The T-shirt trade becomes a calling.
Dov Charney started his T-shirt business, dosage malady American Apparel, sales prescription on the corner of Santa Fe Avenue and the 10 Freeway, price a mile or so from downtown Los Angeles. Actually, his factory was built directly underneath the eastbound and westbound lanes, and the roof over the room where the cutters and sewers work was basically the freeway itself, so that the clicking and clacking of sewing machines mixed with the rumble of tractor trailers. It was not, as Dov was the first to admit, an ideal location, with the possible exception that it was just two blocks from the Playpen, the neighborhood strip bar, which made it awfully convenient whenever he decided to conduct a fitting. “Big companies tend to hire fitting models at a hundred bucks an hour,” Dov explained recently as he headed over to the Playpen to test some of his new T-shirts. “But they only give you one look. At a strip bar, you get a cross- section of chicks. You’ve got big chicks, little chicks, big-assed chicks, little-assed chicks, chicks with big tits, and chicks with little tits. You couldn’t ask for a better place to fit a shirt.”
He had three of his staff with him, and half a dozen samples of his breakthrough Classic Girl line of “baby T”s, in this case shirts with ribbed raglan three-quarter sleeves in lilac and pink. He walked quickly, leaning forward slightly, as if to improve his aerodynamics. Dov is thirty-one years old and has thick black hair and blue-tinted aviator glasses, and tends to dress in khakis and knit vintage shirts, with one of his own T-shirts as an undergarment. In front of the Playpen, Dov waved to the owner, a middle-aged Lebanese man in a red guayabera, and ushered his group into the gloom of the bar. At this hour–two o’clock in the afternoon–the Playpen was almost empty; just one girl gyrated for a customer, to what sounded like the music from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” The situation was ideal, because it meant the rest of the girls had time to model.
The first to come over was Diana, dark-haired and buxom. She slipped out of a yellow mesh dress and pulled on one of Dov’s baby T’s. Dov examined her critically. He was concerned about the collar. The Classic Girl is supposed to have a snug fit, with none of the torquing and bowing that plague lesser shirts. But the prototype was bunching around the neck. Dov gestured to one of his colleagues. “Olin, look what’s going on here. I think there’s too much binding going into the machine.” Diana turned around, and wiggled her behind playfully. Dov pulled the T-shirt tight. “I think it could be a little longer here,” he said, pursing his lips. Baby T’s, in their earlier incarnation, were short, in some cases above the belly button–something that Dov considers a mistake. The music was now deafening, and over a loudspeaker a “lap-dance promo” was being announced. Dov, oblivious, turned his attention to Mandy, a svelte, long-legged blonde in a black bikini. On her, Dov observed, the shirt did not fit so “emphatically” around the chest as it had on Diana. Dov looked Mandy up and down, tugging and pulling to get the shirt just right. “When you’re doing a fitting, often the more oddly shaped girl will tell you a lot more,” he said. By now, a crowd of strippers was gathering around him, presumably attracted by the novelty of being asked by a customer to put clothes on. But Dov had seen all he needed to. His life’s great cause–which is to produce the world’s finest T-shirt for between three and four dollars wholesale–had advanced another step. “What did I learn today?” he asked, as he strode out the door. “I learned that my sleeves are perfect. But I see a quality problem with the collar.” He thought for a moment. “And I definitely have to add an inch to the garment.”
There is a town in upstate New York, just north and west of Albany, called Gloversville, so named because in the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century ninety-five per cent of the fine gloves sold in the United States were manufactured there. At one time, there were a hundred and sixteen glove factories in the town, employing twelve thousand people and turning out fifteen million dollars’ worth of gloves a year. New glove start-ups appeared all the time, whenever some glove entrepreneur–some ambitious handschumacher–had a better idea about how to make a glove. A trade journal, Glovers Review, covered the industry’s every step. Local firms–such as Jacob Adler & Co. and Louis Meyers & Sons and Elite Glove Co.–became nationally known brands. When the pogroms of Eastern Europe intensified, in the eighteen-eighties, the Jewish glove cutters of Warsaw–the finest leather artisans of nineteenth-century Europe–moved en masse to Gloversville, because Gloversville was where you went in those days if you cared about gloves.
It’s hard to imagine anyone caring so deeply about gloves, and had we visited Gloversville in its prime most of us would have found it a narrow and provincial place. But if you truly know gloves and think about them and dream about them and, more important, if you are surrounded every day by a community of people who know and think and dream about gloves, a glove becomes more than a glove. In Gloversville, there was an elaborate social hierarchy. The handschumacher considered himself socially and intellectually superior to the schuster and the schneider–the shoemaker and the tailor. To cover the hands, after all, was the highest calling. (As the glover’s joke goes, “Did you ever see anyone talk using his boots?”) Within the glove world, in turn, the “makers”–the silkers, the closers, and the fourchetters, who sewed the gloves–were inferior to the “cutters,” who first confronted the hide, and who advertised their status by going to work wearing white shirts and collars, bow ties or cravats, tigereye cufflinks, and carefully pressed suits. A skilled cutter could glance at a glove and see in it the answers to a hundred questions. Is the leather mocha, the most pliable of all skins, taken from the hide of long-black-haired Arabian sheep? Or is it South African capeskin, the easiest to handle? Is it kid from Spain, peccary from the wild pigs of Brazil and Mexico, chamois from Europe, or cabretta, from a Brazilian hairy sheep? Is the finish “grained”–showing the outside of the hide–or “velvet,” meaning that the leather has been buffed? Is it sewn in a full- piqué stitch or a half-piqué, an osann or an overseam? Do the color and texture of the fourchette–the strip of leather that forms the sides of the fingers–match the adjoining leather? The lesson of Gloversville is that behind every ordinary object is a group of people to whom that object is anything but ordinary.
Dov Charney lives in his own, modern-day version of Gloversville. He is part of a world that cares about T-shirts every bit as much as the handschumachers cared about peccary and cabretta. It is impossible to talk about Dov, for example, without talking about his best friend, Rick Klotz, who runs a clothing company named Fresh Jive, about a mile and a half from Dov’s factory. Rick, who is thirty-two, designs short-sleeve shirts and baggy pants and pullovers and vests and printed T-shirts with exquisite graphics (featuring everything from an obscure typographical scheme to the Black Panthers). In the eighties, Rick was a punker, at least until everyone else got short hair, at which point he grew his hair long. Later, in his Ted Nugent-and-TransAm phase, he had, he says, a “big, filthy mustache, like Cheech.” Now he is perfectly bald, and drives a black custom-made late-model Cadillac Fleetwood Limited, with a VCR in the back, and, because he sits very low in the seat, and bobs up and down to very loud hip-hop as he drives, the effect, from the street, is slightly comic, like that of a Ping-Pong ball in choppy water. When Dov first came to Los Angeles, a few years ago, he crashed at Rick’s apartment in Hollywood, and the two grew so close that Rick believes he and Dov were “separated at birth.”
“If it wasn’t for Rick, I wouldn’t have been able to make it,” Dov says. “I slept on his couch. I checked in for a few days, stayed for a year.” This was after an initial foray that Dov had made into the T-shirt business, in South Carolina in the early nineties, failed. “When he lived with me, he was on the brink,” Rick added. “Every day was the same. Go to sleep at two with the phone. Then wake up at six to call back East. One time, he was just crying and losing it. It was just so heavy. I was, like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?'”
What do Rick and Dov have in common? It isn’t a matter of personality. Dov says that sometimes when he’s out with Rick he’ll spot one of Rick’s T-shirts, and he’ll shout, “There’s one of your T-shirts!” Rick will look down and away, embarrassed, because he’s so acutely aware of how uncool that sounds. Dov couldn’t care less. When he spots his own work, he can hardly contain himself. “I always say, ‘Hey’ “–Dov put on the accent of his native Montreal–“‘where did you get that shirt?’ Like, if I’m on the subway in New York City. I say, ‘You want some more?’ I take my bag and give them out for free. I’m excited about it. I could be watching TV at night, or I could be watching a porno, and, boom, there is my T-shirt. I’ve made millions of them. I always know it!”
What the two of them share is a certain sensibility. Rick grew up in the Valley and Dov grew up in Montreal, but it’s as if they were born and raised in the same small town, where the T-shirt was something that you lived and died for. At dinner one recent night in L.A., Rick talked about how he met Dov, several years ago, at a big trade show in Las Vegas. “I’m at this party sitting out on the balcony. I see this guy dancing and he’s–what’s the word?” And here Rick did a kind of spastic gyration in his seat. “Imbecilic. He didn’t care what anybody thought. And he catches me looking and goes like this.” Rick made two pistols out of his fingers, and fired one hand after another. “I was, like, in love.”
Dov seemed touched. “You know, I knew of Rick long before I ever met him. His T-shirt graphics are some of the most respected T-shirt graphics in the world. I swear to God.”
But Rick was being modest again. “No, they’re not.”
“If you mention Fresh Jive in most industrialized countries to people that know what good graphics are on T-shirts, they’re, like . . . ” Dov made an appreciative noise. “I swear, it’s like a connoisseur’s wine.”
“Maybe at one time,” Rick murmured.
“He is an artist!” Dov went on, his voice rising. “His canvas is fabric!”
On the day that he made his foray to the Playpen, Dov met with a fortyish man named Jhean. In the garment-manufacturing business in Los Angeles, the up-and-coming entrepreneurs are Persian and Korean. (Dov has a partner who is Korean.) The occasional throwback, like Dov, is Jewish. Jhean, however, is Haitian. He used to work in government, but now he is in the garment business, a career change of which Dov heartily approved. Jhean was wearing tight black pants, a red silk shirt open to mid-chest, and a gold chain. Dov put his arm around him affectionately. “Jhean is a crazy man,” he announced, to no one in particular. “He was going to be one of my partners. We were going to get this whole Montreal Jewish-Korean-Haitian thing going.” Jhean turned away, and Dov lowered his voice to a whisper. “Jhean has it in his blood, you know,” he said, meaning a feel for T-shirts.
Dov led Jhean outside, and they sat on a bench, the sun peeking through at them between the off-ramp and the freeway lanes. Jhean handed Dov a men’s Fruit of the Loom undershirt, size medium. It was the reason for Jhean’s visit. “Who can do this for me?” he asked.
Dov took the shirt and unfolded it slowly. He held it up in front of his eyes, as a mother might hold a baby, and let out a soft whistle. “This is an unbelievable garment,” he said. “Nobody has the machines to make it, except for two parties that I’m aware of. Fruit of the Loom. And Hanes. The shirt is a two-by-one rib. They’ve taken out one or two of the needles. It’s a coarse yarn. And it’s tubular, so there is no waste. This is one of the most efficient garments in the world. It comes off the tube like a sock.”
Some T-shirts have two seams down each side: they are made with “open width” fabric, by sewing together the front and the back of the T-shirt. This T-shirt had no seams. It was cut from cotton fabric that had been knitted into a T-shirt-size tube, which is a trickier procedure but means less wasted fabric, lower sewing costs, and less of the twisting that can distort a garment.
Dov began to run his fingers along the bottom of the shirt, which had been not hemmed but overlocked–with a stitch–to save even more fabric. “This costs, with the right equipment, maybe a dollar. My cost is a dollar-thirty, a dollar-fifty. The finest stuff is two-fifty, two-sixty. If you can make this shirt, you can make millions. But you can’t make this shirt. Hanes actually does this even better than Fruit of the Loom. They’ve got this dialled down.” Jhean wondered if he could side-seam it, but Dov just shook his head. “If you side-seam it, you lose the whole energy.”
You could tell that Dov was speaking as much to himself as to Jhean. He was saying that he couldn’t reproduce a masterpiece like that undershirt, either. But there was no defeat in his voice, because he knew enough about T-shirts to realize that there is more than one way to make a perfect garment. Dov likes to point out that the average American owns twenty-ve T-shirts–twenty- five!–and, even if you reckon, as he does, that of those only between four and seven are in regular rotation, that’s still an enormous market.
The garment in question was either eighteen- or twenty-singles yarn, which is standard for T-shirts. But what if a T-shirt maker were to use thirty-singles yarn, knitted on a fine-gauge machine, which produces a thinner, more “fashion-forward” fabric? The Fruit of the Loom piece was open-end cotton, and open-end is coarse. Dov likes “ring-spun combed” yarn, which is much softer, and costs an extra eighty cents a pound. Softness also comes from the way the fabric is processed before cutting, and Dov is stickler for that kind of detail. “I have a lot of secret ingredients,” he says. “Just like K.F.C. There is the amount of yarn in one revolution, which determines the tightness. There’s the spacing of the needle. Then there’s the finishing. What kind of chemicals are you using in the finishing? We think this through. We’ve developed a neurosis about this.” In his teens, Dov hooked up with a friend who was selling printed T’s outside the Montreal Forum, and Dov’s contribution was to provide American Hanes instead of the Canadian poly-cotton-blend Penmans. The Hanes, Dov says, was “creamier,” and he contended that the Canadian T-shirt consumer deserved that extra creaminess. When he’s inspecting rolls of fabric, Dov will sometimes break into the plastic package wrap and run his hand over the cotton, palm flat, and if you look behind his tinted aviators you’ll see that his eyes have closed slightly. Once, he held two white swatches up to the light, in order to demonstrate how one had “erections”–little fibres that stood up straight on the fabric–and the other did not, and then he ran his hand ever so slightly across the surface of the swatch he liked, letting the fibres tickle his palm. “I’m particular,” Dov explained. “Like in my underwear. I’m very committed to Hanes thirty-two. I’ve been wearing it for twelve years. I sleep in it. And if Hanes makes any adjustments I’m picking it up. I watch. They change their labels, they use different countries to make their shit, I know.”
Dov was back inside his factory now, going from the room where all the sewers sit, stitching up T-shirts, to a passageway lined with big rolls of fabric. The fact that Jhean’s Fruit of the Loom undershirt was of rib fabric launched him on one of his favorite topics, which was the fabric he personally helped rediscover–baby rib. Baby rib is rib in which the ridges are so close together and the cotton is so fine that it looks like standard T-shirt jersey, and Dov’s breakthrough was to realize that because of the way it stretches and supports and feels it was perfect for girls. “See this, that’s conventional rib.” He pulled on a piece of white fabric, exposing wide ridges of cotton. “It’s knitted on larger machines. And it’s a larger, bulkier yarn. It’s poor-quality cotton. But girls want softness. So, rather than take the cheap road, I’ve taken the higher road.” Dov’s baby rib uses finer cotton and tighter stitching, and the fit is tighter across the chest and shoulders, the way he believes a T-shirt ought to look. “There were a few influences,” he said, reflecting on the creative process that brought him to baby rib. “I’m not sure which girlfriend, but we can name some.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “There’s Marcella, from Argentina. I met her in South Beach. She wore these little tops made in South America. And they were finer than the tops that girls were wearing in the States. I got such a boner looking at her in that T-shirt that I thought, This is doing something for me. We’ve got to explore this opportunity. This was four, five years ago. O.K., I broke up with her, and I started going out with this stripper, Julie, from South Carolina. She had a gorgeous body. She was all-American. And, you know, Julie looked so great in those little T-shirts. She put one on and it meant something.”
Dov pulled out a single typewritten page, a draft of a “mission statement” he was preparing for the industry. This was for a new line of Standard American T-shirts he wanted to start making–thirty-singles, ring-spun, tubular shirts knit on custom- made Asian equpiment. “Dear Client,” it began:
During the last ten years major T-shirt makers such as Hanes and Fruit of the Loom have focused on being “heavier” and generously cut. Innovation and style have been put aside, and there has been a perpetual price war during the last four years. The issues are who can be cheaper, bigger or heavier. . . .Concerns about fit or issues of softness or stretch have been the last priority and have been barely considered. In order to create leadership we have reconstructed the T-shirt and have made a deviation from the traditional “Beefy-T” styled garment. We have redone the typical pattern. It is slightly more fitted–especially in the sleeve and armhole opening. . . . Yes the fabric is lighter, and we think that is a positive aspect of the garment. The garment has a stretch that is reminiscent of T-shirts from decades ago.
Dov was peering over my shoulder as I read. “We’re going to kick everybody’s ass,” he announced. “The finest T-shirts are six dollars a piece wholesale. The shittiest shirts are like two dollars. We’re going to come in at three and have the right stuff. I’m making the perfect fit. I’m going to manufacture this like gasoline.”
If you ask Dov why he’s going to these lengths, he’ll tell you that it matters to him that Americans can buy an affordable and high-quality T-shirt. That’s an admirable notion, but, of course, most of us don’t really know what constitutes a high-quality T-shirt: we don’t run our hands over a swatch of cotton and let the little fibres tickle our palm, or ruminate on the difference between side-seaming and tubularity. For that matter, few people who bought dress gloves in 1900 knew the difference between a full-piqué or a half-piqué stitch, between high-grade or merely medium-grade peccary. Producers, the economics textbooks tell us, are disciplined by the scrutiny of the marketplace. Yet what of commonplace articles such as T-shirts and gloves, about which most customers don’t know enough or care enough to make fine discriminations? Discipline really comes not from customers but from other producers. And here again the economics textbooks steer us wrong, because they place too much emphasis on the role of formal competitors, the Gap or Hanes or the other big glove-maker in your niche. To be sure, Dov can occasionally be inspired by a truly exceptional garment like, say, a two-by-one ribbed undershirt from Fruit of the Loom. But in Gloversville the critical person is not so much the distant rival as the neighbor who is also a contractor, or the guy at the bar downtown who used to be in the business, or the friend at synagogue who is also an expert glove-maker–all of whom can look at your work with a practiced eye and shame you if it isn’t right. Dov is motivated to produce a high-quality T-shirt at three dollars because that would mean something to Jhean and to Olin and, most of all, to Rick, whose T-shirt graphics are respected around the world. In Gloversville, the market is not an economic mechanism but–and this is the real power of a place like that–a social one.
“Everybody got so technically obsessed with reduced shrinkage,” Dov went on, and by “everyone” he meant a group of people you could count on the fingers of one hand. “That was a big mistake for the industry because they took away the natural stretch property of a lot of the jersey. If you look at vintage shirts, they had a lot of stretch. Today, they don’t. They are like these print boards. They are practically woven in comparison. I say fuck the shrinkage. I have a theory on width shrinkage on rib: I don’t care. In fact, you put it on, it will come back.” He was pacing back and forth and talking even more rapidly than usual. “I’m concerned about linear shrinkage. But, if it doesn’t have any width shrinkage at all, I become concerned, too. I have a fabric I’m working on with a T-shirt engineer. It keeps having zero width shrinkage. That’s not desirable!”
Dov stopped. He had spotted something out of the corner of his eye. It was one of his workers, a young man with a mustache and a goatee and slicked-back hair. He was wearing a black custom T, with two white stripes down the arms. Dov started walking toward him. “Oh, my God. You want to see something?” He reached out and flipped up the tag at the back of the cutter’s shirt. “It’s a Fresh Jive piece. I made it for Rick five years ago. Somehow this shirt just trickled back here.” The sweet serendipity of it all brought a smile to his face.
While Dov was perfecting his baby T’s, Rick was holding a fashion shoot for his elegant new women’s-wear line, Fresh Jive Domestics, which had been conceived by a young designer named Jessica. The shoot was at Rick’s friend Deidre’s house, a right-angled, white- stuccoed, shag-rugged modernist masterpiece under the Hollywood sign. Deidre rents it from the drummer of the seventies supergroup Bread. Madonna’s old house is several hundred yards to the west of Deidre’s place, and Aldous Huxley used to live a few hundred yards in the other direction, with the result that her block functions as a kind of architectural enactment of postwar Los Angeles intellectual life. For Rick’s purposes, though, the house’s main points of attraction were its fabulous details, like the little white Star Trek seats around the kitchen counter and the white baby grand in the window with the autographed Hugh Hefner photo and the feisty brown-haired spitz-collie named Sage barricaded in the kitchen. Rick had a box of disposable cameras, and as he shot the models other people joined in with the disposables, so that in the end Rick would be able to combine both sets of pictures in a brag book. It made for a slightly chaotic atmosphere–particularly since there were at least seven highly active cell phones in the room, each with a different ring, competing with the hip-hop on the stereo–and in the midst of it all Rick walked over to the baby grand and, with a mischievous look on his face, played the opening chords of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata.
Rick was talking about his plans to open a Fresh Jive store in Los Angeles. But he kept saying that it couldn’t be on Melrose Avenue, where all the street-wear stores are. “Maybe that would be good for sales,” he said. Then he shook his head. “No way.”
Deidre, who was lounging next to the baby grand, started laughing. “You know what, Rick?” she said. “I think it’s all about a Fresh Jive store without any Fresh Jive stuff in it.”
It was a joke, but in some way not a joke, because that’s the sort of thing that Rick might actually do. He’s terrified by the conventional. At dinner the previous evening, for example, he and Dov had talked about a particular piece–the sports-style V-necked raglan custom T with stripes that Dov had spotted on the cutter. Rick introduced it years ago and then stopped making it when everyone else started making it, too.
“One of our biggest retailers takes me into this room last year,” Rick explained. “It’s full of custom T-shirts. He said, ‘You started this, and everybody else took advantage of it. But you didn’t go with it.’ He was pissed off at me.”
The businessman in Rick knew that he shouldn’t have given up on the shirt so quickly, that he could have made a lot more money had he stayed and exploited the custom-T market. But he couldn’t do that, because if he had been in that room with all the other custom T’s he risked being known in his world as the guy who started the custom-T trend and then ran out of new ideas. Retail chains like J.C. Penney and Millers Outpost sometimes come to Rick and ask if they can carry Fresh Jive, or ask if he will sell them a big run of a popular piece, and he usually says no. He will allow his clothes to appear only in certain street-wear boutiques. His ambition is to grow three times as big as he is now–to maybe a thirty-million-dollar company–but no larger.
This is the sensibility of the artisan, and it isn’t supposed to play much of a role anymore. We live in the age of the entrepreneur, who responds rationally to global pressures and customer demands in order to maximize profit. To the extent that we still talk of Gloversville–and the glove-making business there has long since faded away–we talk of it as a place that people need to leave behind. There was Lucius N. Littauer, for example, who, having made his fortune with Littauer Brothers Glove Co., in downtown Gloversville, went on to Congress, became a confidant of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, and then put up the money for what is now the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. There was Samuel Goldwyn, the motion-picture magnate, who began his career as a cutter with Gloversville’s Elite Glove Co. In 1912, he jumped into the movie business. He went to Hollywood. He rode horses and learned to play tennis and croquet. Like so many immigrant Jews in the movie industry, he enacted through his films a very public process of assimilation. This is the oldest of American stories: the heroic young man who leaves the small town to play on the big stage–who wants to be an entrepreneur, not an artisan. But the truth is that we always get the story wrong. It isn’t that Littauer and Goldwyn left Gloversville to find the real culture, because the real culture comes from Gloversville, too; places like Washington and Hollywood persist and renew themselves only because Littauers and Goldwyns arrive from time to time, bringing with them a little piece of the real thing.
“The one paranoia Rick has is that, God forbid, he makes something that another company has,” Dov said, at dinner with Rick that night.
Rick nodded. “In my personal life. Ask Dov. Every piece of clothing I own. Nobody else can have it.”
Rick was wearing a pair of jeans and a plain white T-shirt, but if you looked closely you noticed that it wasn’t just any jeans-and- T-shirt ensemble. The pants were an unusual denim chino, from Rick’s Beggars Banquet collection. And the shirt?
“That is a very well-thought-out item,” Dov said, gesturing toward Rick. “It’s a purple-label BVD. It’s no longer available. Size medium. Of all the shirts I’ve studied, this one has a phenomenal fit.”He reached across the table and ran his fingers around the lower edge of the sleeve. Dov is a believer in a T-shirt that is snug on the biceps. “It’s not the greatest fabric. But it shrinks perfectly. I actually gave him that shirt. I came back from one of my customers in New York City, on Grand Street, that happens to resell that particular garment.”
It’s all of a piece, in the end: the purple-label BVD, the custom-T that he designed but now won’t touch. If in Dov’s world the true competitive pressures are not economic but social, Rick’s version of Gloversville is driven not by the marketplace but by personality–the particular, restless truculence of the sort of person who will give up almost anything and go to any lengths not to be like anyone else.
“We’re doing this line of casual shoes,” Rick said, during a rare lull in one of Dov’s T-shirt soliloquies. “One is the Crip Slip. It’s that corduroy slipper that the gang kids would always wear. The other is the Wino, which is that really cheap canvas slipper that you can buy at K mart for seven dollars and that the winos wear when they’re, like, really hung over.” His big new idea, Rick explained, was to bring out a line of complementary twelve-inch dolls in those characters. “We could have a guy with baggy pants and a pushcart,” he went on. “You know, you pull down his pants and there’s skid marks. And we have a full gangster for the Crip Slip.”
Rick was so excited about the idea that he was still talking about it the next day at work. He was with a Fresh Jive designer named Jupiter–a skateboarder from Las Vegas of German, Welsh, Irish, French, Chinese, and Spanish extraction–and a guy named Matt, who wore on his chest a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted Star of David the size of a Peppermint Pattie. “The idea is that the doll would pump the shoe, and the shoe would pump the doll,”Rick said. “The doll for the Crip Slip would be totally gangster. The handkerchief. The plaid shirt or the wife beater. A forty in his hand. Flashing signs. Wouldn’t that be crazy?” And then Rick caught himself. “Omigod.The doll for the Crip Slip will have interchangeable hands, with different gang signs!”
Matt looked awestruck: “Ohhh, that’ll be sick!”
“Wooooow.” Jupiter dragged the word out, and shook his head slowly. “That’s crazy!”
A few days later, Dov drove down to San Diego for Action Sports Retail, a big trade show in the street-wear world. Dov makes the rounds of A.S.R. twice a year, walking up and down through the cavernous conference center, stopping at the booths of hundreds of T-shirt companies and persuading people to buy his shirts wholesale for their lines. This year, he was busy scouting locations for American Apparel’s new factory, and so he arrived a day late, clutching a motorized mini-scooter. To his great irritation, he wasn’t allowed to carry it in. “This is the most uncool show,” he announced, after haggling fruitlessly with the guard at the gate.
But his mood lifted quickly. How could it not? This was A.S.R., and everyone was wearing T-shirts or selling T-shirts, and because this was a place where people knew their T-shirts a lot of those T-shirts were Dov’s. He started down one of the aisles. He pointed to a booth on the left. “They use my T-shirts.” Next to that booth was another small company. “They use my T-shirts, too.” He was wearing khakis and New Balance sneakers and one of his men’s T-shirts in baby rib (a controversial piece, because the binding on the collar was a mere half inch). On his back he had a huge orange pack full of catalogues and samples, and every time he spotted a potential customer he would pull the backpack off and rummage through it, and the contents would spill on the floor.
Dov spotted a young woman walking toward him in a baby T. “That’s a competitor’s shirt. I can tell right away. The spacing of the needle. The fabric is not baby rib.” He high-fived someone in another booth. Another young woman, in another T-shirt booth, loomed up ahead. “That’s my shirt right there. In the green. I even know the stock number.” He turned to her: “You’re the girl in the olive forty-three, sixty-six sleeveless V with one-inch binding.”
She laughed, but Dov was already off again, plunging back into the fray. “I always have an insecurity that I can be crushed by a bigger business,” he said. “Like, Fruit of the Loom decided to do baby T’s, and I got a little scared. But then I saw their shirt, and I laughed, because they missed it.” Do the suits over at Fruit of the Loom have the same feel for a shirt that Dov does? Were they inspired by Marcella of Argentina and Julie from South Carolina? Those guys were off somewhere in a suburban office park. They weren’t in Gloversville. “It was horribly designed,” Dov went on. “It was thick, open-end, eighteen-singles coarse rib. It’s not the luxury that I offer. See the rib on that collar?” He pulled up the binding on the T-shirt of a friend standing next to him. “Look how thick and spacey it is. That’s what they did. They missed the point.” Somewhere a cell phone was ringing. A young woman walked past. “Hey!” Dov called out. “That’s my T-shirt!”
What do job interviews really tell us?
Nolan Myers grew up in Houston, site the elder of two boys in a middle- class family. He went to Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and then Harvard, visit where he intended to major in History and Science. After discovering the joys of writing code, though, he switched to computer science. “Programming is one of those things you get involved in, and you just can’t stop until you finish,” Myers says. “You get involved in it, and all of a sudden you look at your watch and it’s four in the morning! I love the elegance of it.” Myers is short and slightly stocky and has pale-blue eyes. He smiles easily, and when he speaks he moves his hands and torso for emphasis. He plays in a klezmer band called the Charvard Chai Notes. He talks to his parents a lot. He gets B’s and B-pluses.
This spring, in the last stretch of his senior year, Myers spent a lot of time interviewing for jobs with technology companies. He talked to a company named Trilogy, down in Texas, but he didn’t think he would fit in. “One of Trilogy’s subsidiaries put ads out in the paper saying that they were looking for the top tech students, and that they’d give them two hundred thousand dollars and a BMW,” Myers said, shaking his head in disbelief. In another of his interviews, a recruiter asked him to solve a programming problem, and he made a stupid mistake and the recruiter pushed the answer back across the table to him, saying that his “solution” accomplished nothing. As he remembers the moment, Myers blushes. “I was so nervous. I thought, Hmm, that sucks!” The way he says that, though, makes it hard to believe that he really was nervous, or maybe what Nolan Myers calls nervous the rest of us call a tiny flutter in the stomach. Myers doesn’t seem like the sort to get flustered. He’s the kind of person you would call the night before the big test in seventh grade, when nothing made sense and you had begun to panic.
I like Nolan Myers. He will, I am convinced, be very good at whatever career he chooses. I say those two things even though I have spent no more than ninety minutes in his presence. We met only once, on a sunny afternoon in April at the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. He was wearing sneakers and khakis and a polo shirt, in a dark-green pattern. He had a big backpack, which he plopped on the floor beneath the table. I bought him an orange juice. He fished around in his wallet and came up with a dollar to try and repay me, which I refused. We sat by the window. Previously, we had talked for perhaps three minutes on the phone, setting up the interview. Then I E-mailed him, asking him how I would recognize him at Au Bon Pain. He sent me the following message, with what I’m convinced—again, on the basis of almost no evidence—to be typical Myers panache: “22ish, five foot seven, straight brown hair, very good-looking. :).” I have never talked to his father, his mother, or his little brother, or any of his professors. I have never seen him ecstatic or angry or depressed. I know nothing of his personal habits, his tastes, or his quirks. I cannot even tell you why I feel the way I do about him. He’s good-looking and smart and articulate and funny, but not so good-looking and smart and articulate and funny that there is some obvious explanation for the conclusions I’ve drawn about him. I just like him, and I’m impressed by him, and if I were an employer looking for bright young college graduates, I’d hire him in a heartbeat.
I heard about Nolan Myers from Hadi Partovi, an executive with Tellme, a highly touted Silicon Valley startup offering Internet access through the telephone. If you were a computer-science major at M.I.T., Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, or the University of Waterloo this spring, looking for a job in software, Tellme was probably at the top of your list. Partovi and I talked in the conference room at Tellme’s offices, just off the soaring, open floor where all the firm’s programmers and marketers and executives sit, some of them with bunk beds built over their desks. (Tellme recently moved into an old printing plant—a low- slung office building with a huge warehouse attached—and, in accordance with new-economy logic, promptly turned the old offices into a warehouse and the old warehouse into offices.) Partovi is a handsome man of twenty-seven, with olive skin and short curly black hair, and throughout our entire interview he sat with his chair tilted precariously at a forty-five-degree angle. At the end of a long riff about how hard it is to find high-quality people, he blurted out one name: Nolan Myers. Then, from memory, he rattled off Myers’s telephone number. He very much wanted Myers to come to Tellme.
Partovi had met Myers in January, during a recruiting trip to Harvard. “It was a heinous day,” Partovi remembers. “I started at seven and went until nine. I’d walk one person out and walk the other in.” The first fifteen minutes of every interview he spent talking about Tellme—its strategy, its goals, and its business. Then he gave everyone a short programming puzzle. For the rest of the hour-long meeting, Partovi asked questions. He remembers that Myers did well on the programming test, and after talking to him for thirty to forty minutes he became convinced that Myers had, as he puts it, “the right stuff.” Partovi spent even less time with Myers than I did. He didn’t talk to Myers’s family, or see him ecstatic or angry or depressed, either. He knew that Myers had spent last summer as an intern at Microsoft and was about to graduate from an Ivy League school. But virtually everyone recruited by a place like Tellme has graduated from an élite university, and the Microsoft summer-internship program has more than six hundred people in it. Partovi didn’t even know why he liked Myers so much. He just did. “It was very much a gut call,” he says.
This wasn’t so very different from the experience Nolan Myers had with Steve Ballmer, the C.E.O. of Microsoft. Earlier this year, Myers attended a party for former Microsoft interns called Gradbash. Ballmer gave a speech there, and at the end of his remarks Myers raised his hand. “He was talking a lot about aligning the company in certain directions,” Myers told me, “and I asked him about how that influences his ability to make bets on other directions. Are they still going to make small bets?” Afterward, a Microsoft recruiter came up to Myers and said, “Steve wants your E-mail address.” Myers gave it to him, and soon he and Ballmer were E-mailing. Ballmer, it seems, badly wanted Myers to come to Microsoft. “He did research on me,” Myers says. “He knew which group I was interviewing with, and knew a lot about me personally. He sent me an E-mail saying that he’d love to have me come to Microsoft, and if I had any questions I should contact him. So I sent him a response, saying thank you. After I visited Tellme, I sent him an E-mail saying I was interested in Tellme, here were the reasons, that I wasn’t sure yet, and if he had anything to say I said I’d love to talk to him. I gave him my number. So he called, and after playing phone tag we talked—about career trajectory, how Microsoft would influence my career, what he thought of Tellme. I was extremely impressed with him, and he seemed very genuinely interested in me.”
What convinced Ballmer he wanted Myers? A glimpse! He caught a little slice of Nolan Myers in action and—just like that—the C.E.O. of a four-hundred-billion-dollar company was calling a college senior in his dorm room. Ballmer somehow knew he liked Myers, the same way Hadi Partovi knew, and the same way I knew after our little chat at Au Bon Pain. But what did we know? What could we know? By any reasonable measure, surely none of us knew Nolan Myers at all.
It is a truism of the new economy that the ultimate success of any enterprise lies with the quality of the people it hires. At many technology companies, employees are asked to all but live at the office, in conditions of intimacy that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The artifacts of the prototypical Silicon Valley office—the videogames, the espresso bar, the bunk beds, the basketball hoops—are the elements of the rec room, not the workplace. And in the rec room you want to play only with your friends. But how do you find out who your friends are?Today, recruiters canvas the country for résumés. They analyze employment histories and their competitors’ staff listings. They call references, and then do what I did with Nolan Myers: sit down with a perfect stranger for an hour and a half and attempt to draw conclusions about that stranger’s intelligence and personality. The job interview has become one of the central conventions of the modern economy. But what, exactly, can you know about a stranger after sitting down and talking with him for an hour?
Some years ago, an experimental psychologist at Harvard University, Nalini Ambady, together with Robert Rosenthal, set out to examine the nonverbal aspects of good teaching. As the basis of her research, she used videotapes of teaching fellows which had been made during a training program at Harvard. Her plan was to have outside observers look at the tapes with the sound off and rate the effectiveness of the teachers by their expressions and physical cues. Ambady wanted to have at least a minute of film to work with. When she looked at the tapes, though, there was really only about ten seconds when the teachers were shown apart from the students. “I didn’t want students in the frame, because obviously it would bias the ratings,” Ambady says. “So I went to my adviser, and I said, ‘This isn’t going to work.'”
But it did. The observers, presented with a ten-second silent video clip, had no difficulty rating the teachers on a fifteen- item checklist of personality traits. In fact, when Ambady cut the clips back to five seconds, the ratings were the same. They were even the same when she showed her raters just two seconds of videotape. That sounds unbelievable unless you actually watch Ambady’s teacher clips, as I did, and realize that the eight seconds that distinguish the longest clips from the shortest are superfluous: anything beyond the first flash of insight is unnecessary. When we make a snap judgment, it is made in a snap. It’s also, very clearly, a judgment:we get a feeling that we have no difficulty articulating.
Ambady’s next step led to an even more remarkable conclusion. She compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations made, after a full semester of classes, by students of the same teachers. The correlation between the two, she found, was astoundingly high. A person watching a two-second silent video clip of a teacher he has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who sits in the teacher’s class for an entire semester.
Recently, a comparable experiment was conducted by Frank Bernieri, a psychologist at the University of Toledo. Bernieri, working with one of his graduate students, Neha Gada-Jain, selected two people to act as interviewers, and trained them for six weeks in the proper procedures and techniques of giving an effective job interview. The two then interviewed ninety-eight volunteers, of various ages and backgrounds. The interviews lasted between fifteen and twenty minutes, and afterward each interviewer filled out a six-page, five-part evaluation of the person he’d just talked to. Originally, the intention of the study was to find out whether applicants who had been coached in certain nonverbal behaviors designed to ingratiate themselves with their interviewers—like mimicking the interviewers’ physical gestures or posture—would get better ratings than applicants who behaved normally. As it turns out, they didn’t. But then another of Bernieri’s students, an undergraduate named Tricia Prickett, decided that she wanted to use the interview videotapes and the evaluations that had been collected to test out the adage that “the handshake is everything.”
“She took fifteen seconds of videotape showing the applicant as he or she knocks on the door, comes in, shakes the hand of the interviewer, sits down, and the interviewer welcomes the person,” Bernieri explained. Then, like Ambady, Prickett got a series of strangers to rate the applicants based on the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used. Once more, against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers. “On nine out of the eleven traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview,” Bernieri says. “The strength of the correlations was extraordinary.”
This research takes Ambady’s conclusions one step further. In the Toledo experiment, the interviewers were trained in the art of interviewing. They weren’t dashing off a teacher evaluation on their way out the door. They were filling out a formal, detailed questionnaire, of the sort designed to give the most thorough and unbiased account of an interview. And still their ratings weren’t all that different from those of people off the street who saw just the greeting.
This is why Hadi Partovi, Steve Ballmer, and I all agreed on Nolan Myers. Apparently, human beings don’t need to know someone in order to believe that they know someone. Nor does it make that much difference, apparently, that Partovi reached his conclusion after putting Myers through the wringer for an hour, I reached mine after ninety minutes of amiable conversation at Au Bon Pain, and Ballmer reached his after watching and listening as Myers asked a question.
Bernieri and Ambady believe that the power of first impressions suggests that human beings have a particular kind of prerational ability for making searching judgments about others. In Ambady’s teacher experiments, when she asked her observers to perform a potentially distracting cognitive task—like memorizing a set of numbers—while watching the tapes, their judgments of teacher effectiveness were unchanged. But when she instructed her observers to think hard about their ratings before they made them, their accuracy suffered substantially. Thinking only gets in the way. “The brain structures that are involved here are very primitive,” Ambady speculates. “All of these affective reactions are probably governed by the lower brain structures.” What we are picking up in that first instant would seem to be something quite basic about a person’s character, because what we conclude after two seconds is pretty much the same as what we conclude after twenty minutes or, indeed, an entire semester. “Maybe you can tell immediately whether someone is extroverted, or gauge the person’s ability to communicate,”Bernieri says. “Maybe these clues or cues are immediately accessible and apparent.” Bernieri and Ambady are talking about the existence of a powerful form of human intuition. In a way, that’s comforting, because it suggests that we can meet a perfect stranger and immediately pick up on something important about him. It means that I shouldn’t be concerned that I can’t explain why I like Nolan Myers, because, if such judgments are made without thinking, then surely they defy explanation.
But there’s a troubling suggestion here as well. I believe that Nolan Myers is an accomplished and likable person. But I have no idea from our brief encounter how honest he is, or whether he is self-centered, or whether he works best by himself or in a group, or any number of other fundamental traits. That people who simply see the handshake arrive at the same conclusions as people who conduct a full interview also implies, perhaps, that those initial impressions matter too much—that they color all the other impressions that we gather over time.
For example, I asked Myers if he felt nervous about the prospect of leaving school for the workplace, which seemed like a reasonable question, since I remember how anxious I was before my first job. Would the hours scare him? Oh no, he replied, he was already working between eighty and a hundred hours a week at school. “Are there things that you think you aren’t good at, which make you worry?” I continued.
His reply was sharp: “Are there things that I’m not good at, or things that I can’t learn? I think that’s the real question. There are a lot of things I don’t know anything about, but I feel comfortable that given the right environment and the right encouragement I can do well at.” In my notes, next to that reply, I wrote “Great answer!” and I can remember at the time feeling the little thrill you experience as an interviewer when someone’s behavior conforms with your expectations. Because I had decided, right off, that I liked him, what I heard in his answer was toughness and confidence. Had I decided early on that I didn’t like Nolan Myers, I would have heard in that reply arrogance and bluster. The first impression becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we hear what we expect to hear. The interview is hopelessly biased in favor of the nice.
When Ballmer and Partovi and I met Nolan Myers, we made a prediction. We looked at the way he behaved in our presence—at the way he talked and acted and seemed to think—and drew conclusions about how he would behave in other situations. I had decided, remember, that Myers was the kind of person you called the night before the big test in seventh grade. Was I right to make that kind of generalization?
This is a question that social psychologists have looked at closely. In the late nineteen-twenties, in a famous study, the psychologist Theodore Newcomb analyzed extroversion among adolescent boys at a summer camp. He found that how talkative a boy was in one setting—say, lunch—was highly predictive of how talkative that boy would be in the same setting in the future. A boy who was curious at lunch on Monday was likely to be curious at lunch on Tuesday. But his behavior in one setting told you almost nothing about how he would behave in a different setting: from how someone behaved at lunch, you couldn’t predict how he would behave during, say, afternoon playtime. In a more recent study, of conscientiousness among students at Carleton College, the researchers Walter Mischel, Neil Lutsky, and Philip K. Peake showed that how neat a student’s assignments were or how punctual he was told you almost nothing about how often he attended class or how neat his room or his personal appearance was. How we behave at any one time, evidently, has less to do with some immutable inner compass than with the particulars of our situation.
This conclusion, obviously, is at odds with our intuition. Most of the time, we assume that people display the same character traits in different situations. We habitually underestimate the large role that context plays in people’s behavior. In the Newcomb summer-camp experiment, for example, the results showing how little consistency there was from one setting to another in talkativeness, curiosity, and gregariousness were tabulated from observations made and recorded by camp counsellors on the spot. But when, at the end of the summer, those same counsellors were asked to give their final impressions of the kids, they remembered the children’s behavior as being highly consistent.
“The basis of the illusion is that we are somehow confident that we are getting what is there, that we are able to read off a person’s disposition,” Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, says. “When you have an interview with someone and have an hour with them, you don’t conceptualize that as taking a sample of a person’s behavior, let alone a possibly biased sample, which is what it is. What you think is that you are seeing a hologram, a small and fuzzy image but still the whole person.”
Then Nisbett mentioned his frequent collaborator, Lee Ross, who teaches psychology at Stanford. “There was one term when he was teaching statistics and one term he was teaching a course with a lot of humanistic psychology. He gets his teacher evaluations. The first referred to him as cold, rigid, remote, finicky, and uptight. And the second described this wonderful warmhearted guy who was so deeply concerned with questions of community and getting students to grow. It was Jekyll and Hyde. In both cases, the students thought they were seeing the real Lee Ross.”
Psychologists call this tendency—to fixate on supposedly stable character traits and overlook the influence of context—the Fundamental Attri-bution Error, and if you combine this error with what we know about snap judgments the interview becomes an even more problematic encounter. Not only had I let my first impressions color the informationI gathered about Myers, but I had also assumed that the way he behaved with me in an interview setting was indicative of the way he would always behave. It isn’t that the interview is useless; what I learned about Myers—that he and I get along well—is something I could never have got from a résumé or by talking to his references. It’s just that our conversation turns out to have been less useful, and potentially more misleading, than I had supposed. That most basic of human rituals—the conversation with a stranger—turns out to be a minefield.
Not long after I met with Nolan Myers, I talked with a human- resources consultant from Pasadena named Justin Menkes. Menkes’s job is to figure out how to extract meaning from face-to-face encounters, and with that in mind he agreed to spend an hour interviewing me the way he thinks interviewing ought to be done. It felt, going in, not unlike a visit to a shrink, except that instead of having months, if not years, to work things out, Menkes was set upon stripping away my secrets in one session. Consider, he told me, a commonly asked question like “Describe a few situations in which your work was criticized. How did you handle the criticism?” The problem, Menkes said, is that it’s much too obvious what the interviewee is supposed to say. “There was a situation where I was working on a project, and I didn’t do as well as I could have,” he said, adopting a mock-sincere singsong. “My boss gave me some constructive criticism. And I redid the project. It hurt. Yet we worked it out.” The same is true of the question “What would your friends say about you?”—to which the correct answer (preferably preceded by a pause, as if to suggest that it had never dawned on you that someone would ask such a question) is “My guess is that they would call me a people person—either that or a hard worker.”
Myers and I had talked about obvious questions, too. “What is your greatest weakness?” I asked him. He answered, “I tried to work on a project my freshman year, a children’s festival. I was trying to start a festival as a benefit here in Boston. And I had a number of guys working with me. I started getting concerned with the scope of the project we were working on—how much responsibility we had, getting things done. I really put the brakes on, but in retrospect I really think we could have done it and done a great job.”
Then Myers grinned and said, as an aside, “Do I truly think that is a fault? Honestly, no.” And, of course, he’s right. All I’d really asked him was whether he could describe a personal strength as if it were a weakness, and, in answering as he did, he had merely demonstrated his knowledge of the unwritten rules of the interview.
But, Menkes said, what if those questions were rephrased so that the answers weren’t obvious? For example: “At your weekly team meetings, your boss unexpectedly begins aggressively critiquing your performance on a current project. What do you do?”
I felt a twinge of anxiety. What would I do? I remembered a terrible boss I’d had years ago. “I’d probably be upset,” I said. “But I doubt I’d say anything. I’d probably just walk away.” Menkes gave no indication whether he was concerned or pleased by that answer. He simply pointed out that another person might well have said something like “I’d go and see my boss later in private, and confront him about why he embarrassed me in front of my team.” I was saying that I would probably handle criticism—even inappropriate criticism—from a superior with stoicism; in the second case, the applicant was saying he or she would adopt a more confrontational style. Or, at least, we were telling the interviewer that the workplace demands either stoicism or confrontation—and to Menkes these are revealing and pertinent pieces of information.
Menkes moved on to another area—handling stress. A typical question in this area is something like “Tell me about a time when you had to do several things at once. How did you handle the situation? How did you decide what to do first?” Menkes says this is also too easy. “I just had to be very organized,” he began again in his mock-sincere singsong. “I had to multitask. I had to prioritize and delegate appropriately. I checked in frequently with my boss.” Here’s how Menkes rephrased it: “You’re in a situation where you have two very important responsibilities that both have a deadline that is impossible to meet. You cannot accomplish both. How do you handle that situation?”
“Well,” I said, “I would look at the two and decide what I was best at, and then go to my boss and say, ‘It’s better that I do one well than both poorly,’ and we’d figure out who else could do the other task.”
Menkes immediately seized on a telling detail in my answer. I was in-terested in what job I would do best. But isn’t the key issue what job the company most needed to have done? With that comment, I had revealed some-thing valuable: that in a time of work-related crisis I start from a self-centered consideration. “Perhaps you are a bit of a solo practitioner,” Menkes said diplomatically. “That’s an essential bit of information.”
Menkes deliberately wasn’t drawing any broad conclusions. If we are not people who are shy or talkative or outspoken but people who are shy in some contexts, talkative in other situations, and outspoken in still other areas, then what it means to know someone is to catalogue and appreciate all those variations. Menkes was trying to begin that process of cataloguing. This interviewing technique is known as “structured interviewing,” and in studies by industrial psychologists it has been shown to be the only kind of interviewing that has any success at all in predicting performance in the workplace. In the structured interviews, the format is fairly rigid. Each applicant is treated in precisely the same manner. The questions are scripted. The interviewers are carefully trained, and each applicant is rated on a series of predetermined scales.
What is interesting about the structured interview is how narrow its objectives are. When I interviewed Nolan Myers I was groping for some kind of global sense of who he was; Menkes seemed entirely uninterested in arriving at that same general sense of me—he seemed to realize how foolish that expectation was for an hour-long interview. The structured interview works precisely because it isn’t really an interview; it isn’t about getting to know someone, in a traditional sense. It’s as much concerned with rejecting information as it is with collecting it.
Not surprisingly, interview specialists have found it extraordinarily difficult to persuade most employers to adopt the structured interview. It just doesn’t feel right. For most of us, hiring someone is essentially a romantic process, in which the job interview functions as a desexualized version of a date. We are looking for someone with whom we have a certain chemistry, even if the coupling that results ends in tears and the pursuer and the pursued turn out to have nothing in common. We want the unlimited promise of a love affair. The structured interview, by contrast, seems to offer only the dry logic and practicality of an arranged marriage.
Nolan Myers agonized over which job to take. He spent half an hour on the phone with Steve Ballmer, and Ballmer was very persuasive. “He gave me very, very good advice,” Myers says of his conversations with the Microsoft C.E.O. “He felt that I should go to the place that excited me the most and that I thought would be best for my career. He offered to be my mentor.” Myers says he talked to his parents every day about what to do. In February, he flew out to California and spent a Saturday going from one Tellme executive to another, asking and answering questions. “Basically, I had three things I was looking for. One was long-term goals for the company. Where did they see themselves in five years? Second, what position would I be playing in the company?” He stopped and burst out laughing. “And I forget what the third one is.” In March, Myers committed to Tellme.
Will Nolan Myers succeed at Tellme? I think so, although I honestly have no idea. It’s a harder question to answer now than it would have been thirty or forty years ago. If this were 1965, Nolan Myers would have gone to work at I.B.M. and worn a blue suit and sat in a small office and kept his head down, and the particulars of his personality would not have mattered so much. It was not so important that I.B.M. understood who you were before it hired you, because you understood what I.B.M. was. If you walked through the door at Armonk or at a branch office in Illinois, you knew what you had to be and how you were supposed to act. But to walk through the soaring, open offices of Tellme, with the bunk beds over the desks, is to be struck by how much more demanding the culture of Silicon Valley is. Nolan Myers will not be provided with a social script, that blue suit and organization chart. Tellme, like any technology startup these days, wants its employees to be part of a fluid team, to be flexible and innovative, to work with shifting groups in the absence of hierarchy and bureaucracy, and in that environment, where the workplace doubles as the rec room, the particulars of your personality matter a great deal.
This is part of the new economy’s appeal, because Tellme’s soaring warehouse is a more productive and enjoyable place to work than the little office boxes of the old I.B.M. But the danger here is that we will be led astray in judging these newly important particulars of character. If we let personability—some indefinable, prerational intuition, magnified by the Fundamental Attribution Error—bias the hiring process today, then all we will have done is replace the old-boy network, where you hired your nephew, with the new-boy network, where you hire whoever impressed you most when you shook his hand. Social progress, unless we’re careful, can merely be the means by which we replace the obviously arbitrary with the not so obviously arbitrary.
Myers has spent much of the past year helping to teach Introduction to Computer Science. He realized, he says, that one of the reasons that students were taking the course was that they wanted to get jobs in the software industry. “I decided that, having gone through all this interviewing, I had developed some expertise, and I would like to share that. There is a real skill and art in presenting yourself to potential employers. And so what we did in this class was talk about the kinds of things that employers are looking for—what are they looking for in terms of personality. One of the most important things is that you have to come across as being confident in what you are doing and in who you are. How do you do that? Speak clearly and smile.” As he said that, Nolan Myers smiled. “For a lot of people, that’s a very hard skill to learn. But for some reason I seem to understand it intuitively.”
Every now and again in politics, page there is a moment that captures the temper of the times, and our moment may have come this budget season in Washington. The Centers for Disease Control asked Congress if, for an extra fifteen million dollars in C.D.C. funding, it would like to wipe out syphilis from the United States by 2005. And Congress said no.
The request was not a political ploy to get a bigger budget. Syphilis is an epidemic that, for reasons no one quite understands, runs in cycles, and, after peaking in 1990, the disease is now at its lowest level in United States history. It has retreated to a handful of areas across the country: just twenty- five counties account for half of all cases. In other words, syphilis is very close to that critical point faced by many epidemics, when even the slightest push could tip them into oblivion. That’s why the C.D.C. has asked for the extra fifteen million dollars– to supply that final push.
This was all patiently explained to Congress last year as the epidemic first neared its lowest ebb. The C.D.C. proposed the most prosaic and straightforward of public-health efforts–an aggressive regimen of free diagnosis and treatment. The drug of choice? Penicillin, the same antibiotic that has been so successful in fighting syphilis for the past half century. Congress wasn’t interested. This year, the C.D.C. made its case again, and again the public-health budgets that emerged from the House and the Senate left the agency well short of the necessary funding. Next year, unfortunately, the moment when syphilis can be easily eliminated will have passed. The disease will have begun its cyclical return, moving out of the familiar, well-defined neighborhoods where it is now sequestered, and presenting a much more formidable target for public-health officials. “If you miss the timing, there is a point when it is no longer feasible to move to elimination,” says Judy Wasserheit, who is the head of the C.D.C.’s syphilis-prevention effort. “We’re already pushing the limits of that time frame.”
Exactly why, in a period of fiscal plenty, Congress cannot find the money for an anti-syphilis campaign is a bit puzzling. The disease plays a major role in the transmission of H.I.V., increasing infection rates between two- and five-fold. It often irreparably harms children born to those who are infected. And it is extremely expensive. Even with the rates as low as they are now, syphilis costs the country two hundred and fourteen million dollars a year. Congress has the opportunity to make history by eliminating a disease that has plagued the West for centuries. Why isn’t it taking it?
The truth is, this is the price we pay for the ways in which disease has become steadily politicized. The great insight of the AIDS movement–later picked up by groups concerned about breast cancer and prostate cancer–was that a community afflicted with a specific medical problem could take its case directly to Capitol Hill, bypassing the medical establishment entirely. This has dramatically increased the resources available for medical research. But it has also given Congress an excuse to treat public health as another form of interest-group politics, in which the most deserving constituencies are those which shout the loudest. In fact, when it comes to illness and disease the most deserving constituencies are often those who cannot shout at all. That syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease primarily affecting very poor African-Americans only makes things worse–sex, race, and poverty being words that the present Congress has difficulty pronouncing individually, let alone in combination.
The last time America came so tantalizingly close to the elimination of syphilis was during the mid-fifties, after the introduction of penicillin. “Are Venereal Diseases disappearing?” the American Journal of Syphilis asked in 1951; four years later, the journal itself had disappeared. Such was the certainty that the era of syphilis was ending that the big debate in the public- health field was ethical rather than medical–namely, how the removal of the threat of venereal disease would affect sexual behavior.
As Dr. John Stokes, one of the leading experts of his day on sexually transmitted diseases, wrote, “It is a reasonable question, whether by eliminating disease, without commensurate attention to the development of human idealism, self-control, and responsibility in the sexual life, we are not bringing mankind to its fall instead of fulfillment.” Stokes assumed that syphilis would soon vanish, and that we ought to worry about the morality of those who could have got the disease but now wouldn’t. As it turns out, he had it backward. Syphilis is still with us. And we ought to worry instead about the morality of those who could have eliminated the disease but chose not to.
Why some people choke and others panic.
There was a moment, nurse in the third and deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon final, treat when Jana Novotna seemed invincible. She was leading 4-1 and serving at 40-30, meaning that she was one point from winning the game, and just five points from the most coveted championship in tennis. She had just hit a backhand to her opponent, Steffi Graf, that skimmed the net and landed so abruptly on the far side of the court that Graf could only watch, in flat- footed frustration. The stands at Center Court were packed. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were in their customary place in the royal box. Novotna was in white, poised and confident, her blond hair held back with a headband–and then something happened. She served the ball straight into the net. She stopped and steadied herself for the second serve–the toss, the arch of the back–but this time it was worse. Her swing seemed halfhearted, all arm and no legs and torso. Double fault. On the next point, she was slow to react to a high shot by Graf, and badly missed on a forehand volley. At game point, she hit an overhead straight into the net. Instead of 5-1, it was now 4-2. Graf to serve: an easy victory, 4-3. Novotna to serve. She wasn’t tossing the ball high enough. Her head was down. Her movements had slowed markedly. She double-faulted once, twice, three times. Pulled wide by a Graf forehand, Novotna inexplicably hit a low, flat shot directly at Graf, instead of a high crosscourt forehand that would have given her time to get back into position: 4-4. Did she suddenly realize how terrifyingly close she was to victory? Did she remember that she had never won a major tournament before? Did she look across the net and see Steffi Graf–Steffi Graf!–the greatest player of her generation?
On the baseline, awaiting Graf’s serve, Novotna was now visibly agitated, rocking back and forth, jumping up and down. She talked to herself under her breath. Her eyes darted around the court. Graf took the game at love; Novotna, moving as if in slow motion, did not win a single point: 5-4, Graf. On the sidelines, Novotna wiped her racquet and her face with a towel, and then each finger individually. It was her turn to serve. She missed a routine volley wide, shook her head, talked to herself. She missed her first serve, made the second, then, in the resulting rally, mis-hit a backhand so badly that it sailed off her racquet as if launched into flight. Novotna was unrecognizable, not an élite tennis player but a beginner again. She was crumbling under pressure, but exactly why was as baffling to her as it was to all those looking on. Isn’t pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. We care more about how well we perform. So what was happening to her?
At championship point, Novotna hit a low, cautious, and shallow lob to Graf. Graf answered with an unreturnable overhead smash, and, mercifully, it was over. Stunned, Novotna moved to the net. Graf kissed her twice. At the awards ceremony, the Duchess of Kent handed Novotna the runner-up’s trophy, a small silver plate, and whispered something in her ear, and what Novotna had done finally caught up with her. There she was, sweaty and exhausted, looming over the delicate white-haired Duchess in her pearl necklace. The Duchess reached up and pulled her head down onto her shoulder, and Novotna started to sob.
Human beings sometimes falter under pressure. Pilots crash and divers drown. Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin. When that happens, we say variously that people have “panicked” or, to use the sports colloquialism, “choked.” But what do those words mean? Both are pejoratives. To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think?We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.
“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box. According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.” But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain. Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”
Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child. The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.
Panic is something else altogether. Consider the following account of a scuba-diving accident, recounted to me by Ephimia Morphew, a human-factors specialist at nasa: “It was an open-water certification dive, Monterey Bay, California, about ten years ago. I was nineteen. I’d been diving for two weeks. This was my first time in the open ocean without the instructor. Just my buddy and I. We had to go about forty feet down, to the bottom of the ocean, and do an exercise where we took our regulators out of our mouth, picked up a spare one that we had on our vest, and practiced breathing out of the spare. My buddy did hers. Then it was my turn. I removed my regulator. I lifted up my secondary regulator. I put it in my mouth, exhaled, to clear the lines, and then I inhaled, and, to my surprise, it was water. I inhaled water. Then the hose that connected that mouthpiece to my tank, my air source, came unlatched and air from the hose came exploding into my face.
“Right away, my hand reached out for my partner’s air supply, as if I was going to rip it out. It was without thought. It was a physiological response. My eyes are seeing my hand do something irresponsible. I’m fighting with myself. Don’t do it. Then I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind. All I could remember was one thing: If you can’t take care of yourself, let your buddy take care of you. I let my hand fall back to my side, and I just stood there.”
This is a textbook example of panic. In that moment, Morphew stopped thinking. She forgot that she had another source of air, one that worked perfectly well and that, moments before, she had taken out of her mouth. She forgot that her partner had a working air supply as well, which could easily be shared, and she forgot that grabbing her partner’s regulator would imperil both of them. All she had was her most basic instinct: get air. Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short- term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on. But what did a novice like Morphew have? I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind.
Panic also causes what psychologists call perceptual narrowing. In one study, from the early seventies, a group of subjects were asked to perform a visual acuity task while undergoing what they thought was a sixty-foot dive in a pressure chamber. At the same time, they were asked to push a button whenever they saw a small light flash on and off in their peripheral vision. The subjects in the pressure chamber had much higher heart rates than the control group, indicating that they were under stress. That stress didn’t affect their accuracy at the visual-acuity task, but they were only half as good as the control group at picking up the peripheral light. “You tend to focus or obsess on one thing,” Morphew says. “There’s a famous airplane example, where the landing light went off, and the pilots had no way of knowing if the landing gear was down. The pilots were so focussed on that light that no one noticed the autopilot had been disengaged, and they crashed the plane.” Morphew reached for her buddy’s air supply because it was the only air supply she could see.
Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.
Why does this distinction matter? In some instances, it doesn’t much. If you lose a close tennis match, it’s of little moment whether you choked or panicked; either way, you lost. But there are clearly cases when how failure happens is central to understanding why failure happens.
Take the plane crash in which John F. Kennedy, Jr., was killed last summer. The details of the flight are well known. On a Friday evening last July, Kennedy took off with his wife and sister-in-law for Martha’s Vineyard. The night was hazy, and Kennedy flew along the Connecticut coastline, using the trail of lights below him as a guide. At Westerly, Rhode Island, he left the shoreline, heading straight out over Rhode Island Sound, and at that point, apparently disoriented by the darkness and haze, he began a series of curious maneuvers: He banked his plane to the right, farther out into the ocean, and then to the left. He climbed and descended. He sped up and slowed down. Just a few miles from his destination, Kennedy lost control of the plane, and it crashed into the ocean.
Kennedy’s mistake, in technical terms, was that he failed to keep his wings level. That was critical, because when a plane banks to one side it begins to turn and its wings lose some of their vertical lift. Left unchecked, this process accelerates. The angle of the bank increases, the turn gets sharper and sharper, and the plane starts to dive toward the ground in an ever-narrowing corkscrew. Pilots call this the graveyard spiral. And why didn’t Kennedy stop the dive? Because, in times of low visibility and high stress, keeping your wings level–indeed, even knowing whether you are in a graveyard spiral–turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Kennedy failed under pressure.
Had Kennedy been flying during the day or with a clear moon, he would have been fine. If you are the pilot, looking straight ahead from the cockpit, the angle of your wings will be obvious from the straight line of the horizon in front of you. But when it’s dark outside the horizon disappears. There is no external measure of the plane’s bank. On the ground, we know whether we are level even when it’s dark, because of the motion-sensing mechanisms in the inner ear. In a spiral dive, though, the effect of the plane’s G-force on the inner ear means that the pilot feels perfectly level even if his plane is not. Similarly, when you are in a jetliner that is banking at thirty degrees after takeoff, the book on your neighbor’s lap does not slide into your lap, nor will a pen on the floor roll toward the “down” side of the plane. The physics of flying is such that an airplane in the midst of a turn always feels perfectly level to someone inside the cabin.
This is a difficult notion, and to understand it I went flying with William Langewiesche, the author of a superb book on flying, “Inside the Sky.” We met at San Jose Airport, in the jet center where the Silicon Valley billionaires keep their private planes. Langewiesche is a rugged man in his forties, deeply tanned, and handsome in the way that pilots (at least since the movie “The Right Stuff”) are supposed to be. We took off at dusk, heading out toward Monterey Bay, until we had left the lights of the coast behind and night had erased the horizon. Langewiesche let the plane bank gently to the left. He took his hands off the stick. The sky told me nothing now, so I concentrated on the instruments. The nose of the plane was dropping. The gyroscope told me that we were banking, first fifteen, then thirty, then forty-five degrees. “We’re in a spiral dive,” Langewiesche said calmly. Our airspeed was steadily accelerating, from a hundred and eighty to a hundred and ninety to two hundred knots. The needle on the altimeter was moving down. The plane was dropping like a stone, at three thousand feet per minute. I could hear, faintly, a slight increase in the hum of the engine, and the wind noise as we picked up speed. But if Langewiesche and I had been talking I would have caught none of that. Had the cabin been unpressurized, my ears might have popped, particularly as we went into the steep part of the dive. But beyond that? Nothing at all. In a spiral dive, the G-load–the force of inertia–is normal. As Langewiesche puts it, the plane likes to spiral-dive. The total time elapsed since we started diving was no more than six or seven seconds. Suddenly, Langewiesche straightened the wings and pulled back on the stick to get the nose of the plane up, breaking out of the dive. Only now did I feel the full force of the G-load, pushing me back in my seat. “You feel no G-load in a bank,” Langewiesche said. “There’s nothing more confusing for the uninitiated.”
I asked Langewiesche how much longer we could have fallen. “Within five seconds, we would have exceeded the limits of the airplane,” he replied, by which he meant that the force of trying to pull out of the dive would have broken the plane into pieces. I looked away from the instruments and asked Langewiesche to spiral-dive again, this time without telling me. I sat and waited. I was about to tell Langewiesche that he could start diving anytime, when, suddenly, I was thrown back in my chair. “We just lost a thousand feet,” he said.
This inability to sense, experientially, what your plane is doing is what makes night flying so stressful. And this was the stress that Kennedy must have felt when he turned out across the water at Westerly, leaving the guiding lights of the Connecticut coastline behind him. A pilot who flew into Nantucket that night told the National Transportation Safety Board that when he descended over Martha’s Vineyard he looked down and there was “nothing to see. There was no horizon and no light…. I thought the island might [have] suffered a power failure.” Kennedy was now blind, in every sense, and he must have known the danger he was in. He had very little experience in flying strictly by instruments. Most of the time when he had flown up to the Vineyard the horizon or lights had still been visible. That strange, final sequence of maneuvers was Kennedy’s frantic search for a clearing in the haze. He was trying to pick up the lights of Martha’s Vineyard, to restore the lost horizon. Between the lines of the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the crash, you can almost feel his desperation:
About 2138 the target began a right turn in a southerly direction. About 30 seconds later, the target stopped its descent at 2200 feet and began a climb that lasted another 30 seconds. During this period of time, the target stopped the turn, and the airspeed decreased to about 153 KIAS. About 2139, the target leveled off at 2500 feet and flew in a southeasterly direction. About 50 seconds later, the target entered a left turn and climbed to 2600 feet. As the target continued in the left turn, it began a descent that reached a rate of about 900 fpm.
But was he choking or panicking? Here the distinction between those two states is critical. Had he choked, he would have reverted to the mode of explicit learning. His movements in the cockpit would have become markedly slower and less fluid. He would have gone back to the mechanical, self-conscious application of the lessons he had first received as a pilot–and that might have been a good thing. Kennedy needed to think, to concentrate on his instruments, to break away from the instinctive flying that served him when he had a visible horizon.
But instead, from all appearances, he panicked. At the moment when he needed to remember the lessons he had been taught about instrument flying, his mind–like Morphew’s when she was underwater–must have gone blank. Instead of reviewing the instruments, he seems to have been focussed on one question: Where are the lights of Martha’s Vineyard? His gyroscope and his other instruments may well have become as invisible as the peripheral lights in the underwater-panic experiments. He had fallen back on his instincts–on the way the plane felt–and in the dark, of course, instinct can tell you nothing. The N.T.S.B. report says that the last time the Piper’s wings were level was seven seconds past 9:40, and the plane hit the water at about 9:41, so the critical period here was less than sixty seconds. At twenty-five seconds past the minute, the plane was tilted at an angle greater than forty-five degrees. Inside the cockpit it would have felt normal. At some point, Kennedy must have heard the rising wind outside, or the roar of the engine as it picked up speed. Again, relying on instinct, he might have pulled back on the stick, trying to raise the nose of the plane. But pulling back on the stick without first levelling the wings only makes the spiral tighter and the problem worse. It’s also possible that Kennedy did nothing at all, and that he was frozen at the controls, still frantically searching for the lights of the Vineyard, when his plane hit the water. Sometimes pilots don’t even try to make it out of a spiral dive. Langewiesche calls that “one G all the way down.”
What happened to Kennedy that night illustrates a second major difference between panicking and choking. Panicking is conventional failure, of the sort we tacitly understand. Kennedy panicked because he didn’t know enough about instrument flying. If he’d had another year in the air, he might not have panicked, and that fits with what we believe–that performance ought to improve with experience, and that pressure is an obstacle that the diligent can overcome. But choking makes little intuitive sense. Novotna’s problem wasn’t lack of diligence; she was as superbly conditioned and schooled as anyone on the tennis tour. And what did experience do for her? In 1995, in the third round of the French Open, Novotna choked even more spectacularly than she had against Graf, losing to Chanda Rubin after surrendering a 5-0 lead in the third set. There seems little doubt that part of the reason for her collapse against Rubin was her collapse against Graf–that the second failure built on the first, making it possible for her to be up 5-0 in the third set and yet entertain the thought I can still lose. If panicking is conventional failure, choking is paradoxical failure.
Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University, and his colleagues have done a number of experiments in recent years looking at how certain groups perform under pressure, and their findings go to the heart of what is so strange about choking. Steele and Joshua Aronson found that when they gave a group of Stanford undergraduates a standardized test and told them that it was a measure of their intellectual ability, the white students did much better than their black counterparts. But when the same test was presented simply as an abstract laboratory tool, with no relevance to ability, the scores of blacks and whites were virtually identical. Steele and Aronson attribute this disparity to what they call “stereotype threat”: when black students are put into a situation where they are directly confronted with a stereotype about their group–in this case, one having to do with intelligence–the resulting pressure causes their performance to suffer.
Steele and others have found stereotype threat at work in any situation where groups are depicted in negative ways. Give a group of qualified women a math test and tell them it will measure their quantitative ability and they’ll do much worse than equally skilled men will; present the same test simply as a research tool and they’ll do just as well as the men. Or consider a handful of experiments conducted by one of Steele’s former graduate students, Julio Garcia, a professor at Tufts University. Garcia gathered together a group of white, athletic students and had a white instructor lead them through a series of physical tests: to jump as high as they could, to do a standing broad jump, and to see how many pushups they could do in twenty seconds. The instructor then asked them to do the tests a second time, and, as you’d expect, Garcia found that the students did a little better on each of the tasks the second time around. Then Garcia ran a second group of students through the tests, this time replacing the instructor between the first and second trials with an African-American. Now the white students ceased to improve on their vertical leaps. He did the experiment again, only this time he replaced the white instructor with a black instructor who was much taller and heavier than the previous black instructor. In this trial, the white students actually jumped less high than they had the first time around. Their performance on the pushups, though, was unchanged in each of the conditions. There is no stereotype, after all, that suggests that whites can’t do as many pushups as blacks. The task that was affected was the vertical leap, because of what our culture says: white men can’t jump.
It doesn’t come as news, of course, that black students aren’t as good at test-taking as white students, or that white students aren’t as good at jumping as black students. The problem is that we’ve always assumed that this kind of failure under pressure is panic. What is it we tell underperforming athletes and students? The same thing we tell novice pilots or scuba divers: to work harder, to buckle down, to take the tests of their ability more seriously. But Steele says that when you look at the way black or female students perform under stereotype threat you don’t see the wild guessing of a panicked test taker. “What you tend to see is carefulness and second-guessing,” he explains. “When you go and interview them, you have the sense that when they are in the stereotype-threat condition they say to themselves, ‘Look, I’m going to be careful here. I’m not going to mess things up.’ Then, after having decided to take that strategy, they calm down and go through the test. But that’s not the way to succeed on a standardized test. The more you do that, the more you will get away from the intuitions that help you, the quick processing. They think they did well, and they are trying to do well. But they are not.” This is choking, not panicking. Garcia’s athletes and Steele’s students are like Novotna, not Kennedy. They failed because they were good at what they did: only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of stereotype threat. The usual prescription for failure–to work harder and take the test more seriously–would only make their problems worse.
That is a hard lesson to grasp, but harder still is the fact that choking requires us to concern ourselves less with the performer and more with the situation in which the performance occurs. Novotna herself could do nothing to prevent her collapse against Graf. The only thing that could have saved her is if–at that critical moment in the third set–the television cameras had been turned off, the Duke and Duchess had gone home, and the spectators had been told to wait outside. In sports, of course, you can’t do that. Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there–and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. But the same ruthless inflexibility need not govern the rest of our lives. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience; and that sometimes a poor test score is the sign not of a poor student but of a good one.
Through the first three rounds of the 1996 Masters golf tournament, Greg Norman held a seemingly insurmountable lead over his nearest rival, the Englishman Nick Faldo. He was the best player in the world. His nickname was the Shark. He didn’t saunter down the fairways; he stalked the course, blond and broad-shouldered, his caddy behind him, struggling to keep up. But then came the ninth hole on the tournament’s final day. Norman was paired with Faldo, and the two hit their first shots well. They were now facing the green. In front of the pin, there was a steep slope, so that any ball hit short would come rolling back down the hill into oblivion. Faldo shot first, and the ball landed safely long, well past the cup.
Norman was next. He stood over the ball. “The one thing you guard against here is short,” the announcer said, stating the obvious. Norman swung and then froze, his club in midair, following the ball in flight. It was short. Norman watched, stone-faced, as the ball rolled thirty yards back down the hill, and with that error something inside of him broke.
At the tenth hole, he hooked the ball to the left, hit his third shot well past the cup, and missed a makable putt. At eleven, Norman had a three-and-a-half-foot putt for par–the kind he had been making all week. He shook out his hands and legs before grasping the club, trying to relax. He missed: his third straight bogey. At twelve, Norman hit the ball straight into the water. At thirteen, he hit it into a patch of pine needles. At sixteen, his movements were so mechanical and out of synch that, when he swung, his hips spun out ahead of his body and the ball sailed into another pond. At that, he took his club and made a frustrated scythelike motion through the grass, because what had been obvious for twenty minutes was now official: he had fumbled away the chance of a lifetime.
Faldo had begun the day six strokes behind Norman. By the time the two started their slow walk to the eighteenth hole, through the throng of spectators, Faldo had a four- stroke lead. But he took those final steps quietly, giving only the smallest of nods, keeping his head low. He understood what had happened on the greens and fairways that day. And he was bound by the particular etiquette of choking, the understanding that what he had earned was something less than a victory and what Norman had suffered was something less than a defeat.
When it was all over, Faldo wrapped his arms around Norman. “I don’t know what to say–I just want to give you a hug,” he whispered, and then he said the only thing you can say to a choker: “I feel horrible about what happened. I’m so sorry.” With that, the two men began to cry.