The Art of Selling Yourself, Or My Career Dilemma

Hello potential and future employers, nothing to see here. Please direct yourselves to the nearest exit.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to fill out a survey for my upcoming “Brands as Disruptors in Creative Industries” class. Wow, those are a lot of buzzwords in one title. But I guess it makes sense, since, as I would come to find out, the one and only educational framework of this class was “how to use fancy buzzwords and stylish logos to fabricate a fake brand identity”. But more on that later.

The survey our teachers sent us was essentially asking us to list our favorite brands (everyone loves Netflix these days, surprisingly to no one) and our least favorite ones (what do you know, people aren’t big fans of Facebook and the Zucc stealing their data). But the last question really struck a chord: “Do you think a person can be a brand? If yes, give examples.”

Obviously, if they’re asking for examples, then the answer must be yes, my college-educated, eager-to-please conformist self thought to herself. So, the academic research genius that I was, I listed the three first names that pop up when you type “can people be brands” on Google: Oprah, Steve Jobs, Kim Kardashian. It was only about a month later, when I was starting to apply for internships and work/study contracts (the infamous “alternance”) that I realized I had forgotten to put one obvious name in the list of person-brands: me.

Wait, was I supposed to have an identity?

It all started with a meeting I had with my academic advisor, during which she was supposed to give me guidance and advice on how to find internships. She asked me what I wanted to do and what my “dream job” was. “Marketing director for a progressive digital media company”, I answered without hesitation, even though this was less of a dream job and more of a “dream compromise”, a way to reconcile my passion for journalism and media with my equally strong passion for getting paid a living wage.

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Anyway, the quick “dreaming for cynicists” sesh was followed by an admittedly useful CV boosting workshop and then, the question I had feared all along: “So, what are your hobbies outside of school? What are the things that define your identity and that would make your profile stand out to employers amidst an ocean of aspiring digital marketers?”

Boom! Just like that, the Pandora box of years’ worth of insecurities and illegitimacy fears was opened. What was my identity outside of school? Did I really have one? Does blogging count as a distinctive hobby if everyone else is doing it these days? Do feminism or environmentalism count as real convictions if you don’t have a Twitter account entirely dedicated to that? What good is swing dancing if you’re only doing it for fun and haven’t won any awards?

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Those are just some of the implicit questions that my academic advisor raised in what was, I hope, a well-meaning effort to help me valorize my strengths and render my CV more unique. But rather than making me question the utility of all my life choices and time spent in the last four and more years, I think she had another objective in mind: to help me craft my own personal brand.

“You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.

Fake it till you fake it

After all, it didn’t really matter to potential employers what I thought about climate change or what kind of books I read, if it wasn’t somehow incorporated into the oversimplified crash-course image of myself that I’m giving them in the form of an A4 piece of paper and a bunch of hyperlinks to my social media profiles. “You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.

High-passion

And that, I did. I changed my Twitter cover photo to a Michelle Obama quote about female empowerment. I picked up my zero waste Instagram again. I color-coordinated all my accounts. I put more storytelling and design efforts into my work portfolio than I’ve ever put into any of my actual work.

I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?

But I didn’t just stop there. Enter the shapeshifting: I started changing up certain parts of my CV and portfolio according to the job and company I was applying for. If it was an offer for a marketing analytics position in a more tech-oriented company, I’d focus on how “data-driven” I was and reference my (quite disputable) programming skills. If it was content marketing or a position at a media company, I’d highlight my writing skills and my experience working in the industry.

It wasn’t the cherry-picking of “relevant qualities” in itself that bothered me that much. It was how well it seemed to be working. Less than a month later, I had already landed an exciting marketing internship at a leading data software startup. I felt proud and accomplished. After all, why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I actually lied on my CV or on my interview (and don’t we all lie just a little bit?). I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?

Okay Google, can I be a marketing person with true convictions, oh, and also make money?

Ironically, my apparent mastering of the tools of my aspired professional field and my subsequent success led to my realization of its hollowness. Yes, crafting and successfully selling a curated brand image of myself was a useful exercise that my “Brands as Disruptors…” professors would be proud of. Certainly, it required resourcefulness and creativity and most of all, I had fun doing it.

But in the end, what was its purpose? Retweeting more articles about gender discrimination or posting more photos of my reusable coffee cup didn’t get me more involved in any of those movements. It sure made me want to get more involved, but I was too busy picking the right insta filters. Marketing may be a fun and creative way to communicate powerful messages (or powerful cat food ads, depending on your industry and your way of looking at it), but ultimately it doesn’t have any other proper value than the one you’re creating for the shareholders.

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This professional nihilism may seem strange coming from someone who just got a great job offer from a great company that is hailed all over the internet for its quality products and services, good values and healthy corporate culture. And the fact is, I am very excited and looking forward to working there. Almost as excited as I am about getting paid and *almost*being able to afford living in Paris!

For the time being, my decision to work in marketing seems a strategically good one considering my living situation, my skills set and my aspirations. In the long term though, I’m not sure if I want my lasting “brand” to be that of the eccentric corporate exec who talks about class struggle and CO2 emissions while driving her Tesla and sipping on her 7-euro soy latte in her reusable coffee cup. Or do I?

As always, thanks for listening to my TED talk.

Featured photo by Kalina Yankova

2018: A Year of Almost Adventures (Part 2)

In case you’re still in the mood for reflecting on 2018 (as I will probably be till June), then you might want to get a short break from your to-do-listing, goal-setting and new dieting in order to enjoy my briefed 2018 adventures around the world. Even though I always want to travel and explore more, as I look back I realise that I did, in fact, visit more cities in that year than I have in any other year of my life… So, I’ll share with you the ones I was too busy/lazy to write about at the time being – enjoy. 

Check out Nancy’s part one of the 2018 recap here

St. Petersburg, Russia

Our first stop finds itself in mother Russia. It might sound familiar as at the time I managed to put my stay in Moscow into written form, but St. Petersburg is another story. ‘Piter’, as many young people are used to calling it, was absolutely beautiful, deserving of all of the hipster praise, noticeably more European-like than Moscow and surprisingly English-speaking. Visiting the Peterhof Palace, I got to indulge in my Romanovs obsession that I’ve been suppressing since early childhood. But by drinking coffee on rooftops and overeating at a Georgian restaurant called Kazan Mangal, I believe I truly vibed with the city despite not being stylish enough to meet its standards. Thank you, next.

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yes, I do resemble Russian royalty, thanks for noticing 

Athens, Greece

The summer of 2018 started with a short trip to Athens, which was meant to mark my 18th birthday. My friends and I decided to celebrate that, but also the end of the school year by doing something refreshing and as traveling with friends is always a good idea, we chose the cheapest and nearest destination available, #squadgoals. Being one of these rare Bulgarians that do not vacation on the Greek seaside, I actually surprised everybody by stating that it was my first visit in Greece ever. However, I found Athens to be exactly what I needed – pretty, ancient and hot. What I’ll remember most is probably how I hiked to the Acropolis on platforms and the magnificent view from there – truly one of a kind. Long story short, my friends and I, we wandered around the ancient town then went to a shisha bar and ate gyros. Would repeat. 

Perpignan, France

After my trip to Athens, I worked all summer in order to complete my #DiscoverEU journey  in September with a high school friend – Alex. For those of you who don’t know that’s a EU-funded initiative that gives many 18 years olds a free Interrail Pass, allowing them to travel for free by European trains. That said, we started from Paris and then traveled to a small French city near the Spanish border named Perpignan. Although it was, in my view, more Spanish than French and definitely the most random of all our destinations, it turned out to be super colourful and with an undeniable southern charm. Plus, despite being dirty af, the city was generally picturesque and the locals were welcoming, especially the two Bulgarian gypsies that gave us directions! So, if you’re passing by Perpignan I definitely recommend going there, but like, not for more than a day – it has a limited sightseeing potential. 

Barcelona, Spain 

Speaking of sightseeing potential, the one in our next stop – Barcelona was unbounded. Alex and I spend there about 4 days and as effective as we tried to be, one can never get enough. The first day was rainy, so I learned Barcelona’s charm does not hide only in the sunny weather. On the second day, we rented bikes and, as basic as we were, listened to Ed Sheeran’s Barcelona while exploring the city. After that, I lost the chronology, but we went to a chill local beach outside the capital of Catalonia, drank lots of sangria, met another Bulgarian gypsy and I personally became Gaudi’s biggest fan. Before we know it, we found ourselves on the next train station heading to Valencia. 

Valencia

Valencia quickly became my favourite. Our Airbnb was amazing and as central as it gets. The city itself was the perfect combination of typical seaside town and stunning architecture. Ah, the palms and the Gothic buildings… but mainly the palms. I am an exotic persona now, just so you know. Moreover, if I’m not getting it wrong, we drank a thing called horchata, which was a Valencian healthy non-alcoholic drink that you must try if you visit the city. Overall, it was the most vacation-like destination that was perfect both for the ‘I worked all summer, I deserve this” mentality and for providing me with strength and a positive attitude to face the new school year (my last one).

Madrid, Spain

Last but not least, we finished off by spending a day and a half in Madrid. Obviously, it was not nearly enough to explore it to its fullest potential, but still, I was charmed. For the Bulgarians reading this, I can put it that way: if Barcelona was the Spanish Varna, Valencia – Sozopol, then Madrid was Sofia. It was objectively a cool and fun place to be especially thanks to its big city vibe. Alex and I spent the last night of our Spanish crusade by going to… a 50’s-themed American diner, showcasing globalisation at its finest. Don’t judge us, we ate enough paellas and drank enough sangrias to feel authentic. 

 

I hope you’re as happy with your traveling experiences from 2018 as I am with mine! If not, hey, heads up, you’ve got 2019 ahead.

Read Part 1 here

From Saint Petersburg with Apathy and Indifference

“From Petersburg with apathy and indifference” („Из Петербурга с апатией и безразличием“) is what many hip-looking postcards in the famous House of Books (Дом Книги) read. Yet, while I was seeking temporary shelter from the freezingly humid February wind inside the antique bookstore, getting lost amidst rows of shelves with books old and new, foreign and Russian, surrounded by the mingling crowds of tourists and locals, I felt neither apathy, nor indifference.

It feels a bit like treason to start off my blog with a love letter to Saint Petersburg, when my home for the past six months has been Moscow, and you don’t need to live in Russia to know that the rivalry between these two cities goes back centuries. And yet, when I think of “travel blog”, the first thing that comes to mind is not my journey of getting to know and learning to love this cold, strange, magnificent city that is the Russian capital – rather, it’s my latest opportunity to get away from it.

 

Off to a rough start

My four-day trip to the Venice of the North was hardly love at first sight. To be precise, it was love at second sight, my first visit to the city having been only four months ago. Our first encounter had been a sloppy one-night stand, too quick, too brisk, too much alcohol involved for it to be truly enjoyable. In the three days I spent in Saint Petersburg back in October, along with a huge group of Erasmus students, most of it consisted in rushing from one guided tour to another, complaining about the non-stop rain and hopping from shitty touristy bar to shitty touristy bar all the way to an aborted attempt at a boat party (hint: there was no party; it was just a boat).

There were, of course, a few positive highlights, such as the Hermitage, which is always stunning and luckily big enough to escape from your tour group, as well as a few artsy cafés, revealed to us by our friends who live there. But overall, my first trip to Saint Petersburg had been a disappointment, not with the city itself, but with the way I spent my time there, and I was looking forward to correcting that.

 

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey…or is it?

Come my second trip, I had learned from my mistakes. This time, I was to travel with only a small group of trusted people – my best friend Rachel and three other girls from our university, all of us internationals. In other words, a solid girl squad hopping on the night train and heading towards a long weekend full of crazy adventures. You can already imagine how it all began – sipping vodka, sharing embarrassing stories, Britney Spears blasting in the platzkart…AS IF. Nope folks, don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise, the night train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg is basically a nine-hour sleeping contest with obstacles such as fitting in a sleeping cot half your size, ignoring the snores of the fat Russian dude above you, as well as the smell of the toilets next to you, cause you just had to save those 800 rubles, didn’t you?

And so we arrive at Moskovskiy Vokzal (they named the train stations in Russia after their main destination, isn’t that cool?), tired and in intense need of a shower, but happy to have gotten here in one piece. But what to do now, where to go, the opportunities are endless! So how did we spend the rest of the day? You’re damn right, we stayed in and chilled at Boris’s house, who was hosting three of us in his nice urban apartment, far away from the center.

Now, I see how it might seem regrettable to spend the whole first day in a new city closed inside a boring apartment, but you have to take into account our living situation back in Moscow. Rachel and I share a 12-square-meters double room in a typical ugly Soviet dorm, our window facing another typical ugly Soviet dorm. Therefore, being able to sit and sip tea with our friend in a real kitchen, looking at the snow fall down on an equally Soviet-looking, but somehow noticeably livelier and cozier street below, was a much-needed sense of home that we couldn’t get in our own living space.

 

Food, fashion and biopolitical art

Another thing that was harder to find in Moscow and that we were eager to try out here was good restaurants. Russians aren’t exactly famous for their amazing food culture (which can be essentially summarized with the words “mayo and whipped cream on everything yay!”) and Saint Petersburg is no particular exception, but due to its geographical and cultural proximity to continental Europe, it had become more cosmopolitan and was now competing with some European capitals in number and diversity of restaurants specializing in international cuisine.

Our choice for the night was “Meat Bar”, a minimalist stylish place serving an overpriced, but nevertheless exquisite variety of finely cooked meat and equally fine French wine. Even more than the food, I fell in love with the interior and overall aesthetic, which I’m already planning to steal for my Paris studio next year.

Wining and dining at Meat Bar

Above all, Saint Petersburg is a stylish city. You can see it in the people walking down Nevsky Prospekt, from the teen fashionistas with their faux fur and bathrobe coats, to the techno hipsters, sporting statement fanny packs (yes, you read that right) with black Adidas sportswear from head to toe. We too tried to be fancy. We risked hypothermia while doing a coatless photo shoot on top of the Saint Isaac Cathedral. We strolled down a small street rounding up a dozen designer stores, fell tragically in love with a Gucci bag and finally found our way back to Nevsky, where we came upon a four-story 17th-century shopping center with floor-to-rooftop display windows called “Дом Мартенса” (the House of Martens).

It was not the first time we spotted a very French-looking and French-sounding place in Saint Petersburg (I guess we have to thank Peter the Great and the entire two centuries after him for that). This is probably the only city I’ve seen so far that has actually beautiful malls. And that one was just a small shopping center, wait till you see the Galeria Mall! Built in 2010 in classical Greek style, a true contemporary pantheon of consumerism, it would have been incredibly tacky, if it wasn’t stunningly beautiful.

Not everything in the city was beautiful, of course, but even the occasional ugliness seemed to serve its specific purpose. Once, while crossing a bridge above the fully frozen Neva river, we stumbled upon a curious piece of urban art. Just next to the bridge, in the few inches of snow that had fallen on the frozen river, there was the name of the Russian president, spelled in capital letters, each one roughly the size of a car. Just below it, a large male reproductive organ. It was unlikely that the drawing had been the creation of an innocent, perhaps bored, group of teenagers on a casual day after school. Rather, we decided, it must have been that Petersburg-based oppositionist street art group that we talked about in one of our classes just a week ago. Anyway, this version seemed way more exciting and we were happy to have been at the right place in the right time to see the controversial political statement before it was covered by the snow.

Biopolitical Street Art in Saint Petersburg

Street art with a politically dangerous message

 

Peterhof is where the world ends

Having mentioned the frozen river, we now get to the part of the trip that left the biggest mark in my memory. It involves another frozen natural water source, but before that, a castle. More precisely, the famous Peterhof Palace, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. Now, I’ve never been to Versailles, but from the front entrance, Peterhof looked very much like the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, only with more snow. It was behind the palace, in the royal gardens, that the real fun began.

First of all, I don’t think I had ever seen that many golden statues in one place. The contrast with the shining white of the snow cover made the non-functioning fountains look kind of surreal, like something out of an Andy Warhol painting. Most of all, it gave me the creeps, because it made me think of the weeping angels from Doctor Who.

Peterhof Palace Garden Statues

The Weeping Angels: Royal Edition

However, we were still about to experience the most surreal part of it all. As we were walking around the palace gardens, we suddenly reached the end of the world. And no, I did not do drugs the previous night. Not knowing that the Peterhof was built right at the shore, we had reached the Baltic Sea without even realizing that it was there. The best part? It too, it was frozen! Covered by a thick layer of snow, the surface of the sea had blended in with the white sky and I swear, for a few mesmerizing seconds, it really felt like we had reached the end of the universe. It wasn’t until we walked a couple hundred meters in on the frozen salt water, that we became fully aware of where we were and what we were doing.

It was in that moment, while we were walking on the sea into the white nothingness, that I thought to myself, during this whole trip I had felt everything else but apathy and indifference.

Where the universe comes to an end

Walking on frozen water