Debunking The Peter Principle

October 3, 2012

“Change the word that brings you down, to a word that lifts you up!”

This is the challenge issued by a “mind coach” on one of the career transition boards I read.

If you have been reading this blog since the beginning, you may have wondered from the outset exactly what “qualified” me to claim any expertise in Life & Career Transitions.  It’s simple:  I’ve been through quite a few, and I expect that if I live long enough, I’ll go through a couple more.  Have I always handled them with grace and aplomb?  No.  I’m not perfect.  And now, you’ve learned both the 1st and 2nd most important things about me:  First, I’m not brilliant; second, I’m not perfect.

So today, when a long-time friend observed, “You are overqualified for almost all jobs.  That is the problem in this day and age.”, I knew in an instant I had to go public with the 3rd most important thing about me:  The euphemism “overqualified” [defined as “the state of being educated beyond what is necessary for a job”] is THE word that brings me down, and I want to change my image/word right now!  Let me lift myself up as an example of COMPETENCE.

I’ll begin this narrative resume with a few examples, or as they refer to them at 40Plus, “Success Bytes”:

  1.  I can pat my head and rub my tummy simultaneously.
  2. I can walk AND chew gum.  Heck, I practically wrote the book.
  3. Unlike the young Japanese executives I trained at a major Japanese corporation, I don’t have to be taught that, when answering a phone, I should hold the receiver in my left hand so that my right hand is free to write down a message.

Now, in fairness to the young Japanese executives, who were all graduates of top Japanese universities, and had math skills that are the envy of the Western world – they didn’t really need to be taught that, either.  But the company thought so, and apparently it pleased the company to think so – so they added that unit to the corporate Executive Training Program.  But, happily, I didn’t have to teach it.

No – in-between Bargaining & Negotiating skills [Ok – I have to confess now:  I am the person who taught the Japanese how to beat the slop out of Americans in business negotiations!  Me!] and helping them get into MIT, I was asked by the CEO’s office to write his English language correspondence – both business and personal.  But first, I had to be vetted.

They sent a guy down to interview me.  He began by asking if I was SURE I could write English fluently.  Now, this was not as surprising a question to me as it might sound to you.  Those young Japanese executives, who were required to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, regularly challenged me as to whether I really thought I could pass it myself.  I cannot tell you how many sample tests I took over the years to convince each new batch of them that I was fluent in the English language – but every time I scored 100%, they would accuse me of having an answer key hidden somewhere.

So, I told my interviewer that I had published (with by-line) in every major English-language publication in Japan, and I didn’t even bat an eyelash when he demanded to see proof.  Just that week I had published a HUGE (it covered almost ½ of a features page!!!) review of a friend’s art exhibition jointly commemorating the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing.  I produced it with a flourish.  It included a lot of juicy inside info such as how, having received death threats, the gallery owners had had to move the exhibition to an undisclosed location.  The political implications and how my own “reviewer” might interpret them never even occurred to me, because, before I knew it, he had zoomed in on a certain phrase in the first paragraph:  “First come, first served.”

He peered at me over his glasses and insinuated, “I am sure that I’ve always heard ‘First come, first given.’”

In that moment, I was truly caught on the horns of a dilemma – one that has provided me with fodder over the years to answer the interview question about describing an ethical business problem and how I resolved it.  (a) I could lie and say that it was possible I’d been mistaken in my phrasing; or, (b) I could deflect and ask the guy what he thought about the art.  The article had some truly fabulous photos . . . .

The executive office decided to use an English-speaking Japanese national for the business correspondence.  Some months later, I happened upon a letter that had been written to a foreign supplier terminating a long-term contract:

          “The grapefruit season is upon us!

          We regret to inform you that in accordance with Paragraph X, subsection Y, we hereby give notice of termination of the contract between us dated Z.”

The spelling and grammar were impeccable.

I have another good friend who has vowed she will no longer apply for any jobs labeled “Top Notch”.  “When I read the endless laundry list of duties, it makes me wonder what the boss is going to be doing!”, she says.

I think she’s onto something.  I dream of seeing a job description requiring that applicants merely be COMPETENT, and I have started drafting my cover letter:

          “I can attest to solid experience running with scissors, and I carry a very sharp pencil – my resume, references and LinkedIn profile will confirm it.  Furthermore, I can also provide a writing sample . . . .”

One Response to “Debunking The Peter Principle”

  1. Dana Casella said

    OH, I LOVE being the long term friend who inspired this post! Your musings are always a joy to read. I still think THEY could become the missing link. Send them to a publisher! It can’t cost a dime, and I think someone would be BRILLIANT to publish them in one volume! So many people would be comforted and inspired by your words.

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