The One With Mount Everest

I once interviewed a man who’d climbed Mount Everest. It was my first major interview at my first job out of college. The article was scheduled to appear in the lifestyle section of the city’s newspaper—a local-guy-does-good story.

image via Wikipedia

Mount Everest. image via Wikipedia

He was soft-spoken and congenial with a smattering of gray in his blond hair. He wore an argyle sweater vest. He held a 9-5 job to support his school-age kids. He was genuinely surprised that I was there to write a piece about him. He didn’t seem the kind of rugged thrill-seeker interested in risking his life. When we sat down on his porch, I got out my new reporter’s notebook and flipped open the cover to the first page. I had not written a single question or note in advance. The arrogance of that moment still astounds me.

I thought that by speaking off the cuff in a conversational tone, I would get more “authentic” answers. So instead of asking this modern-day Magellan thoughtful questions, I asked him how cold it was (-2° F) and if he got altitude sickness (yes). Even worse: this interview took place just after the 1996 Everest blizzard that killed fifteen climbers. Did he know any of these mountaineers? How did he feel about his accomplishment in light of this tragedy? I’ll never know. And even worse: at that time, only about 1,200 people in the world had reached the summit since Edmund Hillary was the first in 1953. I was sitting across from a man who had done something less than .0000002 percent of the population had done.

Steve Almond called this a “problem of entitlement” in a recent article in Poets & Writers magazine. “I mean by this that a significant number of the students I’ve encountered in creative writing programs display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance.” Did I feel entitled? Probably. It’s a tempting thought when you’re twenty-four and it seems you have the world on a string. I’d bet this applies to many recent graduates regardless of degree.

Entitlement isn’t all bad. Entitlement is what drives change. It is what makes the Rachel Carsons and Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Cesar Chavezes and Martin Luther Kings say, “Enough.” But taken too far, entitlement gets us into trouble. It fools us into believing that someone owes us something because we’re “special.”

life preserver

 

Almond believes there’s something else behind the entitlement. People who feel out of their element and overmatched assume a “posture of superiority.” In other words, it’s a defense mechanism. Hindsight being 20/20, I was a bundle of nerves hiding behind a press credential. If I botched the interview, I might never get another chance to write for this newspaper. Then everyone would know that I had no idea what I was doing. Going into the interview so unprepared was an act of self-sabotage.

 
AnvilEntitlement can be a life preserver or an anvil. Many of us have been left holding the anvil thanks to the Internet, which “has allowed us to trumpet our own opinions, to win attention by broadcasting our laziest and cruelest judgments, to grind axes in pubic. It has made us feel, in some perverse sense, that we are entitled to do so.” And the most insidious thing about the anvil kind of entitlement is that it erodes respect. Every time someone posts a snarky review about a writer being overrated or takes pot-shots at someone on Twitter or Facebook, respect and empathy go out the window.

Hiding behind entitlement is disrespectful to all involved. In the end, the gentle mountaineer patiently explained the ins and outs of climbing Mount Everest, answering questions I never thought to ask. Luckily, I recognized it for the life preserver it was.

 

Have you been on the receiving end of “anvil entitlement?” 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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21 comments

  1. Phew, that was lucky! Glad it turned out OK! I hear about this sense of entitlement from my friends in management positions. They have to interview graduates who don’t even bother researching the company or what the job might involve. Just ‘I have a degree – give me a job because I’m awesome…’ 🙂
    I clawed my way into my first job and worked my ass off when I got there – it was good practice! 🙂

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    1. Yes, I can sympathize with your friends. I’ve had a few interviewees who fit this description. I keep those interviews nice and short because I have a feeling they wouldn’t be a good fit in my department.

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  2. So true, Jackie–“Entitlement can be a life preserver or an anvil.” I’ve also encountered (unfortunately many times) this thinly-veiled arrogance among writers. Like you, I believe it’s a defense mechanism. The poor writer! We are often misunderstood, underpaid, under-recognized, and even ostracized for our strange “calling” which requires lots of solitary “confinement.” No wonder why some writers wield the “anvil.” Still, I believe, if we are honest with ourselves, we use our defensive armor only when and if it’s necessary. As always, your posts are thought-provoking and inspiring! Thanks!

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    1. This makes for such an interesting writerly discussion, doesn’t it? I think you’d find Steve Almond’s essay intriguing. He makes some great points about why writers as a group feel the need for these defense mechanisms. (When you graduate from law school, for example, you’re a lawyer. When you graduate with an English degree or a writing degree, you might still have to slog it out for years before anyone takes your writing seriously.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favorite bitchy Gore Vidal quotes is “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” I think there is a tremendous sense of competition and jealousy among writers. I have seen it in one of my friends (a friend Milton has delighted in flattening). But my writer-friend has been toiling at the craft for almost twenty years. He’s not a kid fresh out of college who feels entitled, but a frustrated middle age guy who invests long hours daily in the craft with not a lot to show for it. My friend would never rip into another writer in person or worse, online, even a naive new college grad who thinks that he’s the second coming of Ernest Hemingway. I think this is due to the dying art of professional courtesy, and the wisdom that can come with age — to self aware types such as yourself. Social media coupled with the anonymity of the Internet allows people to tweet and post whatever they’re thinking without investing much thought into what they’re saying. The depth in your posts is a welcome counterweight to the shallow snark.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point — sometimes the instant gratification of the Internet lets people (re)act without thinking. The result is that things can be put out there without much thought to the ramifications. Quite different than the old days of putting pen to paper.

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  4. Great post, Jackie.
    Had a similar experience and hope I didn’t come off as entitled. I was actually terrified I’d blow the interview, so I pretended to be confident.
    I do know a college grad who turned down a good job because it wasn’t the salary he thought he deserved. Two years later, he’s still looking for a job.

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    1. What I found so interesting about Steve Almond’s essay was how the air of entitlement is really just masking nervousness and lack of confidence. Yes! I think that was me when I was starting out. Hope you’re having a good long weekend!

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  5. So glad your story had a happy ending, whew. I remember those early reporting days, hard to know how much to get ready, or even HOW to get ready, so maybe it’s somewhat inevitable just starting out for interviews? Anyway, these days, I really try hard to keep tweets/social networking as neutral as I can, often leading I’m afraid to a kind of writing blandness, I’m afraid. Perhaps that’s because I suffer from what arguably could be considered the opposite of “anvil entitlement,” and that would be imposter syndrome. I almost always feel less competent than other writers. I doubly, triply, quadrupally prepare for things — whether it’s an interview, a query or an article or blog I write — so sure I’ll be found out as a know-nothing. That said, I did recently go into an interview woefully unprepared and was thrown a huge curve ball by the interview subject. Not a fun experience (although I’m not sure that any amount of preparedness would’ve helped), so I can guarantee I’ll not repeat my unpreparedness… just in case.

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    1. It’s hard for “plotters” to feel unprepared, isn’t it? We like to plot out every contingency, analyzing it from all angles. I can totally relate to the feeling of dread after that kind of experience. Ugh. This is one reason I moved away from journalism as a career– too many potential sticky situations.

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      1. Pros are far greater for me. I’ve met and made some extraordinary friends here. I’ll always be grateful for the creative freedom and Camaraderie.

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  6. Like Julia’s comment above, I always over-prepared. I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence, back then. A life spent being forced into difficult work situations has worn some of the shyness off this introvert, but even so, I still sometimes get into new situations that make my palms sweat – though now I don’t resist as much ahead of time. (I know I won’t actually die.)

    As to snarky reviews; I hardly ever see them, thankfully, but when I do, it makes me wonder what the person writing the review is getting out of it. Is it jealousy? Thwarted ambitions? I see a lot of meanness in some workshops, and it’s a superiority thing there, most times. It’s so ugly I can’t stick around for it, but some people are curiously drawn to it. I get the feeling they don’t feel they are getting a genuine critique unless blood is drawn.
    Interesting post, Jackie.

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    1. One good thing (among many) of my MFA program was that I developed a thick skin to these sorts of reviews and rejection. It was a type of boot camp in learning how to divorce yourself from low-blows. That combined with the “wisdom of years” helps shield me from this kind of review. 🙂
      Like you, I don’t see many snarky reviews, ones that cut down the author personally or rail against the work without any thoughtful criticism. I’m glad that these are few and far between.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fascinating post… I have never thought of entitlement as a life preserver. In fact, I see so much entitlement from young people that it makes me mad — makes my head spin — and I have seen entitlement as only a very negative thing. You’ve made me re-think my opinions, though I suspect that so much of that entitlement, induced by fear as your article points out, is also the result of ignorance in many cases. So, yes – that whole “being overmatched” argument.

    As for preparedness and interviews: I am THE quintessential over-preparer! Not only will I research the snot out of my interview subject and his/her background, I’ll rehearse my questions over and over and over so that I can “sound” halfway intelligent. I AM the outliner type, so going into an interview cold scares the crap out of me. Glad your mountaineer guided you ever-so-gently through that interview. The key is that you looked back on it and recognized your ‘arrogance.’

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    1. I was so fortunate that my interviewee was kind enough to set his ego aside and took pity on me. I’m usually an over-preparer too. Nowadays I’d never go into an interview without having done my homework. Though on occasion, this has backfired because I so want to stick to my notes that it leaves me a little inflexible and stymied if I have to go off the cuff. Have you ever had that experience?

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  8. So much to think about here and agree with. Like Julia, I think I suffer from some impostor syndrome, too. I’m sure all writers do on some level. Sometimes (though rarely) I’m in a “mood” and I’ll post something snarky on FB or Twitter. I almost always regret it when I’m in a nicer mood as I realize how nasty (or perhaps, entitled) it comes off.

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    1. Written comments can leave a lot up for interpretation. On more than one occasion, I’ve inserted my own (imagined) tone of voice into someone’s post. Sometimes it changes the entire meaning through no fault of the commenter.

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