I’ve worked in a corporate office for the past four years. It’s cliché at this point to mention the monotony of office work. Dilbert and The Office have already picked that bone clean. The intentional corporate atmosphere that is created by the soft drone of copy machines and the empty visual stimulation of cubicles with fabric walls is well known by a large portion of the American workforce. You arrive in the morning, survey the endless pile of paper work, accomplish a few tasks, and then go home to watch television before crawling into bed, and repeating the cycle only a few hours later. After a while, your thoughts begin to wander. Despite the fact that you are (unfortunately) sober, your mind starts to take on the disposition of a philosopher sprinkled with marijuana : this is what I do? I copy numbers from this place, plug them into this spot and then send that to someone else, for them to do something with it? This is what I create? This is the mark I leave on the world? Manipulating meaningless symbols to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for auditors to follow?
After a while, out of either desperation or boredom, you start to apply for jobs that you’re told are a step up the ladder; a way to expand your career. You browse endless lists of vague job descriptions. George Carlin once had a bit about “soft language” and how it was destroying our ability to communicate. Soft language is manifested by the terms “specialist”, “analyst” and “manager”. The job titles explain nothing, and the job descriptions are copy and paste jobs, bored and repetitive. Have you worked in an office before? Have you done it for far too long? Maybe 5-7 years?
Eventually you find something for which you feel you may be vaguely qualified. In any case, even if you’re slightly unqualified, you think of yourself as intelligent. You’re the guy other people come to when they have questions. You help the 60-year olds in the office figure out how to turn on their computers. You’re pretty sure you can learn to do anything involving Microsoft Suite. This isn’t rocket science.
You apply. Your carefully crafted resume flies off into the ether of Human Resources. After a few days, you get an e-mail response inquiring as to when you can interview for the position. The first option provided is usually impossible, either because they scheduled it during a meeting you already have on your calendar, or they’ve decided that people usually work until 7PM and that would be an opportune time to meet. You deny the initial suggestion and respond with another time right before you usually go to lunch. They accept and the meeting is scheduled.
The week leading up to the interview is spent inside your own head. You know that a significant portion of higher level managers and directors are clueless. They’re bumbling laughing stocks to everyone except the newest of interns. If these people got jobs, you figure, you’re pretty much assured to be offered a position equivalent to CEO. You’ve just got to show them what you can do, how versatile you are. You’ll be funny, you’ll be personable. They’ll realize that the office will function best when those making decisions are knowledgable about the grunt level work. Even if you don’t get the job, it will surely go to someone with better qualifications than you currently have. Can’t complain about that, that’s fair. It makes sense.
Predictably Irrational is a book that examines how people will consistently make decisions they determine to be rational, even as experiments and closer examination reveal these choices to be irrational. This happens so frequently, according to the author, that it becomes predictable. Rational actions are smothered by irrational biases and cultural norms.
Job interviews are a case study for this idea of predictable irrationality. You enter an office and are greeting by someone holding your resume and seeming far too happy to see you. You make small talk for a few minutes. You recite a few lines that always go over well. You start to think you’ll take charge and determine how this interview is going to go. You’re going to seize control and tell it like it is, you’re going to put on such a show of intelligence and common sense that this person will be helpless in the face of such confidence. He or she will respect your ability and what you could bring to the table.
Then the questions start. Immediately, it becomes all too clear that we’re going to go down a path that is nowhere near the one you’d wanted to take. You want the path that will demonstrate your ability to scale the metaphorical corporate rock walls and rappel down professional mountain gorges. The path we end up taking is paved in marshmallows. It seems nice, but is completely irrational.
You’re asked, “Why are you interested in this job?” Oh no, you think. You notice the interviewer is literally reading from a script. This question is impossible. It’s like your blind date asking you if you think she’s attractive. The true answer is most likely offensive: a larger office and slightly higher pay will probably not go over well. You need to respond, so you try to improvise something you think will be clever. Instead, you start to feel like you’re outside your body, watching yourself spin clichés about opportunity and expanding your responsibilities. This is not going well. You need to shift to your own strengths, start doing it now. Just do it. Right now.
The interviewer’s eyes drop down to the script. “How do you deal with difficult personalities? Can you give me an example of a time when you didn’t react well to a difficult personality?” You’re starting to feel trapped. It’s now obvious that this is going to be by-the-books. The interviewer is looking at you like he’s the host of a late night show and you’re the D-list celebrity that was booked for the last five minutes. Even if you start to spin a terrific yarn, he’s just going to blankly nod at you while he keeps his eyes on the clock. Going rogue at this point would be useless. You can’t stick to your original plan of expressing your individuality. You have to adapt. Just give him what he wants.
“Difficult personalities?”, you mutter. You furrow your brow for a moment. You honestly don’t have problems with difficult personalities at work. Unfortunately, that’s because your heart is never in your work and you don’t care at all about the outcome of an argument about an Excel spreadsheet. Difficult personalities are dealt with by ignoring them and then later wondering what kind of mental complex they have that causes them to be such unpleasant human beings. You consider this for a moment, and then realize you can’t say this out loud. This person obviously assumes you are fanatical about spreadsheets and would battle through Hell’s Army in order to make sure that the formulas this “personality” is pushing on you never see the light of day. You consider telling them about the time in college when a drunk frat boy crashed your house party and started getting into a fist fight with your roommate after a game of beer pong. You snap to your senses. That’s a great story, but probably not the time for it. You begin to mumble something about a time when you and someone disagreed about something and they were kind of a dick about it. But you use happy, cheery language and end it with some sort of bland moral realization about living and learning and dealing with all types. You feel like a poor man’s version of Aesop; an Aesop only in it for the residual checks.
The interviewer nods blankly at you. You can’t tell if the answer you gave was received positively or negatively. His eyes drop back down to the script. You realize he’s trying to make it seem like he’s coming up with these questions on his own. He reminds you of Keanu Reeves, if Reeve’s were on huge doses of Xanax. He glances up towards the ceiling, as if searching for inspiration.
“How familiar are you with Microsoft Excel?” You start to get annoyed. These kinds of broad questions always annoy you. It’s the same when a doctor asks you how much pain you’re in, on a scale of one to ten. You have no idea how to answer this. You start to imagine pain at the level of ten. You start to think about being tortured by having a hooded executioner quarter you while you’re still alive, like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. That’s probably a ten, right? If that’s a ten, I guess my slightly aching knee is a .125. But why did you go to the doctor will a pain less than one? Are you some kind of pussy?
You jump back to reality. You think about how deep the rabbit hole of Excel goes. There are things Excel can do that even Bill Gates doesn’t know about. On that scale, I’m in the achy knee zone of Excel knowledge. But, you think, I’ve never been unable to accomplish what was asked of me with Excel. What is the scale this person is operating on? How familiar am I in terms of what?
You begin to give a usual explanation of being “very familiar” with the software, but you add the caveat that you aren’t an expert or anything. Bill Gates is the expert. You just know how to use it the way everyone else uses it: to make lists and add numbers. The interviewer seems disappointed with this answer and let’s out an unimpressed grunt. You realize you should have lied. You start to feel sympathy for anyone who ever got fired for lying on their resume. How can you judge them? And why were they fired for that after they’d been doing the job for ten years? Does the lie matter at that point?
The script reaches its end. The interviewer looks up at you and you make awkward eye contact for a moment longer than is comfortable. “So… you do have any questions for me?” You have a lot of questions. None are appropriate. Your mind wanders back to the people who currently hold positions higher than you, including the person you’re currently engaging. The irrationality of the interviewing process is overwhelming your mind. You realize that the buffoon who currently gets paid three times your salary, while totally lacking common sense and also being incompetent at his job, is an excellent interview. He went through this exact process and nailed it. Perhaps through sheer unawareness of his own skill set, he managed to provide answers to these questions that blended in perfectly to the dullness of the beige cubicle wall. Are these people simply excellent bullshitters? No, they can’t be. They’re usually not bright enough to be blessed with the gift of gab. They must inhabit this thought process. They must truly believe the answers they give and throw themselves into this whole heartedly.
You posit a disinterested question about something. Maybe ask how many other candidates there are. You get a one word answer that is pointlessly stretched out into multiple sentences. Then you stare at each other again.
You leave the office feeling unsure. That didn’t go well. You can’t imagine how it ever could have gone well. You wonder if you even would have been happy if you got the job. An extra $8,000 over the course of twelve months. What is that after taxes? You can’t do that math in your head. The progressive tax system is too complicated. You’ll plug it into some website when you get back to your desk.
You get back to your cubicle and spin around in your chair a few times. The public printer next to your desk starts beeping because it’s jammed. You look at your e-mail inbox. You delete the spam and deliberately avoid clicking on an email from a “difficult personality”. You check Twitter on your phone. You turn off your phone and put it down. You open Twitter on your computer. You look out the window and notice that the sun is shining.