social media

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.



On “the bling ring”

Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” is not fun to watch.

Maybe it’s because it’s based on real events: many of the lines are taken from actual recordings. This group of teenagers actually stole over $3 million of clothes, jewelry, cash, and drugs from the L.A. homes of celebrities. It actually happened, as absurd as it seems.

Maybe it’s because we know how it ends: the kids get caught and arrested.

Maybe, though, it’s mainly so disturbing to see because it’s unflinchingly true in its depiction of kids these days—myself included. We may not be thieves, but is our self-aggrandizing self-branding any less criminal in its shallowness?

In one scene, Emma Watson and her cohort of pretty young things sit at a booth in a glitzy downtown club, messing around with their phones and taking the occasional duck-faced selfie as they down their bottle service. Their smiles flash on and off with the cameras. To us in the movie audience, their studied aloofness comes off as uncomfortable boredom. They don’t talk, except to say “You look hot” or “Oh my god, there’s Kirsten Dunst” or “Get your drink in the pic!”

And the next day? “You were SO drunk last night.” A character uploads the pictures to Facebook and smiles: that was fun—or so it looks, in its digital encasement. Smoking cigarettes at the beach, they look less “cool” than “teenager-trying-to-be-cool”: the ripped jeans, exposed abs, careful poses. In dialogue, the vocabulary doesn’t develop much beyond “sweet,” “sick,” “wow,” “I’m down.” Neither do the characters.

None of us want to think that we are like these kids: that we would steal with impunity, play with other people’s money like a toy, treat the law like a school rule we can nonchalantly break. But Coppola reminds us that it’s not what they did, but who they were, that is most chilling. The characters never develop because there isn’t anything there to begin with. The movie isn’t a parody of this California subculture because there’s no substance to draw from. Instead it’s a straight-up reflection: this is what your life looks like, because all you care about is what it looks like. You live in an echo chamber of pretty things. Better Instagram it.

Most critics have emphasized the celebrity-obsession that the movie highlights, but the “celebrity culture” wasn’t what hit me (even with the documentary-like clips of paparazzi footage and TMZ news items and Facebook feeds). No: I squirmed in my seat because I’ve had those empty conversations, felt that hit of joy from looking at the Facebook pictures, struck those same poses while reclining in a club’s booth, drink in hand. On Instagram the next day, we look good, and our social network feedback loops reinforce what a fun time we had.

So why isn’t “The Bling Ring” fun to watch? Maybe it’s because just like the kids in the movie, we weren’t actually having fun.