Friday, January 3, 2014


One of my co-workers recently told me a horrible medical story involving a close relative. I am protecting identities in a fit of caution here, so we'll say it was my co-worker's brother. And this brother was diagnosed with some dread circulatory disease and the Doctor said the only thing they could do in this situation involved a wildly invasive surgery with far reaching impacts. Trying to be roughly analogous to the real story I will say the Doctor said that they would have to remove this man's entire arm. Perhaps thinking that the arm in question might come in handy for opening jars and such, the man went to another Doctor. This other Doctor said that was ridiculous, they just needed to do a couple nips and excisions to the shoulder and the upper arm, an hour and a half of surgery, and he should be okay. So he had the surgery, went home that day, and is doing well, and still has two arms, which is a very nice amount of arms to have, if you can.

Now one thing this story makes a person think, in a stunned horror kind of way, is that you have to get a second opinion. And that was certainly there in what I was thinking when I was told this story, but because I was being told this story in a work environment, the more immediate thing I thought was that that's just like where I work at the library. You can come to the front desk and be helped by, for instance, the fully capable and quite nice person who was telling me the story, or, by mere chance, you may be helped by one of a small number of strange, completely clueless clerks or librarians. They will seem probably normal enough to you in your encounter, they will have the authority of the institution behind them and at least some kind of confidence, and yet they may very well suggest the removal your arm. Metaphorically.

I told my co-worker some version of this response and she was struck by it. She said it would make a good blog post. Whenever anyone tells me something would make a good blog post I think they must know something I don't. So here I am.

And my point is that it does not matter what the job is, there will be people who are quite good at it and people who really should be stopped from doing it, and yet aren't. It does not matter how rigorous the process of learning the job is, the years, the tests, nine years of medical school or fifteen minutes having the espresso machine explained. And it neither matters how relentlessly competitive it is to get the job. There will be terrible baseball players who made it to the majors, and terrible CEOs, horrible movie stars and incompetent Presidents. The authority of our culture, of position and success, triumph, popularity, wealth, accolades, degrees and sanction, guarantees precisely nothing. You may be inclined to dismiss a whole job class itself as horrible, perhaps as with Senators or spies or chiropractors, but within them a curve of some kind will innately develop. There will be great ones and terrible ones. Within any job class I don't know what the figure is, but let's throw out seven percent. Let's say seven percent of the people in any job will be horrible at it, will endanger your day, your week, the chances of your chosen sports team, the future of the nation, your arm. No one in charge will protect you from these people, because they have already failed. They have already placed that awful person there with all their faith and laziness and bestowed authority. The one real protection from arm cutting people and misinformed clerks, in the end, is just other people doing the same job, but doing it well. May you find them.

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