Saturday, February 5, 2011


There is power in numbers, but there is also weakness.

Twice in the last day or so I have been reminded of this ... the tendency of individuals to band together in agreement with a stated purpose. In one instance, an individual was denied inclusion in a particular Zen Buddhist organization because he failed to fill out an endless and intrusive application to the satisfaction of the organization. His actions were not sufficient proof of his worthiness to be included.

I'm not saying that the 'credentials' approach to jobs or memberships is necessarily off base. A college degree, for example, may indeed tell an employer something about the applicant. But if that were the only yardstick, how many truly useful candidates would be excluded? If a mediocre middle (perfect credentials) were the best any organization could ask for, how could an organization hope to actualize its best intentions? On the other hand, you don't hire a pig farmer to fix a computer.

I'm not so interested in ranting against organizations and their yardsticks. What I am interested in is the willingness of individuals to assume that credentials are enough when assessing others.

When I got out of the army, I had about a year to go before I completed my college courses. But I had little or no interest in going back to college. I wanted to work. My mother got me an interview with her editor at Doubleday, a book publisher at the time. Lee was a crusty senior editor who had been around the block and was not afraid to be wrong. We talked for about half an hour before he asked me bluntly, "So, do you want a job?" And after I said I did, he seemed satisfied: "OK," he said, "let me call personnel and get this college crap out of the way." I worked at Doubleday for five years and did a pretty good job because, college or no college, I knew what I was doing. Lee took a risk and trusted his own judgment rather than the judgment that might be found in the 'credentials' his company might rely on. I didn't let him down.

Relying on others -- relying on credentials -- has its uses, perhaps, but it also has its dangers and I think it is worth knowing where you stand irrespective of what others say and how comfortable it might be to agree with others.

As LaRochefoucauld, damn him!, observed: "The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." The cozy protectiveness of agreement may be appealing, but there is only one person looking back at you in the bathroom mirror. Being in agreement with that one is pretty much the only agreement worth making if you want a little peace, a little excellence, in this life. That mirror is the first place to look if what you want is more than a mediocre agreement.


  1. Thanks for this - I'm going to pass it along to my son who just graduated from college and is thinking about whether to go on for another credential, or to continue writing social satire "on his own". Institutionalized learning settings have been a hellish experience, in part because of the things you describe.