How to hire like a psychopath

Dear Hannah,

Whatever can be said for Adam Smith he was only a man, and because he was a man he was wrong about some things.  The first of them was that labor is the main thing that makes things valuable (which it doesn't).  The second was that businessmen act like homo economicus (which they don't).

It may be safely said that nobody ever has ever acted like homo economicus.  It may be strongly hoped that no one ever will.  At the bottom of the matter, homo economicus isn't really a man but a machine; and like all machines it has a singularity of purpose.  A man does business for glory or vanity or dominion or liberty or for riches or security or to support a family or to avoid his family or to get a lot of lovers or a collection of cars.  He can do it for some and he can do it for all.  A machine has no humanity, and therefore does business for the sake of doing business.  Homo economicus has only one purpose and that purpose is the bottom line.  He's the personification of avarice.  Beneath Adam Smith's idea of a businessman he had all business and no man.  He saw an interest in profit and forgot to include the possibility of other interests.

Writers for both The Atlantic and The New York Times believe on some level that homo economicus is a good thing and that's why they want machines to do our hiring.  They believe that business exists for the sake of business, and anyone who can do a job better will do a better job for a company -- which is only partially true.   The best man for a job isn't the best man for the job, but the man who can help turn a profit while making his boss and his coworkers happy.  The boss is always the customer.  In a sense he has to be romanced like a woman.  You fail at this and you've failed at your business, which at the end of the day is selling yourself.

The writers for these magazines believe your business isn't you, which is why they believe you shouldn't attempt to be sold; and so they plug a bunch of your personable variables into a machine and believe the machine should decide where to put you.  They don't consider whether you make your boss feel safe, or comfortable, or whether you can make him laugh, or whether you remind him of his brother or he just likes your manners or the way you view life.  This soulless hiring machine would send you to him because of some nearly inscrutable formula which evaluates all the things it thinks a boss wants, without letting him judge what he feels that he wants.  The people who would benefit from this most are the people who would benefit from the state choosing our "optimal" lovers.  It would be people with tolerable IQ's and no criminal records and "compatible" personality profiles who we'd never make love to.  But I say show us the pictures.  Let's hear what the voice sounds like, and watch the way that they move, and see whether they're well-bred.  Let's hear their story, nonsense or not, and even look at a standard resume.  But for God's sake let's see the woman before we even think about marrying her.

Montaigne once told a story about a man getting a divorce.  This man was married to a beautiful woman everyone wanted, who was chaste and responsible and industrious and well-bred; and one day when a friend asked why he wanted to get rid of her, the man, tired of hearing everyone ask him the same question, stopped in his tracks and he pulled off his shoe.  "You see this?"  He said.  "This shoe is expensive.  Look at the stitching.  It's made by one of the finest cobblers out of the finest of leathers.  You look at this shoe and you wonder how anyone couldn't want it, but only I can tell you where it pinches me."

This is the world of business, not a profile in a machine.   A business is an organism that thrives on relations.  It means people choosing people who get along with certain kinds of people, whose faces you're glad to see when you walk in the door, whom you can trust with your life's work, whose goals you respect, who speak to you on a level you can't quite categorize or express, and (perhaps most importantly in a litigious society) who you believe are unlikely to sue.  In other words a successful business is an art, not a science.  Some bosses -- the best bosses -- know people, and because they know people they can build a good company.  Others don't, and because they're bad at judging people they end up failing their businesses.  Some genius realized this one day and decided the solution was making our hiring impersonal.  He believes that we ought to get rid of bias, the one thing that you can never and should never get rid of.  We say fire him.

The bottom line is important, but except maybe in rare cases of mental disorders, there's no 100% businessman who cares only about it.  The bottom-line men are most usually shallow, untrustworthy, boring, traitorous to their friends and their countrymen, and either ignorant of or hostile to the better parts of our nature*.  The Telegraph rightly calls these men psychopaths and then says they can be good for business.  But unlike the enlightened folks at The Telegraph we don't want a psychopath for a boss or a lover or a neighbor, and we don't want a machine to hire our coworkers like a psychopath.  We want a whole man.  And a whole man makes decisions that the robots and the editors of The New York TImes and The Atlantic disagree with precisely because of his humanity.  Let life bleed into our businesses.  Let our bosses pick people instead of statistics.  Give us bias or give us death.

Your father,

*Charles Francis Adams once wrote of the go-getter in his autobiography,
I have known tolerably well a good handful of "successful" men -- "big" financially -- men famous during the last half-century, and a less interesting crowd I do not care to encounter.  Not one that I have ever known would I care to meet again, either in this world or in the next; nor is one of them associated in my mind with the idea of humor, thought or refinement.  A mere set of money-getters and traders, they were essentially unattractive and uninteresting. 

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  1. Very interesting points being made here about bias implicit and essential to good decision making. A kissing cousin to bias is judgement, which is the wellspring of bias. Whenever I hear "don't judge" what I'm actually hearing is, "I get to evaluate you-- perhaps negatively, but you don't get to evaluate me, and woe-be-unto-you if it's negative." Naturally, I ignore the implicit restriction and double judge, usually not in the subject's favor.

  2. OT, and I apologize, but don't see your piece on Kaepernick posted here. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice that what you said about Kaepernick applies equally well to Barack Obama. Both are lost, and both tried to find homes in the radical black community where their backgrounds and white upbringings would be studiously ignored. Black separatism nearly always destroys mixed-race kids and is the primary reason why adoption of blacks by white families fails.


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