youth

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.

 

Six months later; or, on being young

It’s been six months since I left the East Coast for sunny southern California.

This evening I celebrated a childhood friend’s birthday with a picnic potluck in the public Santa Barbara rose garden. The roses, my namesake flower, were blooming in a big way. Behind us, the arcaded hall and facade of the old Mission, which dates back to 1820, glowed a buttery gold. My Catholic middle school held services there. As 8th graders in blue graduation robes, we posed for pictures out front after the Baccalaureate ceremony.

But there were no blue robes tonight. The sun set; the full moon rose; the candles were lit; and I met some of my generation’s version of hippies as we sprawled on picnic blankets in the gathering dew. They were creative and eclectic young people bedecked in unusual jewelry, flowing with talk of reiki healing and energy systems and the challenge of finding your way. Laugh all you want, but I love it.

That’s because I can relate to the challenge of finding your way. It’s been my primary life focus for the past half year. It’s driven me to seek solace and self-realization in endless yoga classes (and endless downward facing dogs); in long runs on the trails that crisscross my neighborhood’s citrus orchards and oak groves; in tall stacks of critically acclaimed novels; in hours spent mindlessly clicking through the wormhole of the Internet, jumping from food blogs to news sites to daunting job listings. It’s a challenge that has taught me the importance of talking things out with friends and family, and taking the time to ask for advice. It’s also taught me the importance of figuring things out for my self, and not letting the lives and opinions of others outweigh my own intuitions.

And the thing is, I’m pretty different in background and schooling from the alternative young people I hung out with tonight. But we all have this in common: We all worry about our futures. We all don’t know what America will look like for us anymore. We are open to so many different kinds of dreams.

Halfway through the night, in a lull in the conversation, my friend sidled up to me and asked: “What inspires you lately, Rais?” I was momentarily flustered. What inspires me? What a question! Who even asks that!

But it’s a good question. What does inspire each of us? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to that on a daily basis?

After a minute of floundering for ideas, I started telling my friend about this NYT story on youth unemployment in Europe. The story is great, but it’s this multimedia feature that I found incredibly powerful, and that’s been haunting me ever since I read it. The Times introduces us to a slew of young people from southern and eastern Europe, all highly educated, all highly relatable, all trying hard to find their way. These were the kids I’d be friends with, had I been born in Milan or Dubrovnik. These are the young adults who I would have been. And they’re struggling: they see no future in their home countries; they see no future in the new ones they’ve adopted—for the time being—for the purpose of subsistence employment. They are a generation confused, depressed, uncertain of how to envision a long-term when the short-term is hard enough.

Laura, an Italian with two masters degrees, says:

“In general, the situation is quite depressing because young people don’t look at the future with hope. They see only a big black hole, and that’s it. It’s very scary. Sometimes I think it’s like the beginning of the last century, when people were forced to go to America because there was literally nothing here.”

Their quotes and stories haunt me, and, yes, inspire me. To do what? I don’t know. Maybe just to recognize the fairly universal experience of being a young person, of trying to figure out how to plan for a future you can’t fully envision. Of trying to decide what you want for yourself—and how you want to go about getting it. But unlike Laura, I am already in America; I am steeped in the privileges of health, family, citizenship, elite education—and rational hope. In this season of thanksgiving, cheesy as it is, their stories inspire me to appreciate my relative luck. American Millennials like me, despite a grim job market and grimmer economic prospects, are still fairly swimming in luck.

I’ve been lucky, over the past 6 months, to meet and interact with a motley collection of young people from outside of my college world—surf instructors, yoga addicts, artists, tutors, chefs, young professionals, students, waiters, organic farmers, tour guides—and it never ceases to amaze me how much we’re all the same: swaggering our way towards something, but (some secretly, others less so) second-guessing our decisions. It also amazes me how little it matters where we came from. College, with all of its pressures and concerns, seems pretty far away from where I sit.

I’m not sitting here for much longer, though. In fact, by next weekend, I’ll be in deep in the midst of college in all its Game weekend glory. I’ll be looking seriously at my future and career, and even considering making a more permanent life on that other, colder coast—or at least another, probably colder, city.

On one hand, I can’t wait.

On the other, I don’t think a 22-year-old (or anyone!) can ever be ready to plan for the future.

You just have to jump.