An ode to cover letters

Cover letters can be beautiful, wild creatures.

Abused by formality and “advice,” a quick google search suggests that cover letters should be stale, formal language expressing one’s resume with some transitions between the content listed in bullet points. Please, no.

I hear from friends in banking that cover letters written with the right sequence of key words will get picked up by the screening algorithms and recommendations selected to weed out the “bad fits.” This turns the cover letter into a two part project: write the secret message of code words AND tell me about yourself. Good luck.

We read numerous cover letters from potential interns on our team at TED, and I am regularly surprised by how uncomfortable many of them are. I understand why. If our instructions just say, “send a cover letter” and “tell me about yourself,” it’s unclear how formal or “out there” you’re allowed to be.

I invite you to be unapologetically yourself.

The best cover letters, the ones that make me smile as I am trying to get through hundreds of applications in a handful of breaks during the week, tell me something that summarized work and academic experience on a resume cannot.

The language tells me about the voice of the person writing to me. Do you love the experience of words? Do you like the technical strength of your specific words? I love the sequence of sentences, what the writer decided they HAD to tell me first and how they wanted to conclude, tells me about the writer’s dreams and mission. I especially appreciate the questions that the writer needed me to remember to understand their personal quests.

The cover letter allows you to share a vignette with me. Who are you now, in a scene? Who are you becoming, who, within yourself, have you forgotten?

Or maybe you’re like me, and my cover letter guides you through the questions that lead me to tying knots in the cord of my headphones with one hand as my other ink-stained wrist dashes across my notebook scribbling down every fleeting moment of logic before it scurries away. These questions live in my notebook, and I never leave that notebook behind. Keys, phone, wallet, notebook. I never leave the house alone. I am questions.

Who are you now?

Who are you becoming?

Who, in yourself, have you forgotten?

You are more than a letter, or a scene, or your questions. But your letter is meant to be just a moment. Please, share that moment.

What to do when your office feels like a Kafka novel

There may come a time when you work in an office, or maybe on a project, where the environment feels like something only Kafka could have invented. I worked in an office environment like this for a few months once (not presently, my current job is much more straight forward) and I have found myself in several conversations with peers in the last few weeks about what can only be described as Kafka-inspired office environments. I want to share my learnings from the experience as… survival tips.

First: It’s not you. Sometimes, it’s just not. You may look around the room at the people sitting there in front of you and feel like either you or the entire room must be insane. There may a time where the room is insane and you have to keep yourself out of that comparison, for your own clarity. First step is to stop comparing yourself and find a way to stay centered. Even if the room is no longer making sense, you can maintain your own sense. 

Second: Once you have stopped comparing yourself to the group/event/goal that does not make sense, take stock of what matters to you and what options are available to you. 

On a scale of “this is manageable and I can survive with my sanity intact, I am in fact learning some useful soft skills while I navigate this situation” (Score: 1) to I go home and cry almost every night and fear I will fall down into a hole of darkness that I am not sure I will survive (Score: 10), let’s say 5 is “I’m miserable when I’m at work but will get through this and move on. Where are you right now? (At one point in my Kafka office, I was at 8: go home, cry every night, question my sanity regularly, complain to the same friends in nearly non-stop rants. It was time to remove myself from this project.)

If you’re under 5, make a list of things you are going to learn about yourself from it. Give yourself back some control and ways to see how things are going for you as a worker. Are you learning to rephrase your arguments and questions better? Are you making friends with another teammate who offers some perspective on the insanity? Are you learning to negotiate better? Are you learning how not to run your next project/structure your next team? Build this list of goals, focus on your growth there, and survive it. You’ve got this.

If you’re above a 5, your next question is: How important is this current job/project to your long-term goals? If you lose your sanity or your hope and good energy, it’s really hard to get that back. If the answer is anything less than “if I don’t do this I will be black-listed from my industry and all of my dreams will turn to sand” maybe you need to remove yourself from it. Even if you do say “black-listed in industry and dreams turn to sand,” ask yourself, why do I want to suffer for this particular dream, and are there in fact other ways I could reach an equally appealing dream?

Third: If you have some reflection time and realize this job/project is burning you out and you need to leave, find a way to quit in a way that allows you to continue respecting yourself. Sometimes it is ok to say, this isn’t working and I need to go. You can and will find a way that works for you, and you should not be ashamed for acting in a way that preserves who you are. It is not the company or your team’s job to figure out how to preserve you, they can only do that if you are clear with rules and boundaries for yourself. If too many of your rules and boundaries are repeatedly violated and you know you cannot move forward as you are now, act for yourself. Preserve your sanity and hope and good energy.

I believe, from working on different teams over time and watching different political structures play out internally, that every person has a few “good” environments for them that bring out the best versions of themselves, and a handful of really “bad” environments that bring out the worst. I was not proud of the version of myself that I became in my Kafka office experience, and ultimately that was what pushed me to leave. I had trouble respecting and recognizing the person I became to survive in that particular environment. Now that I’m in a much healthier one for me, I see what a really good work experience can be like and what I am like under much better working conditions. I am also much better equipped to interview my potential managers when I interview for jobs/new projects.

Now, especially when I offer feedback to contractors or interview, I try to remember the value of environmental context. Sometimes an experience in a different office might not say a lot about a person’s potential if it was the complete wrong one. I appreciate people who’ve been through the battles of defining and preserving their boundaries, because it means they will tell me clearly what they can or cannot do, what they do or do not enjoy, and how I can support them as a manager. Maybe there are ways we can work together now that were not available in a previous job and this is where this person can really grow and enjoy their work.

In Summary: If you need to leave your Kafka environment, you need to leave it. If you decide to stay, let it be about your personal growth as a manager and teammate and let the rest go. Good luck!

Modern “Faith” Based Organizations: Creative Mornings

Maybe the modern “faith” based organization can go beyond traditional religious frameworks, I asked myself last Friday morning while I was walking to work after Creative Mornings. I want to unpack what it means to have “faith.”

Background:

Creative Mornings is now an international organization built on small localized groups who agree to host free events on Friday mornings before work in their communities. There is normally a theme, one keynote speaker, and sometimes a musician opener and a handful of 30 second pitches from the community. The audience signs up a few days before the event and joins together for breakfast and conversation before the hour-long live event.

IMG_0675

The audience here in New York is very creative: the usual attendees are researchers, artists, strategists, developers, and students. It is also one of the warmest audiences I’ve ever seen in New York, because it’s an audience that is excited and ready to get up early and explore challenging themes like Risk, Love, Freedom, Ethics, Sex, and Revolution.

What does it mean to have “faith?”

I am very much struggling with this question. If “Faith” is tied to specific organized religions, and I find myself outside of those communities right now, can I explore “faith” more broadly?

For now, I am working with this definition: maybe “faith” can be about hope, and designing for the people and world I hope we can become, that I know we have inside of us when we feel safe and loved. Maybe finding “faith” can be about spending time in communities that share my values and want to work towards a more inclusive, generous, and peaceful world. Let’s start with this as an option.

Creative Mornings introduced me to some new tools and questions about “faith.” 

In June, I went to a Creative Mornings event while in a daze after the Brexit was announced, and it helped me find some direction: instead of mourning what we were losing, I was going to celebrate and support the creators. Michaela Angela Davis asked really challenging questions about race and activism in the United States.

IMG_0678

She also taught us about what it means to think strategically and do the hard things when we need to act. This event set me on a new track to manage my media intake (specifically, on the election and the terror that Trump’s campaign embodies) and it taught me to think more strategically about how I want to participate.

Last week, we explored Love with someone who is very much still healing from her experience losing a child/loved one. Maggie Doyne is known for her work building the next generation of a home for children without families. She shared her very personal journey with grief and finding a way back to her work, and she reminded us, “love is the hardest thing, but it is the only thing that heals us.” To love is a choice, to keep your heart open is a choice.

I've been listen non-stop to Amy Vachal since she opened for the July Creative Mornings.
I’ve been listen non-stop to Amy Vachal since she opened for Maggie Doyne at the July Creative Mornings/NY.

That afternoon, I posted “On this day, and every day, Love will win. The darkness cannot take my mind (so I’ll keep learning). It cannot take my joy (so I’ll keep playing). It cannot take my heart, so I’ll keep loving). Love will win. Today and every day.” I received so many letters of love from my friends and mentors. I could create and be part of the community that I thought I was looking for, but really had created around me. I needed this reminder, though I hope one day I will stop questioning it.

I’ll keep coming to Creative Mornings, because it offers a new question to grow into each month. 

This experience, like so many others, depends on what you put into it and how open to the experience you’re willing to be. I appreciate that it helps me explore “faith” and my values each month, and it provides beautiful moments to remind us we’re less alone than we think we are.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve noticed a real desire within my friends/neighbors for a community that discusses ethics and shares values like promoting equal opportunity and values local volunteer work. It started, more loosely, last summer while I was exploring creative communities. In these posts, I am exploring what people are creating in these communities and trying to figure out where I can fit in, support, and keep learning. 

Collecting beautiful little things from the TED Community.

Many darks things in the news these last few weeks (perhaps months, at this point). While it was hard to block it out and re-center for a while, I found my peace in my communities. We cannot let the darkness win, so instead, let us celebrate the good we create together and the beautiful, little things. These are a few things from my community within TED that brought some light and healing into the week.

This week, I briefly caught up with a friend (and previous co-worker) who went to Baton Rouge a week ago to join the protests when we ran into each other in the Strand, unplanned. I was standing over a shelf of books, looking for Andrew Soloman’s newly published collection of essays, but also taking my quiet moment of solace in my favorite of sacred spaces (bookstores). She was taking a break from her office, trying to digest everything that she had seen and experienced, while trying to integrate back into New York. We bought sought that moment of peace over a table of books. I looked up to see her beaming, even through her complicated thoughts and reflections. While it took me a moment to process who I was seeing in front of me, her warmth made my face involuntarily break into an easy smile. That was a moment I needed and celebrate, even while so much else was brewing in the background. Andrew’s TED2014 talk offers some moments of his own healing:

This talk from Adam Savage at TED2016 is a series of beautiful little moments in a very creative community. It was amazing to watch coworkers post this talk this week alongside pictures of their children creating their own costumes, memories from their own adventures in make-believe worlds, and artists sharing stories from their own creative communities.

I went to see Finding Dory this week in a movie theatre with my partner. I forgot how magical Pixar’s movies are. There are characters we’re joking about a week later and scenes I described to my mother, hoping she would go see it too so we could talk about them. It reminds me of the talk from TEDTalks Live this past fall where lighting designer Danielle Feinberg talked about the effect of color and light in animated stories.

I appreciate them even more than I used to, because we work so closely to the amazing animators behind TED-Ed’s Lessons.

This team puts so much love into their work. It’s visible in their work and their willingness to teach others about their craft. They regularly volunteer to do workshops in the rest of our community (and get extremely positive feedback, because they are amazing teachers!) and one animator even teaches art classes regularly in a school in her community!

A friend asked me to send her a talk that gave me hope, and I was grateful to return to this talk by May El-Khalil. Peace is a marathon… we have to build our endurance because in the long run, love will win.

I was also deeply inspired by our community this week. The TED residents gave talks about the projects they are working on, and my friend Sheryl, who is a TEDx organizer and immigration attorney, talked about the value of immigration and immigrant stories in the US. It was the perfect antidote to the waves of far right backlash in politics right now.

Sheryl Winareck, TED Residents talks, July 2016
Sheryl Winareck, TED Residents talks, July 2016

I am grateful to be part of this community today and every day. The optimism is infectious and the common belief holding us together is a share love for ideas, experiments, creative growth, and hope for a better future. We see the good, here and now, but we also see what we could become and we celebrate it.

I want to end with an essay written by TED’s CEO, Chris Anderson on the value of ideas. It was the hope in the dark we needed, just after the Brexit vote… Ideas matter, more than ever.

Why ideas matter … now more than ever

A few surprising plot twists in daily economics

I love economics stories that surprise me. In the last few weeks, I’ve listed to a few stories that truly shocked me and I wanted to share them, in case you need a media list for the weekend.

Did you know that some professional hunters are also some of the most ardent conservationists? This RadioLab episode explores the story of poachers who pay for expensive contracts to hunt for rare or endangered animals around the world.

White Rhinos, US Fish and Wildlife Services, Taken Nakuru, Africa. Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS
White Rhinos, US Fish and Wildlife Services, Taken Nakuru, Africa. Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS

Turns out, the story is more complicated than “blood thirsty poachers.” This episode is well worth a listen to the complicated financial structure behind conservation parks.

Voluntourism draws a lot of critique from communities around the world, but I hadn’t realized how closely tied some orphanages in countries like Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda are to the emotions (and markets!) that tourists bring to their travels. What happens when “cute children” become a tourist trap? (Good news: She’s working on fixing this bad dynamic)

We Need to End the Era of Orphanages | Tara Winkler

Breakfast is my favorite part of American cuisine… but it wasn’t always a “thing.” This writer explored the breakfast cereal marketing campaign that made Breakfast “the most important meal of the day.”

And how about a public bench designed to simultaneously interrupt informal economic activities (specifically, drug dealing), prevent theft, limit loitering, and defy graffiti? 99% Invisible covered a brief history of unpleasant design to show how some designers though about solving what they viewed as “social ills.”

Work by Public artist BiP, New Haven CT
Work by Public artist BiP, New Haven CT

Finally, a few thought-provoking pieces by R. Luke DuBois about how we organize numbers and think about people. If you haven’t seen his TED talk yet, I would recommend beginning here.

His maps of the United States are fascinating and worth exploring over a long, hot summer afternoon. You can see more of them on the TED Ideas Blog or on his website. He challenges the idea of “data viz” with his piece called “Take a Bullet for the City” and he does his part to make our communities a little warmer through his piece that connects people on the missed connections board on Craigslist.

Reflections: Burdens of proof as a fact checker

Generally, receiving an email from me is a bittersweet experience. On one hand, I am there to help and respond to the author’s needs. On the other, it often means I found something wrong or have questions, because I am showing up to poke the research and find its weak points. Sometimes it stresses people out and makes them feel badly about their work. Never, of course, my intent.

When I first introduce myself now, I explain to speakers and others whose work I am reviewing: Hi! I am the in house researcher/fact checker and I am on your team to protect you and your work from internet trolls. We aren’t going to give them anything to poke at so they will instead engage with your ideas.

Because, really, we are a team. I am there to support them and tell them where we need to include better citations or data, where we can ask more critical questions, how we can introduce necessary “degrees of doubt,” etc.

I like to allow the speaker/writer to set their own “burden of proof.” This comes in several forms. I might read your work and see someone introducing “science,” or “social science,” an “Oped,” “predictive work,” “fiction,” or a “personal story,” among others. I adapt my research support and feedback accordingly.

If, for example, you tell me you are a scientist, I will hold you to the guidelines set out by the scientific method. This means that I need to find proof that your study and results have been reviewed and cleared, that the results and experiment is reproducible, etc.

If your piece is an Oped, I will make sure your foundational facts and reasoning can be supported, then you get to shape the rest of your analysis with the occasional question from me.

Each version of a script comes with a different degree of scrutiny to make sure I am supporting the piece in the best way I can. But I always make my intentions transparent to the author, to make sure we can work together to produce the best piece we can.

[If you don’t fact check, you might end up citing someone made up sharing fake information. Here is a funny story about myth busting around “chocolate as a health food.“]

Header Photo credit: Re:imagine Mobility – New Visions for 2030 workshop at TEDSummit2016, June 26 – 30, 2016, Banff, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

A few beautiful & challenging ideas from TEDSummit

We started with: “ideas don’t know borders, they’re for the whole world” Important opening talk at by , offering the hope we need

Thought provoking questions from Lesley Hazelton: “The quality of soul is not a tradable commodity.” “Could soul be a matter of being brave enough to be vulnerable?

On public art: “We could have finished sooner, but I think it took us three weeks because of all those tea breaks” on his piece in Egypt. When the piece was finished, he explains the reaction of the owner of one of the homes he painted: “he was really proud to see his house painted — he said it was a project of peace”

“if we have a generation that doesn’t know how to build a fort, we have a generation” that doesn’t care about nature — We have an excuse to make more time to play outside, thanks to Emma Marris.

Without that “radical humanism” we lose “the unnecessary, the intimacy, ugly, and the incomplete.”

Marwa Al-Sabouni is an architect living in Homs, Syria. She teaches, runs a bookshop & works other jobs, against backdrop of war. She is thinking about architecture, communities and the future of her country. She has not given up.

Julia Bacha is documenting female role models in non-violent movements around the world. “If we do not celebrate the leadership of women in conflicts/movements, we fail to show the spectrum of role models” 

Anti-terror measures created by governments needs to be balanced by robust & independent press, it is a necessary check on power, argues Rebecca MacKinnon

Alexander Betts reminded us: Dangerous times if “lies have equal status as truth and evidence.” We need to rebuild research into debate. But this is also an opportunity to revamp our arguments and begin new conversations. If Fear comes from limited information, let’s health together.

Zeynep Tufecki reflects on Turkey, the airport bombing, and her upcoming visit: “We are going to build tolerant societies and I feel that our joy is part of our power.”

Ione Wells, after she was attacked remembered “there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.”

And Pico Iyer, reminding us how comfortable and honest it can be to say “I dont know,” and learning as we go.

Photo header credit: TEDx Global Forum at TEDSummit2016, June 25, 2016, Banff, Canada. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED