May 8, 2021


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Help! Everyone thinks my room is a mess

3 min read

Dear OOO:

Does everyone judge my track record on Zoom? All of my coworkers have these cute setups with white bookcases and hanging plants, but I’m lucky if I can sweep the linens from the bed behind me in time for my morning meeting. And our room is the only room that doesn’t include a distant school or a screaming 4 year old or my husband’s Zoom meetings. I pin the tiles of people to marvel at their good taste and their obviously higher wages. And then I guess they’re laughing at my Ikea bedspread. How can I stop feeling so anxious about it?

–Marie, Cleveland

Do you remember the conference calls? In the old days, everyone would call the same number to connect to a “conference bridge” that tied all of their phones together in a little party phone bus, and then everyone… would talk to each other. It was wild.

Anyway, hello and welcome to WIRED’s new work tips column. I am your advisor, partly because I have live handing out work tips, and in part because I’m the publisher of this same website and ranked when I saw the opportunity to yell at people on the internet how to improve their lives (instead, by example, to work to improve my own life). My goal is to help you improve your professional life, whether you start like me in the second year working from home or head to work because your presence in a specific place is more crucial than mine, mainly in you saying that your colleagues are boneheads or that you are boneheads. (Marie, you’re an exception here.) So let’s go.

I mention conference calls because as a society we seem to have forgotten that cell phones can in fact make phone calls in the era of the pandemic. I used to talk to so many people on the phone; These days, I’m constantly moving my laptop from the surface of my desk to the pile of books supporting it for video calls. I’m writing this between zoom nine and ten today. It’s too much! Most videoconferencing should be phone calls, and most phone calls should be emails.

Of course, phone calls help but may not solve the real substance of your problem; they can hide your bedroom but not eliminate your deeper insecurity.

But I bet if I looked the other way at laptops streaming your coworkers’ blossoming pothos and oddly untouched household libraries, I would see dust and dirty dishes and a hoodie or three strewn about. Just because their homes allow them to hide chaos better than yours doesn’t mean that chaos isn’t there.

I’m mentoring a group of low-income high school students applying to college this year, and many colleges are now requiring students to upload ‘about themselves’ videos as part of the app. Maybe they really think they can get to know students in a 120 second clip, or maybe it’s a misguided attempt to be cool and TikTok-y, but somehow I think that it turns against them. For the most part, these colleges don’t give their overwhelmed 18-year-old applicants any indication of what these videos are about, but they are very precise on their preferred setting. In the words of an Ivy League institution, a clutter-free background helps ‘do your best’. “Messy room,” their “do’s and don’ts” video states. For one of my students, who shares a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and two strangers, her lack of austere setting almost scared her not to apply.

We surely agree that the elitist college is the bad guy in this story, right? Ergo, you can work with clueless, wealthy and arrogant people – in which case it may be worth looking for another job. But maybe you are working with decent people who are also insecurity in these times of an anxiety-provoking pandemic, and their insecurities are expressed simply through a manic staging of their antecedents. Some of them may even be envious that you are driving these days with a pass of people in your home.

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