Monday, March 17, 2014

The Difficulties of the Easy Way

About four fifths of the way through Under the Net, Iris Murdoch's first novel, the narrator, Jake Donaghue, translator and idler, finds a job as orderly in a hospital:
It amazed me, in retrospect, when I considered how readily I had been engaged--no questions put, no references asked for. Perhaps I inspire confidence. I had never before in my life attempted to get a job. Getting a job was something which my friends occasionally tried to do, and which always seemed to be a matter for slow and difficult negotiation or even intrigue. Indeed it was the spectacle of their ill success which, together with my own temperament, had chiefly deterred me from any essays in that direction. It had never occurred to me it might be possible to get a job simply by going and asking for it, and in any normal state of mind I would never even have made the attempt.You will point out, and quite rightly, that the job into which I had stepped so easily was in a category not only unskilled but unpopular, where a desperate shortage of candidates might well secure the immediate engagement of anyone other than total paralytic; whereas what my friends perhaps  were finding it so difficult to become was higher civil servants, columnists on London dailies, officials of the British Council, or governors of the B.B.C. This is true. I was nevertheless impressed, at the point which our story has now reached, and not only by my having got the job, but also by the efficient way in which I turned out to be able to perform it.
 I walked into similar jobs when younger--delivering chicken, stacking boxes, busing tables, etc. In the poorly compensated range of white collar skills, I have read proof and done copy editing, both which jobs used to be easy to come by. And at a higher level than that, I have known people to take positions with the sort of organizations that Washington has so many of,  jobs that are a bit of a reach for their experience. Commonly, they have done well.

The problem, though, with the low barrier to entry is that the qualified and uncredentialed are not the only ones stepping over. There are plenty of plausible and unqualified candidates who step over too, sometimes at high levels, and then one has to deal with them. This can be rough, particularly when the unqualified have made their way by assertive and unreflecting self confidence.

Long ago, a friend of mine took up the practice of law in his hometown. Over dinner, he hold me about a particular judge in the local courts, a man so lost that one could get away with tricks in his courtroom. He and a colleague managed to introduce hearsay evidence, for example, and the judge, unable to identify hearsay evidence when he heard it, overruled the opposing counsel's proper objection. The problem, my friend said, was that what goes around comes around: the day was sure to arrive when Judge So-and-So would make an egregious error that went against you.

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