If I can someday reach one person...

I heard an interview with a guy from an organization called the Proud Boys. In the most charitable words, they want to promote “traditional family values” or something - where men earn the bacon and women take care of cooking and cleaning. (Plus a bunch of other beliefs I won’t go into.) They insist they’re not “alt right” because they’re not into white supremacy; whatever, alt-right or not, let’s just focus on the gender thing so I don’t mischaracterize their beliefs.

The guy tells the story of when he started coming up with this idea of starting this organization. It started when he got passed over for a job. The job ended up going to, in his words, a woman who was less qualified than he was. He started thinking “This is political correctness run amok!”, found other like-minded people, and started this group.

(That google guy who was recently in the news for manifestoing about how “maybe women are just worse at computers” seems like he’d have a lot to agree with this guy on.)

Most of you probably disagree with this guy; this post isn’t for you. (and if you know me well, I might be embarrassed if you keep reading!) This post is out there just in case I might reach the one reader who sympathizes with that guy. I feel very qualified to write it because I could have become this guy.

When I applied to colleges, I was one of the mathiest computeriest people I knew, got basically perfect grades and test scores, did a reasonable amount of extracurriculars and stuff. To be concrete: HS valedictorian at one of the best high schools in Cleveland, 1600 SAT, 36 ACT, won a bunch of math competitions, co-president of very active Circus Company doing literally hundreds of volunteer shows, active in marching band, academic challenge/quiz bowl, various other things. I was the first student at my school to take college classes during high school, at nearby Case Western Reserve University. I feel self-conscious even bringing it all up, because maybe it’s bragging, but I want to make the point. I thought I was Hot Shit, and had relatively non-BS reasons to think so.

(ok, definitely bragging. hopefully at least I’m avoiding humblebragging! whatever, it’s 18-year-old me, we’re barely even the same person.)

I applied to 7 universities, based mostly on “well, I dunno, I’m good at math and science, and I can go anywhere!": MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Michigan, and Case. I was surprised to get rejected from MIT, Stanford, and Princeton.

One thing that crossed my mind was, I bet there’s a bunch of affirmative action candidates who got in. I’m a white guy from the suburbs, the deck’s stacked against me! I couldn’t think of any other reason that I wouldn’t have gotten in to all these schools. At the time, I eventually just ignored it, but I could have gotten pretty deep into that mindset if I’d had certain friends and/or online communities.

In retrospect, there are so many other ways I could have looked at it:

1. I wasn’t actually that great:

1.1. Maybe being the Math Guy from Cleveland isn’t good enough. If you’re MIT, you can accept, what, 2000 students from around the world? I wasn’t probably even the best in Ohio; I thought I was in the top 2000 in the world, but maybe not. When you shift from a local to a global scale like that, your old assumptions (like “I’m the best!") might not hold anymore.

1.2. Maybe I wasn’t playing the right game, because I focused on the wrong things. You’ve probably heard stories about the students who have proved some new theorem by the time they’re 12, or won international violin competitions, or something, while getting 3.8 GPAs. Maybe I’d have gotten into more colleges if I’d gotten world class at, I dunno, discus throwing, instead of squeezing out the last fractions of GPA points or SAT scores.

1.3. Maybe I wasn’t playing the right game, and it’s _not_ my fault. You’ve probably seen those studies about how mixed-gender groups tend to work better together than all-male or all-female groups. If college admissions officers are trying to accept the best overall class of 2000, instead of the best 2000 individuals, they might be 100% correct to accept a woman with an IQ of 140 over a man with 145. (This is especially relevant when we’re talking about jobs, but probably works for colleges too.)

1.4. Maybe I was great by yesterday’s standards. Let’s say everyone’s intelligence is normally distributed around 5. Maybe I was an 8; in the old days, stuff like colleges was more open to white men, so being an 8/10 white man was good enough to get you in to MIT, while women had to be a 10/10. Nowadays, if these schools are striving to be equal, then men and women would have to both be a 9/10, and I missed the cut. It feels unfair, because 30 years ago, I would have gotten in, but maybe it’s actually becoming more fair.

2. Noise:

2.1. Maybe it’s all a random game, and I lost a few. This is probably the closest to the truth. College admissions, like job applications, have so much random noise built into them that you’ve got to play the numbers game even if you’re the perfect candidate. This should make you feel better: it’s not that there’s anything wrong with you, it’s just that this is hard for everyone. If you get rejected from anything, don’t take it as evidence of some grand conspiracy, because it’s probably noise.

2.2. I shouldn’t worry, I’ll be fine anyway. Carnegie Mellon’s a very fine school, and just having that name on my diplomas has opened every door I can imagine. This may be no large comfort to you; you might not be sure that you’ll be fine anyway, but try the feeling on for size. Or, just wait a few months, don’t make any rash decisions, and see if you’re fine then. Sometimes luck will screw you; instead of wasting time worrying about “why couldn’t I have rolled 6 on that die?” try instead to ask “huh, I rolled 5, is that ok?” You’ll be much happier.

3. I was looking at the wrong oppressor:

3.1. Yeah, the deck was stacked against me, but from the top, not the bottom. Legacy candidates (children of alumni) are wayyy more overrepresented than “affirmative action candidates.” It’s hard to tell who’s the “affirmative action candidate,” because nobody keeps statistics on this (indeed, nobody would ever say “we admitted ____ because they’re black, even though they’re not as smart as that white guy”), but they certainly keep track of legacy candidates, and the numbers are pretty nuts. Look into it.

3.2. I was tempted to introduce one more paragraph saying something like “well, look how it feels! women got oppressed for 1000000000 years, now it’s happening to you, deal with it!”… but I don’t believe that leads to a productive conversation. It’s a punitive or retaliatory framing, and I don’t think we should start looking for more ways to discriminate against men punitively. Like you, I want a situation where men and women have an equal chance at the same job. (We may differ on how we want to get there, but let’s save that for another time.) More importantly, look at who’s got power now, and look at how they may be using it. It’s more likely to be someone above you pushing you down than someone below you climbing over you.

In summary, if you find yourself in that Proud Boy’s situation, I feel you. It doesn’t mean you’re bad to be thinking that. But it also doesn’t mean you’re right. Try wondering if maybe you’re not that great, if maybe it’s randomness, or if maybe you’re looking down for oppressors when it’s more accurate to look up. I’d be happy to talk with you about it, nonjudgmentally; reach out to me.

blog 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010