Dear incoming freshmen (and others)

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It’s a big pond out there.

My brother already hates his literature class. He showed me the syllabus yesterday, which listed titles like “Animal Farm” and “Fahrenheit 451.” The former is of the political satire genre, (which my ¾-college-graduate self learned from a Wikipedia check); the latter, I had read sophomore year in an advanced high school class.

My brother is 13. Thirteen. When I was 13, I had no idea what satire was, much less an adequate grasp of the Russian Revolution, both of which, at least from my Wiki-research, seemed necessary to understand Orwell’s novel. (But maybe memory’s fuzzy, and I’m doing that thing that barely 20-something-year-olds do to separate themselves from the next generation with a diamond-edged paring knife and artificial sense of nostalgia).

But, see, this literature class my brother is in isn’t for all eighth graders. It’s called “power literature,” which means that it’s the advanced level, theoretically designed for the kiddos in middle school who are going to be the next generation’s professional plot diagrammers. My brother hates it. Last year, he struggled in the 7th grade version; this year, he’s already resigned himself to the same, if not worse. Power literature makes him feel stupid.

The thing is, though, he is brilliant. My brother is fucking brilliant. He competes in statewide chess tournaments, plays trombone at selective competitions, watches YouTube videos about friction and gravity, makes hovercrafts out of plastic bottles and treats each year’s science fair like a Christmas Part II. With the help of YouTube videos and kneepads, he taught himself how to skateboard. With the support of my parents, he attended leadership camps in Washington, D.C. and science camps at Purdue University — only to come home, complaining that learning about gears was way “under his league.” He’s amazing.

But he’s not the greatest at writing, or at answering literature comprehension questions, and for that, he comes home feeling like complete shit every school day. So why is he enrolled in power literature, when he could easily coast by in normal literature and have more time to invest in, say, things he’s more into? My parents are part of the reason. Teachers could be another part.

But I think it’s more so this pervading realization that kids these days, even at age 13, are starting to get already: if you’re not on the path of the Master Plan For Personal And Well-Rounded Success, Version 2014, then you’re not doing it right. The Master Plan is unwritten but ubiquitously known: it dictates that being in all the best classes in junior high equals being in all the best classes in high school, which equals getting in the Best College, where you lock in a degree in the major that will land you the Best Job, which then, finally, equals living the Best Life ever after. You do what you have to do. You stick to the plan.


 

Then, the other evening, I had dinner with a friend whose little sister was about to start college. This little sister was a bright, well-liked girl whom I remember hanging out with, and she was going to a well-respected public university. The thing was, she didn’t know what exactly she wanted to major in, and so she was going to be “undecided.” And so all these people, my friend was telling me, were giving her hell for it. Because being 18 and not knowing exactly what you want to do with your life for the next four (forty?) years is not a part of the Master Plan. It’s indicative of a lack of a Plan at all, and to a society that asks what are you doing with your life more often than how are you, that’s even worse.

You know what? I think the Master Plan is madness.

It’s an assertion that I think, also, is hypocritical, as it is coming from a girl who’s operated on the Master Plan for most of her life so far. See, in the Master Plan, life is a pyramid. To get to the apex of self fulfillment and the perfect retirement, you literally feel compelled, inspired, even, to climb each laborious, mandatory step in order — that is, you get the perfect grades, you apply to the best colleges, you worship devoutly at the Cult of Internships each summer, and you never ever wasting time looking down, for fear of falling. At the top of the pyramid awaited Fulfillment, where, for a long time I believed, you have a job that makes tons of money, lets you come home at 5 p.m. every night, and never allows you deign to eat ramen again, ever.

As long as I can remember, I loved writing. Creative writing. The kind that parents and teachers try to quietly — and then not-so-quietly — nudge you away from, because who the hell even makes money doing that, except J.K. Rowling? So studying journalism was a way to get trained in writing and then be a jumping point to write novels, and maybe television scripts, too. And while I absolutely love journalism and studying strategic communication in the past three years, I know I’ve put all my energy in the past years into classes and internships and the Master Plan, the journalism edition. I wouldn’t touch my novel drafts, or my secret sitcom script, for semesters on end. When I’d tried to pick things up during a brief free moment, I would realize that, like trying to lift with an atrophied muscle, I could barely remember how to construct a good dialogue, or write a plot that wasn’t designed to sell something or fit inside a newspaper.

I would laid lay awake at night, wondering if I’d done it all wrong. Recently, I realized that at the rate things were going, there was no way I would be “successful” in the way I defined it as a starry-eyed 13-year-old who wanted to write books. Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with journalism and advertising, true, but in the same way that you never quite get over your first love, I sometimes still wonder about those poor NaNoWriMo drafts as they rot away in my hard drive.


 

There’s a ludicrously common theme among the peers I’ve looked up to in the past few years. There’s the girl who maintained a long distance relationship for two years and then became engaged to the guy within a month of his return. There’s the guy who dropped out of college to be the full-time CEO of a construction company he’d started when he was a kid. The friend who didn’t buy into the Master Plan as dictated by the Missouri School of Journalism’s agenda, and went on to find an internship and full-time job at well-respected national newspapers in the ensuing months. The guy who bought art and laid it on his floor to look at, because landlords’ rules about wall hangings didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy art from a different angle.

The upperclassman who decided to spend his first year out of college repaying student loans and driving trucks, who we all know is going to pull a Hemingway or Steinbeck and end up turning his experiences into the next great American novel. The co-worker who applied to two internships, total, in his entire life, and wound up finding a place at one of the best media companies in the world. The friend who managed a sushi restaurant while studying full-time, and then spent half a year exploring South America. The journalism student who helped come up with the best business idea that the MU Student Center’s ever seen, and also a mobile app that got an appearance on Good Morning America. The young reporter who admired people like Nate Silver and Ezra Klein so much that he decided he would write about them, and convinced one of the best newspapers in the world to give him the tools to do so.

These were people who broke almost every single rule you’re supposed to follow on the Master Plan. They were not cautious. They were not careful. They were not well-rounded. They didn’t do it for a grade. They didn’t look back. They ignored critics.

They walked up to that pyramid of fulfillment, looked at all the pointless, irrelevant steps and knew they didn’t need them. Instead, they wheeled out a cannon, climbed in, and fired themselves out into the sky, reaching great heights on their own terms. They didn’t follow the path. They found what they loved. And fearlessly eschewing our society’s rabid obsession with climbing ladders and relentlessly paying dues, they refused to wait, reaching out, seizing what they knew they wanted.

I hope one day to be so brave.

Future college freshmen, whether you’re starting your journey in higher education in a few weeks or in a few years, don’t set foot on campus thinking that the next four years are the missing link between you and a dream 401K. Give these years — and yourself — more credit than that. College can easily pass for a dance lesson where, if you hit all the right, pre-coordinated dance moves,  you’ll be rewarded with the perfect job and the perfect life. But do not be fooled; there are no real dance moves. You make it up as you go, and if people doing the synchronized macarena stop to watch and hate, then point how how idiotic they look.

If you haven’t found the things you want to live and die for — that is, if you happen to be someone who’s, say,  undecided about all the things you could be good at, celebrate how beautifully wide open your future is. You could be anything. You could be everythingSo treat school as the testing ground that it should be. Try it all. Then, spend as little time as possible on the things you have to do, and more on the things you love to do. Trust yourself. Remember, there are no real dance moves. And if you’ve found your passion, and you know it — you know that you’re amazing at constructing bottle hovercrafts though terrible at constructing literary devices — then be thrilled and celebrate that.  Don’t let anyone — especially not yourself — diminish your passion for fear of unsure futures or lagging behind in the rat race. You make those hovercrafts. This world needs more hovercrafts.

The Thing About Happiness PR

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Day 55

Exactly 99 days ago, I started the #100HappyDays challenge, which dares you to post a photo of something that makes you happy, every day, for 100 days. When I first came across this challenge, I was somewhere between stress-Pinteresting mug cake recipes and Googling “inspirational posters with penguins on them,” having felt buried under classwork, the pressure to find an internship and typical 21-year-old What The Hell Am I Doing With My Life terror.

The challenge, hosted by the 100 Happy Days Foundation, promised to make me feel more grateful and, yes, happier, if only I could stick it out the entire time. So I created a Tumblr, posted a photo of an newspaper office meeting and told myself this was like some form of new age journaling.

Over the following months, I posted pictures of loved ones, views, puppies, French toast and fun events. When I sat down every night or so to add to the Tumblr, it did provide a nice moment of reflection, especially if it had been a few days and I had a few photos to make up for. I realized that the things I remembered best from each day that made me happy weren’t getting good grades, or losing weight, or even pay day (well, also, it seemed sketchy to post a photo of my bank routing number online). They were people, places and things like painting or learning a new language that were devoid of obligation or a grading system. In the moments when I felt down, I would scroll through the blog and feel better, as if reminding myself see, look at all this awesome shit you’ve got going on. The 100 Days of Happiness project worked.

At the same time, it changed the way I saw happiness.

While the 100 Happy Days project made me appreciate so many things (and people!) more, I also started to devalue every feeling and moment that wasn’t happy –moments when I was bored to tears building an Excel database for hours at work, moments when I actually was in tears, sometimes, embarrassingly enough, in the office bathroom. I started resenting myself for being someone who couldn’t just be happy all the time. I knew I was #blessed. So how dare that ungrateful lip of mine even think about quivering!

This summer, I put hundreds of miles between me and my closest friends to move to a new city, in a new state. There were a lot of scary, boring, confusing, frustrating, terrifying and downright unhappy moments involved, and it feels weird to skim back through my blog and see absolutely no trace of any of that amongst the foodstagrams and screenshots. And, unless you’re really committed and go look at all the posts, you’ll notice that there’s actually one day that’s missing. In the complete story of the past 100 days, this day would be known as The Absolute Worst Day Ever, but it weren’t for the missing date, you’d never even guess it. So I started thinking about Happiness PR.


 

Our generation is particularly obsessed with happiness, which is mainly a really good thing. We don’t just want 9-to-5 jobs to pay the bills; we want jobs that actually fulfill us and make the world a better place. We don’t just eat food; we shop for mega-organic uber-vegan products that are supposed to make our lives purer and whole. We take gap years, go abroad, and travel like mad to find ourselves. We rally to Beyoncé’s battle cry of seeking but happiness as our aspiration life. And we enlist Happiness PR to show each other how well we’re doing.

Happiness PR has always been around, but it’s never been more apparent than now, when we have access to the same communications technology as corporations, and vice versa. Our generation especially has become experts at boiling down our messy, imperfect lives into flawless personal brands. Every Facebook photo, tweet and study abroad blog post becomes part of a carefully-designed public relations strategy, whether we admit it or not, designed to create perceptions about ourselves. Even that Tumblr I made and this portfolio website, too, is no worse nor better than a corporate news release or PR stunt.

I don’t think there’s anything unnatural about Happiness PR, because I mean, just as I want to know about Starbucks selling fair trade coffee and Taylor Swift visiting kids with cancer in hospitals, I want to know what’s making my friends and family happy, and I want to know they’re doing well with their job/relationship/school/Candy Crush. But I think one of the biggest problems with Happiness PR is that unhappiness has no place in it.

A YouTube video released earlier this summer shows, there’s a problem with all of us only selectively showing the peaks of our lives, when in reality, there’s a hella lot of valleys going on in between. Unfortunately for us, a thinking heuristic makes us automatically assume that a sample (aka what we see on social media) is representative of the whole (aka, the quality of our friends’ actual lives).

The irony here, of course, is that doing Happiness PR kind of makes everyone else unhappy as they’re comparing 100% of their lives to the top 20-30% of yours shown online. And then it makes them ashamed for being unhappy, because as far as the smiling photos and Snapchats go, no one else feels that way.

The other problem, as I encountered with the 100 Happy Days project, is that Happiness PR makes unhappy moments seem… unimportant. Moments like getting rejected, getting over someone, feeling alone, dropping toast butter-side down and thinking you’re never going to succeed – those moments really, really suck, but these are the experiences that make us strong and driven and passionate (and more careful with our toast the next day). To deny the inherent worth of those moments is to reject a huge part of our lives, and ourselves.

So, to combat Happiness PR, should we just post things like “She broke up with me today” or “I can’t open my Nutella jar, and I actually cried because I am that hungry”? I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer. As that Higton Bros video shows, we’re typically not interested in opening our news feed and seeing hundreds of people griping left and right. Psychologically, too, it’s just as bad of an idea to surround yourself in other people’s misery as it is to surround yourself with things to envy.

But I don’t think that means we as a population don’t want to hear about each others’ problems, period. Humans of New York, for example posts magnificent photos of average people talking about the heartbreaking and frustrating things they’re going through, and it has done a great job of bringing everyone on the Internet together in a big well-lit group hug. Celebrating struggle without bringing anyone down – that’s what we as future professional storytellers and human beings should work toward.

The first step, then, to combating the problems of Happiness PR, is to realize that Happiness PR exists, and that like any PR strategy cooked up by professionals paid by clients, it has its benefits and its limits. It doesn’t tell the whole story. As uber-savvy consumers, we’re well practiced at calling bullshit on big corporations, and as humans in civilization, we should be better at looking at social media with some of that same – not skepticism, per se, because I don’t believe we’re all just faking happiness to trick each other – but maybe awareness. Awareness that the photo your best friend took in front of the Eiffel Tower is not proof that her life is completely perfect and yours is shit; it’s just her celebrating being abroad, and off that cramped 10-hour flight. Awareness, on a personal level, that that #100HappyDays Tumblr I made is a nice record of happy things, not a comprehensive representation of my most recent 100 days.

The obvious second step after that, of course, is to take advantage of our persona, private interactions to help each other recognize and appreciate all parts of our lives.

Being happy is important. It is so important. It is, many argue, the point of this whole shebang. But what this project has made me realize is that it’s important to find meaning in our happiness. In order to find meaning, we have to also welcome and appreciate the less than picture-perfect moments. Not a novel discovery by any means, but 100 days of rather acute ups and downs have given me a lot to think about. Because while those unsavory, unhappy moments hurt, and they don’t look cute on Tumblr, they’re part of the package deal. And it’s a pretty great package deal, all things considered.

Mercury creative project

In the mist of post-College World Series mania and trying to make French toast in the agency kitchen, I got to work with two of the art direction interns, Elizabeth and Breanna, on a fun project creating and pitching ads for an imaginary running shoe to agency execs – and here’s what we came up with:

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A city of small moments and big lessons

“A summer working in Omaha” just doesn’t roll off the tongue, or call forth Instagram-worthy mental images as well as, say, “a summer touring Europe,” or “a summer exploring New York,” or even “a summer relaxing in Columbia.”

At least, that’s what I thought when I jammed my car full of scavenged Ann Taylor pencil skirts, only three short days after taking my last final, and then hauled it all to Omaha, Nebraska. Not the city that never sleeps. Not the city of lights. Not the city of brotherly love. But the city of beef, Warren Buffett, and being nice.

But one month into living in Omaha and working as a public relations intern at the ad agency Bozell, I’ve realized, sure, Omaha is not the glamazon It Girl at the party, and that’s okay. She’s the smart, sweet, sensible girl who smilingly offers to hold your purse while you go to the bathroom. She has impressive taste in microbrews and knows a lot about a lot, but won’t make it apparent right away. And she believes in things like free parking, numbered streets and the ability to buy a week’s worth of groceries for $40.

As for Bozell, nowhere else is there a better microcosm showcasing Omaha’s metropolitan feel mixed with small town pleasantry. I’ve spent about a month here, working mainly on the College World Series account (but also on my personal Take Advantage of Free Daily Office Donuts project). And in these past four weeks, I’ve already discovered some pretty big lessons from deceptively small moments. Here are four:

  1. The first press conference that I helped organize was not only being held in honor of an NCAA official who was a Mizzou alum, but one of the journalists who came to cover it was none other than my friend Hunter Woodall, a fellow former editor at The Maneater. Check us out in our fancy business professional below! That day furthered my theory that Mizzou Tigers secretly run the world.

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  1. Getting to work on the College World Series, if you know me at all, is very ironic since I spent my junior high softball career spitting sunflower seeds on the bench. To me, sports is an enigma on par with the theory of relativity. But watching this city come alive with the idea of baseball is downright inspiring. A few weeks ago, we drove around the city putting down giant sidewalk stickers shaped like home plates and bases. At a local playground, we decided to have some fun and arrange them to look like a real ball diamond, and the kids barely gave us time to step back before they emitted bloodcurdling screams and started running the bases in that kind of pure little kid show of appreciation that makes the world go ‘round.

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  1. Now that the games have officially started, I get to wear a floppy laminated press pass and wander the stadium, doing important PR type things like sampling the journalists’ buffet. Bozell sent me down to the field to take photos, and I was kind of clueless as to how I was supposed to take pictures of this sport I didn’t really understand, while competing against hawk-like NCAA and ESPN photographers. Then I saw a cluster of kids chattering with some of the players by the edge of the fence. And I realized that I didn’t have to get the rules or regulations of baseball to understand the kind of joy it brings to kids – and a city – so enthusiastic about meeting and making heroes.

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4.  Last Friday night, I thought I was just going to clock out, go home, veg out on Easymac, and continue my scorched earth strategy with Netflix. Instead, I found myself strapped inches from the door of a plane, 14,000 feet in the air, surrounded with tough-as-nails Golden Knight parachutists hired by the College World Series for Opening Ceremonies. I watched as they strapped sparklers to their feet and lept out into the void. When I looked out into the night sky, they looked like shooting stars.

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Ah life, you sparkly, unpredictable thing.

Once a Maneater

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Being a Maneater taught me everything. I mean it.

As a reporter, it taught me to be meek. It taught me how to get on my knobby freshman knees and beg — for a story, for a contact, for an interview, for a chance. It taught me how to write sentences that I loved dearly, and then it taught me how to kill them with a machete without flinching under the level gaze of my editor. Being a Maneater reporter also taught me to be bold. It taught me that journalism is scary, but in the way that jumping off a cliff into a crystal cold pool can be at first, and it taught me that literally and figuratively, I was only a 500-word article embedded within the 40-page issue life.

And then as an editor, being a Maneater taught me to be tender. I learned how to gather up doe-eyed young reporters under my wing and, without suffocating them all crowded together there in my armpit, coach them to shun the Oxford comma and to worship fact checks. It has been one of the greatest joys in my life to watch too many of the reporters I worked with evolve into these beautiful journalistic creatures careening across campus, pens perpetually in hand.

But, you know, being an editor also taught me to be vicious. It taught me to stand up for my reporters with the diligence of a 5-foot-4 mother bear, to stand up to weekly print cycles that came at you like some kind of sick, merciless tetherball, and then to cast predatory stares at other competing publications with embarrassing sophomoric pluckiness. The Maneater, underrated and unsung in a city of thousands of journalists, taught me to aspire to be among the best. Never mind the disadvantages of a completely student-staffed editorial board and the anemic financial state that comes with being self-funded.

Then there was this year, which I spent as the managing editor. Can I be proud to say that being a Maneater executive taught me to be cynical? Because it did, in a breathlessly humbling way. Between helping to lead the transition from a biweekly print product to an online publication and simply just trying to understand the peculiar business model that is a student newspaper, it got a lot discouraging some of the time. I learned that even the best-laid plans can be doomed to die — quietly in small gasps, sometimes, and other times in garish explosions. I learned to be okay with that, because despite our best efforts, we never learned how to stop trying, nonetheless.

But at the same exact time, The Maneater taught me to dream and to hope. You would think that 4 a.m. deadlines and a laughable excuse for a paycheck would be enough to dissuade those who walk into that basement office every day, much less the ones who then also voluntarily walk into deadening city council meetings and board meetings, too. On any given production night as a Maneater executive, there is this extraordinary chance where you sit down and click through the completed pages of each new issue, and you see the efforts of 30 to 40 talented young individuals fuse together into a tangible product that’s supposed to ship out in the morning and educate society. It teaches you that journalism — and life, and the world, really — is this amazing collective thing that you wouldn’t stand a chance against alone.

What more could a kid ever hope to learn?

Thank you to Joel, who gave me the chance to have that first byline. Thank you to Kelly and Pat for believing in me so much that they put me on an editorial board, even when I didn’t know what a comma splice was at the time. Thank you to previous MOVE editors Brandon, Natalie and Pierce, for their MOVE guidance, to Maneater editors like Zach and Allison and Kaylen and Celia for giving those of us in this basement something to aspire to be once we’re beyond the green masthead, and to Becky and Kara, whose daily efforts keep the Maneater from spontaneously combusting.

Thank you to Ted, pictured with me and our framed first issues above, who secretly knew before I did what a privilege it would be to serve as his managing editor this year, and thank you to each member of the editorial boards I was lucky enough to work with in the past three years. You are family. And thank you to every reporter, columnist, photographer, designer, editor, business manager, intern and staff member who has made The Maneater the game-changer it will always be. Don’t be surprised as this publication continues to change, to make mistakes, to make amends, to keep growing up. Don’t be surprised when I stop you on the street 50 years from now and shriek some staff box quote at you in greeting.  And please, don’t try to act so surprised when you all become wildly, disgustingly successful out there, no matter where you end up.

As the saying goes: You’ve been warned.

This is why

The other day, I found myself across Missouri in one of those interview things where you try to explain to a group of exceptionally impressive industry professionals why you want to be just like them when you grow up, and why you would make a great scholarship candidate, and also why it appears as though you’ve sort of lost your voice (without admitting it’s because you were singing too enthusiastically out loud in your car on your lone man road trip there). They asked me about my background in journalism and how it was that I now wanted to go into advertising, which made my tongue somewhat invert into my throat, because I still struggle a lot with the idea, too (Sometimes, I swear I can hear my Journalism 1100 professor angrily crying in shame).

But then we started talking about our favorite ads, and I was jabbering about this Thai Life Insurance commercial called “Unsung Hero,” done by Ogilvy Bangkok, that I’d seen online a few days prior. I’m no expert as far as scholarship interviews go, but I’m pretty sure Rule #1 is not admitting you cried about an ad you saw on Facebook. But I did, and it made me think.

This ad is somewhat cliché, yes. And it’s pretty cheesy. And ultimately, it is designed to sell me something. And as a kid who’s studying advertising full time, I should totally know better than to let three minutes of images and sound and somewhat awkward subtitles capture my attention, much less steal my heart. But it does it anyway.

This “Unsung Hero” ad is an example of the kind of powerful communication and storytelling that got me into that journalism business in the first place, and it’s the kind I really, really hope to do one day.

I’ve realized that I want to go into advertising because of creations like these. Ads like these wield a power unimaginable by even Pulitzer-winning journalists and hard-hitting investigative writers, because those professions are noble and amazing and save the world a lot, but ultimately, even if they do everything right, that kind of work reaches maybe only 10 – 20% of the entire world. Maybe. Not everyone reads or watches the news. But everyone experiences ads. And while advertising can be a lot of meaningless jingles and sexed up cleaning products, it’s also the singular medium where you can have the chance to say almost anything to everyone.