Pause Pause Frugal

I’m a natural saver. So much so that my mom loving calls me [pause] [pause] frugal all the time. The pause pause part is important here.

I’ll tell her I would buy a new car but I’m trying to pay off my student loan first. I would move into a nicer part of town but I’m trying to build up my emergency savings. I would live a struggling writer’s life and eat ramen to get by but I’m trying to have a plentifully funded retirement account.

And every time we have one of these conversations she’ll say, “Jazmine, I love it you just so ___ ___ frugal and you always have been.” Not just frugal, but pause pause frugal. Part of the pauses are always her trying not to say a scrooge, or a grinch. Instead, because of my mom’s unfailing kindness, I turn into pause pause frugal.

I’m here to encourage you to save. But not just because it’s good for you but because I want you to spend. Yes, I want you to spend – but not on all the frivolous stuff that gets built into our lives. Spend on experiences.

It’s true – I’ve always been a bit frugal in my pursuit of saving. In fact, I used to say that I invented crowdfunding because I used to ask classmates for extra quarters if they had them and when I’d collected a couple dollars I would spend that on lunch rather than the money my parents gave me and I’d pocket the difference.

Although technically the inception of modern day crowdfunding began in 1997 through a platform called ArtistShare that allowed a British rock band to fund their reunion tour through online donations from fans, Irish loan funds in the 1700s were the original crowdfund.

Founded by author Jonathan Swift, Irish Loan Funds were basically microfinancing loans given to low-income families in rural Ireland. By the 1800s, more than 300 programs in Ireland gave out small sums of money for short-term loans. In fact, at its peak 1 in 5 Irish families used these crowdfunding programs.

Now Ireland and I have something else in common – other than inventing crowdfunding and loving a potato based diet that without it famine might ensue. A 2011 study found that Ireland, despite being hit hard by the recession, was No. 1 in personal savings. That’s despite having generally low household wealth and a country with a lot of its own debt. In fact, the study found that the percentage of savings most Irish citizens had: 19.3%.

Now I was crowdfunding in order to pocket the lunch money I got from my parents. Why? Well, my parents told me that if I saved up for half of a senior choir trip to California that they would pay for the other half.

And I savored every hot dog I ate on Venice Beach and every ride I went on in Disneyland because I not only got to travel with my friends, but I also earned that travel.

That’s what savings does.

It allows you to experience. Research shows that we can really like our material goods. I mean, I got a great deal on this outfit and I love this necklace. But our material goods remain separate from how we identify ourselves. Whereas experiences are integrated into who we are. Even a bad experience can turn into a good story, another fabric in the woven tapestry of our identity.

About two years ago, I decided on three things: 1) finish paying off my student loans sooner rather than later, 2) finally start that emergency fund and 3) travel more … like a lot more.

Now vacations and savings usually don’t go together. But I knew that I wanted to be frugal but only so I could live the life I truly wanted to – and paying down debt at the same time would just accelerate that process.

Plus, a little-known fact: student loan debt is the only kind of debt that can’t be forgiven during bankruptcy. So you will be paying it forever if you let it.

And, a recent CNBC study found that 66 million Americans have no emergency savings. That’s right, 1 in 5 Americans would have to tap a credit card or a family member or friend for an unexpected $500 expense.

So, do I still have my first car, a lovely Saturn SL2 who’s AC is definitely on its last legs? Sure. Am I still saving for a house rather than putting down a down payment? Absolutely.

But I’m in my mid-20s and guess what? I just put in my last student loan payment.

That emergency fund: I just got it up to five digits last month.

 

Oh, and as for experiences: I’ve had a few. I’ve hiked to a waterfall and mountain lake outside Seattle, eaten fish tacos on the beach in Mexico, walked 15 miles around Boston in one day, touched the Atlantic ocean for the first time, fallen in love with the mural mile in Philadelphia, found out Minneapolis is actually really cool and gone to both the nation’s capital and one of the fashion capitals of the world – twice.

I don’t think of savings as something that takes away from my quality of life now. I think of it as something that gives me a quality life forever.

So don’t save to save. Save to spend. And don’t worry – if you need to feel better about being pause pause frugal, just call my mom. She’ll make you feel a lot better about it, trust me.

 

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Zosia Mamet is an inspiration.

Girls came into my life when I needed and connected to it the most: right after I had graduated from college, with no job, dwindling savings, and a writing degree.

Although I never named myself the voice of a generation, I felt deeply connected to the struggle to figure everything out: your passion, your social life, your friend circle, your dating efforts, your budding career, your student loans. I applied far and wide and had nibbles from places in Richmond, Va., and Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Laughlin, Nev. But nothing felt right. So I stayed in Tucson, freelanced my way into a publishing company job, and hung out with friends in their senior years of college. It was a blast.

But part of me couldn’t shake the fact that it felt like arrested development. Why wasn’t I successful yet?

So I pulled up my big girl pants and moved for a host of adult reasons, some personal and others to achieve a greater level of success. But it took me on a path that was both leaning out of where I thought I was going and diversifying to try out new things. Cool, yes, but in some ways, not success in the way I envisioned it a couple years ago. But it wasn’t the “knock down the doors until you get what you need” and the “overcome the female confidence gap” training that pop culture has seen as en vogue.

Lean In. Thrive. The Confidence Gap. They all tell us to be aggressive in the pursuit of success.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been told that I should be “meaner” in order to be “successful” in a field, to move up the ranks. So these more aggressive tactics just didn’t seem like me. Am I confident in my skills? Of course. Am I the type to stab people in the back to sit at the top of the heap? Not so much. (Mostly because I’ve been the recipient of said stabbing by a person who would later be the mean person that job needed to be on top and it felt just awful.)

Then I started to question whether or not I made the right choice as far as what the job meant for my career and what my career should be in, whether or not I should go to grad school, what people would think about me if I shifted paths … and what “success” is supposed to be. This is where Zosia comes in.

In Mad Men, Zosia (gosh, I love her name) plays Joyce Ramsay, an assistant photo editor at Life magazine, who is in charge of app parts of her career, social, and personal life. She is a woman with an editor position at a major magazine in the ‘60s. The feat would be impressive now, but in the context of the times, it is even more so. She’s by every metric pretty successful. In Girls, Zosia plays Shoshanna Shapiro who at times during the series has been critical of her friend’s lack of motivation and achievement (read: lack of success), but then when she falters at the finish line of her degree and sees a future where her plans for success have been disrupted, she starts to try and put her life back together, starting with a last ditch effort to mend her broken relationship. By most metrics, not as successful. But both women are young and enjoying their life, making mistakes along the way. From an outside perspective, either one could hear the line “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you so make mistakes now” and yet still be lumped into today’s version of what we believe a young person is: a lazy, entitled millennial.

Either woman’s success, however different she maybe, is measured by the same rigid outside monetary, prestigious, and societal metrics.

Even in real life, Zosia the actress says she “ha[s] been incredibly blessed with success in my chosen career.” Success by someone else’s metrics.

But then she asks herself a line of questioning in a Glamour column recently that I’ve been circling around lately myself, a line that ends in this revelation: “We are so obsessed with ‘making it’ these days we’ve lost sight of what it means to be successful on our own terms. … You can’t just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn’t enough—that’s settling, that’s giving in, that’s letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy—but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading—all before lunchtime.”

I say this is a revelation for a reason. I had a deep conversation with a bunch of smart women about work/life balance recently. We discussed how much of yourself you should be comfortable committing to a job, where to draw lines, how career affects a personal life, the ultimate goal of “Do I want a husband/wife and kids?” and what does that mean for my career, all of it. The conversation alone was exhausting. So trying to make these strategic choices seems daunting in so many different ways. Plus, with all the gendered discussion over the firing of Jill Abramson (who I have had the pleasure to meet, along with the new executive editor Dean Baquet because of my involvement with the New York Times Student Journalism Institute back in 2011) from The New York Times, leaning in seems like even a slightly dangerous proposition.

At the end of this vigorous discussion, though, we all had a different feeling about what balanced even was and what would make us happy in the pursuit of success. We all had different opinions about what “having it all” meant, too.

Zosia goes on to say, “The solution, I think, is to ask ourselves what we actually want—each of us personally—and stop putting so much pressure on one another. Success isn’t about winning everything; it’s about achieving your dream, be that teaching middle school or flying jets. And no matter what we as individual women want, no matter what our goals, we have to support one another.”

That seems much less daunting. Focusing not on what you lack, or what different person you should become to get what you want, but taking what you have and striving for what you want. Achieving a dream, whatever it is, in the best way you know how. To me, if that’s the goal, I’ll lean in and thrive for that all day long.

Carl Sagan is right: Books are astonishing.

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

I posted a while back about really starting to crack down and read more books and I won’t lie, it’s been amazing. I’m so inspired to write, to spend less time wasting time and more time learning and growing and experiencing the moment. (This might possibly be because of meditation rituals as well, but that addition is fodder for a whole other post.)

So I figured I’d post here a little synopsis of what I’ve read so far (these books are listed as close to chronological order as well as I can remember) and also ask for any recommendations on what to add to the queue (especially if those are non-fiction selections since I’ve been a fiction fiend). I’m taking a train from Flagstaff to Chicago and back around Memorial Day so I’ll have plenty of time to read (or listen to) books!

 

The 2014 Read As Many Books As Possible-A-Thon 

Completed:

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

Song of Myself – Walt Whitman

Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

Consider The Lobster – David Foster Wallace

An Abundance of Katherines – John Green

Women – Charles Bukowski

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs – Chuck Klosterman

The Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut

The Stranger – Albert Camus

Feminism Is For Everybody – bell hooks

In Progress:

Human, All Too Human – Frederich Nietzche (20 pages in)

100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read the first sentence, one of the best in the history of literature, and got self-conscious about my own writing, but also excited to read it)

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde (really close to being done)

Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (audiobook-ing it while working)

To Read (books that I have purchased and haven’t read yet):

On The Road – Jack Kerouac

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

The Invisible Man – Chuck Klosterman

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

American Pastoral – Philip Roth

Scar Tissue – Anthony Kiedis

The Upgrade – Paul Carr

Then Came You – Jennifer Weiner

The Harlem Renaissance Reader – Various

On Such a Full Sea – Chang Rae-Lee (on its way)

Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash (on its way)

 

I have told those I love around me that on our inevitable next trip to Bookmans or Barnes and Noble, I have to have finished a book I have already purchased or started before I am allowed to buy another one. Seriously the stack is high and growing higher every time I leave the house. I’m turning into a book hoarder.

So please let me know if you have suggestions, or if you want to talk about my impressions of each book. I have lots of opinions, but I will offer them only if someone wants them to be shared!

As Abe Simpson says, one tiny change makes all the difference

After we had decided to see The Grand Budapest Hotel after dinner at Carrabba’s I was asked, “Why don’t you seem more excited?” I know, I know, Wes Anderson. Life Aquatic and all that. I said, “With that many people in a movie, doesn’t it seem like it doesn’t give most of them time to be any good?”

I was – mostly – right. Jeff Goldblum cannot be tamed and even missing fingers he was one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. Voldemort also played a convincing Ralph Finnes playing a concierge.

Seeing this movie, however, stirred up quite a conversation, one that lasted past the walk to the movie theater lobby, past the drive home, and lasted about half an hour after that.

“It was pretty though. Some of the shots were truly brilliant.” I grew up in a family that actively discussed cinematography after emerging from a movie theater.

“Yeah, but who makes Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe seem …”

“Hollow?” I said.

“Yes, exactly!”

“I just would rather watch Four Rooms.” Granted, although I said this particular sentence, it was a group sentiment.

Now, this is no disrespect to Wes Anderson or Wes Anderson fans. And full disclosure: I truly enjoy Quentin Tarantino movies, and can tell that the cinematics in The Grand Budapest Hotel are exciting and visually stunning in a way that Four Rooms doesn’t necessarily achieve. But hey, it was ’95, so I give it a pass. (Tarantino had quite a hand in Four Rooms, just to add the connective tissue here.) But after this chat, and another discussion about it over tandoori chicken and chana masala the next day, a singular thought arose: one tiny change makes all the difference.

Take Four Rooms and The Grand Budapest Hotel: Interwoven stories surrounding the exploits of a concierge at a hotel that turned from very popular to less-than-popular over its time. Even the concierges both had purple suits. But the string that held the movies together, Tim Roth’s concierge versus Ralph Finnes concierge, were just slightly different, and the focus in Four Rooms stayed, well in Four Rooms, whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel spent only a third to a half of the movie inside the actual hotel. And this slight change made Four Rooms easier to follow and more fun to watch, and The Grand Budapest Hotel … full of beautiful visuals and Anderson-esque featurettes and Jeff Goldblum jokes (and by this I mean Jeff Goldblum being effervescently funny, not people making jokes about the amazing Jeff Goldblum … have I mentioned I like Jeff Goldblum?) But did it convert me into a Wes Anderson fan? Maybe not. (Good thing I like quirky books and craft beer, otherwise I’d lose all cred with the hipster-indie crowd with that last statement. Maybe I need to finish The Life Aquatic. Or watch Moonrise Kingdom. Or have a proper introduction to Anderson to … “get it.”)

A conversation expanded to two other movies: Identity and Shutter Island, which take the theory of amazingly terror-filled events trapped in the psychoses of a mind, and let you know the wool has been pulled over your eyes at two different times (about two-thirds through the movie versus right at the end respectively) and that made one much more effective than the other to a friend of mine. “You figure out this is all fake and then you think, ‘Why do I care about that bald guy? I don’t even care that much about John Cusack at that point. The suspense is gone.’” Valid point, even though I still like Identity, and took slight offense to his protestations as I recommended him the movie and said it was “totally awesome.” (Spoiler alert: He absolutely did not agree.)

But here again, one tiny change makes all the difference.

It’s like how they always say in time travel fiction to not mess with the past because killing a mosquito in the pre-historic age can change everything about the present. (My most vivid memory of this is some version of this sentiment said by Abe Simpson to Homer in Treehouse of Horror V (a great The Simpsons episode that really holds up if you haven’t watched it in a while.))

 

I expanded this thought to my own life, and about the tiny things and how they made all the difference.

I went to the University of Arizona rather than University of Southern California, which I really wanted to go to at 16, but would have been paying for until I was 46; I stayed in Tucson post-graduation and took a job I never thought I’d be in, which wasn’t what I thought I’d do even six months before that but taught me more than a different job or a year in a misguided grad program would have; I went to visit a friend in Phoenix in June of last year, after I applied for and didn’t get a gig in San Francisco, and one of the greatest things to happen to the last 10 months of my life happened because I didn’t get a job I thought would be perfect.

What if I went to USC for school? What if I had moved to Lake Tahoe, California, or Richmond, Virginia, or Laughlin, Nevada, for the jobs I “should” have taken? What if I had gone to Phoenix a different weekend, or had gotten Jimmy John’s delivered rather than walked into the shop on Saturday?

From the outside, some of these choices seem innocuous, or maybe even appear incongruous and hollow. But for me, they made all the difference.

So I guess what I am saying is, The Grand Budapest Hotel is my USC. It’s amazing and distant, something I want to like and seemed for me, but is also kind of OK if it’s not. It’s my tiny preference, my choice, my change, change, and it makes all the difference.

Does money or quality define seriously good art? And who said art had to be serious?

The clash of art and business is a mighty one. It’s one that hits close to home as well.

My mother wanted to be – and is, to be fair – a professional artist when she was growing up. But, like any responsible parent would do, she was told that the life of a professional artist is hard. So when she went to get a college degree she went practical and studied business.

Not a bad idea. In fact, a very smart one.

But years later, after a successful career in business that she gave up to raise my sister and I, she returned to art in a big way. She’d painted all this time here and there, giving paintings away to family and friends. A chance meeting with an old friend of my father lead her to a showing at a gallery, and a women’s workshop, and in Borders bookstores (you can tell how long ago this was). She blended her business sense with her art talent and sold paintings and then through volunteer work got an art director position crafted for her.

That’s rare. It’s hard to make art a career, but my mom, through a zig-zagged path, did just that.

But the legitimization of her passion for art came with its blend into her professional pursuits. The painting and talent were the same for years. She became a blip on others’ radars and that’s how she got the business cards that labeled her a professional artist.

So is that was makes art good? It’s monetary value and it being sold? Is that even the purpose of art – to be good?

Poptimism discusses this in the realm of music and music criticism. The New York Times recently called it “a studied reaction to the musical past. It is … disco, not punk; pop, not rock; synthesizers, not guitars; the music video, not the live show. It is to privilege the deliriously artificial over the artificially genuine … Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more ‘serious’ artistic intent. … In this light, poptimism can be seen as an attempt to resuscitate the unified cultural experience of the past, when we were all, at least in theory, listening together to “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Thriller.””

The author then compares it to criticism and “good” art in other genres, finishing with “[n]o matter the field, a critic’s job is to argue and plead for the underappreciated, not just to cheer on the winners.”

My immediate thought is that Thriller was both widely popular and critically acclaimed, and that there are certain pop artists, like Beyonce, or Lorde, that still garner this kind of wide sweep. But being indie doesn’t mean you’re better, just like being widely bought doesn’t mean you’re better. And that in a world where we have access to just about everything, having a Thriller is less and less likely. It’s not that there’s no talent in pop music – it’s that everyone’s pop is different.

The discussion at NPR made me feel much more sane, noting “in a globalized, polycultural, multilateral, warming, mass-migrating world, we have urgent questions such as, ‘Where is the center?’ ‘Which information matters?’ ‘Who benefits?’ ‘What does that make me?’” It states my general thought in more precise language: the discussion of pop music, and thus what is popular, is so much more interesting and valid because “Where is the center?” is a question that’s so much more valid today than ever before. Your taste isn’t bound by your parent’s record collection and the Beta Max/cassettes/CDs your older siblings played in your shared room. It’s bound only by your imagination and your faculties with Google.

Pitchfork also adds a refinement to this and an ancillary concept: “The point is that popularity is a number, but “pop” is a concept. To its enemies it suggests a dystopian image of music served up like condensed food pellets from some uncaring hand, forced into our living rooms and offices, inescapable. To its friends it is something inclusive, a unisex, one-size-fits-all party smock, the thing that draws everyone to the floor.”

The part that’s the most interesting to me is that all of this discussion is based on a dynamic that I saw my mother grapple with when I was small, one that haunted me throughout all my internships where I was giving away my creativity for the pay of $0 and experience cents for months upon months, and even see now as a content creator in the big bad world: money makes art “real,” “appreciated,” and “professional.” And these critics, in their bellyaching about losing their thrones as the arbiters of what people buy under the guise of making the “underappreciated more appreciated” really are just falling into the trap that created the mega popstar in the first place – it’s all about valuing the monetary gains to prove the art you’ve made (or critiqued) as good. Even in the fight against just “cheering on the winners” they rate their success as critics as turning “losers” into new “winners.”

Citing the fact that poptimism – and by extension the popular – must not prove its significance (as its sales have done that) but stress its further impacts, Pitchfork makes the point that I think is the most important one that I’ve read. “I sometimes worry that serious music can only be served by serious talk, or worse, that people who like serious music can only have serious reasons for doing so. The truth is that you will probably meet just as many shallow people at a National show as you will at a Miley Cyrus show, the difference being that people at the National show are more likely to think they’re important, while people at a Miley Cyrus show are more likely to think they’re having fun.”

So does the world think that good art is valued by expertise in execution or especially good economic returns? In the abstract people would say quality, but in real terms, even the art critics allow their good work to be valued in monetary terms. Is that good? I doubt it, but I know that even after reading tons of art-flavored poptimism that would encourage me to lean Dali or Pollock rather than Woodberry, I love my mother’s paintings with a ferocity that only slightly outweighs how hard I bump “**Flawless” from time to time. And that’s OK, because I’m going to the Cyrus fan route and having fun.

Black. Female. Millennial. Invisible.

My sister and I were (subconsciously) always tasked with being examples. As the youngest of a generation on one side of the family and the oldest on the other, we were in an interesting spot where we somehow provided an example of what could be done with our genes, our bodies, our last names.

“It’s important to me that they see that they are building upon a foundation … We have to continue to build each generation. It’s important for our uplift as a people and our uplift as women.”

And so, even though my sister and I both went to a major state school, have successful careers, never moved back home to live in our parents basement, and were born in the Gen Y era, we rarely, if ever, see our story reflected in the media. The black millennial story, especially black millennial women, has not been told to great length – especially when you exclude those accounts couched in the trappings most columns of the African American experience tend to touch on (e.g. the effects of stop and frisk on NYC’s minorities, the visions of us in media and in politics, the tale of a multiethnic woman who has become our vision of the Welfare Queen, and so on). I know that as much as I try to skirt the issue people of color still seen as an other – a voting block to be captured, a section of people to be turned into mascots, a stereotype to have parties about.

I meditated on this fact at length as I came to the end of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Yes, the author shouted out by Beyonce. But her novel expresses a global and connected world, race relations in America, sexual politics, immigration issues, economic class clashes, and even love in an ever connected, multiethnic and evolving world. (Plus, she’s just a brilliant author and speaker.)

Seeing this nuanced portrayal, one that took five years to make and was now easily available to be picked up, bought, read, re-read, analyzed, shared, and cherished from the bookshelves of my local Barnes & Noble, I decided to Google “black woman” to see what the results would be. They were either non-descript or startling.

Black Woman Google

Although I have in fact occupied many a chair in my day I have never been shot nor thrown a table. C’mon, I’m not a Real Housewife of New Jersey.

The black female portrait in society is multifaceted but also dramatically flawed. (This, I concede, is not a singular problem to the black female, but that’s the life I know so it is the one I will speak on.) We have Oprah and Michelle Obama and Olivia Pope and Mary Jane and Laverne Cox and Beyonce, and also Basketball Wives, Love & Hip Hop, and the aforementioned housewives franchise’s Atlanta edition. We take steps forward and also take them back.

As the millennial discussion continues to be dominated by tales of trying to decode millennials, as if a column titled “7 Ways Millennials Are Just Like You Baby Boomers” can really unlock the secrets to speaking to, understanding more about, and working with millions of people, I feel like those Google results above aren’t just happenstance. They really are representations of what some people see black people to be, and so the black female millennial experience falls into the trappings of the experience of generations before, even if we are not the same as those generations. So having a minority name alone makes employers less likely to consider your resume. So the pains of the Great Recession still hit black and other minority workers harder because of the lack of social networking that we have at our fingertips. So people believe in reverse racism against them in schooling and in work, and think race isn’t a problem but rather just black people playing the race card. So people still feel as if minority youth aren’t safe on the streets while others are startled by their presence and choose to stand their ground.

I am not the kind of overly inspiring black story that gets told in political stump speeches, however. I grew up blissfully, and somewhat ignorantly, middle class with a great nuclear family support system, one that some branches of my extended family ridiculed and other branches did not have and could not identify with.

I’ve seen people I hold dear, in the pre-ACA days, get very sick after working at a company for decades and seem to be pushed out, their loyalty seemingly unreturned in the face of struggle, in the thoughts of the company’s bottom line. That is one of the stories which shape my attitudes, the attitude of a young minority woman, a woman in the tech sector where my humanities and liberal arts training serves me well, a job which I took after leaving a previous one in publishing, a job which affords me proximity to loved ones, to graduate schools, to better salaries to place in my salary history. I was told I needed to work twice as hard to get half as far and be all things to all people, so I did. I did not win awards for participating, but rather was told how I should look in order to be a proper representative of the school on my high school dance team when I did not look like all the other girls. I was not sheltered by helicopter parents that did not hold me accountable, but rather driven my parents who deferred their own comforts for my well-being and achievement so much so that paying them back with graduating with honors from high school and college seemed to be payment in kind.  And they don’t have no awards for that.

I was raised understanding that black women typically earn less than their counterparts despite the degree they attain, that black women still face higher unemployment despite making gains in education, that black women’s health is constantly more at risk, that black women tend to have lowest rates of marriage, even though those claims are continually under debate.

So can I really be blamed if I am less likely to attend a church every Sunday, less likely to stay at one company my whole life, or less likely to marry early? And more importantly, is it fair for media report upon media report – created by an industry that continues to say it wants more diversity and more youth in its ranks while most never really act on it  although some try (and industry that I love and majored in by the way, so I am particularly sympathetic to its struggles) – continue to create a picture of millennials that is so one-dimensional that even though I adhere to some of its stereotypes, I can’t even see myself in it?

It’s a question to which I don’t have the answer, or even the confidence that it’s the perfect question in the first place. But I’ll keep trying to learn, and keep hoping that one day I’ll look out and see myself – not merely for my own sake, but for those I’ve met and also have yet to meet, so that when they see me, they don’t see stereotypes or misconceptions, but just me.

Can You Be Nice, and On Top?

For a long time I have wrestled with whether or not to be nice. I know your mom told you it’s always good to be nice. But especially as a woman in the workforce, there’s this unspoken rule that you have to prove that you can hang with the guys in order to be the boss. Be tough, but don’t lose your cool or get angry, otherwise then the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction.

In fact, I had someone on a hiring panel tell me – after I lost a job to a guy less qualified and (of course) less gregarious than me (gregarious was their word, not mine, although I do like it) – that there’s something that might help: being meaner. More colorful language was used to describe this, but I’ll spare you all of that.

I don’t fault the guy for telling me that because in general he is right.

Women in traditionally male occupations can either be viewed as competent (a significant hurdle…as evidenced by the MIT study) or liked (which, it turns out, is really important and for more reasons than just a desire to be popular)…but rarely both.

I mean, unfortunately, really right.

Studies have long challenged the idea that nice guys finish first. Being kind and considerate in the workplace has been perceived as a weakness, and an invitation to disrespect, and indeed studies have found that such behavior does not seem to come with many rewards.

… Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes, in Lean In, about the numerous instances in which being overly accommodating — not taking the best seat at a meeting, waving off praise, underestimating their billable hours to avoid overcharging — holds women, in particular, back at work.

So I retraced it. Was it the cardigan and pearls I wore? Did I giggle too much? Do I smile too much when I should be “meaner”?

As I came to realize that if I had to change or question who I was as a person in order to get a job that maybe the job wasn’t for me, I wrestled with how in the future I should present myself. Is me being jovial holding me back in my career? Do people take me less seriously because of it?

And then here comes Jimmy Fallon.

Jimmy Fallon proves it’s possible. Unlike the Philly magazine column about him, which ironically points out not a single new thought or complaint about Jimmy Fallon’s comedy while accusing him of the very same atrocity, Fallon is nice.

Saying that he shouldn’t do impressions mocks both the heritage of Fallon’s rise to stardom on Saturday Night Live as well as the fact that he does more than impressions, he gets the celebrities in on the joke. He gets Bruce Springsteen to mock himself, and gets Michael McDonald to sing “Row Your Boat,” and gets Barry Gibb to sing as he does a crazily outrageous version of his ‘70s persona. He even gets Jerry Seinfeld to mock his own voice to match his impression. Celebrities and public figures are best when humanized and imperfect as seen by the absolute love of Jennifer Lawrence being irreverent and speaking from her heart at every turn. Even Netflix banked on a Mitt Romney documentary that did that same thing – humanize him.

Sure, Jimmy might over-laugh at a guest’s jokes. Sure, he’s not the best interviewer. (But considering most late night talk show interviews are a rehash of pre-approved talking bits about a star’s latest vacation or a singer’s new dog, I think I’ll take Natasha Richardson playing charades or Drake playing flip cup over recycled, boring, and overly sanitized anecdotes anyway.)

He’s in the zeitgeist, and that’s why he gets to do the Tonight Show. That, and of course, he is nice. Unlike Mr. Philly mag, there are a lot of people who have noticed this in Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

I know when I first started watching Late Night I thought, “Ugh, the guy who could never keep it together on SNL? WHY?” and then weeks went by, and then months, and he found his groove as the head of a three ring circus variety show put into high gear and I had to eat crow. The show is watchable, shareable (which is ever important), and just plain ol’ nice and fun. And as he is proven in interview after interview, no one is more excited to be doing that job than he is.

There’s a reason that now Upworthy headlines are all the rage, and widely imitated with varying levels of effectiveness as a result. For so long as a society – especially in media and entertainment – that if it bleeds, it leads. But people grow weary of negativity, especially in an environment where our elected officials hit scandal after scandal, our neighbors and friends struggling to get by in a recovery just standing up on its Bambi legs, and our world becomes more interwoven yet disconnected every day. Now, media realizes that something heartwarming and fun – even if it isn’t perfect – isn’t just wanted, but is needed.

Jimmy Fallon is an inspiration, in that if he can get to the top of the heap, and do it while being imperfect, giggly, and constantly learning to be better, then isn’t there hope for all of us that nice guys and girls don’t always finish last? Sometimes, they come out way ahead – and all while being nice.

The value of not getting a STEM degree, from someone working in STEM

Coding is a skill. If you want to become a developer, then sure, go to school for information technology or computer science and become a database administrator at a software company. However, I work in the IT department of a tech company and did none of that. 
That means I look at problems differently than someone with a tech degree, and it also means that I get to funnel into jobs in tech that require critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills: technical writing (my current day job) as well as business analysis and information development and engineering. 
Plus, I still get to freelance in journalism and craft the prose I like in my spare time. 
It’s imperative to development to learn not only how to think but like David Foster Wallace’s influential 2005 Kenyon College speech implores, what and how to think, in order to think outside of yourself and your space, and enter into decision making and pondering on subjects that have a vast use outside of your own knowledge base. Recognizing “this is water” takes skills that might not lie in a STEM education.
As I mention in a blog post on learning how art and science intersect in my own life, I have grown a new appreciation for my study of social sciences and the humanities in college. 
And here’s the dirty little secret: even though it seems like my concentrations led to mostly waxing poetic and eating empanadas (which don’t get me wrong, is amazing), I also spent time learning how the economics of colonization shape our financial dealings with Latin America, and the mechanics of the human machine and how our evolution of bipedalism and quantal speech helped us to take advantage of our cognition and create the culture we herald today as essential to the human experience. I learned how to communicate with people outside of my normal sphere in a way that assures I take an international view, an essential skill in a global economy. And the very best part: I learned how to communicate clearly — which is an undervalued yet extremely coveted skill, one that millennials all too often get accused of not having — as well as how to discern what is good information and bad information and learn the ethics of the truth and the messaging I put out into the world — tenets of journalism which sometimes aren’t practiced, but are so crucial that Ezra Klein left a job at the Washington Post and drug Matt Yglesias from Slate to help create a Vox vertical dedicated to context and pure information to fill a space that is in dire need of filling in the age of over-information
This does not mean that I don’t believe in the value of coding. In fact, I see some real benefit to having computer science (as well as basic media studies and economics courses as well) added to a base education for students today, to create a more well informed public that knows exactly what they are voting for and why (or at least knows as much about the devices it uses to connect with the world as it does about the three branches or government or the basics of a sentence). 
But saying that humanities lead to dead ends seems false in so many ways that it hurts me to think that people might take false reports of a lack of humanities majors as a sign to shy away from those studies. 
Especially since I’ve learned the basics of HTML and CSS web coding and design as easily as I have sharpened up my Spanish skills while delving into learning Portuguese and Italian using free online tools that make me somewhat rueful about the small student loan I’m paying down right now. (Seriously, I probably could have makeshifted a degree from MOOCs and online services. I probably still could. I mean the MBA I’ve pondered and many have gone back to school to achieve would be easily obtained online — too bad that wouldn’t translate to a resume-padding, employer recognized degree.)
My wandering point here is this: there’s more to life than becoming a STEM drone worker bee that took a “profitable” degree rather than studying a subject that will expand your mind and your worldview. This point comes with a corollary that demands that liberal arts, humanities and social science departments should both play up the aspects of these majors which aid students far beyond a simple skill or two and also beef up their interdisciplinary and dual degree programs to make it easier for students to pursue two different degrees and get both the job skills they need to succeed in the workforce and the critical thinking skills they need to become more enlightened and participatory world citizens.
Especially considering you can get a coding job without a college degree, but you can’t capture the time and freedom that your early 20s allows to best spend a summer in Italy taking photos and drinking $1 wine while studying art history or stumbling into your interest in the sociology of the body or how the biological evolution of humans influenced the culture they later created.

What George Clooney and Steve Jobs taught me about how life, art, and innovation intersect

On a day just like any other, where I scrolled through links on the Internet, consuming a mind-numbing amount of media, I read a George Clooney quote .

“And with the end of a country’s culture goes its identity. It’s a terrible loss, down to your bones.”

And it started me thinking on my own thoughts about the importance of culture in my life.

My mother was a heavy proponent of art. She used to come to my elementary and middle school and my friends would call her Mrs. Woodberry as she brought in Otter Pops and taught people about classic European and African art. There’s a closet in my parent’s home that still is stuffed with “unfinished” paintings that my mother has done year after year, the ones that she sometimes gives away to family members and friends, the ones that I hope to hang in a home or cool beachside loft one day.

To this day, my place has art prints from different regions hung up to mimic the surroundings of a real adult as well as to reflect the way that I was raised. Art – be it writing, or music, or paintings, or dance or sculptures – was and is essential.

So when I decided to try my hand at a creative outlet when I grew up and started in journalism school, I thought: culture and art, that’s what I’ll report on. Whenever someone asked what my dream was I would say something along the lines of writing features at a midsized daily, doing personality profiles and writing about cultural intersection and about the arts.

And for some reason that was derided.

Not that people thought it was a bad job. Just that it was dessert. That I was good at what I was doing, and I was doing too well to “waste” it on culture. So after they’d say, “Write about what you are interested in” and I’d tell them the real answer, they’d assure me to write about business or write about politics. That’s “real” news.

So I’d try and straddle the line, writing about border and immigration issues but end up writing features on civil rights crusaders and about plays that humanized the experience of immigrants. I’d write about education, but spend days and weeks learning about a little boy who swallowed a button battery and taught his parents how to love and appreciate life in the process, while still being the cutest boy in the history of boys. And I thought – well, this will work. It’s not always “real” news, but it makes me happy. And I did it with a sense of defiance. Who are they to tell me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too? Culture is important, and I’m on a mission to prove it.

And then I’d see things like this in the NYT:

“For many of the high achievers I spoke with, music functions as a ‘hidden language,’ as Mr. Wolfensohn calls it, one that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas … Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.”

And things like this in the Atlantic:

“Creativity alone does not foster innovation, nor do abstract scientific or mathematical concepts. Innovators also need to know how to render those creative ideas into working products that can be put into use.

In order to bridge the chasm between abstract idea and utility, some educators are advocating for an expansion of the popular STEM acronym—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, the list of skills many experts believe more students need. They believe STEM should include the letter ‘A’ for ‘art and design.’ As Margaret Honey, CEO of the New York Hall of Science commented in an STEAM workshop at the Rhode Island School of Design, ’It’s not about adding on arts education. It’s about fundamentally changing education to incorporate the experimentation and exploration that is at the heart of effective education.’”

And I felt like my thoughts were validated. Ah-ha! Art means something. Music means something. Paintings, songs, poems, sculptures, orchestras, rock concerts, popular culture, subversive counterculture – it all means something. Economics and politics and business are how we create the societal structures we live in. But our culture is what we live for. And that’s the most important.

So why is it that people are so against culture as valid? I will be the first to admit that pop culture is not always defensible. If the Golden Globes never aired again, we’d all still go on living and the world would keep turning. (But then we wouldn’t get any cool Jennifer Lawrence gifs the next day, or get to see Lena Dunham in her 20-something, I’m awesome glory, and that would be sad.)

“In the United States we are raised to appreciate the accomplishments of inventors and thinkers—creative people whose ideas have transformed our world. We celebrate the famously imaginative, the greatest artists and innovators from Van Gogh to Steve Jobs. Viewing the world creatively is supposed to be an asset, even a virtue. Online job boards burst with ads recruiting ‘idea people’ and ‘out of the box’ thinkers. We are taught that our own creativity will be celebrated as well, and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed.

It’s all a lie. … ‘We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,’ says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity. ‘As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform.’”

We both celebrate and deride things that are creative and artistic as less valid. If I had a nickel for the amount of times I’ve read a headline that says “Run away from humanities and head to something pre-professional before you never get hired anywhere ever” or something of that ilk, I would be rich – or I’d have at least enough money to buy an iced tea and some Sun Chips from a vending machine, which is almost as good.

And as I saw myself moving from a job where I was writing about gluten-free cookies to one where I would write about web-based applications, I struggled to explain how I connected (or more like justified) the jump between the two.

And then, like he has done for so many others, Steve Jobs taught me a lesson, via the Harvard Business Review:

 “‘I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.’ … [Jobs] connected the humanities to the sciences, creativity to technology, arts to engineering … The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences … is the essence of applied imagination, and it’s why both the humanities and the sciences are critical for any society that is to have a creative edge in the future.”

And I realized that there was a reason that paths cross and circles complete. And I realize that I don’t have to compromise to have culture and technology. And I realize that my mom was right and I’m happy to have had her do what she did for me when I was young. And I realized – I was right, and also shortsighted (which technically means I was kind of wrong too, but who likes admitting that they are wrong?) Culture is important, but there’s a way to have your dinner and your dessert, to work in the “real” world and dance in the pop culture cotton candy yet totally soul enriching world of creativity, culture and things of real consequence.

Plus the New York Times and Google agree with me … so there.

P.S. For this and so many other things, thanks Mom.

You don’t need swag when you have bacon.

It’s simple. It got me to chuckle. But more than anything else it was a funny way to crystallize a point that was swirling around in my head. I just felt like this particular sentence (as much as it highlights my love of bacon and of using swag in mundane phrasing) placed it into a particularly concise area.

It all starts with something.

I caught up with a brilliant web series by a brilliant comedy writer-producer-director-freestyle rapper Issa Rae called ‘The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’ over the last week. In an interview, Rae she said that she had something she only thought appealed to her friends, that her idea for a series like this rolled around in her head for two years before she finally realized that she had to just make it with whatever she had in front of her. So she scraped up some friends and got some donations and made a three minute pilot for a project that blossomed into a engine for a $50,000-plus Kickstarter campaign and a show that makes me laugh until I cry.

A wonderfully talented journalist and friend of mine, Marissa A. Evans, is doing the same thing with her own start-up online women of color health magazine, In Hue. Besides having a brilliant tagline — because it’s in you — it has passionate people behind it.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” Oh Marianne Williamson, you are so fabulously right.

Right now, I’m building with those blocks, shaping my career into something that I can look back on later and totally dig. I’m thinking of this upcoming year as my year out of the rat race, finding myself. It’s my bacon year. Because after this it’s all swag.