How Finding a Job is Like Losing Your Keys
“Who do you think made the first stone spear? That wasn’t the yakkity yaks sitting around the campfire. It was some Asperger sitting in the back of a cave figuring out how to chip rocks into spearheads. Without some autistic traits you wouldn’t even have a recording device to record this conversation on.” – Temple Grandin
Ever lose your keys? It sucks. You waste a ridiculous amount of time looking in places where your keys turn out not to be, and even when you do finally find them, (at least in my case) there is too much lingering bitterness about time wasted to feel any sort of relief. Family or friends might offer you commonsense, pragmatic advice, such as “try and retrace your steps.”, “think about when you last saw them?” or, my personal favorite, meant to ward off the negative nellies, “Keep at it. They’re always in the last place you look.”
Of course they’re always in the last place you look, because you stop looking after that. Is that a Bushism or something?
Really, this kind of advice is worthless – although the people giving it are well-meaning enough that they both expect and deserve your gratitude. This kind of worthless but well-meaning advice is more like a set of received small talk for the explicit situation of losing your keys than anything that may actually help you find your keys. You must, of course, go on with your search alone.
Finding a job is similar. Lots of people have worthless advice they’ll willingly give you for only your expression of gratitude in return; perhaps they remember the brief time they were unemployed and passively regurgitate the worthless advice they received. (They presumably found jobs after all, and the human penchant for manufacturing false causality is trenchant.)
At the Museum of Science in Boston, there is an exhibit on the five senses, one element of which is comprised of three metal panels displayed in a row. The middle panel is at room temperature, the panel to its left is set at forty degrees Celsius, the panel to its right is set at ten degrees Celsius. Guests are instructed to place a hand on one of the metal panels at the extremes for fifteen seconds before touching the center, room-temperature panel. As you might have guessed, the center panel feels cold after the hand is allowed to acclimate to the hot panel, and the center panel feels hot after the hand is allowed to acclimate to the cold panel.
There is a similar mechanism that goes on with culture, and what we perceive is essentially a function of what we have perceived. Those of us who have spent long periods of time in foreign environments have more-or-less acclimated to the cold panel, so when we press our palms fully against the most quotidian center panel, we notice only warmth. The possibility that someone else could experience cold seems irrational to us.
I was having an (admittedly oversimplified) discussion today with my dad about how different cultures tend to solve problems differently. Some of them ignore them until they go away, some of them solve them quickly but sloppily, some of them solve them slowly but properly, some of them pass them on to other cultures, etc. Keep in mind that these are just tendencies that attract the notice of the outside observer.
To me, I said, it’s as plain as the heat of the center panel that American corporate culture is either completely full of shit or it’s wildly optimistic to the point of summoning its own destruction. Putting aside OWS, and putting aside the rhetoric, what I’ve experienced with job search literally a hundred times (I promised myself I’d stop wasting my time after I hit 100 resumes sent) here is this:
April: Me: Hi, I’d like a job; Them: Okay! We love you, and want you to work for us! Come have an interview. We’ll schedule you and get back to you next Thursday afternoon! Let me just confirm the time slot with the scheduling folks down on the sixth floor! We’ll call you tonight!
May: Me: Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but we were supposed to meet; Them: …
The mechanism is different each time, but what happens is essentially the same: funding for the project I was going to work on suddenly disappears; my efforts to take the bus all the way down to Philadelphia for an interview are not worth answering my phone calls or emails asking for feedback or results; they decide to go with an internal candidate; the boss is too tired to interview me and needs to sleep instead; “eight documents in two weeks” turns out to be three documents in six months; “1800 words a day” turns out to be 1400 words altogether; far more often, I just never hear from them again – my contact that was so friendly, so human only days ago is suddenly vanished without a trace like Keyser Soze.
I don’t want to believe these people are dishonest. I prefer to believe that they believe what they say originally: that there is a position that I’m perfect for at their company/university/organization, that they are impressed by the breadth of my experience and talents, that I have a unique maturity and work ethic for someone my age, that I’m handsome and useful and destined to be the redeemer of humankind. Instead of suspecting that they are simply an immoral pack of liars and flatterers, I prefer instead to believe that these gatekeepers are selected for their honest abilities to inspire job-searchers to more-actively pursue employment at their respective companies. In this sense, they are mere cogs in a system where realists and pessimists are ostracized and shunned. (Does granting them such charity make me a sucker?)
Our whole society rewards unreality, from starting wars to create peace, to handing huge sums of money over to the same people that caused the financial crisis in the first place, to denying the impact human activity is having on the environment, to pretending we’re out of the recession, to thinking we can eat and live however we want without having to pay the piper, to making “permanent happiness” a serious and real goal. Adults, on the other hand, need to deal with and indeed embrace unpleasant realities and negative emotions. “Americans” are not good at this. By now, that can-do, Pollyanna attitude has been institutionalized, economies of scale have taken effect, and the output is a culture where no one’s word is any good any more, and that truth which is not pleasant to hear is ignored out of existence.
I don’t want to imply that I hate all optimists and think they should be replaced with pessimists. There should be a balance of personalities and talents at any successful organization and in any successful society – there should be diversity for empirical reasons. I might even argue that the academy has too many pessimists. Part of it is that there is no punishment for an individual who does not keep his word, since individuals no longer exist. Back in the day before corporations and brands and mass-marketing and formalized responsibility-dodging, a liar was a liar, and that was that. Good luck getting people to do business with you if you lie or violate a contract.
Now we thrust up our most aloof and charismatic as heroes, while grey men discuss ways to improve “yield” at long, oval tables behind closed doors, offering lazy placebos to the forgotten 14 million unemployed Americans continuing to look for lost keys they just might never find.