Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Friday, October 9, 2015

Tales from Mid-level Management #1

When I first worked in a managerial role in the publishing industry, things were a lot more freewheeling. Political correctness had not yet been invented, and although I was quite on the proper side of how people in the business behaved back then,  it's almost certain that some of the things I did as a manager would haul me onto the carpet of today's HR directors.

It was about 1990, I think, when, Eva applied for a job I posted for a gardening editor in our small non-fiction publishing house. There were perhaps two dozen qualified applicants, and Eva was near the bottom of the list of  people I interviewed for the job.

"The first thing you should know about me," Eva said matter of factly as she entered my office that day, before she had even seated herself across from my desk, "is that I am HUGELY intelligent." She paused and studied me.  "Some people have trouble with that. I am far smarter than just about everyone, and they often resent me for it."

I studied her face. The confidence and arrogance was palpable and a little pathological, and it was already clear this interview would not lead anywhere. I've been known to end interviews within moments when it's clear that somebody doesn't fit, but I was a little fascinated by Eva. She was just  a little older than most of the candidates for this entry-level editing job, and while younger candidates are typically a little nervous and put on their best face by dressing up a little for an interview, Eva was dressed very plainly, almost defiantly so,  and exuded a confidence filled with a kind of pitying condescension.

 "I know you planned to give me a test on editing," she said.  "But this sample of my writing will explain who I am far better."  From a leather knapsack, Eva produced a  hand-bound volume, and held it up with both hands to show the title:  0 = 1.  She paused, leaned forward. "I've been working on this for seven years, so you must agree to nondisclosure. This is my copyrighted work, and it will very likely change the world some day. So you can expect legal action if you communicate any of this to anyone."

This was now getting distinctly interesting.

She then explained that this treatise did, in fact, prove that the numerical value "0" was exactly the same as the numerical value "1."  She had accomplished this feat of logic in a mere 380 pages. She handed the tome over.  "It will take you some time to understand this, so I won''t expect to hear from you for a week or so. You can give it back to me when I start work."

On the way out the door, she paused. "Supreme intelligence in a woman can be very hard for some people to deal with," she said. "Do you think you'll be able to manage me without.....resentment?"

I nodded thoughtfully. "That's perceptive of you. I'll be perfectly honest. There was a time when extremely intelligent women were a problem for me. But I've had a lot of therapy, and these days I rarely get aroused anymore. And when it does happen, it subsides pretty quickly. It's almost never a problem. "

There was just a moment when Eva's eyes narrowed with a hint of suspicion, but it was replaced with quick nod of agreement and dismissal,  and then Eva was gone.

Exactly one week later, almost to the minute,  Eva called back.  "I haven't heard from you. Perhaps you had difficulty understanding my treatise?"

"Not at all," I said. "But I did find that it was necessary for me to read it at home, to avoid embarrassment. "

"Of course," she said. "When would you like me to start work?"

I do not know exactly what came over me next, but I instantly had a flash on how to respond to her—a choice that in the years since has made me slightly ashamed when I recall the unwitting meanness of it. It hints at a dark talent in my soul that I'm not entirely happy is there.

"I have a bit of a problem," I said. "I have two candidates of absolutely equal abilities and qualifications, and I simply cannot decide. I also can't NOT decide. You, of all people, know exactly what I'm talking about.  So I've decided to allow a degree of randomness into the equation, much as you argue in 0 = 1."

"Excellent decision," she said, pleased. "And how will we proceed?"

I leaned forward in my desk chair so as to speak very clearly.  "At 5:00 on this coming Friday, I'd like you to return to our offices. My other candidate will be there, too, and I'll be lining you both up in the parking lot for a foot race, from one side of the parking lot to the other. The job goes to whoever wins."

There was long silence on the phone. "A....foot race?"  Eva said uncertainly, the first time I'd heard anything but neurotic confidence out of her.  "I....well, I'm not very fast...."

"Well, so be it then, I said. "But remember, you have no idea of the other candidate, either. It could be a dwarf with a bum leg, for all you know.  But as argued in your book, we will let uncertainty and randomness decide this for us."

Disappointingly for me, Eva never showed up again and never called back.  On the following Friday,  I ended up hiring Julia, who had been on a Division 1 Nordic ski-racing team in college. It was a very good hiring decision that I never regretted, especially since Julia also had an MA in horticulture. And I'd been quite sure she would have kicked ass in a 40 yard dash.