15 October 2008

The Accidental Rebel

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In my column a few weeks ago, I made explicit reference to the traditional form of a business letter as it pertains to applying for a job. Such letters represent conventions that seem to be disappearing prematurely—and all too accidentally. Armed with a certain amount of intelligence and perspicacity, anyone could argue that social conventions are made to be broken. However, in order to do so—and in addition to intelligence and perspicacity—one needs an awareness of those conventions in the first place.

Alas, an accidental abandonment of tradition appears to be the norm these days with so many things. As a species, we seem to get lazy, and we allow new tools and technologies, not to mention fleeting fads, to dictate changes in our behavior without consciously evaluating the impact of these changes. Eventually, knowledge, often of the most basic kind, gets lost. For example, much has been written and said elsewhere about such challenges as the degradation of language as a result of text messaging on cell phones, or the social impact of e-mail and the sense of immediacy its speed sometimes dictates.

This problem is pervasive, and seems to start early. A friend who teaches at a prep school near Philadelphia tells me that his students have essentially no awareness of a pre-digital age; that makes sense, since it is all they have ever known. The impact, however, is shocking. Absent an understanding of what it means not to be digitally accessible all the time, they cannot imagine—and have not been taught—about a more formal, less “e-” friendly world, which might affect their sense of privacy, speed, or the (in)formality of their engagement with others.


The statistics I quoted in my jobs-related post seem to reflect precisely this phenomenon of unconsciously lost knowledge, and the five characteristics of recent applications affirm the idea of the “accidental rebel.” Of the people whose job applications I have reviewed, only a handful have carefully and consciously set out to distinguish themselves—in the positive sense of the term—from the crowd. Those people have done so not by throwing over convention, but by embracing it.

A few applicants followed-up an initial letter and resume with a binder that included copies of the letter, resume, and the kinds of portfolio materials an applicant might expect us to find reassuring. Another sent a formal letter, and included a fake press release announcing a desire for employment, outlining skills, and more. [N.B., I do not recommend either of the above approaches: the former because it may be significantly more information than has been requested, and the latter because overuse will make it trite in very short order.] Still another applicant found a way within the standard letter to move beyond just calling our attention to her strengths and her interest, using very direct and affirmative language.

All of these applicants understood that they had to demonstrate an ability to meet the needs of a potential employer, and not just their needs as an employee. That includes expressing an understanding that in a business environment, people are expected to act professionally, and to know what constitutes professional behavior and skills.

Why such a fuss over job applications? For me, they represent something larger than just the knowledge and motivations of the applicant. Fans of Mad Men may recall season two’s episode 7, when the firm’s new young creative advertising duo pitch Martinson Coffee: they propose a radical approach to capturing the younger market, but they do so with a true understanding of what is involved in throwing over the conventional approaches of the past. Indeed, they outline those old approaches as part of their pitch. Such knowledge is crucial, because it conveys to all involved that there is a reason for breaking with tradition.

That, to me, speaks of true rebellion: a studied understanding of the past in order to forge ahead with new ideas for the future. Without that knowledge, one is simply an accidental rebel—and the record of success for such rebellions is low indeed.


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