When asked about her interests, a 24-year-old candidate on a Chinese reality show Only You, in which candidates vie for jobs, Lili Liu said she was interested in Shakespeare, especially his heroic couplets. On hearing the phrase "heroic couplets" the program host went berserk. He criticized the woman and said she gave him goose bumps. The "jury", consisting of hirers and career planners, seemed to have turned into twelve angry men and women, many of whom joined the host in attacking the woman for attitude problems ranging from pretentiousness to rudeness to hostility. One jury member even asked the candidate about her family background in an effort to explain her behavior. Dismissed and belittled, the candidate left the show with no job offer, and hurt feelings.
The video clip has since gone viral on the Internet, with the majority of viewers leaving comments to support the candidate, lashing out at the tyranny and snobbery of the hirers. Many simply called them a bunch of phonies.
The episode was a poor apology for a job interview, but it was a unique glimpse into the realities of present-day China. You saw jury members sitting in their high chairs lording it over the contestants and passing judgment on them. You saw a TV host sizing up someone in an outspoken display of his own ignorance. You saw a job applicant elevated to the status of a tragic hero whose main flaw was to mention the writing of a dead playwright, which knocked all the dignitaries off their pedestals. Shakespeare himself could not have produced such a telling drama.
It was natural that the candidate was familiar with the work of Shakespeare as she studied in New Zealand, graduated as an English major, acted in production's of Shakespeare's plays, and had just left a job teaching English.
The host should simply have asked what a heroic couplet was and how such knowledge was relevant for the job she wanted. Instead, his knee-jerk reaction shows he probably thought this was something he ought to know but didn't, so he started to pick fault with the woman over minor issues such as the candidate's use of the word "China", instead of more endearing forms of reference to her motherland. To make matters worse, the girl outwitted him as well as the hirers every time. The candidate outperformed them all with her wit, knowledge and inner strength.
It was a missed opportunity. Andrew Carnegie wrote an epitaph declaring himself to be "a man who knew how to enlist in his service better men than himself". Liu would have been an ideal candidate for some jobs as she was smart, assertive, and uncompromising about her positions. She would be good in tough negotiations, for instance.
Recently, our university hired a new physics professor and the school administrators and his colleagues frequently told me how smart he is. There seemed to be genuine joy that a man of such caliber has become a colleague of ours. Nobody seemed to lose sleep over the prospect of looking bad compared to him. Such a welcoming atmosphere is possible only if there is a common aim to push the program towards greater success.
Small-minded leaders and hiring professionals look for people who are less knowledgeable than themselves, as this makes it easier for them to boss such subordinates around. To make an organization grow, however, leaders ought to encourage talent. They ought to recognize that compared with their need for a false sense of security and control, there are more important goals to be achieved. Unless they outgrow their own hidden desire to look better than the people they work with, an organization will not move forward.
China is scouting all over the world for top talent. But we need to make good use of them, even if they know heroic couplets and we have no idea what they are.