Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

08 Dec 2009, 16:35 p.m.

Repurposed Email

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Some of my ad hoc social writing recently has been to email lists. With a bit of editing I can decontextualize a few paragraphs into something to amuse you.

After a recent shooting:

Elliot Aronson's The Social Animal and Gavin de Becker's The Gift Of Fear made me think a lot about the role of the news media in basically encouraging copycat killings. Any loser with a gun and the will to use it basically becomes a role model. As de Becker puts it, the most important question regarding a potential assassin is, "do you believe you have the ability to kill [whoever]?" If the answer is "well, no, he has all these bodyguards, etc." then you don't have to worry about the nut, even if he's fantasizing about doing it all the time. If the answer is yes, then there's a problem. And so when an attacker attacks, the news media become a PR machine whose message is "this attack is possible" (the "plausible premise").

Cory Doctorow's "Cheap Facts and the Plausible Premise" has the somewhat hyperbolic line "...we now inhabit a world where knowing something is possible is practically the same as knowing how to do it." This is incredibly encouraging regarding, say, childrearing techniques, bike repair, activism, crafts, entrepreneurialism, and travel. It means that initiative, resourcefulness, and not-being-oblivious pay very high dividends. But that goes for IEDs, too.

Nerdy humor recommendations:

Science jokes, just real groaner puns -- read the comments on BoingBoing for more. I have hearted Brian Malow for years and evidently was and am right to do so.

"Dear Mandy," a fairly nerdy and British political rap song.

Danny O'Brien! "I have volunteered to take the meetynge notes in the style of a 17th century essayist.... So up, and to Noisebridge, where I did attend the meetynge of the week, and was so pressganged there into beynge a recordist, and did solemnly type this at that time into my computationeristic automaton...." This includes "Steven, a cabler from this parish, did offer to fixe the cabling in our place, and did offer so to put his plannyng unto the wiki, the builde mailynge list and discuss."

Regarding the virtues of pain:

There is an aspect of temporary pain that's soothing to the self-loathing mind. "I'm not supposed to feel good; my default state is stressed, distressed, sad, somehow in emotional pain; that's how I know I'm working hard enough, being productive enough, struggling hard enough, not wasting time. If I feel minor physical pain (even if I have to deliberately incur it), it's like getting drunk. It numbs the voices telling me that I'm not doing enough. I must be doing enough, I'm in pain! If I'm in pain it means I can relax."

And there's Gate Control Theory (on pain & nerves)...

The virtue of pain is that it stops?

I once knew a guy who trained martial arts, a lot. He had a proverb he was fond of. He used to say "Pain is just the sensation of weakness leaving the body". And so he kept on training, even when it really hurt, because he knew it was just weakness leaving his body. And it worked; over a period of twenty years, nearly all the weakness left his body. When I last saw him, there wasn't enough weakness left in his knees or ankles for them to even bend. He walks with a stick, of course. Turns out that you probably ought to leave a bit of weakness in there.

On dress codes in job interviews:

I'm really wondering how much of this "oh you gotta wear a suit to an interview" is a male thing, a New York City/Eastern US thing, and a BigCorp thing. I'm glad I don't use that particular shibboleth when hiring -- I get superior access to qualified candidates who get turned down by other interviewers for stupid reasons, score! Some nice lines from Moneyball that get at my perspective:

As the thirty-fifth pick approaches, Eric once again leans into the speaker phone. If he leaned in just a bit more closely he might hear phones around the league clicking off, so that people could laugh without being heard. For they do laugh. They will make fun of what the A's are about to do; and there will be a lesson in that. The inability to envision a certain kind of person doing a certain kind of thing because you've never seen someone who looks like him do it before is not just a vice. It's a luxury. What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job. - p115

"You know what gets me excited about a guy? I get excited about a guy when he has something about him that causes everyone else to overlook him and I know that it is something that just doesn't matter." - Paul DePodesta, p116

Sure, we're all playing the probability game, and if I were a male in New York City looking for a desk job at a publicly owned corporation, I'd probably put on a suit for that interview, in case I got a superficial interviewer. But let's be clear that it's about probabilities, and not some kind of handed-down-by-God Rule about who's hireworthy.

Relatedly, from a conversation about job interviewers asking personality-related or personal questions:

This discussion is reminding me of how different jobs customarily have different intake rituals and customs. The more creative industries expect a certain well-roundedness and ability to deal well with curveballs. Academics expect you can churn out erudite-looking prose, including a custom cover letter, basically at will. Software managers expect that developers can list a few dev jobs on their resumes, and might interview in an unsociable manner but can code in front of you if you give them a puzzle.

I used to interview really badly, so I didn't get various scholarships or into selective summer programs or jobs. I would always make it to the interview, basically never past it. Now I'm much better, but it's not because I specifically worked on My Interview Skills, it's because I (mostly unconsciously) improved my general people skills. And I can see a sensitive hiring manager trying to balance the need to get someone personable with the wish to help nervous people relax -- by, for example, asking them ahead of time for something personality-related that she can ask about in the interview, to get the interviewee speaking more informally.

We put a lot of emphasis on the ability to "communicate" - in person, on paper, etc. But just as a timed essay during Finals isn't the best test of my day-to-day intellectual abilities, an incredibly pressure-laden, ritualized submission process (double entendre intended) isn't the best way to see how a person communicates day-to-day. The abstracted crucible is sometimes easier to game, and is much less worthwhile than the work and skills it's meant to symbolize. I know every hiring manager needs a screening mechanism, but I don't want hiring managers to think that mastering the interviewing/cover-letter-writing kabuki dance is an unambiguous thumbs-up for a candidate.

By the way, here's a great cover letter we got while editing the anthology:

Dear Money Guy,
Sorry, I've had it out the arse with boring, yet professional, cover letters. And since the worst thing you can say is no, I figured what the hell. I hope you enjoy my 3500 word submission. But, if not, I look forward to hearing no from you soon. And feel free to be as brazen as you like. It's refreshing, I promise.

I haven't been writing much in the blog since work has consumed me. I may take requests, though.


15 Dec 2009, 5:27 a.m.

A couple of thoughts:

What you say here about interviews being too formalized to be good measures of job performance makes lots of sense.

But I think you may be somewhat underestimating the importance of certain social factors.

In particular, if someone shows up to an interview dressed totally inappropriately for the job, that may be a good indicator that they won't fit in very well in that particular workplace.

Similarly, if someone sends me a story or a job application and completely fails to follow the clear detailed instructions I've provided on how to do so, I tend to have a negative reaction. There are at least two parts to that:

* The irrational part: I'm a rules-follower; I put the rules in place for good reasons; I get annoyed when people unilaterally decide the rules don't apply to them.

* The rational part: If someone applying for a job can't be bothered to follow the rules, that suggests to me that they may be unlikely to follow the rules once hired, which means that working with them would likely make me really unhappy. (It may also suggest that they don't pay much attention to detail, which may or may not be important, depending on the job.)

Of course, that doesn't mean following the rules is an unambiguous thumbs-up. But significant disregard for the (explicitly stated) rules in this kind of situation is a yellow flag for me.

So say you're a hiring manager in a corporate environment where everyone dresses in suits every day, and everyone's expected to be in the office precisely at 9 a.m. And some guy shows up for an interview ten minutes late wearing torn jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt. The fact that, even in the specific short-term ritualized interaction of an interview context, he didn't bother to adhere to the conventions of that workplace may suggest that he's not a good fit for that corporate environment.