Wednesday, October 15, 2003

School Daze/Interview Story

Kindness From Strangers

Thank you, Chiara. I like her best when she communicates her enthusiasm for the things about which she is passionate, when she tells stories, shares her quirky sense of humor or shows the courage to talk about non-mainstream subjects. I like to see debates on ideas. I can appreciate criticism of people's words and actions; I don't like to see personal attacks.

I can understand Chiara's feelings about the French educational system. Like so many would-be utopias, it often fails. Is it an attempt to correct the flaws of some other system, to replace a hereditary aristocracy with a technocracy selected through a brutally competitive and often mean vetting process, whose selection criteria changes over time? I don't know. As an
American, I escaped being categorized by a system to which I didn't belong.

On the other hand, in the US, I wouldn't have been able to get a Masters degree for $600 a year and I wouldn't have gotten to spend hours in the Bibliotheque Nationale. I did get to know some of the Normale graudates (not the professors who are more distant than their American counterparts), but the other grad students and the participants in the conferences. They were wacky in their own sort of passionate way. They challenged me and I couldn't help but respect the fact that here were people who'd never spent any prolonged time in an English-speaking country, who were interested in my culture, and who could write impressive papers on Faulkner in flawless English.

School Daze/An Interview Story

The teachers who most inspired me were those who were passionate about what they taught, who encouraged and who taught by example. "No, you ignorant little snot, U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' is not an appropriate choice for an essay; try John Donne" never inspired me to read John Donne. It would be years after that before I'd pick up John Donne, which was a shame because I like John Donne.

Apparently, some engineering schools have some non-sciences requirements similar to the ones that sent innumerate people like me to classes informally referred to as "physics for poets" to graduate from a liberal arts college. My husband told me about one such class "X,Y" by Elisabeth Badinter, which probably attracted the minority of students seriously interested in gender issues and, let's face it, the larger contingent of mostly male engineering students looking for a nice vacation from "calcul variationnel" and a chance to fantasize about Mme. Badinter (as she might have looked over 10 years ago). Well, whatever the motives may be, we can always learn something.

I haven't read her book , but as explained to me, it had to do with the cultural definition of masculinity" Examining the changing role models for masculine identity--from cowboy in the 1950s to Terminator in the 1990s, from flesh-and-blood man to machine." Apparently, masculinity might be something that had to be proven. I had never really thought two seconds about common expressions like "Be a man" or "Boys don't cry" since they didn't strictly involve me. On the other hand, apparently, femininity might be a given. As a girl, I had occasionally been told "Be a lady." However, this had to do with conforming to certain social niceties--like don't rip a whole in that nice lace dress we've starched up for you to wear to your uncle's wedding because you're playing tag with your sibling and cousins. No one ever tells you "Be a woman". Melanie from Gone With Wind might have been a lady, but Scarlet most definitely was a woman.

Might it be a vacation to be a woman? Can you get away with more things as a woman? What might it be like to be a smart woman, as I saw in one comment on this blog. I can't answer the question of what it might be like to be a woman, smart or otherwise. I only know what it might be like to be myself.

I was once asked that question, not the woman part, but the smart part, in a job interview my last year of college. This came from the gentleman, who was then head of Citibank's Global Derivatives. He said "So tell me Miss Mason, are you smart?" He said this in an accent reminiscent of Mr. Kobayashi in film, The Usual Suspects.

Why a person, whose unique experience with derivatives involved one semester of college calculus and not the financial instrument, would be at this interview takes some explaining. It had something to do with not knowing what I wanted to do, the rather limited recruiting offerings at my college, usually involving insurance company training programs, investment banking and management consulting, and some vague feeling that I should justify the cost of my education and find gainful employment (a subsequent brief experience there would send me rushing back into the warm embrace of academia). If I hadn't f**ked up the first part of the process--missing the on-campus interview because I didn't pay attention to the rescheduling, I would not have pursued this job any further. However, there's some perverse instinct in situations where I've failed something or not made the cut, where I find surprising motivation to prove that I was, in fact, worthy.

How to overcome such an unpromising start? Did Mr. R give me an hour of his time because I was a woman? Unlikely. No, he gave me an hour of us time because I told a lie. Did I lie about my background? That could have been easily verified. No, I lied about my desire for the job, in a masterpiece of falsehood, dripping with cliches. I was a bit ashamed, but I was also unemployed. Surprisingly (or not), it worked. His office never called me back, but I was going to be in New York anyway for another company's interview, once again involving no direction on my part, beyond the fact that the campus recruiting meeting offered some more tasty looking hors d'oeuvres than the usual fare at our cafeteria. So, I informed Mr. R's secretary that I would be in the city at such and such date and looked forward to talking to him. A day later she called me back with a scheduled time.

Now, there's a world of difference between being a writer and being an actor. If there's one thing I am not, it is an actor. Once I was in that office with Mr. R, I felt very small and out of place. His question took me aback. Yes, I was smart about certain things, usually involving arcane bits of knowledge in which few people are interested and for which fewer are willing to pay. Then, there are plenty of things about which I am not smart. I knew enough to know that when you don't know the answer, always ask a question. "Well, Mr. R, how do you define smart?" I got some more information there, "Street smart. Tell me a story that proves you're street smart" he said. Even then, I knew that most interviewing isn't about truth. It's about giving them the answer they want to hear. With the perspective of time and experience, the answer there would have been to assume the Cowboy persona: "Damn straight, I am. It's not about the money. I absolutely live to kick *ss in the financial markets," and then I should have added some hastily improvised story, borrowed from a newspaper article no doubt, about how I might have almost been mugged in the South Bronx, but got the best of my would-be muggers and we all wound up drinking a toast at the local saloon. It only occurred to me, a good ten years later, that a dapper Indian gentleman working in the financial markets might not be any better off on the streets of the South Bronx than I would have been.

At the time, however, I was absolutely at a loss for words and no good street smart stories, real or imaginary, were coming to mind. Since the silence would have been even more awkward, I talked about the one thing I did know something about. My undergraduate thesis (now mouldering in some forgotten corner of my college library) had to do with issues regarding personality and artistic theory. One piece of writing that had always interested me was Samuel Johnson's treatment of "The Dangerous Prevalence of Imagination" in a chapter of Rasselas. For Johnson, imagination springs from discontent with the world as it is and he equates the predominance of imagination over reason with insanity. He believed that most of us spend our time reminiscing about the past or daydreaming about the future, so that the present is almost always lost. He envisioned both a positive imagination, which robs people of the ability to enjoy a reality that can never correspond to the magnificence of their daydreams and a negative imagination (as demonstrated by fear), which destroys the peace of the present by causing individuals to focus on "evils recollected" and "evils anticipated." (Disclaimer: these brief notes hardly do justice to Johnson or Rasselas, if you are interested in this topic and the remedies he proposes, by all means read him ).

Well, talking about imagination and its relation to time and the inability to live in the present is one thing guaranteed not to get you a job in global derivatives. At this point I had blown it and I knew it. Since my future employment was no longer at stake, I relaxed and decided to make the most of this hour Mr. R and I had to spend together. What might it be like to be a Head of Global Derivatives? Well Mr. R told me his story and it was interesting. I asked him what was the one thing he would do differently if he had more time in his life. He told me that that would be to study philosophy. We left on good terms and never saw each other again.

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