The Uncanny Valley (of Employment)

There is this concept called The Uncanny Valley that is used to describe the “creepiness” of a robot or digitally rendered creature. It’s based on a Japanese theory from the 1970s. It’s hilarious, and awesome, and explains why we love C3PO and hate the horrible Tom Hanks train conductor from Polar Express.  See this article for more details, and a graph.

The Uncanny Valley of Employment is a “theory” that I have developed to explain the relationship between my experience and employability in the arts. But let’s be clear, this model does not apply to anyone other than me until such a time as I have thought it through and made a drawing of it not on a post-it note.

I have eight years of professional experience in arts administration and project management, if you let me count my two years in graduate school. My last job was my most sophisticated position by far, which I held for 2.5 years.

I have come to believe that I either need way more experience, or way less. I am often called in for jobs for which I am overqualified, and then in the interview, people say weird things like, “you should have my job!” or “with all your experience, why would you want this entry-level position?” I think it’s a waste of time to bring in overqualified people and then talk down to them, but in this job market, it happens all the time. Especially when people see my previous title, I think they think, “Isn’t this a step down for you?”

I am rarely called in for jobs that I am not ready for, but when I am, it’s always scary and amazing. There are some things about myself that I can’t change–my age, for instance. I am 30, that’s just the deal. If you don’t want to hire someone so young, I can’t help you. But in terms of qualifications, it’s always interesting to find out what my areas of weakness are. For program-type work, usually they revolve around two areas, the scale of my previous work and my lack of experience working in communities of color. They want me to have worked with events for hundreds of people, not 20-50 people. They want me to have done capacity building for large institutions, not individual artists. They want me to have an extensive network of contacts with arts organizations serving people of color, not just arts service organizations. For producing and theater, it almost always comes down to the fact that I have never worked at an institutional theater, but rather on independent projects (and that I don’t have experience with unions outside the classroom, unless you count an Equity Waiver contract).

I know this is a typical problem which is compounded by the fact that since I left my job, I am not gaining any new experience of note. (At my temp job, I am learning a lot about how to throw a gala, but I’m not going to put it on my resume.) But I am stuck in this uncanny valley, and I can’t get out. My previous title is too sophisticated, but my experience is too brief. I am too experienced for an entry-level job, but not experienced enough to lead an organization. Jobs at this intermediate level are few and far between. Help! I need a boost up out of this place.

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