daring to be extraordinary

WarpathjenlucImagine that you are on the board of directors for a major corporation, or nonprofit organization, or physics department, or other such entity, and you are interviewing  candidates for one of your top positions: second in command to the Big Cheese. And let's say your organization hasn't been doing so well lately and is pretty much at the tipping point for failure. So you need someone who can bring their "A" game from the outset, especially since the Big Cheese is getting on in years, has been making increasingly erratic bad decisions, and will most likely be asked to step down (if he doesn't keel over first) in a few years.

Given the dire state of your company, you're willing to consider some nontraditional choices who are a bit outside the conventional "box"; it's not like business as usual has been working all that well for you, and you're tired of nothing but the same "insider" old white guys running the show. So you're eager to embrace youth and freshness, someone with new ideas — provided said job applicant can demonstrate that he grasps the fundamental issues facing your organization (which includes familiarity with its august history), and can propose solid solutions that include a few specific suggestions for implementing those proposed solutions. Oh, and he's going to have to be able to get the squabbling underlings — who have divided into two very hostile warring factions — to put aside their differences and start working in tandem again. So, people skills — kind of a "must."

The stakes are high, so you set up an intensive, multi-stage interviewing process. Enter candidate Bob Smith, a white 40-something, middle class Regular Guy with a spotty academic record and minimal job experience running his own business in Small Town, USA. The inexperience is a concern, but you've got one another applicant who's also a bit young and inexperienced (albeit with stellar academic credentials), and that applicant did great in the interviewing process, clearly showing that he grasped the issues and had some concrete ideas to help your organization. Bob Smith could do so, too, plus he's energetic, enthusiastic, charming, and handsome — he's certainly got the people skills, and he's a big hit initially with at least half the board members.

Then comes the first interview, and you realize you've got a serious problem. First, he refuses to show up unless he is shown proper "deference and respect." While he is engaging and likable, he can't seem to speak in anything other than pre-rehearsed canned sound bites — and, if forced to go "off script," not even in complete sentences. He garbles facts and figures, gives nonsensical answers, can't offer a single concrete specific example (of anything — not even his favorite newspapers and magazines) and seems genuinely put out when you gently ask a few follow-up questions in a vain attempt to get something coherent out of him. 

Afterward, he tries to rationalize his poor performance by claiming the interviewer (you) "annoyed" him by asking him all these pesky "gotcha" questions about topics he didn't want to talk about — or, more accurately, could not answer because he didn't know the answers. (Sometimes it seemed like he didn't even understand the question.) In fact, his list of unacceptable "gotcha" questions consists of pretty much anything relevant to whether or not he could actually do the job for which he is applying.

Given the opportunity to rectify that, he still doesn't answer questions about his own qualifications; instead, he spends the entire time trashing all the other applicants to make himself look better in comparison.  For the final interview, he announces that he will talk about whatever he damn well pleases, regardless of the question asked, and will not allow any follow-up questions, because heck, he hasn't been at this that long, and nobody really cares if he can rattle off facts or figures, or demonstrate any real depth of understanding. Wink, wink.

Would you seriously consider, even for a moment, hiring Bob Smith? Of course you wouldn't. Bob Smith would be laughed out of the conference room, and rightly so. So the fact that anyone, regardless of political orientation, still considers Sarah Palin to be a viable candidate for vice president just boggles the mind. Don't get me wrong: she's not as stupid as the Couric interviews would lead one to believe (although someone with a degree in journalism and TV experience as a sportscaster shouldn't have been so inept). Heck, she might be great in a different position, say, Secretary of the Interior, or Ambassador to Greenland, where she can keep coasting on her looks and charm. But she's not even remotely qualified to be vice president in 21st century America — unless your only criteria is that the candidate be a carbon-based life form of a minimum age. And anyone daring to point out this painfully obvious fact — hey, the Empress has no clothes! — is automatically labeled sexist, elitist, a traitor (to gender or party), or one of them gosh-darned unpatriotic socialist-lovin' liberals, by those who so desperately want to believe in her. Kill the messenger, indeed.

Despite the Palin-centric focus, this is not meant to be a political post; rather, her candidacy epitomizes one of our most fundamental failings as a nation. I'm talking about the triumph of mediocrity, of settling for "good enough," in America. No wonder our country is in a shambles, teetering on the edge of economic ruin and losing our historical edge in technological innovation. No wonder we're lagging so far behind other developed countries in educational testing scores, when we demand so little of even the highest offices of our land.

With her folksy appeal, Palin reinforces the mantra that anyone can grow up to be president — at least on the surface.  But actually, that notion has become twisted from its original intent. Anyone has the potential to grow up to be president (or an astronaut, fireman, or brain surgeon) — and everyone should have the equal opportunity to pursue that goal — but you still have to put in the work to becoming qualified for the office. You've got to have the requisite knowledge and skills to be able to compete in the major leagues, because nobody is going to change the rules or set the bar lower for you just because you happen to a pretty woman, and such a gosh-darned likable person.

Except, in Palin's case, we have, because for all her twangy, gun-totin' bravado (Sarah Barracuda? I don't think so!), she can't hold her own against the big boys in the major leagues. Come on — John McCain literally had to babysit her during one interview and protect her from Big Bad Katie Couric. How humiliating is that? Any woman who has struggled to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field has got to be cringing in embarrassment right about now. Can you imagine a female physics graduate student going into her PhD thesis defense demanding to be treated with deference, refusing to answer the questions posed to her, insisting that facts and figures are irrelevant, and being unwilling (or unable) to demonstrate even a rudimentary grasp of the basic subject matter — relying instead on flirting with the examination board? Would it then be "sexist" to deny her a PhD? I find it ironic that the same folks who have loudly criticized affirmative action in the past, now seem to be fawning all over the ultimate Token Woman.

When I started at a private high school, I won a small scholarship to help pay for the tuition. After the first couple of months, the board that had awarded the scholarships called in the various recipients for a follow-up interview. The chairman asked how my classes were going. I was painfully shy as a teenager, and modestly responded, "Oh, you know, about average." He was outraged: "AVERAGE?!? What do you mean, average?!?" I hastily assured him I meant mostly A's, maybe with one or two B's. This only mollified him a little; he fixed me with a baleful eye and sternly pronounced, "That is simply not acceptable from someone with your potential. This board expects better from you, young lady. We expect to see all A's." Surprise, surprise: I got straight A's after that –  because that man cared enough, and was committed enough to his educational principles, to gave me a much-needed kick in the pants. He refused to let me "coast" and settle for mediocrity. "Good enough" simply wasn't an option. Imagine what he would say to the spectacle of Sarah Palin.

I encountered a similar challenge in my 10 years of jujitsu. While the guys took it easy on me as a beginner, the further I advanced in the ranks, the tougher they became about holding me to the highest standard, and the less they pulled their punches. I passed the same brutal, 2-1/2 hour test as every other male black belt, despite a size and strength disadvantage; my techniques just had to be that much better. Nobody lowered the bar or cut me any slack; if anything, they were tougher on me, knowing that any attacker would show no mercy, either, and I'd better be prepared for that kind of brutality. And I am a better, stronger person for it. Why should we pull our punches with Sarah Palin, when there's so much more at stake? We're not doing her any favors in the long run.

So I was inordinately depressed after Thursday night's empty mockery of a vice presidential "debate," and the predictable inanities that followed. ["She spoke in English! She didn't completely suck! Yay, victory!"] Fortunately, Friday morning I had the pleasure of chatting with Cosmic Variance's Julianne Dalcanton on Blogging Heads TV. Julianne is the perfect Post-Palin Pick-Me-Up. She's pretty. She's smart. She's articulate, engaging, and eminently likable. She's a working mom. She studies galaxy formations and discovered a comet (that now bears her name). She is anything but average and ordinary, and doesn't pretend to be — instead, she dares to be extraordinary.

24 thoughts on “daring to be extraordinary”

  1. I have an alternative explanation for some of those “deer in the headlights” moments shown in the Couric interview.
    All Katie had to do was ask the questions more than once; after 2 or 3 or even 4 times with essentially the same question, most relatively inexperienced people will stumble for another way to express the same thought.
    All Couric has to do at that point is air the bumbling answer, not the coherent answers that preceded them.
    More experienced interviewees say, “Asked and answered”, and refuse to say more.

  2. Uh, sure. It’s all a vast media conspiracy to “censor” Sarah Palin. Including the Charlie Gibson interview…. Dream on, sister…
    Seriously, you’re just plain wrong. The reason interviewers keep asking questions is to get BETTER answers out of their subjects, not worse ones. It’s my job to ask questions, so I do know what I’m talking about on that score, and I’ve also been interviewed many times myself. Answers that start out fumbling a bit tend to improve with the re-ask; by the second or third time, the subject usually nails their answer — IF they know the subject matter to start with. It’s pretty obvious Palin didn’t. You can’t cram years of experience into a few short weeks and expect to be able to pass yourself off as knowledgeable even in such a light interview as that one. Couric didn’t put her in that position, the McCain campaign put her there. Place the blame where it belongs.

  3. This election season has been completely depressing. It makes me a little ill that Palin’s qualifications are that she has a cute smile, winks a lot, and is a religious small town mom. Even worse are the articles suggesting that women who don’t support her candidacy must just be jealous haters (Time Magazine I’m looking at you). Apparently lacking a Y chromosome prevents me from deciding who to vote for based on their experience and position on issues that are important to me.
    And I think America’s problem is not just that Americans settle for “good enough”, it’s that education and academics are openly scorned. The anti-intellectual atmosphere in this country is going to be at least part of the ruin of us.

  4. re: Linda F
    I think very clearly Palin stumbled with Couric because Couric asked her for specifics and didn’t let her get away from the question. In the debate, Gwen Ifill let Palin answer whatever she wanted and ignore the question. It’s obvious that Palin is learning the talking points as she goes and can’t be pressed for specifics because she doesn’t know them yet.
    Specific example: The Supreme Court question where Palin could not name a single case she disagreed with besides Roe v Wade. In the debate, Ifill would have let her get away with the generic response that there are many she doesn’t agree with, especially those that take away states rights and give them to the federal government. Couric pressed her for an example and Palin couldn’t come up with one.
    Later when on Fox news she was able to list some (I can’t remember what she said other than the Exxon case). You can interpret that as Palin just drawing a blank the first time, or that she went home and looked up a few (or the campaign gave her a list).

  5. Jen, you need to look at this from an evolutionary perspective. For the past 16 years, we have elected presidents chiefly on their ability to never admit error. A large part of this is the ability to evade gotcha questions. Clinton and Bush were both masters at not admitting mistakes, not taking responsibility for them, and phrasing things in ways too nebulous to pin down. Given the strong negative selection against people who give falsifiable answers, it is no wonder that performances like Palin’s occur. If you though that was bad, have a look at the interview of any major Australian politician. Their non-answers aren’t as redneck, but they are just as evasive, and entire half hour ‘news’ programs can be turned into puerile 4th grade games of gotcha.

  6. Chuck, you are of course correct about Clinton and Bush, but as much as I appreciated Clinton’s handling of the economy during his administration, I always hated his inability to admit error and give evasive answers. “Didn’t inhale” made me cringe almost (not quite) as much as “I can see Russia from my house.” 🙂 Compare that to Obama’s classic response when, discussing his high school experimentation with weed, was asked if he inhaled. He looked perplexed and said, “Uh yeah. I thought that was the POINT.”
    It’s time to reverse the trend, at least a little. As for falsifiable answers, there was a study recently that demonstrated those who were told lies that were then refuted, still tended to believe the lies if they were conservative. It was just one study, and I think far-left sorts might have a similar tendency, but the picture is a bit more complicated than that. A certain type of personality will find Palin appealing. Those who value a reality-based outlook? Probably not so much.

  7. It’s not that Americans are satisfied with, or want, mediocrity. It’s that the GOP, ever since Nixon, has been milking the basic human instinct of resentment. They portray the other guy–with all his fancy “education” and “experience” and high-brow “socialist” plans–as thinking he’s “better than you” and the way to fight back is to elect Regular Joe regardless of qualifications.
    It’s not sophisticated, but it seems to work on some percentage of the population.

  8. I have been seriously puzzled by the reaction of the women of America to this empty headed, singularly unimpressive woman. The only explanation for the rabid support she has received is that she is a woman and that is sufficient reason. I find this deeply troubling. Ms. Oullette, you have very eloquently expressed what I have been thinking and wondering if I was out here alone. Thankfully, I am not.

  9. For what it’s worth, it’s looking reasonably likely that Palin will end up being more a drag on the ticket than a help.
    I actually tend to suspect that McCain may have made a strategic error in keeping Palin in such a hermetically sealed bubble. If you’re going to bet your campaign on a “Hail Mary” pass, you might as well go all the way. McCain might have done better to send her out on LOTS of interviews. If he’s lucky she learns how to SOUND convincing before she says anything that sinks his campaign.
    (If he’s not lucky, he’s sunk but he wouldn’t have picked her if he didn’t think he was losing.)

  10. After reading this post it sure sounded to me that you were talking about this Obama guy, his lack of experience and inability to make sense and stick to one position for more than two days. He changes like a vermilion. Does not this sound familiar?—
    “He garbles facts and figures, gives nonsensical answers, can’t offer a single concrete specific example (of anything — not even his favorite newspapers and magazines) and seems genuinely put out when you gently ask a few follow-up questions in a vain attempt to get something coherent out of him”
    “Given the opportunity to rectify that, he still doesn’t answer questions about his own qualifications; instead, he spends the entire time trashing all the other applicants to make himself look better in comparison”.
    To me you’ve been talking about this younster who knows nothing and brags about being a community organizer and did nothing to lift up his own community and after 2 years in the Senate thinks he is qualified to be President and a World leader.
    So the fact that anyone, regardless of political orientation, still considers Barak Obama to be a viable candidate for president just boggles the mind.
    Think again if you think Obama will be good for this country. Just hold on to your wallet. Lets see if you are big enough to allow this comment to be posted on your blog.

  11. I have been seriously puzzled by the reaction of the women of America to this empty headed, singularly unimpressive woman. The only explanation for the rabid support she has received is that she is a woman and that is sufficient reason. I find this deeply troubling. Ms. Oullette, you have very eloquently expressed what I have been thinking and wondering if I was out here alone. Thankfully, I am not.

  12. I’ll admit, like “disagree” I thought you were making an Obama parallel at first too. While I do like that he seems to tackle certain tough questions head on, thus seeming less politician-like, I have too found it rather perplexing that I cannot seem to give many concrete examples of what he would actually do in office. But it is beyond me that people can still be not only FOR Palin, but EXCITED about Palin. I myself have taken a firm stance of a-politicality (?) this election season (I was a big Ron Paul guy, but well, we see how that went) and from an objective point of view, I just don’t get how people are still sticking to the “a mayor is like a community organizer but with actual responsibility” thing. I just come back with “you know, getting a law degree is a lot like being a hockey mom… but with actual education.” Sexist? Maybe. But I’m beyond caring.

  13. Has it occurred to you that you were meant to think that at first? 🙂 At least until the sentence about the OTHER inexperienced candidate who’d nonetheless had a stronger education and had proved himself capable by doing well in the grueling interview process? The post is not about who has the thinnest resume. Palin’s resume would be fine if she had demonstrated any actual knowledge or understanding about the complex issues she’ll be dealing with as VP. She hasn’t met the bar on basic competence; instead, the bar has been lowered to make her look better (or feel better). Nobody did that for Hillary Clinton. Or for Obama. That’s the point of the post….

  14. I can’t vote in the upcoming presidential election because I’m not an American, so I like to think of myself as an independent observer. I will admit there were a few weeks after Obama clinched the nomination where I would have voted for McCain if I had been able to. He is more experienced. He has a track record. He has served his country in many semi-anonymous ways (one of many in Vietnam, in the Senate). Obama right away positioned himself for the presidency and couldn’t be bothered to actually pass meaningful legislation. But the swing to the right to court hard-core Republican voters has been a mistake on McCain’s part. Thanks to one of your previous posts, I got a chance to compare the two candidates’ plans when it comes to research funding, especially in science and engineering. I also think Obama’s VP pick was well-advised, given that he needs someone who knows how to get the job done, once he’s called to implement all that lofty talk of change.
    And then McCain picked Palin. The fact that people think they should vote for the person they like most is ridiculous. When did likability, “she’s one of us” become a reason to vote for someone? Bush (George W) comes across as a friendly back-slapping kind of fellow too, and look at what he’s done to the country. Would the homemaker mother of five on the school board feel competent to be #2 in the country? Would she like her next-door neighbor to be the next in line if the President becomes incapacitated? Friendliness should not replace competence. There has to be a Republican woman with family values and actual executive experience somewhere in the United States, don’t you think?

  15. I’m waiting for the Lieberman/Bloomberg ticket myself. At this point, given the two major choices, I need to pick which said I am less disgusted by.

  16. For those of you who think Obama isn’t specific enough about his positions, or what he would do if/when president, or you think you somehow lucked into finding out what his funding plans are for science/engineering…
    One word: wow.
    How can you be so worthless with a computer and still figure out how to post to this web page? All you have to do is type the candidates’ names into Google and the first hits take you to their respective web sites, where you can find literally dozens of position pieces on all the top issues.
    It boggles my mind that in this day and age, a person can consider himself an informed, responsible voter and not realize that this stuff is out there.

  17. In all honesty, I am going to vote for John McCain. It pains me to even type it. As a former rabid Republican who now cares more about kid’s basketball, volleyball and soccer than national elections I just can’t bring myself to vote for Obama. Wright, Ayers and his abortion stance sealed the deal. Having said that, McCain is not a great choice for me either. I really, really thought Palin might be the answer. My first impression of the pick was OMG what has McCain the Idiot done now. After spending a couple hours with it, learning more about her son in the military, her hands on knowledge of the energy problem and pro life position I came to embrace her. Ha. After seeing several of the interviews and the debates I am now convinced I was duped. She is an amateur. At best. I don’t want someone whose definition of success in a debate is not to screw up. I expect more. She did NOT deliver. Much like B. Obama wouldn’t have delivered in a debate held two years ago. He is NOW a polished candidate. I just wish I had more faith in him and the people he has associated himself with. Despite now being polished he has no chance of fixing our economy or effectively combatting a war on terror. McCain is only slightly more qualified. Go ahead. Flame me if you wish. It’s honestly how I feel about the election.

  18. So Biden’s announcement (during the debate) that we drove Hezbollah out of Lebanon, and offering to go to Katie’s restaurant, somehow doesn’t put him in the running for Dummy of the Year?
    Hezbollah is still in Lebanon, and neither we, nor the French, have driven them out.
    Katie’s Restaurant closed in the 1980s.
    We could go on about Biden’s odd sense of reality. He was also one of the prime movers in opposing the best UN ambassador we’ve had in a long time: John Bolton.
    Palin has an admirable record as Alaska Governor. And as far as we know, neither she nor McCain have accepted millions in campaign contributions from the people behind the FNMA debacle.
    BDG: ” McCain is only slightly more qualified.” OK, I’ll go with that, but I’ll drop the “only”. And I’ll vote for the man who served his country rather than the man who only served himself. Obama has done almost nothing during his entire terms in the Senate (Illinois and Federal) other than run for the next office. And let’s not forget his sage advice for us to solve our energy problem: inflate your tires.
    He’s all show, and whatever substance there may be is most likely provided by the people in power behind him.
    He even thought he was on the Senate finance committee – which he wasn’t.
    Consider also his tactics. These are typical Democratic moves, so they’re not surprising (to anyone who knows Chicago history), but they are revealing:
    “CLEVELAND – Volunteers supporting Barack Obama picked up hundreds of people at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and drug-rehab centers and drove them to a polling place yesterday on the last day that Ohioans could register and vote on the same day, almost no questions asked.
    The huge effort by a pro-Obama group, Vote Today Ohio, takes advantage of a quirk in the state’s elections laws that allows people to register and cast ballots at the same time without having to prove residency.”
    Then there’s the infamous “Obamashirts” YouTube videos:
    (I completely disagree with the title – I just can’t find an alternate)
    The drones say “Because of Obama, I aspire[?] to be the next [white-collar profession engineer, architect, &c]”.
    And just what’s keeping them from doing that already?
    During the next section, each extols one of the virtues of Obama’s so-called health plan.
    That is beyond scary, especially when seen alongside this one:
    Those of us old enough to remember the 1940s are deeply troubled.

  19. Hey folks, I’m probably going to close this thread, just because it’s degenerating far away from the original topic/point — the artificial lowering of standards for Sarah Palin to make up for the fact that she’s simply not ready for primetime, and why this is damaging to women in male-dominated fields in general — and pretty much turning into yet another political gutterfest. There’s so many other places you can indulge your whims on that score. Stick to the topic at hand, please….

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