Being and Distance

For my first blog entry, I would like to share with you a short digression I wrote over a year ago after a discussion with my former co-worker. For her insight, I am dedicating this entry to her, WQ.


There was a time when I did the interviewing. I was the one who decided which questions to ask in order to measure whether a candidate possessed those competencies required for a given position in my company. In the back of my mind, I always had the fear that one day I would be the one being interviewed and would be confronted with one of those absurd questions designed to evaluate one’s “analytical skills”. Curiously enough, I was not afraid of “not knowing” the answer, but rather of what my reaction to the question would be.

Fear can be well-founded and rational, and just the right amount of anxiety is often essential for optimal performance. Nevertheless, on many occasions fear leads to panic. And panic is always debilitating and irrational.  I often suffer from vertigo, not the vertigo where one fears the fall, but the vertigo where one feels compelled to propel oneself over the cliff.So, there I am brainstorming with a co-worker on how to interview candidates. And she suggests a series of “analytical skills” questions – those questions that demonstrate one’s problem solving skills. What about the question, “how would you calculate the number of taxis in Madrid”? I start to get nervous. I feel like jumping. If asked, I would love to answer, “I would just call up the taxi association”. Or say, “just look it up on the internet”. I don’t want to hire someone who wastes time calculating numbers and figures when there are easily-accessible resources with this information available.

Then, she poses the question, “what is the distance between Madrid and Miami?” Now, I am in a full panic. My vertigo is suddenly combined with my math-phobia. And when one is confronted simultaneously by two phobias, one generally gets self-conscious, proud and defensive.

Composure. Keep your composure. Must prove I can reason my way through a question I find unreasonable. “What is the distance between city X and city Y?” This is just a standard interview question. Why do I find this unreasonable? Is my pride ashamed of its fear of numbers? Maybe because of my fear of numbers, I have trained myself to measure distance in every quantifiably qualitative way that is not quantitative.

The inherent problem with these “distance” questions is that they expect an answer in terms of physical distance, essentially in kilometers or miles. But, what if one does not measure distance in kilometers, and if kilo-metric distance is plainly irrelevant or far too vague for the interviewee? Does that mean that the interviewee lacks the ability to reason?

Measuring distance in kilometers always assumes the correlation between two separate pieces of experience. For example, one could compare another two points and then relate those two points with the original two. The problem is that knowing these distances for the average person is only important in terms of travel time. How fast can I reach point Y from point X if I am driving or flying? What time can I arrive, how long will I be sitting uncomfortably in the car, plane, train, etc.? But, the travel time does not measure the truly relevant distances that I travel.

For example, what if I were to measure the distance between two points in two different countries or in two different time zones? Now, I must factor in other measures of distance. Even though time (as measured in minutes and hours) appears constant, the distance in many ways is greater. Time really is not constant, distance is. I lose or gain hours, sleep, fatigue. What is the distance upon one’s return? Are the two distances the same even if the travel distance remains constant?

Yesterday, at the metro station, I saw a group of 14 year-old girls dressed in short denim mini skirts with leg-warmers, faces covered in make-up. Leg warmers? The last time I saw a girl wearing leg-warmers was when I was about 12, 20 years ago. There is a distance of 20 years between the leg-warmers and myself. There was also a distance of about 12 meters, with the train tracks between the girls on one side of the platform and me on the other. To reach them, I could turn around, walk up the steps, and come through to the other side. This would take approximately 4 minutes. A distance of 4 minutes. This is important. I must be able to calculate the travel time and factor in whether I could reach them before their incoming train arrived. But, of course, I had no reason to reach them.

I did calculate the age distance between them and myself: 18 years. Why was that distance important? I wanted to put the number of years between them and myself into perspective, to know how many years I had to travel between being their age and being mine. So I began to measure all of the factors that separate the 12 meters, 4 minutes, and 18 years between these girls, their leg-warmers (20 year distance) and make-up, with me. I recalled 14 year old girls that I had dated, kissed, petted. Ones that praised me, ones that made me insecure, ones that I praised, ones that themselves were insecure. I measured the distance between wanting to belong, a need for conformity and nonconformity, a need to look older, a need to rebel, and the place where I now am. I measured the distance between innocence and hope with the world in which I live. And strangely enough, I had no envy for these girls. Rather, I felt a need to weep for them. They all looked so sad, so desperate to belong. I noted that the distance between them and me was a world of experiences, was identity. The distance between adolescence and myself is vast even if only 12 meters, 4 minutes, and 18 years separates us. A distance I am happy to have traveled but one for which I would surely not buy a return ticket.

So when it’s finally time for me to be the one sitting on the other side of the interview, I think my response will be, “Perhaps I should save us all of a lot of wasted time and reasoning, and leap into the abyss. What is the distance between these two points? Been there, done that. Now it’s time to move on.”


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One response to “Being and Distance

  1. Pingback: Grave Error » On Jet Lag and Walking the World’s Rim

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