Bullish Q&A: When Your Success Is Based On Shadowy, Unspoken Rules

Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby"

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone (now on Mondays!) and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss on Thursdays.

Today, we have two questions about underlying rules and structures that you have to figure out to keep from constantly banging your head into a wall.

I wrote in Bullish: Social Class in the Office about how my high school debate coach not only taught me to properly shake hands, but explained to me why it was important to cordially shake hands with your enemies (hint: so observers you hope to bring over to your side don’t think you’re an asshole before you even start talking!)

He also explained to me that different debate judges valued different things when judging. Some of them wanted to give the win to the person with the best arguments. Some gave more weight to the skill and style with which the arguments were delivered. But some of the judges were unqualified dumbasses who just voted for whoever was nicest. (While some debate judging is surely based on opinion, some is quite objective – for instance, if your opponent gives three reasons for his main contention and you fail to respond to one of them in the speech directly following, you’ve lost that point and are not allowed to bring it up in a subsequent speech. If his point was in any way important, you’ve probably lost.)

One such judge penalized me when my opponent asked, “What is the origin of the natural rights?” and I responded, calmly, that I had just spent most of my speech arguing that there were no such thing, so I could not tell her the origin of something that does not exist. My opponent asked again, and again, and again. I said, “It’s like your asking me what a unicorn eats. If there are no unicorns, the question is unanswerable.” The judge wrote “refused to answer question” on the ballot, and voted accordingly.

I’m still mad about that. But my life got a lot easier when I took my coach’s advice. Did the judge seem to have no idea how debates worked? Was she, for instance, not taking notes in a column-based format that tracked what responses were made to what arguments? If so, be really nice. Soooo nice. So nice that you destroy your enemies.

By expecting absolute objectivity and fairness, I was penalizing myself. By seeing the rules and systems as they really were, I was able to beat everyone.

In a weird sense, many unfair systems are sort of fair in the sense that at least the tacit, unofficial rules aren’t that hard to figure out when you really look. Some judges just want to vote for a smiling, upstanding young person. Some bosses just want you to not cause them any trouble. Some want you to do awesome things they can take credit for. Some are super-competent people who are hoping you’ll act exactly as they would in every situation.

If there were a ballot for performance in life, I could write “unreasonable expectations of fairness” on it for a lot of young women I know.

Let’s see the first question.

I’m a final year medical student in the United Kingdom. In a few months I will be sitting a Situational Judgement Test (sort of a psychometric test – more here). It’s a new format (we will be the first applicants using this system) for job allocation of all the final years and soon-to-be doctors in the UK. I will be “competing” with thousands of medical students for my first choice of job placement and I would like to improve my odds.

I would like your advice on how to succeed on test like this. I know it is an odd request but I know you are an extremely intelligent woman and I would really appreciate your insight as to how I can come out tops in this situation.

How interesting! I do a lot of work with standardized tests, and am always interested in test design.

Share This Post: