Sunday, April 10, 2011

What you get when you hire a philosopher

The last time I spent any length of time on the job market was after I finished my MBA.  I remember thinking at that time about leaving my Ph.D. off of my resume.  In addition to making me appear about ten years younger, I thought it might also have made my career history look more like a typical Marketer, a better fit for the mold.

But in the end, I have always left it on, because when you hire me, you get a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and if that's not what you want, then you don't want me.

What do you get when you hire a philosopher?

1.  The philosopher will question assumptions.  All assumptions.

If your new employee has spent a while in academic Philosophy, be warned that they are going to question everything.  Every little thing.  No assumption will be left in place, unexamined, and your new hire is going to be constantly asking why, about everything.  Remember that we spend at least seven years, and in my case 11 years, being trained to uncover and test every assumption that can possibly underlie a human thought.  Everything.  Whether time and space exist, whether pure thinking exists, whether if it did it would prove that anything else exists, whether cause and effect exist or all of history has been a series of coincidences, whether sentences can be both true and false at the same time.  We comfortably spend all our time questioning things like these.  So do you think we're going to be afraid of questioning the steps in your latest process flow chart?  Do you think we're not going to bring the full machinery of our highly trained analytical minds to the question of why, exactly, we have to fill out time sheets?  Did you think we would be too busy to bring you numerous alternative paradigms for your departmental organizational structure?  Nothing is safe, with a philosopher around. 

Some bosses appreciate this approach.  I had one boss who had a signed posted right outside his office door that said, "If you've always done it that way, then it's probably wrong."  It was no accident that he hired me, I don't think.  But the poor manager who inherited me when that boss moved on probably didn't realize what he was in for.

2.  Prepare to be contradicted in public.

Philosophers respect authority and hierarchies, but not in the standard ways these are recognized in the corporate world.  When I was a young academic, one of only two women, both of us first-year teachers, in a department full of white heads and grey beards, I had to learn how to speak up and ask questions and be seen to be testing the strength of ideas presented in departmental meetings or when visiting speakers came to give presentations.  This was hard for a young female academic to learn to do, partly to gain the confidence that my own, junior ideas could stand up to those of more senior and experienced colleagues but also because I possess a typically female conversational patterns of saying "Mm-hm" when someone else is talking, which they sometimes take for agreement when in fact it just means I'm waiting for my turn to talk.  So I had to learn to speak up and speak my mind, even in formerly intimidating and uncomfortable circumstances.  I picked up one of the greatest phrases I ever learned - "I disagree with you."  It certainly lacks the ambiguity of the "Mm-hm", and it always stopped people in their tracks because they want to hear why.

However.  When I moved over to the corporate world I found this very useful phrase had a different effect on my superiors.  "I disagree with you."  In the middle of a meeting, or on a conference call.  Especially in front of others.  Corporate bosses are definitely not used to being spoken to like this.  I remember some raised eyebrows, some exasperated sighs, and once a full, angry dressing-down.  I am sad now that I have had to un-learn "I disagree with you."  I much more often respond these days with a variation of "Sir, yes sir!", which seems to be how corporate bosses want to be addressed.  But it took years - if you are hiring someone who has worked more recently in academia, be ready to be confronted with a contrary opinion, even in front of people.  This is how we used to have to build our professional credibility, so it takes a while to realize that we're in an environment with different rules.

3.  You will never hear us say, "I'm really a visual person".

Philosophy is done with words.  Words are our only tools.  Sometimes the words are in Latin.  And I suppose there are the occasional images like Wittengenstein's duck-rabbit, but mainly, philosophy is done with words.  Furthermore, it doesn't matter at all to the validity of the argument what font those words are in.  They could be Courier, Times New Roman, Comic Sans, serif, non-serif, printed on the head of a pin or in skywriting hundreds of feet high.  The appearance of the words don't matter.  The words matter.

So we end up a bit handicapped in other forms of communication that do require visual elements, like graphic design or the construction of a persuasive PowerPoint.  Don't let the philosopher approve the creative for a new print ad or package design, because they can't tell the difference between balanced and busy, kerned and unkerned.  And try to be patient when they struggle to understand the point of meetings to develop models and frameworks for those PowerPoint slides - those hours spent hashing out whether the process should be depicted with a triangle pointing up or one pointing down, or maybe a set of three circles, or maybe it's three overlapping circles, or a stacked pyramid of bars of different lengths.  Even just typing this I'm having combat flashbacks to meetings like this, and a red fog of frustration and rage passes over my eyes and makes me unable to think.  If you want to know what the organization is like, why don't you just ask me?  I can talk it through in about 50 minutes (I learned to explain things in exact 50-minute increments when I was teaching), or I could write you an essay about it, why won't that work?  That will get you closer to the truth.  Philosophers think words describe truth, at least as well as anything can (see #1 above), and that geometrical models are just pictures of nothing, and that therefore no one can be the right model or even better than any other one and so any meeting about which model to use in a PowerPoint slide is a complete, expensive waste of time.  Be prepared for this, all you visual people in business.  You are going to be bombarded by words, so please do what you can to help translate this into a medium that other business people speak.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, wonderful! Reminds me that I need to go finish updating my "Pablo - an Operators Manual" that I wrote for people who work with me.