With the end of the decade just a little over a year away, the US finds itself in a recession with no end in sight. Today at the dinner table my dad brought up a computer programmer who works the evening shift at UPS. My dad works at UPS as a driver because it’s the best career he could make for himself having arrived to the US from Mexico as an immigrant, starting from scratch, while having to find a way to raise a family. He works there to provide medical for my mother. That’s it. And I’m proud of him for it. Meanwhile, a guy who graduated from an American University with an advanced degree in computer programming…is in the exact same spot as a guy who never graduated college. In other words, he might as well have dropped out for all the good his diploma did him. Bill Gates never got his bachelor’s degree.
Speaking of Bill Gates, there’s a book out titled “Outliers: The True Story of Success” by a brilliant guy named Malcolm Gladwell. I haven’t read his other books, but now I just have to. In it he names Bill Gates an “Outlier”, a person who exists outside of normal experience. In this context, it’s somebody who achieved phenomenal success not solely based on talent and hard work but, to put it simply, luck. People like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, even George W. Bush, are all considered Outliers. Gladwell, however, goes on to define just what exactly that “luck” is – and it’s everything from having been born in the right century (apparently, if you wanted to be spectacularly wealthy the best time to have been born was between 1831 and 1840), the right family, and the right connections. In Bill Gates’ case, it was showing up for 8th grade and having access to a computer terminal. Guess how many 13 year olds had regular access to a computer terminal…in 1961.
I’ve always suspected that the Horatio Alger story was a myth. I’m far too cynical to believe in something as cynical as that story, but I always held out hope that maybe – just MAYBE – I can achieve great success if I set my mind to it. Gladwell busts out with statistic after statistic that just confirms my deepest fears about the unattainability of success. He talks about a mathematical child prodigy with an IQ of 195, scored a perfect 1600 on the SATs, who ended up a horse farmer, while J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man with lesser mental abilities attains greater success in a similar field despite having attempted to poison one of his teachers. Or, you could just look at Al Gore and George W. Bush to prove Gladwell’s hypothesis. If you ask Gladwell, he’ll gather an account of all the factors that played into the outcome of that election: richer parents, Clinton’s blow job, a scattered left wing, a conservative Supreme Court. He shits all over the Horatio Alger myth and lends credence to the idea that success it largely out of our control.
You might think that it’s all defeatist nonsense. You know somebody, or ARE somebody, who’s achieved great things in your life by persevering and working hard and believing in yourself, etc. Those cliches are all true. But the point of the book is that even those qualities didn’t appear in a vacuum. Every external influence, tangible and intangible, that programmed you as a child to develop assertiveness, negotiation, and people skills made the difference. It just so happens that lower class kids rarely get those influences. It’s not just the average computer programmer with the inside man in the company that gets the job over the great programmer working the evening shift at UPS. It’s the guy who absorbs the mental conditioning early on as a child who grows up to be somebody who’s intenalized the confidence and the soft skills needed to successfully move up in the business world.
Which brings us to one of the many skills that I never internalized, one of the most important lessons a child can learn that separates the successful careerperson from the grunt – the ability to mingle. I think I can trace it back to the “Don’t Talk to Strangers” campaign of the 80’s. In yet another thing to add to the list of things I blame Republicans for, I blame them for fostering a culture of fear and paranoia that told my generation that the world was a dangerous place and evil lurked in every corner. Of course, when we were kids we associated the word “strangers” with shady grown men we didn’t know and who offered us candy if we’d hop in their hoopty. Nevermind that kids take messages like “Don’t Talk to Strangers” so literally that one could conceivably talk to a kid just once to break the ice, then come around the next day with a bag of Reeces Pieces and he’d no longer be a “stranger”. Bye bye, kid – hello, milk carton. The other real problem with the message is that it nurtured a culture of isolationism, secrecy, paranoia; obviously, the effects are with us to this day. Then again, the Cold War was more responsible for that than anything else. On the other hand, the ideology is, broadly speaking, a conservative one. Hence, I can still blame conservatives. It’s almost childish at this point to do so, but then again, I was a child once and they were in power when I was coming of age, so there you have it.
But I digress – back to the real issue at hand. Enough blaming others. After all, that’s what I’ve been told to believe – stop blaming others, pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and take control of your destiny. And I actually believe that. I just haven’t internalized that belief. That is to say, I don’t “really” believe that. I believe that you’re “supposed” to believe that, so I try to live accordingly. I just don’t “really” believe that. Again…I’m far too cynical. But I’ve come to the grudging realization that my career will NEVER catapult if I do not internalize those lessons quickly. I’ve come to pinpoint one of my greatest weaknesses as my inability to meet new people. To network. Or, to use an infinitely more odious term, to “mingle”.
I hate the word “mingle”. It sounds so bourgeoisie, so sadiddy. I’m not a “mingler”. I “meet”, “hook up”, “chill”, “hollar”, “get together”, “get introduced”. Fuck it, I’ll even attempt “networking”. But I won’t “mingle”. Mingling sounds like something artsy types sipping cheap champagne do at art gallery openings. I should know, because I attended an art school that specialized in churning out artsy types sipping cheap champagne at art gallery openings. And eating hummus. Lots and lots of hummus. But logically thinking it through, they’re just doing what comes naturally, and I’m over there feeling awkward about a crowd I don’t feel I belong in because I can’t bring myself to interact with them. The solution seems simple enough – find another crowd. But I actaully like the art scene and besides, it’s not the crowd. I’d feel the same at any event where perfect strangers are expected to interact with each other. I simply don’t know how to speak to others if I haven’t being spoken to.
Often times, introducing me or forcing me to meet new people does the trick. In my design class my teachers force you to work with a new, random arrangement of partners for every project. Because of that, I’ve met a lot of cool people and I get along great in that class. I can let my personality shine through because I’m comfortable in that particular setting. But in every other class I’ve taken this semester where I wasn’t forced to partner up with new people, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I rarely speak to anybody within a 2 foot radius. It makes me come across as either an introvert or a jackass, and people who know me well will certainly tell you I’m no introvert…
So I know I have to learn this skill somehow, and yet every attempt has proven awkward (so…you like…stuff?) or it simply did not happen. I’d like to be able to introduce myself to people and not rely on a wingman. I don’t want to have to be introduced to people all the time; I want to be able to introduce myself. But how does one just talk to somebody they don’t know? Aside from the benefit of meeting new and interesting people, mingling/networking is also the only way to advance my career. But how, exactly, does one do that? Every time I get a call from some stranger who introduces themselves, asks me how my day is, and attemps to build some fake rapport with me, I immediately know they want something from me and I lodge another telemarketer complaint to the Do Not Call registry. That’s how it feels like when I go out to network or when others approach me. I’m looking for a sales pitch, an ulterior motive, where there may be none. I’m aware that people might be thinking the exact same thing. Or maybe it’s just that I have nothing to offer yet. How do I sell myself when I have nothing to sell? (Don’t listen to me, that’s just my perfectionism talking). In times like these internalizing the confidence and ability to network is more urgent than ever before. I’ll be damned if I end up working a night shift at UPS, or some other shitty, mundane job after all the sacrifices my parents have made for me to get an education – simply because I can’t meet new people.
Human interaction baffles me. I swear when the Apocalypse comes, I’m just gonna rip my face off and reveal my true form to the world. You fucking humans are so silly.