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.

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

Why I write [[1]]

I write to make sense of the world when I feel so overwhelmed by the combination of information, analysis, and pure human emotion. It is the only way I can stop myself from feeling too overwhelmed to pick something to help out with where I can offer something. I write to make sense of my world, I build to do something worth remembering later.

All of this news from Baltimore makes me think about how parents talk to their children about right and wrong. How do we teach them about justice? I know it happened, but I cannot remember how my parents first introduced the concept of “just” and “unjust,” or even “fairness.”

How does one define or provide examples of justice today, while the news is scrolling through coverage from Baltimore and Ferguson and so many other communities in the United States that are sharing the stories that have been hidden for too long?

I mostly read twitter, and a handful of the articles, but there is a lot of editorializing and not enough data for me to follow and make sense of everything from here, at a distance.

All of it is, however, causing me to return to questions I’ve been returning to for the last few years.

I struggle with my understanding of “activism” and viewing myself as an “activist” in similar ways/language that my Catholic or formerly Catholic friends talk about their faith.

The difference, and what I envy them for, is that they can retreat to a church as a space of quiet reflection.

My temple is in loud gritty streets where I cannot ever turn off. Where a car horn at 4am is as natural to me as the sound of my roommate locking the door behind her when she leaves early in the morning. Never alone, never completely able to let go.

The only way I escape from losing my mind in over-defining and critiquing myself to death is to write about it. Either in the journals I keep or in poetry. The poetry is ideal because I can hide behind words and express more purely what the strain/breach of faith feels like. [Breach in both definitions: the breaking and rebuilding].

Maybe it will always be in conflict.