It started with a Venn diagram. Sarah Cooper was sitting in a meeting at Yahoo. It was her first job in tech. Adults varied the cadence of their nods and encouraged each other to “take a step back.” During a lull in the conversation, a brave product manager walked to the whiteboard and drew two imperfect, intersecting circles: the universal symbol for I’ve Got A Brilliant Idea.
What was on the inside didn’t matter — everyone started arguing over the diagram anyway, debating its labels and the size of its circles. Sarah took note: The product manager had successfully Appeared Smart in a Meeting.
Seven years later, Sarah reflected on the incident (and others like it). She distilled them into one of her first posts on Medium: 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. It ricocheted through Slack channels worldwide, making all of us a little more self-aware about how we do our jobs. From overzealously agreeing with each other to asking whether the questions “on the table” are really “the right questions for us to ask” — we’re all just trying to look good under unflattering fluorescent lights.
Judging by the success of that first post, it was obvious there was an audience for a new kind of corporate satire — not The Office, but… The Slack. Rather than cubicles and commutes, Sarah focuses on pretentious engineers and the everlasting awkwardness that is videoconferencing. Her pieces probe the hidden layer of comedy underneath Silicon Valley’s slick exterior.
Born in Jamaica as the youngest of four, Sarah’s childhood dream was to be an actress. “I’ve always been fascinated by the masks people put on,” she says. It’s the truth that grounds her humor: “We’re all putting on a show,” observes Sarah. At the office, where we’re (too often) hyper-concerned with our standing amongst the pack, “we get very robotic, and do exactly what we see other people do.” All the conference room’s a stage, and every middle-manager merely a player.
Sarah pursued acting and stand-up comedy, but hewed to the straight-and-narrow during business hours. She earned a Master’s degree in design, which led her to work at Yahoo, and eventually, Google. It became a game — one long, meticulously branded ladder. “If you want to be in middle management,” she realized, “just please your upper management. That’s a pretty good way to get ahead.”
And it worked. Sarah got promoted, and found herself in front of highly influential whiteboards and conference tables. But something was missing. “I never really felt like I could be myself in work situations,” she says. “I felt like I was just kind of saying what people wanted to hear, and the real me was observing somebody doing something stupid” — like drawing a borderline-meaningless Venn diagram and playing it off as brilliant.
So she kept writing, finding comedy in everything from email etiquette to performance reviews to diversity in tech. Her pieces feature original illustrations and infographics like a bar chart displaying the percentage of tech executives who (really) love craft beer. One of her most popular posts, 9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women, illustrates the under-discussed realities of being a female leader (phrasing directives as questions, anyone?). In the words of one reader, “the best humor is the kind that hits so close to home that there’s this awkward adjustment period after you realize it’s not meant to be real.”
Last year, Sarah published her first book: 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. It’s a tribute to that first Medium post, classifying ever more subtle (actually… not subtle) things we do on the daily to look like we know what we’re doing.
What’s Sarah’s next trick? She just wants to keep making us laugh, without overthinking it: “I want to enjoy and giggle and be excited about the thing I’m working on, and keep my expectations low so I’m never disappointed.”
Check out some of Sarah’s most Noteworthy stories:
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