“We get very little wisdom from success.” —William Saroyan
“Knowing people is useless, for I am unable to change my attitude toward any scoundrel.” —Varlam Shalamov
When I was in law school my buddies and I had a word to describe shameless careerists. We called them Batemans. These were the type of guys who were never frank, constantly opportunistic and frequently in professors’ offices licking ass. When one of my pals was doing an internship at a large, well-established and extremely arrogant civil defense firm, he used to say that it was full of Batemans.
In his memoirs, Menachem Begin once wrote that the key to survival in NKVD interrogation, and later the gulag, was learning:
One should, in all circumstances, give free reign to the thirst for knowledge which is in every man. Even if you are brought down to the depths of humiliation, to the Valley of the Shadow of Death—open your eyes wide, and learn! For as long as you are learning, your inquisitors will not succeed in establishing between you and them the relationship they desire; they, the superior beings, and you, the degraded. As equal to equal you will talk with them…. And from the knowledge that around you are not only crudity and humiliation, but also material for study, you will draw strength to stand up to the test of degradation—and remain a man.
I’ll warrant that coming from Menachem Begin this may sound a bit vindictive, but a pugilistic creed can at least offer such advice without too much sanctimony. Either way, it is absolutely sublime in my opinion, a piece of the utmost superlative wisdom. The whole meaning of life is to learn, at whatever level and in whatever manner the gods have ordained for you. If you doubt me, just live a little longer. As for the late prime minister, his only mistake was to assume that the thirst for knowledge is in every man.
When I first got out of law school I had a job interview where a great deal of learning took place, because the interviewer was a boomer firm partner who took me for a potential “mentee” and wouldn’t cease doing me the ginormous favor of blabbing about himself and his hollow philosophy.
I had seen this kind of mentorship before. My best friend from undergrad was an Iranian MBA guy I met in a Spanish class, and he was in the Rotary Club, where the college chapter was full of exchange students trying to work these boomer buffalos for Green Card employer-sponsors. They tended to get as good as they gave—worse in fact, and my pal’s “mentors” among this seriously corrupt and inbred local business elite exploited the fuck out of him for three years without ultimately helping him find a long-term job to stay in the country.
Boomers are the stupidest, most effete, self-absorbed and money-grubbing generation of blood suckers in the history of the world—the Saturnalia of generations. If you think we’re living in the Kali Yuga, fret not—we’re really just living in the after-stench of its nadir. It’s all uphill from Woodstock, which is why Gen-X is a bit less insufferable, insufferable though they may be.
My last year in college, I worked as a bouncer in a nightclub. The owner was an extremely arrogant boomer, wealthy but insanely cheap and well connected, politically. He was also quite brazen about breaking a number of laws, apparently because he felt he could get away with it, which he did. I was never an accomplice to any of this (I left as soon as I became aware of it, and tried to report it—to no avail), but the head of security may’ve been. He was a smart but boyish light-skinned black guy my age who tended to be a tad too obvious about always trying to be strategic. One day when I was working with him, we had some downtime and got to chatting. Apparently he wanted to impress me, and ended up giving me a tutorial in handshakes, and all he knew about the subtle, multifarious ways they can be used to communicate.
A lot of this stuff wasn’t any big secret—overhand versus underhand, how far you extend your wrist, that sort of thing. But some of what this guy had apparently been learning from our boss was quite obscure, and it reminded me of some of the wealthier and better connected Rotary Club people I’d met—they all seemed to have litanies of exquisite little hang-ups with body language, screening for “tells” all the time and using muted gestures to signal dominance or distain. If you’re a powerless student or junior associate rolling in these circles like a courtesan, trying to get ahead, this stuff can easily be mistaken for a kind of perennial, vigorous man’s wisdom. But it’s extremely catty, and beneath contempt, and it belongs strictly to the era circa Brown Bros. Harriman thru the adults in Beavis and Butthead.
But back to my interview. This firm partner—whom I’ll call Gary—looked to be in his early sixties, energetic in the weaselly manner of lawyers, with narrow features and impish, bright blue eyes. Now, I’m not a laser-beam eye contact kind of guy. No two people who genuinely like each other ever interact like that, but in a business environment I can do it, and obviously in a job interview it’s expected. But as soon as I was shown into the office, took a seat across from this man and began chatting, I noticed he was in the odd habit of looking way off to the side of me as he spoke. This struck me as a snide little tactic that could only have been developed out of a sense of weakness. Indeed, I was about thirty years younger than Gary, about two inches taller, and much broader in the upper body. As he filled the air self-importantly in response to some meaningless question I’d lobbed for preliminary chit-chat, I realized that he was physically intimidated, and that his flex was going to be professional rank and business acumen.
I took the opportunity of his gazing past me to study him a bit. He had on a gold Rolex, and his hands were smallish and soft. Like the upper-tier Rotarians, he made disdainful little gestures that seemed calculated. When it was my turn to speak, he crossed one leg over the other, leaned way back in his chair, and folded his hands behind his head, or else would pick very deliberately at his cuticles. He would bluntly cut me off, never giving me the opportunity to say very much, yet seemed to take offense at those natural, minute interruptions that keep a conversation flowing past lulls, and would stammer forward in order to cut them off. When I addressed—unprompted—a couple of blemishes in my background, he took this not as reverse due diligence and transparency, but as naïveté, and launched into one of several fifteen-minute lectures as if I was a twenty-three year old kid who’d come to him for advice. (I was in my early thirties). The substance was always the same: that the meaning of life is to play the game, that winning is measured by money and connections, that personal development is secondary and sincerity is for rubes. He blew a lot of smoke up my ass about how rich I’d be if I’d aim to make partner within seven years. In other words, let me exploit the shit out of you and pilfer your weekends for the next seven years while your kids grow up without you, and then maybe….
“Where do you see yourself in seven years?”
“Well right now my goal is to learn. I can’t say with certainty that I’d like to be here in seven years because we’ve only just met, but wherever I am at that time, whether here or elsewhere, my primary goal is always to learn and refine my capabilities. Because I’m essentially asking you to train me, I would want to work as hard as possible, not only to learn but to make it worth your while to teach me.” It was a thoroughly honest response. I wasn’t going to give this douchebag seven years—he’d already taken my whole afternoon. Of course I needed to make a living, but being able to do it proficiently was more important than the precise bottom line in any given job. Money is all well and good, but it’s just a means, after all.
Gary chuckled and kind of rolled his eyes. “That’s all fine—but it’s the wrong answer. Do you wanna know the right answer?”
“The right answer is, ‘In seven years I hope to be making you a pile of money.'”