The Audacity to Lie for Your Career

I’m not here to join the controversy. Apparently Clay Shirky stirred some up with his post, “A Rant About Women.” I’m here because something he wrote gave rise to a memory. Here’s what he wrote:

When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was “How’s your drawing?” Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) “OK, how’s your drafting?” I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

“My drafting’s fine”, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face.

His post, as I read it, is basically how few women have the audacity to lie their way into a job like he did. I see truth in that, though there are also cultural considerations he doesn’t address. But that’s not what I’m here to write about.

After reading his passage, it sparked this memory:

My First Internet Internship

Way back in 1996, when the World Wide Web was leaving academia for the commercial world, I lied my way into an Internet internship. It was with a small shop in Greenwich Village. The owner was a laid-back, pot-smoking guy who said the phrase, “Let’s touch base” way too much. His dream was to create the first online resource for all of Manhattan’s artists. Ambitious, for sure, but so were many of the Internet’s early visionaries. Sadly, he closed shop a few years later.

I first learned about the Web from my sophomore roommate. He showed me the Mosaic web browser and the few pages he could visit. “Isn’t this better than Gopher or Archie?” he asked. Indeed it was, though I didn’t explore it further until a year later.

I’m not sure what motivated me to apply to this internship. Was it because it was an art-related position and I had an interest in graphic design? Was it because it was close to my dorm? It didn’t pay. And I wasn’t exactly qualified.

“Do you know HTML?” asked the owner during my interview.

“Yes,” I lied.

He offered me the job the next day. Then I ran out and got a book on HTML.

The lead (and only other) technical guy on the staff turned out not to know HTML either (did he lie too?). So we both dove into the book and learned as much as we could. I still remember trying to figure out how to build an HTML table. Before it became a widespread practice, the other technical guy said, “How about we place different images into each table cell, so it forms a big, single picture, except that you can click on certain parts of that picture as links?” I didn’t realize it back then, but I was building a layout with a table.

From this experience, I built my first homepage with increasingly complexity. In between graphic design assignments, I would try to construct complex layouts and build them. Yea, I’m a geek. Fortunately, my geekhood paid off as I turned this experience into a career.

And that’s how I had the audacity to lie my way into an Internet internship and jumpstart my career on the Web.

P.S. I don’t believe you should ever outright lie for your career. I knew some HTML before I started that internship and was confident I could learn it quickly, so this incident is more of an aspiring exaggeration than an outright lie. Feel free to disagree though. Have you ever done something like this, for better or worse?

Photo by: Collin Anderson

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.