An unforgiving environment is not a training ground

There were five of us. I was the youngest. And also the least experienced.

Surprisingly, I didn’t get the job.

It was an assessment day for a management position in a national gym chain.

One part of the assessment was a team exercise. There was an expedition to organise! We had a budget and a list of twenty-two team members. We could choose seven. The task? Assemble a crack team for a journey up the Amazon to find an indigenous tribe.

We had six team members and room for one more. We could have Henry, a young man with no experience or knowledge of rainforest ecology, who was motivated and willing to learn, or Spencer, a young Oxford graduate, with deep knowledge of exotic plant life, poisons and remedies, and a questionable team ethic.

The group decided that Henry’s willingness to learn far outweighed Spencer’s proven knowledge, expertise and minor co-operative abilities.

I thought this was stupid. And I said so, albeit in a more subtle manner.

The response was that Spencer’s knowledge was merely theoretical, that they both had no practical experience, so the choice of Henry, who was a “team player” was obvious. This justification was voiced several times, each time sounding more and more like the cliche that the reasoning was based on.

It brought to mind a passage from The Cathedral and the Bazaar:

“ATTITUDE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR COMPETENCE.

To be a hacker, you have to develop some of these attitudes. But copping an attitude alone won’t make you a hacker, any more than it will make you a champion athlete or a rock star. Becoming a hacker will take intelligence, practice, dedication, and hard work.”

So what if Henry was a “team player” and showed a willingness to learn? He had no understanding of the harsh rainforest environment.

When dealing with poisons, remedies and high risk, an unforgiving environment is not a training ground. Proven knowledge is often a safer bet than unproven potential, and when the lives of others are on the line, it is best not to gamble too heavily.

I realise as I write this, that after all, it was just an exercise. But still. The assumption that we can replace actual ability with a nice attitude is ludicrous at best, dangerous at worst. When decisions can impact the lives of many others, we want someone who understands the nuances of the situation and the possible effects of each action. If they also make us feel warm and gooey, then that is a bonus.

In an ideal word, those who are great at what they do would also be friendly, likable people. This is not an ideal world. Professional expertise does not guarantee personal integrity. And attitude is no substitute for competence.