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Strap a Shark Fin to Your Head

Yesterday my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary and — as one does — went out to dinner at a small, quaint Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, a place we’ve been meaning to try since we moved here a year and a half ago.

The place was lovely, the service superb, the food well balanced and we were having a great time when, from the table next to us — occupied by men in matching polos and women in business attire — came the following piece of advice: “You need to do something to stand out. Strap a shark fin to your head or something.”

This was said in an absolutely serious way, and I still can’t keep from giggling when I think of it.

As a writer, whose younger son is — or at least is supposed to be, I don’t breathe down his neck all the time — applying for engineering internships, I am familiar with the need to stand out. For most of us, be it artists, job applicants, or what have you, the big problem is how to stand out in a packed field.

Sure, you might be the best space opera writer in the world, but if people have no reason to go find your books, you’ll never reach enough of an audience to make a living. Or you might be the most competent engineer in your class, but if you don’t have the contacts to put a behind-the-scenes word in with someone hiring engineers, what you’re going to end up with is trying by sheer blind luck to hit upon the combination of keywords that will get you picked up for an interview. In either case, the odds are long.

However, the advice to strap a shark fin to your head, however effective it might be at getting you attention, is terrible in the long run. You see, while you’ll certainly be looked at if you have that shark fin sticking out of your hair, and you might even get a laugh if you announce yourself as “land shark,” it is unlikely to get you a sale (I believe the people at the next table were salesmen of some sort) or a job. And even if it works for one sale and one job, it is unlikely to build a career.

It is what is known as “a gimmick.”

In art, and in writing — which I still refuse to consider as an art form, since, really, it’s more of an honest craft, like clothes making or throwing pots — gimmicks do sometimes work, or at least they work for a time. But even then, in the end, they have a way to blight your chances.