Glitz and Glamor
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , , ,

I had the chance to attend a pretty high class event the other week. A line of attendants waited patiently to take my orange ski-jacket, they served delicious food out of margarita glasses, and I got to hear a concert by someone I had only seen on television. It was made all the more absurd because I was invited at the last minute and was only dressed appropriately because I came from a meeting. Any other day, I would have been clad in jeans and a t-shirt. Instead, this one time, I fit the part of a young professional.

But the entire time, something was gnawing at the back of my mind. I couldn't remember what it was behind the glitz and glamor of the night.

Before I left work that day, I was a little depressed. I let myself get distracted when I was trying to read this article by Tim Ferriss and Tucker Max. Instead of reading it, I finished up work and went to that event. The thing is, that article is about something that's as true about internet marketing as it is about life: you can't fake quality. I let myself stop working just so I could go to a party and feel starstruck. If I read that article, I would have had a better handle on one of my projects.

There has been so much written about how best to use Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to drive traffic to your website, but at the end of the day it's all secondary. If you're not putting at least half of your efforts into producing quality content, then all your time spent marketing is just adding more noise to a seemingly bottomless pit of nonsense. That's how I feel thumbing through blogs some days, and that's how I felt at that event.

Just because I was let in the door and was dressed the part doesn't mean I was a part of that wealthy and accomplished crowd. Just because you can use "SEO" and "SMO" to get your blog in the best places doesn't mean it's worth reading. That's how I felt about my first few entries here, but I kept writing, even when I knew I wouldn't hit "Publish."

That's the important part, and not the glitz and glamor that only distracts you from the important, but harder tasks of producing and contributing.

Those are the things that don't leave you depressed and hungry for distractions. They're good enough by themselves.

Measuring Success
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , , ,

One of the first things I did when I moved out of my parents' house was buy a calendar. It cost two dollars and I hung it on the wall next to my desk. This is an idea I stole from Jerry Seinfeld where he would mark an 'X' on his calendar every day he sat down and worked on his jokes. I reproduced this habit hoping it would help me stick to a writing schedule. As I write this, it is only Day 8, and I can't say I've completed some doctorate program in creative discipline. But enough time has gone by that I have learned the following things:
* Day 1 might have been the most important step. I sat on this idea for a few days because I knew once I started, I wouldn't want to break that chain (which is true). If I did, this would become just another ambition that fizzled when things got hard. Instead, when I finished writing that day, October 21st, I marked my first 'X' with a feeling of humble accomplishment. It felt good.
* Days 2-3 were when I really started to feel the building momentum. These were the easiest 'X's to mark.
* Days 4-5 were not only the continuation of my budding productivity, but also of a new work week. At the end of these days I couldn't bring myself to work on the same story I've been adding to since April. Instead, I drafted a blog post and started a piece of non-fiction. This gave me a creative rush I'd liken to overcoming the exhausting middle point of a long run or swim. It was smooth sailing for a while.
* Day 6 was the first day I when I would rather do ANYTHING except write. But I did. I scribbled some unpublishable thoughts in my moleskin on Day 6 and marked my 'X,' although reluctantly. Did this really count as a success?
* Day 7 was a strange day. I realized that when I last left the main story I had been writing this past week, I had just reached the point I had been working towards since I started the first page six months earlier. And now I had been neglecting it. I turned on the right music for that particular moment in the story and wrote while standing up. It was a struggle, but an invigorating one. Still, when I went to sleep I realized I hadn't written much more than 500 words, and yet I still marked an 'X.' This is when I realized that if I wanted to get even more out of this experiment, I would need stricter rules for measuring my success.
* Day 8 is what I'm working on at the time of this first draft. I opened up my main story, but couldn't get out more than a few edits. I'm tired and I know I need to get to sleep soon. I think to myself "I wrote and edited for work today. Doesn't that count?" I answer myself, almost immediately: "No." With work, I have the motivation of my bosses, co-workers, and clients. When it comes to my private writing, I have only myself to rely on . That's what my first week taught me: sticking to a regiment is an exercise in self-motivation. On Day 1, my motivation was to do anything. By Day 6, I started to realize that setting the bar so low would furnish only meager results.
I started to sense this problem when writing on a Saturday: instead of working through the anxiety, I would make another cup of coffee, talk to my roommate, watch 30 Rock for "inspiration"...but really I was just scared to sit still. I finally did start to write in earnest, but by then it was also late and I was tired. If I had worked through that fear hours earlier I would have gotten more accomplished. Still, I wrote in an 'X' because I had successfully sat down and written. For the first week, "anything" is infinitely more valuable than "nothing." For the second week, and beyond, I'm going to start measuring my success. Otherwise, how can I say that 'X's on my calendar are anything more than decoration?
The following books, blogs, and articles have helped me in the past and will continue to do so in the future. I'm clearly not an expert on any of this, but maybe they can help you, too. And, as a rule, they aren't confined to writing. All creative endeavors face similar roadblocks:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield (book)
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand (book)
The Business of Running, by Ryan Holiday (blog)
The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (book)

The Hustler King: Inspiration
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , , ,

I had a professor while at Marist that shared the unhealthy, manic lifestyle of his students. He'd come into class - over caffeinated and wearing a four day beard - and tell us about the essay he was trying to finish on a tight deadline. He was very easy to relate to, although it didn't hurt that he was one of the younger professors at 32. I remember one time, before our first test, he had a review session at about 8 P.M., at least twelve hours since he got to work. The inspiring part wasn't that he was still working - anybody can do that - but that he was still gushing energy and happiness to perform the most fundamental part of his job: teaching students.

When I think about the perfect leader, I usually come up with an image that one of my favorite writers, Robert Greene, would call the "Hustler King," a leader that is still in tune with the daily struggles of his enterprise. That proximity is the source of his strength. The person grading his students' papers, learning their ideas, is the professor; the person solving the client's problem, sharing their frustration, is the CEO; the person behind the camera, explaining to customers what went wrong, is not the PR people, it's the person who was responsible for the mistake.

At some point in time, every job gets delegated down to somebody else. Professors have TAs, CEOs have employees, and companies have PR firms. This is the typical way organizations develop and grow. It's average. It's normal. It works. But with that delegation comes an almost aristocratic distance. Being far away from your students, your customers, your clients, your robs you of that intimate knowledge that breeds real intuition. That's what I want for myself one day.

I see that professor as an example of a Hustler King, jubilant to still be helping his students learn at 8 o'clock at night. What other Hustler Kings are out there? Do you know any that inspire you?

Humans on Twitter
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , ,

When you're on Twitter everyday, it can seem like a very impersonal tool. I recently read this post titled "Learn From Your Friends To Make The Most of Twitter." He mentioned my company's Twitter, @tcgagency, but this was my favorite part:

"By now, there’s been plenty of blog posts written about the various ways to effectively use Twitter, so I’m not going to bother writing what they are. Instead, I wanted to give some “props” to the people who have helped me build my Twitter account and communication skills on the site. They exemplify what I feel to be the foundations of a successful Twitter profile: community, value, authenticity, and sharing."

This is a smart and very communal idea. Behind this, is something very similar to Follow Friday (#FF) - where users recommend people whose content they enjoy - but with more authenticity and expression. Anyone can tweet a few account names, but it takes more time and thought to write something about them. It's a gesture that shows you've been paying attention to someone and it makes for stronger bonds.

Twitter makes it easier than ever before to communicate with someone, but with that ease comes laziness. A lot of accounts will just tweet links to articles - it's amazing how many places you can get the latest from Mashable - without any indication that they read or even something away from them. These pusillanimous accounts are half way between nonsensical spam and users that really try to build relationships.

There's a good amount of talk about just how powerful bonds built over social media are. I think a good rule of thumb is that you're more likely to build a relationship if you feel like you behave and communicate similarly offline and if you take chances, even if you are a little shaky (fast forward to 12:42 where his company, that made a video amidst a PR crisis received playful, sociable responses). Because if you don't show people that you're human and trying to get involved in the conversation, than how are they going to find out?

In Praise of New York City
by Alex Shippee in Labels:

New York City is endless. It seriously never stops. When I returned from a week long vacation one day I was amazed that the massive, amorphous crowd still had the same nuanced looks of stress and hurrying on their individual faces. It was like returning to a city thousands of years later and finding all the buildings intact. Why doesn’t anybody slow down?

Commuting into the city isn’t the same as living there. You get to see all the massive buildings and hear the tangled conversations on the street, but you don’t get to enjoy it. You don’t get to stand still, with a whole day stretched before you, and do all those New Yorker things. I don’t know exactly what they are because, well, I’m not a New Yorker. I’m from a small town in Connecticut actually. Life is very different there. Instead, I get off at Platform 112 at Grand Central and take the 6 Train to Canal Street and walk to my office before I’m late.

For a few days in a row, I passed the same woman walking her tiny little dog who happened to have three legs. It broke my heart and, one day, I asked her about him (his name is Lick-Lick) and why he had only three legs (he got into a fight with a coyote) and we got to talking.

I told that woman about a farm cat I know, named Super-Cat, that also got into a fight with a coyote and lived to tell the tale. We agreed that that was awesome. Lick-Lick peed happily on a tree and it didn’t seem so sad anymore. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed off to work, smiling happily.

The thing is, I like people. And in New York there are more lives taking place, concurrent and intertwined, than I can even imagine. In just three months of working there I met a three-legged dog, debated Harry Potter with a mother of two, got into an argument at an Internet CafĂ©, and just, in general, enjoyed the busyness of it all . I don’t live there, but when I walk to work, I like to imagine the entire space of Manhattan stretched out around me; all the people packed homes, the dogged determination of the businesses, the melody of all those cultures mixing together and that strange swath of life it must look like from afar.

I hope we can agree that that is awesome.

I wrote a guest blog for one of my bosses a little while ago and you can find it here. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I was trying to say and wanted to elaborate on it.

Social Media isn’t a place. You don’t really go to Facebook or Twitter or even this blog. You may navigate from one website to the other, but you’re really just sitting at your computer (or using your phone) and gaining access to a tool. If anything, the place is the tool.

People have been using different tools to reach an audience for thousands of years. If the average person, from any time period and place, was told to share a message with, say, twenty people, of course it’d be different. Somebody in Ancient Greece might travel to the nearest city-state and start talking to people. Somebody in Medieval Europe might post a bulletin in a public space hoping people will read it (providing they all could read). Somebody in America during the 19th century might send out fifteen telegraphs with the hope that a few people will share the message. Now, all somebody needs to do is send out one tweet.

The tools may be different, and Socrates and Martin Luther knew how to communicate their message given the conventions of the day, but there’s no substitute for genuine content and a relevant audience.

by Alex Shippee in Labels: , , ,

The last few things I’ve written about were the best ways to avoid answering important, nagging questions. As always happens, somebody more experienced than me said it better. It helped me solidify what I was thinking: any form of escapism – including aimless travel, being overly critical, and everything in between - is easier than making hard choices in the present. This is why the damned in Dante’s “Inferno” can only see the future and have to ask the living for news: in life, they lived corruptly to escape the present moment, and so that is the law their spirits conformed to. After all, if you’re lying when you say you want to improve your life, it can always wait until tomorrow.

I don’t know that it applies to everyone, but I know that it’s important for me to figure out. Because it’s with me when I go into New York City for work each day and it’s with me when I go home to CT each night.

Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 3 (End)
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , ,

In case you haven't read the first two parts (they're short) here they are. Part 3 won't make sense without them:

Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 1
Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 2 (Acedia)

My friends would say stuff like, “Darby’s is cool, but it’s nothing compared to this bar I went to in Spain,” or, “Don’t get me wrong, I like our friends here, but at home – where I’m from – we just have more in common.” I’d zone out when people start talking about that stuff and the tiny cosmic figure would scratch his head. He didn’t know how to react either, so we’d just wait.

The thing is, it’s all just a way to fight off some kind of spiritual torpor (Dante would call this acedia). That’s what I’m doing when I try to make a moment awkward instead of being polite. That’s what I did when I took an internship that demands 70 hours a week between work and travel. I knew it would be tough, but the tiny cosmic figure was silent when I was considering it. He didn’t comprehend what that entails because all it meant was that I wouldn’t be bored.

That’s why I don’t buy all that, “I was happy back when I was somewhere else,” or “I went to this place and it changed me.” That stuff may be true, but it’s always inflated. I think that’s why everybody talks about travel and why I instinctively tune it out.

But now that I’ve graduated, I don’t want to just keep living in Connecticut. I want to travel, but before that happens I’m going to take my tiny cosmic figure aside. I’m going to invite him outside my head and into the real world. We’re going to talk it through first.

I just don’t want to turn a good moment into a bad one by regretting where I am now.

Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 2: Acedia
by Alex Shippee in Labels:

You can read Part 1 of 3 below (it's short). This part will make more sense if you do: Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 1 
My time at Marist developed my partnership with the tiny cosmic figure. Him and I learned when he needed to come out, and when I was fine without him (rarely, it seems). We discovered, together, what it was like to have relationships grow and friendships deepen. When it came time to let my guard down I’d look to him for guidance and he’d rub his chin, idly. I’d ask, “Should I let this person closer to me? It might fuck me over later.” He’d stare at me for a moment, pensively. Then he’d shrug his shoulders as if to say, “Why not? Can you think of a good reason not to?” It’s impossible to lie to him so I’d say, “No. I guess not.” I’d get a little closer to somebody and usually it paid off, but his track record isn’t impeccable. It never is.
The tiny cosmic figure would mess up and I’d put my arms out, beseechingly, “Why didn’t you see this coming? I got completely screwed over there.” He’d nod, nervously, knowing he had made a mistake. But he would only be apologetic for a moment. “Would you really want the alternative? Never taking that risk?” And I wouldn’t be mad at him anymore. Because even when he messed things up, he’s still kind of right.
I’m one of the few people I know that spent all four years at Marist. Most people studied abroad or transferred at one point, but I stayed put. That stability has been really helpful and I wouldn’t trade it even for an unforgettable semester in Europe or an awesome freshman year spent somewhere else. I lived in Poughkeepsie for eight semesters and it wasn’t easy, but it was just me and the tiny cosmic figure. We bonded.

Read: Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 3 (End)

Tiny Cosmic Figure, Part 1
by Alex Shippee in Labels: ,

My favorite moments are awkward moments. If I can’t make a situation enjoyable, the best I can do is to make it awkward. Generally, there are thousands of pounds of pressure pushing me to ruin something or to make something weird. Every so often though, I’ll see what I need to do – to be awkward and to keep people sufficiently distant from me – and I won’t do it. What happens in that moment is nothing short of miraculous.

Somebody will have said something that I think is dumb or obnoxious and I can prove it. I open my mouth to respond, but then I stop. A door in my head opens and some tiny cosmic figure invites me to enter. There, he shows me the consequences of my actions. What it looks like differs form moment to moment, but usually it’s people looking uncomfortable or kind of dazed or pissed. That tiny cosmic figure watches as I see this and makes a face like, “What do you think? Is it worth it?” I meet his gaze maturely, unsmiling and say, “No, I guess it’s not.” And I leave.

Back in the moment, I’m happy. I look around at the conversation going on around me and I chuckle to myself. “They have no idea,” I think. “I could have ruined this moment for them, but I decided not to.” I smile. “You’re welcome,” I think.

Other times, he gives me the go ahead, but not just a little. The tiny cosmic figure only comes out in big moments, so when he’s encouraging me, he’s not just looking up from a paper and saying, “Sure. Go for it, I guess.” He’s running from deep in my mind all the way to the front, waving his arms and yelling, “Do it! Holy fuck! Do that shit! Come on!” So, invariably I do it. He has about a 50-50 success rate (depending how the little guy’s doing that week) but I always follow his advice when he shows up because he never tells me to lie.

If he did, I promise I would stop.

Supernetworking and Career Fairs
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , ,

Late last week, my manager and I were brainstorming ideas for a prospective client when I stopped to ask her how we got this opportunity. Why were we getting this chance to pitch ideas to this specific company? She told me that our CEO, Clare, has all these contacts - politicians, best-selling authors, or executives of companies that are household names. A good number of our contracts start with a relationship Clare has built. My manager, half-jokingly, called this supernetworking; it's like the networking you or I do, but with famous people and executives.

The core of this, though, is still just the process of building a relationship. In the short two weeks I've interned here, Clare has instructed multiple times that 'We're all not that different." It's something I've heard before, but seeing that philosophy in action is helping to drive it home for me. We may tend to see a person's gender or notice their race or hear their accent and react in a way that's almost scheduled, but I don't think that's necessary.

When I first meet people, I usually follow a certain protocol until I've built up enough of a rapport to the point where I can show a little more personality. This has served me pretty well up until now. Its helped me to mix with people I might not otherwise have gotten to know, but it can also be alienating.

Networking with companies or employers can be very intimidating because they usually have all the power in the relationship. Career Fairs are the best example of this dynamic: a handful of companies wait around for huge swarms of students to hurriedly make a impression so their resume won't be immediately thrown in the trash. You stuff one more mass-produced business card in your pocket and you move down the line. Nobody behaves genuinely until you all leave the gymnasium and stop walking on egg shells with people you don't even know.

Remembering that each of us isn't so different as to deserve that instant bubble around them is something I want to start doing. It's a more human way to interact with people whether it's in our daily lives, networking, or even SUPERnetworking.

Good Internships
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , ,

I've had three internships until now, but I started my fourth this week, at tcg. Unlike a few others, I genuinely wanted this internship because it offered all the areas I want to learn about: public relations, agency mechanics, social media, and strategy. Over the last few days, I've learned about all of those, but it's been very different than the ones I've had in the past. I wasn't really sure why until today.

Before she had a meeting tonight, our CEO turned to the other intern and myself and began to explain the importance of leaving a trail. She told us that making clients aware of our progress, as it develops, is not only a polite business practice, but also a way to remain flexible. When somebody, inevitably, asks if we can adjust our work to their desire, or change what we've already done, we can point to the last e-mail we sent or voice message we left as an honest indication of our progress. If we can make their adjustment, they'll already know because we've already showed them where that project is compared to where it needs to be.

This goes beyond business practices and is true even in our personal lives. I usually see checking in as a nuisance or constricting, but really it's a source for freedom in an ever changing, hectic world.

That lesson itself is remarkable, but what really struck me is that when she was done explaining this, she hadn't ask us to do anything more. She just took the time out of her day to teach us something new. I haven't gotten that from other internships, but it's why I look forward to work every day.

Graduation and Tension
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , ,

I don’t know how it works at other schools, but Marist College has a week between the end of finals and graduation called ‘Senior Week.’ I woke up that first Saturday – my last final behind me by only 17 hours – and felt an uplifting sense of freedom. I went for a run across the Mid-Hudson Bridge; I traveled near Vassar to eat dumplings and drink bubble tea at an Asian/Argentinean restaurant; I cracked open a book I didn’t have time to read before; and I spent time with my friends playing kickball. It was fantastic.

Graduation has come and gone and, with it, so has that uplifting feeling of Senior Week. Now, I feel a sort of stress and tension. I’m in a state of transition for the first time where I don’t know the outcome. I might fail, I might succeed, or I might stagnate. But I don’t think it’s something I need to be truly afraid of. Robert Greene says, “You have nothing to fear from moments of transition. You welcome, even create them. Whenever you feel rooted and established in place, that is when you should be truly afraid.”

So I think this tension is a good thing. It will help push me in the right direction and keep me focused. In the end, I’ll only be in someplace new, not in some place worse.

One Day
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , ,

This past week, I went on my first interview that wasn't at either a restaurant or a farm. And it was stressful. I brought several copies of my resume and a portfolio of my recent work and hoped for the best. I was expecting to be dragged through a fire.

The man who interviewed me, though, was extremely friendly. This put me at ease and my nerves started to settle. I listened comfortably as he talked and I began to wonder when I'd be asked one of those stock interview questions everybody dreads: "What would you say is your biggest weakness?", "Where do you see yourself in five years?", or, my favorite, "Tell me a little bit about yourself." They're questions that seem honest enough, but are asking you how good you are at selling yourself.

As I reflect a little more on my first interview, I think it might be silly to resent or dread these questions. Preparation is a very important part of job interviews, but it starts sooner than we usually think. If you're applying to the right company, agency, firm, etc. than you've found, hopefully, some place you really want to work at. When they ask you "What is your biggest weakness?" you know they're really asking "How could your deficiencies keep you from succeeding if you get this job?" And you should know that.

I want to work in Public Relations because I love stories. I love to read them, I love to write them, but more than anything, I love to be a part of them. I live for that moment when I can accomplish something extraordinary enough to be worth talking about. I can be impatient though. I want to do something and hear that applause as soon as possible. That reliance on instant gratification is extremely limiting because all the greatest things take time.

That saying, "Rome wasn't built in a day,"is unavoidable. And everything, from building an Empire to finding the right job, takes a corresponding amount of work according to its value. It's hard to remember that when you're struggling through the trenches but, one day, it'll all be worth it.

Compliments vs. Encouragement
by Alex Shippee in Labels: ,

When I usually go to my professors’ office hours, it’s to talk about an assignment or at least with a solid question in mind about some piece of literature. We’d go back and forth for a while until one of us would have to go to class, to either attend or teach. It was an invigorating experience to have a fast-paced dialogue with somebody who knew so much more than me and I’d spend the rest of those days exuberant with the afterglow. This semester, though, it has been different because I’m finishing my undergrad degree and leaving those professors behind.

Today, I had to meet with my philosophy professor about an assignment, but he was with somebody. I decided to visit with one of my favorite English professors and to ask her a question about my favorite book, Dante’s “Inferno.” We discussed it for a while, like usual, but we quickly switched to my plans for after college. I mentioned that, a couple years down the line, I might like to go to graduate school.

Every so often, for a reason that usually perplexes me, somebody will pay me a compliment. That’s what happened to me today. My professor told me she had confidence in my abilities and that she could write a great letter of recommendation for me if I would ever want it. My philosopher professor, whom I’ve known personally for the last two years, said much the same thing: he would love to write a letter of recommendation for me and thinks I’ll do great after college. I didn’t know what to say.

Compliments feel great. We guard ourselves against flatterers so much that we become wary of any praise or positive feedback. Occasionally, though, somebody in a position of authority will bestow you with a legitimate vote of confidence and it can be overwhelming. If it’s unsolicited, it feels even better. But compliments exert a sort of negative momentum that can be dangerous and keep you from moving forward. It’s important to not see them as compliments, but as encouragement that you’re on the right track and that you need to keep going.

If something derails you from continuing your effort to contribute to the world, even if it’s meant as a good thing, then it’s only doing you harm. Marcus Aurelius has a great line about how, “The object of praise remains what it was – no better and no worse.” More than that, genuine compliments or praise should inspire you to become worthy of that high estimation. I’ve been the worst of offender of savoring the sensation of praise, but as I’m about to leave college, my comfort zone, I have the encouragement of my professors to remind me that I’ll be alright, as long as I continue trying.

Easy Come, Easy Go
by Alex Shippee in Labels: , , ,

There aren’t many easy prospects for an English major leaving undergrad to face a difficult job market. Accounting majors become professional accountants. Journalism majors become professional journalists. Engineering majors become professional engineers. So what do English majors become?

Anything. My background didn’t prepare me a single field to put all my hopes in, but showed me that enthusiasm and dedication can yield positive results. I love the authors I’ve read over the past four years and I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I’ve learned valuable things from some of the greatest thinkers from throughout the span of human existence.

One of my favorites has been Niccolo Machiavelli. In “The Prince” he said: “Consequently, those opportunities favored these men, and with their skill they seized the opportunity…Those who becomes princes through such skill acquire their principality with difficulty, but retain it with ease.”

Right now, I’m trying to find work in Public Relations and I couldn’t be more excited. Or hopeful.

A background an English in a difficult job market is a good thing. If it’s going to be more difficult for me to find a job, then I’ll work harder to find one I like, and make sure it’s something I really want to do. I’ll “retain it with ease” because it wasn’t an easy fit, but rather a hard won opportunity.