You Wanna Be The Hottest But That Shit Gets Complicated
February 17, 2017
That line is one of my favorite Rick Ross lyrics because I work in an industry where if someone's asking "who?" it's a safe bet they're throwing shade, not using one of the 5 ws of basic information gathering.
Journalism wasn't always that way. In the not-so-distant past, the only name you had to worry about making for yourself was your byline. But like everything else that has been tainted by social media and superficiality, how many people know your name on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat -- and how many friends you have (faux or otherwise) in the industry -- have come to hold far more weight than any story telling you do. And that's a nightmare for someone who's never been one of the cool kids, on the Internet or in real life (since I know for some people those are two different personas).
I'm fairly certain there were some people in high school and college who thought my name was "so and so's friend." In every stage of life, I've always had a close friend who was the popular girl and I the semi-invisible sidekick until I took a class with somebody who found out I could put three or four sentences together into a cohesive paragraph, roll my Rs, and comprehend interpersonal communication, even if I couldn't exactly put it into practice, and suddenly I had...well they weren't really friends, so let's just call them study buddies since we're talking about school and all. It's a fact I'd find years later rendered me labeled some kind of asexual nerd, which is why I find the emoji-ladden DMs I get from men who've known me my whole life and never checked for me until I started taking pictures with celebrities annoyingly hilarious. In their defense, I've also given up kitten heels and bolero jackets since earning a degree so if that's the reason for the lack of interest back then, apologies.
But that brings me back to my point of popularity and what, if anything, it really means. In terms of dollars and cents, it can mean quite a lot. Brands and advertisers look to influencers, not experts, when they want to get the word out about a product or movement, and often those people who have managed to get people to buy into who they are, authentic or not, are rewarded heavenly. As an editor for a website that's had a great deal of success I've been on the VIP access "your name's on the list" side of things as well as the "we're at capacity/X celebrity is not available for interviews" side, and let me tell you the latter is quite the blow to the ego, especially when you see those same restrictions didn't apply to other outlets also known as competitors. It's an experience that sends me right back into that "If I were popular" spiral of thinking that never really has a satisfying answer. If I were popular then what? I could spend my time with people who only want to be around me because they think I'm popular?
There's a personal cost to popularity, as I perceive it from the outside, that's never sat well with the core of who I am as a person: authentic. I've been in circles where a certain colleague/acquaintance/friend of some was being discussed in not-so-pleasant terms, but the minute they stepped into the room it was all "hey girl, hey." I've witnessed more unearned favors handed out in professional settings than a kids' birthday party just to be on an "it" person's good side. I've been stared at dead in the face and not spoken to by people I've met at least three times before simply because acknowledging me offered no benefit to them. And then I've seen people who've received similar treatment still break their necks to earn the attention of the condescending while I thought to myself, "See this is why I'm never going to make it in life" -- a remark my coworkers have asked me to stop making numerous times.
But even genuine success isn't a buffer against those who assume just because you have a big title you think you're all that (just to use language as juvenile as the behavior that often goes along with said beliefs). Have you ever had someone tell you "don't be smart" when you answer their question in plain speak simply because they believe they aren't? It's called projection. And the more success you have in the workplace, the more others will try to project their personal and professional failings onto you. This can be especially difficult if said projector happens to be popular with your boss and you find yourself back at a crossroads questioning whether its better to let real talent or fake relationships carry you through.
They say the same things keep showing up in your life until you get the lesson you're supposed to learn, and at the top of the year I had to be honest with myself about a few things. I'd forgotten that there's a line (albeit it's getting finer by the day) between chasing popularity and fostering professional relationships. I'd widely failed to do the latter because I was projecting my own "uncool girl" insecurities onto other successful women and assuming we didn't fit in the same space, or they weren't interested in me being in theirs. Embarking on an entrepreneurial venture, I also had to be willing to humble myself and do two things I hate more than brushing my teeth when I have a cold: ask questions and admit things I don't know. The success of this site isn't about being managing editor of anything and having a little something to get me in the door, this is "I'm trying to start something only three people are going to care about in the beginning, how can I make this work?"
Popularity again, right? Not exactly. Of course I want people to read what I write -- if I didn't this would be a journal entry and not a published article. But I also want to help other people who have the same hangups as me, and the more people who care, the more opportunities I can create and the more people I can reach. So yes, even with admirable intentions everything is still a numbers game. But deep down, there's comfort in losing that game when you play it authentically. And sometimes there's the reality check that it's not other people's popularity that has caused you not to play to your full potential, it's your own diffidence.