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How the Wheel Turns, or, I Told You So

June 24, 2013

Four years ago I started writing about The Orderly March, what I called the religion of Transcriptarianism – the idea that success in the meritocracy depended on being perfect on paper, never deviating from the life script set out for you from the moment you got into the “right” preschool.  (Search for “The Disorderly March” at this blog to get most of the posts on this subject.) The most egregious case of this was Google, in the form of this quote from a New York Times article on Marissa Mayer, at that time one of the Supreme Googlers:

At a recent personnel meeting, she homes in on grade-point averages and SAT scores to narrow a list of candidates, many having graduated from Ivy League schools, whom she wanted to meet as part of a program to foster in-house talent. In essence, math is used to solve a human problem: How do you predict whether an employee has the potential for success?

A scrum of executives sit around a table, laptops in front of them, as they sort through résumés, college transcripts and quarterly reviews. The conversation is unemotional, at times a little brutal.

One candidate got a C in macroeconomics. “That’s troubling to me,” Ms. Mayer says. “Good students are good at all things.”

But now, four years later, Google has different ideas:

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation,” Bock said. “Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything. What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

That was a pretty remarkable insight, and I asked Bock to elaborate.

“After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different,” he said. “You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently. Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

That’s what I said! 

It’s not really the idea that the best people are the people who are good at everything – it’s the somewhat absurd idea that people who have done everything by the book all their lives, grade–grubbed their way to the top by doing anything and everything it took to match themselves to a template of “excellence” that makes them all essentially cookie–cutter copies of each other, are somehow the people who are going to give us “disruptive innovations…”

And this:

I think this [avoiding classes with “hard graders] shows another facet of the corruption of a real education that comes with Transcriptarianism.  In the abstract, that philosophy presumes that you got a 4.0 because you, using your native genius and zest for hard work, mastered every required and elective subject, thereby creating you, the Renaissance Person any company must desire.  In reality, however, it creates a system that discourages risk. You well know that you are whip-smart, and yet, and yet, there are so many other whip-smarties out there.  You can take that hard class, and risk the stain of a B or (prepare to fall on your sword) a C, but what then?  A Transcriptarian will see your C and say, tsk tsk, and pick that other whip-smartie over you.  So no matter how ready or willing or able you are to take up the challenge of a hard class, run by a hard grader, you don’t dare.  The competition is too fierce to take the outside track on the racecourse when the inside track is available.

I suppose in its most fundamentalist form, Transcriptarianism doesn’t want to hire anyone who could ever take a hard class and fail it, only those who sail effortlessly through every “challenge.”  But that excludes risk-takers from the pool of potential employees – and as we’ve seen at Google (the Vatican of Transcriptarianism) with its recent, failed offerings in the field of phones and social networking, you end up taking risks without knowing it, because your certainty of success at everything you touch becomes your downfall.  A risk-taker has to have a little humility, and a little uncertainty about their ability to create a successful outcome, to be able to weigh the factors involved before setting out on a new venture.  A risk-taker who has (horrors!) failed at something, who got a C in Art History, knows that not every episode in life is an orderly march through a series of successfully executed decisions.

And then there’s the (remember when this was the point?) benefit of the other kind of knowledge gained by taking the class: a risk-taker who gets a C still knows more about a subject than someone who avoided the class to keep that perfect GPA.

It’s good to be right.

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