In my belief that a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep, I have loaded the lectures with concrete examples, and I have chosen these among the extremer expressions of the religious temperament.
– William James, from the preface to The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
There's a great passage in the beginning about the Hearst Tower (2007). As Foster himself outlined the challenge: "it's a very, very small tower amongst the most extraordinary collection of mega-towers. And how do you make this tower have a presence when it's physically so small?"
Sculptor Anish Kapoor has a fascinating insight into this question:
Scale – in a way – is not the same thing as size. Scale is a quantity of somewhat abstract proportions. It bears a relationship at one level to the body. But it bears a bigger relationship to the imagination. The way, if you like, the pyramids in Egypt do. They remain – whatever you do: you walk up them, you walk round them – they remain the scale they are. Which is somehow bigger than what they really are.
I love that insight: that the successful artist is not having a conversation only with the objective circumstances of the world; but rather, more meaningfully, with the imaginations of their audience.
Critic Paul Goldberger has called Foster "the Mozart of modernism"; and in the film's view of him – particularly in his restlessness with conventional decisions – he reminds of Steve Jobs: the inversion of the relationship between the decisions made for functional reasons and those for aesthetic; or, rather, the understanding that the functional is incomplete without the aesthetic.
The film does an good job of outlining Foster's particular sensibility: his striving for space; his sense of drama; his interest in sustainability; his global perspective; the relationship between the scale of his buildings, the world around them, and our own presence. "I believe that the infrastructure of spaces, connections, the public domain – the kind of urban glue that binds the buildings together – is more important than any one building." Well worth seeing.
A complete departure and absolutely nothing to do with Portishead, I promise; or even, particularly, books or music. I was going to call this post "how to get a job" but in truth it's more like "how to apply for a job," or, at best, "how to get an interview." Last year I posted several job positions in Random House of Canada's digital team; for one of them I received – over a 10-day period – over 80 applications. Only two of those, as far as I could tell, were automated responses; the rest all showed some signs of someone having read the job description, assembled a resume and cover letter, and made a decision to send them. In other words, they went to the trouble. But not all of them went to very much trouble, and not all of them put thought into reducing my trouble.
Since I just posted another position and found that I was steeling myself for the same experience, I thought I'd post my ideas on what a well-assembled job application should look like.
(Note to future applicants: you should be able to figure out who I am with a couple of minutes of Googling, which is the very, very least bit of preparation you should do before a job interview. And now that I've posted this, I will expect you to have read this before applying.)
So here are my pushy and opinionated tips for your application package. YMMV, obviously.
1. Remember that you're trying to get an interview
Your cover letter and resume are not there to get you the job. You have to do that on your own. You have to do it in conversation (more on that later). Your cover letter and resume are to get you into an interview – and perhaps somewhat to define the terms of that interview. When you're preparing your materials, and trying to reduce their length, ask yourself this question: will this piece of information get me an interview for this particular job? Yes, you might need to include that period of minimum wage work in a completely different industry to explain a resume gap (we all have them, nowadays), but you don't need four bullet points underneath to explain exactly what you did. Company, title, dates. Move on. For jobs or education or anything else with specific applicability to the job for which you are applying, no more than 3-4 bullet points to summarize the responsibilities of your role and highlight some specific achievements.
2. Keep it brief
Everybody gets so many applications for a job that sifting through them very quickly turns – despite anyone's best intentions – into "give me a reason to reject this application." We'll look for anything: spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or just being bored (this is especially true in content industries; if you're applying for a writing/marketing job, you absolutely don't want to seem boring). The longer your letter/resume goes on, the higher the chance you'll make a mistake. Here's how you want it to go down: "this looks professional; he/she has pertinent experience; I've reached the end." There's no alternative action left to the hiring manager other than to set up an interview. Your cover letter – properly laid out like a letter with addresses and everything else in the right place – should not exceed a single page. Your resume should ideally not exceed one page; I personally dream of receiving one-page resumes but will settle for two. No more.
Here's how you successfully prepare a brief resume: somewhere (and LinkedIn can be that place) you store a full-length resume. Every job; and for every job a list of your main responsibilities and some key achievements.*
This is your 'master resume'. When you are applying for a specific job, you take this master resume and selectively remove non-applicable pieces. Now, you can't cheat: if only one aspect of your last job was applicable, but it was only 5% of your responsibilities, you can't remove everything else and give the impression that it was 100% of your responsibilities. And you may have to reword things slightly. But the point is that you are not re-writing your resume every time you apply to a job. You are editing it down to size.
That size is 1-2 pages.
* (Why highlight some key achievements? Because it demonstrates that, for you, work is not just showing up at 9am every day and executing some tasks. Rather, you understand that work is for the purpose of achieving things. This is a clue to prospective managers: you are the kind of person who can perceive objectives and align your tasks against those objectives. You are not a task drone. Capable managers dread managing task drones because they are time vampires and cannot participate in change without unleashing contagious anxiety germs into the team.)
3. Show that you read the job posting
This is basic. Don't say "this role" or "this position" in place of the job title. Don't say "Dear Sir/Madam" in place of the name of the hiring manager if it is something you can ascertain from the job posting or some simple detective work (i.e., Google). Don't say "your company" in place of the company in question. All of that shows that you have a generic letter/resume ready to send at the slightest opportunity. That's rude. It will only guarantee that you will not get an interview. Moreover:
4. Show that you thought about the job posting
Seriously. What is it that excites you about this role? Say it. This is what your cover letter is for. Is the job in an industry that is undergoing exciting change? If so: what is it, and why is it exciting? Is the job at an industry-leading company, or an underground boutique startup, or working with a particularly impressive team? Say so and explain why that appeals to you. By doing so, you demonstrate that you are thoughtful about the opportunity and your career, that you have the committment to do some research, and you allow your prospective employer to imagine how you might contribute to the team or the company. If your cover letter is all about you, and not at all about the position or the company or the industry, it's harder for a prospective manager to see how you might fit into the role.
5. Cut out all the top shit
We've all seen the resumes that open with 'Objective', 'Highlights', or 'Profile'. Please don't do that. Really. It's my #1 pet hate. I never, ever read it. Why? Because that isn't what I'm looking for in your resume. That's in your cover letter, where it exists in two or three sentences and doesn't convey the same bland set of meaningless qualities that everyone else touts. Maybe you are an "independent self-starter" or an "effective multitasker," but I'm afraid that these claims are going to be completely ignored because of their use by people who are emphatically not any of those things, usually don't realize it, but nonetheless claimed so at the top of their resume. If you genuinely do possess these qualities, I'm going to be able to infer them from the quickly summarized specific achievements in specific roles on your resume. If you led a set of specific process improvement initiatives with specific results in your last job, I'm going to know that you are an independent self-starter capable of working within and across teams with a results-orientated approach. Show, don't tell.
When I open a resume, I'm fairly quickly looking to get a sense of what you have done, not who you are. Your attitude, intelligence, and approach should all have come across (briefly!) in the cover letter. When I get to the resume, I really, really don't want to come across a trailer. Especially a boring one.
6. [Advanced tip] You know what? Instead, open with something like this:
If you insist upon a summary at the top of your resume, then summarize in a visually coherent manner your experience. Solve the resume problem that, as its reader, I face: trying to figure out what the hell all this stuff is, when you did it, for how long, and how has led us to the current situation.
Now, as you can see, I have a spectacularly complicated professional history because I changed my mind a number of times and it took me until very very recently to find a single job that united my interests in software and writing. For quite a while I was doing several things at once. But if I can assemble this incoherent professional history into a clean infographic (I did it in garden-variety spreadsheet software, by the way) then you probably can too. (If anyone is really interested, I'll post a how-to guide another time.)
7. Resist the temptation to design your resume
Clean and well-organized, please. Clean segregation of distinct jobs or periods in your career. Specific dates (months helps). Most people put working experience ahead of education so that the current/last job is at the top, but if you've only recently finished school, that's fine; by all means put education at the top. (If you use #6 you'll pretty much solve the problem.)
Above, all remember this: resumes have one design problem to solve. That design problem is:
- How should this information be best laid out in order to clearly and quickly communicate it?
It is not:
- What can I do to ensure that my resume stands out from everyone else's resume?
Why not? Remember #2: I'm likely looking for the first possible excuse to put your resume down and move onto the next one. A really really good excuse would be that in order to understand your resume I needed to reorient my entire understanding of visual hierarchy or design conventions. Your task here is to make me think less, not more. You want your resume to look like a job application, not a Futurist manifesto.
- Try not to use glaring colour schemes, background images, etc.
- Your resume should be no more than three colours.
- Two of those colours should be (1) black and (2) white.
- Clue: the pages should be white.
- A third colour may be used discreetly for accents (e.g. headings, dividing lines, etc).
The best-designed resume I have ever seen was put together by a young and talented intern who was applying for a full-time position. It looked something like this:
See how clear that is?
- How should this information be best laid out in order to clearly and quickly communicate it?
Here's a rule of thumb:
If you are a design professional and you are applying for a design job, by all means spend a great deal of time thinking about the design of your resume. If you are not, avoid anything that might risk abominable personal branding exercises, clip art, and idiosyncratic attempts to reinvent our collective perception of time.
8. Send a single attachment
Oh, and that reminds me: I rather like the single-document pdf attachment. So you're including one file with your email (your email, by the way, should be a single sentence, something like "please find attached materials to support my application for the role of Web Analytics Specialist at Steamworks Analytics"). This attachment is a pdf; the first page is your cover letter (properly laid out) and the second (and maybe third) pages are your resume. This single document is wonderful because I can print it easily and quickly for myself or anyone else; pdf has the additional advantage of preserving your resume's coherent (see #7) layout and means it will display consistently on my laptop, phone, or wherever else I'm trying to open it.
9. Read the instructions
It the job posting asks you to include links that showcase your work, include links that showcase your work. Your best work. Ideally recently. If you don't have recent pertinent work: should you really be applying for this job? If it's a job that involves writing copy, you should probably be able to demonstrate that you can write copy, even if your current gig isn't writing copy.
10. Use a professional email address
When I say we end up looking for any reason to reject an application – see #2, above – this includes an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Please.
This 25 tracks album is all based on Indian/Bollywood samples from vinyls The Guadaloop bought back in 2007. Back then, after being inspired by his good friend Plusga, Guada(Loop) went to the nearest record store and got all the Indian records he could find. Soon Guada linked up with a big vinyl dealer and brought dozens of Indian\African records to the studio.
Bloomsbury have opened the door to another round of submissions for the fine 33 1/3 series. When I was preparing my proposal for the Portishead book, I read -- extensively -- the commentsthreads on the series blog, and I thought it would be fun and fair, now, to post something on my experience of the process for whatever benefit it might be to others.
David Barker, the series director, has given me the okay to post the proposal itself, so for those simply seeking to take a look, here it is. What follows below are a few tips from my experience. I should say at the outset that the latest call for proposals has a few subtle differences, so YMMV.
Pick an album that means something to you
This might seem obvious. But if you’re in this because you want to have a book published and you’re now trying to pick an album that will give you the highest chance of publication, stop. You’re not only unlikely to succeed, but you’re also highly unlikely to be able to produce 30,000-40,000 words -- let alone interesting words -- on the subject.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be struggling to choose. Dummy didn't immediately suggest itself to me. I'd wanted to write one of these books for years -- actually since the series first started out in 2003 -- and I had a few albums in mind. I knew it was going to be one of the albums that represented a kind of 'coming of age' period of my life, which would have included Neneh Cherry's Raw Like Sushi, Massive Attack's Blue Lines, and Soul II Soul's Club Classics Vol. 1, among quite a few others.
But for most of those albums I think I had been too young at the time of their release to understand their full cultural place: where they came from, what they meant, and what happened to them. My emotional connection with those albums was much more about my adolescence and what music had meant to me at the time, rather than about the album itself.
The result would have been a book somewhat more about my teenage years which -- though others in the series have been very successfully executed from a personal perspective -- was not something I'm smart enough to make interesting to others.
Still: some kind of emotional connection to the album was core. Dummy somehow reverberated more than those albums -- or at least, differently. I was slightly older at the time of its release; and I had grown up in England but was living in California when I first experienced the album. Perhaps that shift in perspective -- how the album’s odd, avant-garde edges intersected with my experience of expatriation -- was what made it emotionally compelling to me.
In any event, there's simply no way I could have handled listening to this album as many times as I have, if I had not loved it at some level that was basically beyond reason. I think it has to be an album that has fused with your life in some way, and the process of writing the book is the process of understanding what exactly the hell happened, how it happened, and what it means. You can't fake that.
Pick an album that means something to others. Lots of them.
I suspected that my chances of getting the proposal accepted would be increased significantly if I was pitching something popular -- not necessarily on a mass level but at the very least with a core, dedicated niche demographic. More possible readers. There are a bunch of albums that were important to me like Dummy is important to me, but many of them are more obscure, or indeed are jazz albums (the series doesn't accept proposals on jazz albums). There needs to be some consideration of commercial appeal, I think. It can't be an album that nobody knows, regardless of how brilliantly you can write about it. Unless you’re a world-famous author.
The proposal guidelines and comments suggested to me that the fine people at Continuum were not looking for conventional, thorough, dependable books about innovative, original, game-changing albums. They were looking for books that were every bit as unique, striking, and winning as books as the albums are as albums. That's why the series includes some experimental books (thematically, structurally), and some unique approaches (novellas, extended interviews, oral histories, ...).
In the quest to be distinctive, I went after two angles that I took to be unique, which leads me to two other tips:
Portishead are famed for their reluctance to speak to media -- in particular singer Beth Gibbons gave only five interviews, all early in the band’s career, and has since sworn off any media contact at all.
Knowing that the band would probably decline to be involved in the book, my proposal suggested that I would crowd-source content from the album's fans. I thought there was something compelling and original in this; I had just read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody; and I thought the approach would give me a huge wealth of stunning material that would transform the creative act of the book from thoughtful (but conventional) critique to successfully curating, integrating, and editing a world of voices.
Not so much. Although I packed as much research as possible into the book’s gestation, it still wasn't really enough time to get this done in a way that I would have considered meaningful, although Daphne Carr took this approach, extremely successfully, for her great book on NIN. I did get some fantastic material from the album's listeners, but I tended to go deep on a few reactions, instead of flooding the book with hundreds of voices, which had been my original idea.
As it turned out, Portishead are not nearly as media-averse as I assumed, and I found some great interviews from the Dummy and Portishead era. Moreover I was blessed with extensive involvement from Dave McDonald -- Dummy’s sound engineer and the early band's “fourth member” -- who agreed to an interview as “probably the last time I’ll talk about this.” And Tim Saul, a longtime friend and collaborator of Geoff Barrow -- and part of Earthling -- was similarly generous with his time and insights.
Still: I did of course reach out to the band, who declined to be involved with the book, initiating levels of anxiety on my part (will they like it? did I get everything right?) that are not likely to abate.
For structure, I wanted a book that would work like some obscure books I adore -- Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter; D J Waldie’s Holy Land -- where disjointed fragments are assembled together to form a cumulative picture. This was, admittedly, an approach already taken by an amazing book in the series, Douglas Wolk’s volume on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo.
This approach worked out really well, and is I think central to the final manuscript that evolved as somewhat associative, free-form, and, of which, where it works properly, I am rather proud.
Think about how you’re going to answer some big questions
Now, I didn't refer to the proposal more than once or twice while I was writing. And for the last 6 months or so, I didn't look at it at all. But the final book came out remarkably close to my original intentions. I read the proposal again when I had finished the book, and was actually shocked how close I had stayed to it. We didn't have to change the back-cover copy at all. I think that's because I thought hard about a few basic, basic questions while writing the proposal.
- Why do I care about this album?
- Why do I care about music? Why do I write about music? What has music meant to my life?
- What do I have to say about this album that would meaningfully add to someone's experience of it?
- What do I have to say about music that hasn't been said by a hundred other people, better than I could ever say it?
Why have I given a chunk of my life to thinking and writing about music -- and why do I think it's a good idea to continue doing that?
Those are some pretty big questions, and -- and this is critical -- you don’t have to answer them before you write your proposal. (In fact you probably shouldn’t, because if you do then you won’t have the curiosity and energy left to drive you through the book.) But at least thinking about the shape of those questions for you will lead, I think, to a compelling pitch. Because the answer, if honest, can only be personal, which means that it’s more likely to be distinctive.
You shouldn’t be writing one of these books because you’re interested to know more about how the album was produced; what the musicians ate for lunch; or how the financing was arranged.
You should be writing one of these books because you can see how to use those details in the service of a statement of why the experience of music has altered your life.
I didn’t know the answers to those questions when I wrote the proposal -- but I do now. So here's the answer that is meaningful to me: music is strange. We aren't really in control of how we experience or understand it. It acts upon us, and changes us, and does so in ways that we don't completely understand while they're happening. And it does these things in ways that unite us with other people, again in ways that are strange and unpredictable and enrich our experience of life in remarkably unexpected ways. I think -- I hope -- that that idea comes out in the book. That experience of music has been really important to my life, and I think exploring it was worth the words, though god knows I used a lot of them.
I'm thrilled that the book mirrors and explores that perspective. It is a strange book: the structure is peculiar. The content is far-flung. And it explores those questions -- being socially united in our experience of music; feeling acted upon by music; being surprised and astonished and changed by music. I didn't know exactly that that was the book I was writing when I started, but I did know that those issues were interesting to me. And I knew that I'd have to write a unique book to explore them. I like to think that's why the pitch was accepted.
So, in conclusion: figure out what album has most closely fused with your life. Then start to think about why. You may be surprised where it leads you. I ended up writing about tides, vampires, WW2 bomber aircraft, slavery, immigration, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I think, one way or another, informs what this album is and has come to be.