they accomplish the “internal function” of “being teenagers” by fulfilling the “external function” of “looking like teenagers.”)

That was fun!

No, really, it explains a lot. The opacity of adolescents is a cultural identity production/performance—a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Teenagers seem weird to those of us who are no longer teens because we are, well, no longer teens. We no longer live and act in their field of cultural production. Comparing myself to the girls in the smoothie shop isn’t comparing apples to apples, or even apples to oranges. It’s apples to, I don’t know, stuffed animals. Different fields, different categories, different purposes, different everything. And difference, we know, is scary. That’s what’s so intimidating.

The lesson being: we move ceaselessly through invisible but all-powerful fields of cultural constructs as we age, changing and growing as we move from one to the next, shedding selves and taking up new ones to fit the space we enter into. Sometimes we fit comfortably; sometimes it’s a squeeze. Either way, it’s not always under our control. (At least not until we get older, have access to a broader variety of fields, and can choose where we want to situate ourselves. Teenagers in small towns don’t generally have that luxury.)

Not that I’m excusing the teenagers for anything. I will never tolerate up-talking.

On intergalactic anthropology (and Chris Pine)

Disclaimer: my brother’s bar mitzvah was Star Trek themed. As he is five years older, I grew up unwittingly watching endless rounds of Trek episodes on TV from a young age—of which my parents approved. Suffice it to say that the indoctrination started early, and although my exposure was passive, it was very formative. I even went to space camp at the tender age of 10, and was determined to become an astronaut until age 13, when my poor vision ruled that out. Not gonna lie, I cried when that dream was crushed.

So, cut to the present day and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Zoom in on Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) and his shockingly blue eyes. Cue J.J.-Abrams-trademark lens flare. Watch the primitive humanoid alien population of a far-distant planet, wide-eyed and loin-clothed, develop new ritualistic behaviors and cosmologies based upon the sighting of the USS Enterprise rising out of the ocean, manned by a crew of what I’ll term “intergalactic anthropologists.” (I majored in Anthropology, so this is my jam). Swoon.

In the ensuing ruckus, consider the question: is it more important to preserve endangered populations and ways of life, or to allow all life forms to develop on their own, uninterrupted by outsider intervention?

From the American Anthropological Association’s “About” section:

A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.

Spock believes in preserving life, as long as outside influences are not registered in the cultural history of the population—a kind of “do good and leave no trace” anthropological ideology. (Classic Vulcan—and classic civilizational superiority complex.) Captain Kirk believes in going with his gut; he isn’t much of an anthropologist, just a good-looking roguish dude who likes to keep his friends alive and adventures forever on the horizon. Captain Pike, an old-timer, believes in adhering to the rules, which are strictly observational; more science than ethnography.

Cut back to Chris Pine’s dreamy eyes. Since this is Star Trek and Chris Pine is always getting beat up, he’s been in a fight since we last saw him on screen. Notice the subtle black eye he’s sporting, and gratuitous facial lacerations. He looks great.

If you saw “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the other parts of the movie that mesmerized you were most likely the special effects and the good-vs-evil storyline. There were laser guns, explosions, and lots of high-stakes sound-enhanced hand-to-hand combat. Throw in a cold-as-ice unbeatable villain (Benedict Cumberbatch), advanced military weaponry, and a hot shirtless blonde—and you have all the makings of a solid summer blockbuster. Star Trek’s premise of exploring new worlds is geeky at first, but in the hands of Hollywood it gets the royal action-movie treatment. And with a plot that pits ideology against ideology—pre-emptive warfare vs. adherence to legal and moral codes—it even resonates gracefully in our contemporary post-9/11 consciousness.

But if you’re like me, the violence, visual effects, and even the plot are ultimately beside the point. I was much more into the opening scene of alien exploration, and the closing moment in which the mantra of the starship Enterprise is narrated in Chris Pine’s dulcet tones:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Now that’s a cinematic franchise for the anthropologically-inclined. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got lots of Captain Kirk to gaze at, and Spock to bestow us with subtle lessons in cultural stewardship.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next Trek installment. Intergalactic anthropology: definitely my dream job.