After the Mentors panel Sunday, a friend who was there was sorry she hadn’t gotten a chance to ask her question. She wrote to ask of my opinion on Choire Sicha’s recent advice post for young people over at the Awl. She had wanted to ask the whole panel, though, and now it appears she is writing to everyone involved and will publish the answers. I’ll put that link up when it comes in.
Here’s her question about the post, and my response. She is, it should be said, young and ambitious, and incredibly nice.
“What do you think of it? Are soulless careerists a thing? Is essentializing people like that even a good idea? What is your advice for office-bound young people?”
Choire knows of what he speaks.
Is it divisive? I don’t think I’d say divisive, and I think it’s sweet that you are asking me if they even exist—you’re so young! It’s adorable and terrifying. Anyway YES, they are definitely there. I call them people who fail upward. They mysteriously ruin the magazine/film/show/company and get hired at a better place for more money later. They miss their deadlines, their targets, then get the promotion you were hoping was going to come to you if you were just good and did your job from your corner, because surely everyone notices quiet quality, and then they get that promotion because they are not in the corner and actually no one notices quiet quality unless it is underlined for them.
And that’s where they can actually help. The thing is, the drama he speaks of is also a kind of PR, sadly—and a lot of people get sucked in, including bosses. But you can learn from them and let that be the first lesson—don’t be the insanely proficient office doormat hoping people notice you. Learn to take compliments gracefully and from your place in the corner doing all the work, watch how they fearlessly buttonhole people. And then make that part of the work, just a little. Don’t do it in the sad way—find your own way of doing it.
The big problem in those set-ups is always that if you’re doing your job and doing it well, it’s usually invisible. People would notice if you didn’t do it, because everything would go wrong, but then you’d only be blamed. The key is to find moments when your successes can be out in the open. Make your points in meetings, come prepared, smile but not too much, and be relaxed without being inappropriate. Never let anyone take credit for your ideas unless you agreed on it beforehand and even then, try not to agree to those things.
Here’s a different example of why I say this that may be illustrative: I often get much better students in my Fiction 1 class than in Fiction 2—the advanced class ends up too often being a siren call for people with only attitude who think they’re too good for Fiction 1, and Fiction 1 is full of super talented students who may think of themselves as beginners their whole lives. I don’t think of these soulless careerists as soulless careerists, I think of them as talentless and with no self-doubt, people who never hold themselves back. They used to frustrate me a lot, and they still do, but increasingly it is because they are never the one up at night worrying their manuscript is horrible. They get 7 hours and turn their crap in with a smile. Way too many young people are convinced talent is what they need to succeed, and it isn’t. Stamina is. And relentless self-belief can function in place of stamina, it is much like it.
A friend of mine and I, years ago, observing this, resolved to be at least as forward as they are. If it worked for them and they were a mess, we figured chances are it could work for us. Since then I’ve noticed I know many more talented unsuccessful people than the untalented successful, and so the formula I use is to have at least half the will to get myself out there as the least talented successful person I know.
In other words, use the annoying person in your office as meditation on what you do and don’t want to do and be.
As for telling people about the soulless careerist? Well… here’s the thing. I take Choire’s point, and I have done this–even just two weeks ago, I told a long story about a soulless careerist at lunch to an old friend, who’d asked about this person. But be careful: trashing them even if it is the truth can make you end up looking a lot like them–the way these people talk shit about others is part of their game. It makes them seem like they have game, to talk other people down. Their narratives, if you listen carefully, are always about their own proficiency more than they are about anyone’s failures.
You can also try a wince, a raised eyebrow, where you wait for the other person to fill it in, this can be much better and is also unquotable and even deniable, especially when you’re under 30 and need as few enemies as possible. This way you and whoever you’re talking to can laugh together conspiratorially and the knowledge is shared in eye conversations, which are unquotable, and cannot be forwarded years later in an email with a “FYI” to the person in question.
It would be nice if we could keep them out, but that fantasy underestimates the power of their lack of self-doubt and how much people fear them and do their bidding. Some day you’ll need something from them, and you won’t get it if what you said got back to them.
If you do trash them, be sure of the embargoes, and that the person you speak to is completely trustworthy or that the soulless careerist is in no position to hear about it. The only time I ever speak the truth about these people openly is when it may affect what I’m doing. And never put it in email. Don’t create something that might come find you when you don’t want it. Mostly just take a lesson from them on the power of what looks like self-esteem and go, and keep your eyes open.