Cultural literacy

20.10.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
Yesterday, I walked down to our local discount grocery store. I needed a bottle of milk (for breakfast), a tomato (for our turtle), and a bottle of vodka (for Cosmos and Bloody Marys).

We’ll start today’s post with the vodka.

Snarky story starts here
The store has a lousy selection of booze, but when vodka is drowned in cranberry or tomato juice, most of the stuff is palatable. I asked for a bottle of “Rasputin” (cheap, Czech, and surprisingly mellow).

“Oh, you mean ‘Rezz pew TEEN’” corrected the kid behind the counter, perhaps a fan of the historically flawed 1978 Boney M hit.

“Thanks. Yes. ‘Raz PU tin’” I replied.

“Rezz pew TEEN,” he insisted.

“Well, I want the bottle you’re pointing at. But it’s actually pronounced like ‘Vladamir PU-tin – without the ‘ras’”

“Who?” he asked?

“Who?” I asked back, “The monk who influenced the Czarina Alexandra? Or the current prime minister of Russia?”

“Who the fuck cares?” he replied – which in retrospect was probably a reasonable response from an underpaid kid at a crappy discount grocery.

That said, my patience in these situations is notoriously low – my close friends say “non-existent.” My unspoken reply was, “you probably should care if your career plans go beyond minimum wage and a bar-code scanner.”


How Thomas Edison hired folks
Edison invented the phonograph, the electric light, and a couple of other things. He had a special written test he gave to all new potential employees. It included stuff like “What is the capitol of Albania?” and “Name a poem by Longfellow.”*

Engineers and other skilled job applicants hated this test. They argued it was completely irrelevant to their work. But Edison replied, “The questions I ask are all related to things you should have learned in school. I’m not really interested in what you know. But I very much want to know what you’ve forgotten.”

How I interview
Whenever I interview people – from freelancers to salaried positions, I always look for people who can think outside the box. Of course to do so, folks have to know there IS a life outside the box. They need to be culturally literate. I’ve never given a prospective employee a formal test. But I do ask off-the-cuff questions you probably won’t hear at other interviews – I want to draw people out and find out if they know something of the world around them.

Personally, I have no long-term interest in the people who go through life wearing professional blinders. Nor do I want to work with folks who spend more time on self-promotion than on self-improvement. And I have absolutely no use for folks who, armed with a couple of expensive university degrees, insist they can change the world before they’ve taken the time to understand it.

Learning from my own dumb mistakes
My attitude has made me more enemies than friends - conviction is often mistaken for arrogance by the youthful. Nonetheless, this standpoint has made my life is richer and my company is stronger. And I build on hard-earned personal experience having made all three mistakes myself. When I arrived in Denmark at the ripe old age of 22 with a hot degree and a hot job title at the Royal Theatre, I thought I knew it all. Boy was I wrong. And thank goodnesss I had patient mentors who put up with my immature self-importance and helped me move forward.

Well, I'm a lousy mentor because I don't have much patience with either arrogance or unjustified self-importance. Today, I seek out people who think, who are well-rounded. I want to work with people who are smarter than I am for only they can help me expand my own weltanschaung.

I don't mind being told I'm full of shit. In fact, I welcome it. But be prepared to teach me why and help me grow.

Thank you, David Blumenthal
There was a memorial plaque on the wall of my high school to David Blumenthal (1936-1952): “Cease not to learn until Thou cease to live. Think that day lost wherein Thou draw’st no letter to make Thyself more learn’d, wiser, better.” This wonderful quote is credited to Guy du Faur de Pibrac and has since become my creed.

Cultural literacy should be a prerequisite in every job description. “Knowledge of HTML” – hell, that’s the easy part. But remembering your grade school social-studies class is tough. Nevertheless, I honestly believe that that is what’s going to help move our industry forward.

* Tirana and “Hiawatha” are acceptable answers. BTW, if anyone passes by Highland Park High School (north of Chicago), I'd love a photo of the plaque - if it still exists. It was near the north entrance, by the auditorium.