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On Depth of Character

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The other day I went into town for a job interview, and to tell the truth it was a nice day for it. It was hot, and I felt a little dehydrated hiking up a massive hill from the train station, but at least I could ride those endorphins through their screening process.

With a handshake the guy tells me I will hear back from them by lunchtime the next day, and in typical form they avoid calling me. Instead I get this email:

    Dear Jonathan,

    Thank you for your interest in our company and for the time you invested with us. At this stage your application has been unsuccessful. We would like to wish you every success in your future endeavours.

Not that it really bothers me at this stage. I have sat through so many interviews that I care little about the outcome. I have a condition called Asperger’s syndrome. It is best described as a social learning disability that manifests itself in failure to read and synchronize with people properly.

Individuals like myself tend to be highly introverted, unsociable, and thus unlikely to excel in interviews. In fact, the most successful of us tend to find their place in professions that demand little interaction — like programming or accounting — which play to our overly logical brains.

Yet here I was being interviewed for a telemarketing role, and the fellow in front of me was asking what achievement I was most proud of. My answer was, put simply, that I can now feel completely at ease with sitting opposite to a person in power – something that took me years to master over the course of many sales and marketing roles (the first of which was rather traumatising).

On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have said that. After all, social skills are supposed to be something you take for granted, not something you had to work your ass off to possess at all. And I bet he merely wanted a stock answer about hitting sales targets or completing my university degree. But then why wouldn’t he want to know that I had the character to keep going instead of giving up?

The truth is that modern job interviews are just one symptom of a society that does not value depth. The practice has a lot in common with torture. The person in power asks the subject questions in the hope of getting particular answers and this in turn leads to the subject saying what they think they want to hear. A practice that was originally designed to judge a person’s moral character has come to be a game where participants bluff about their attributes for a chance to win.

Furthermore, this problem repeats itself over and over again in many different areas of our lives. Students write essays and answer exam questions simply to appease their teachers. Politicians treat their citizens as voters and shy away from radical reforms where needed. Journalists cut and paste facts and phrases in place of real analysis to avoid responsibility for their comments.

Our artists, musicians, and writers are encouraged to account for a lazy audience. But while many people have been apt to blame the media, the welfare state, and new technology for this loss of depth, the problem is clearly systemic.

The reason so many people fail in cultivating their depth of character comes down to a balance of power. So long as we insist on emphasizing the details over the essence and on micromanaging rather than leading each other, we can only stunt and squander human potential.

If we are to live a deeper more satisfying life, we must embrace a great deal of humility and render the tools of control ineffective. We must detach ourselves from everything others use to manipulate our emotions, and have the courage to do the authentic thing in spite of the cruelty that might be envisioned for us.

In my own life, I have had to make peace with my long-term unemployment, which is not an easy thing to do when so much of me wants to work and be independent. The stigma attached to unemployment has long made me reluctant to talk about what I do. Both of my best friends are now in careers, while I continue to be at the sidelines doing volunteer work and keeping my mind busy through research and creative writing.

It occurs to me, though, that my friends actually accept me in spite of this lack. They understand it can hardly be considered my fault if I am constantly putting in the effort. For them, the details of my existence are less important than the essence.

That said, of course, it does little toward my finding a vocation, and it has been put to me that I should simply play the system and give my character the dazzling whitewash being asked of me. But supposing they do at least have a little merit in the sorts of things that they ask, would it be wise to misrepresent myself? It not only risks my wasting time in a position I am unsuited for, but it also helps to perpetuate this problem into the future.

Indeed, a recent edition of Background Briefing, entitled “Mostly Bloody Awful”, draws attention to the negative impact the MBA has had on business management over the last few decades – suggesting it gives young graduates easy entry into positions of power without the necessary industry or life experience to make them good leaders. Judging a person’s ability and character by the pieces of paper they own has done a lot of damage.

Perhaps there is some rationality to the reductionism we see in our lives. The volume of content we absorb each day has grown exponentially and left us with little time to really get to know a subject. It might be expecting too much for us to spend more time with prospects because turning down a new friend is exhausting. To spend months agonizing over a decision is inefficient and impractical. Even so, we only find real satisfaction when we live deeply – and that is why we must learn to pace ourselves and take care in choosing what to invest ourselves in.

Just as a healthy meal provides greater satisfaction than constant snacking on the go, investing in bigger and higher quality experiences is better for our minds. To live deeply is to become more aware of the world and find meaning in the stretch it asks of us. It requires us to embrace friends and family in spite of their flaws, to do a good job in the face of easier alternatives, and to recognise our own limitations as people. To expect the best of each other is good, but we must never let the quantity distract from the quality.

I could be completely wrong about this. Maybe this line of thinking is something everyone else already knows, and maybe I am constantly turned down because there really are better applicants. But in all my experience across work, education, and life itself, I have rarely come across a person who will openly let their perceptions be challenged, and I have frequently met people who prefer trivia over understanding. Might I ask, dear reader, which are you?

About Jonathan Scanlan

  • Anonymous

    Don’t give up. Being different/unique though many times is challenging, is also a breath of fresh air, and will likely find you in an awesome place someday! Society is not flexible enough to appreciate original, true, honest people. If the world were reversed, made up of more Aspies/ASD individuals than ordinary everyday “normies”, it would be a much happier and safer place to be!

  • Mo

    I finally have found someone who understands and thinks the same way I do!
    I agree with all of your points in this article. It is sad the world is the way it is. It seems everyone has brainwashed eachother into a narrow-minded way of living. There is hardly any room in this majority of people to be real–and accepted.
    I don’t know…it’s crazy.