Jan 11 2018
I Am Not the Unicorn the New York Times Was Looking For
There I was minding my own business, traveling in Laos with friends in late October, and I wake up one morning to a deluge of emails and Facebook messages. “This was made for you!” was the gist of those missives, along with a link to a New York Times job listing. Now, I would love nothing more than to work for the New York Times. But in reading the listing, I thought “This cannot possibly be real. It’s a come-on of some sort.”
Every year for the last several years, the Times has published a feature known as 52 Places. It’s a travel guide with suggestions of 52 places to visit across the globe. I always read it and dream, though the last two years, of course, I’ve done more than dream. One criticism I’ve had in those two years is that the annual feature is generally weak on destinations in Southeast Asia, and that’s too bad because more Americans should visit this part of the world.
Anyway — the job listing was a new position: Traveler-At-Large, for The New York Times (!), charged with visiting those 52 Places over 52 weeks. 52 weeks of worldwide travel. On someone else’s dime. For The New York Freaking Times. Holy zowie.
I spent the next couple of days in Laos and Thailand serving as tour guide for my friends, assuming I had at least a couple of weeks to get the application in (the original listing did not include a deadline). The same day they all left to return to the states, I flew to Jordan for my first visit to the Middle East.
That night, as I was leaving for Jordan, on a midnight flight, I checked the listing again and lo and behold it contained a deadline and the deadline was in TWO DAYS. Long story short, I finished the application for the job of a lifetime from a bedouin tent in the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum, crossing my fingers that the wifi, in the middle of nowhere, would get it to its destination. The confirmation email arrived and I headed out for a four-hour camel ride in the orange sand. (Thanks to my parents, who were with me in Jordan, for reading and copy editing the application!)
Over the next couple of weeks, I read the stories the Times was doing on the reaction to its own job listing… “Why Send a Journalist on a 52-Week Trot Around the Globe?”… and “For the 52 Places Job, 9,000 Applicants (and an Avalanche of Unicorns)”. In the end there weren’t 9,000 applicants. There were 13,000. For one job.
Apparently people were creating memes, sending stuffed unicorns to the Times building in New York (the travel editor had mentioned earlier that they were looking for “a unicorn”), and doing all manner of creative stunts to stand out in that avalanche.
I don’t even know how to create a meme. I should probably find a class and learn how.
But in late November, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I awoke to an email from the Times, asking me to produce two videos in the next round of the application process. “We are asking a subset of candidates to create additional content that will allow us to further assess your skills.” They wanted: a 60-second video (shot vertically), telling them “who you are, where you live, what you do and why you want to travel the world” AND “Make an Instagram Story as you give us a guided tour. Show us something (anything!) that you think is interesting that showcases your unique sensibility. It can be where you live or a place you are visiting. Download the full vertical story and submit it to us. (60 seconds).”
My first reaction was: uh oh. Video killed the radio star. Then… what’s an Instagram Story? I spent the next 48 hours figuring out vertical video, buying my first-ever selfie stick, feeling like I was 89 years old for not knowing what Instagram Stories were (especially since I’m… on Instagram), and generally berating myself for not keeping up with the times… not to mention The Times.
I spent several hours going around Bangkok to three different markets for the “show us something” video – I thought it was pretty fun… I ended at a night market, saying I was ready for a beer. (My Dad told me later that I shouldn’t have talked about wanting a beer. Hmm.) For the “tell us who you are” video, I’d planned to do those 60 seconds from a tuk tuk, but a monsoon downpour rained on that parade and I ended up just talking to the camera in my apartment. Which felt strange. But I got them both done, which was no small feat. Maybe that tells me I wasn’t right for the job anyway, if it takes that much effort to do a couple of simple videos. But I’m a fast learner and I know I could’ve figured it all out for the job itself.
When I didn’t hear back in December, I knew I wasn’t the chosen unicorn. As most everyone knows… this isn’t the first time I’ve been turned down for a dream job. Last time I got a book deal out of the failure, so let’s see what I can make of this one. And I remind myself, constantly, that I spent 20+ years in a dream job. That’s not something a lot of people can say. I am most fortunate and have exactly nothing to complain or be sad about. And I’m infinitely glad I went through this process. Despite my status as a video dotard, it was a delightful challenge to put it all together, and it’s good for me to be aware of some of the skills I’m lacking as I seek other employment. Time for a few classes. Meantime, the adventure abroad continues… and I’m genuinely excited for the true unicorn to head off on the 52 Places journey. She’s going to have a most incredible year and I can’t wait to read her columns (and see her vertical videos?!).
So now it’s back to the job hunt… with maybe some travels in between. I want to return to Seoul, and am looking at another trip to India – Kolkata this time, I think.
At least I can now take this uncomfortable horn off my forehead.