The Locksmith’s Paradox

Tapan Misra

One quality I consistently lacked – being “smart” in work place. I could not correct them even after I got superannuated. I have contributed to the extent God has endowed me with knowledge and technical ability. I was not a boasting type to make a crescendo of noise of self congratulation when I deserved only a small appreciation. I hardly stayed very late in work place except when my hardware testing needed 24×7 vigilance. For some reason I could never overcertify all my contributions as solving a very complex problem. So people always had a feeling that whatever I achieved, were possible because they were simple and doable. I also never could counter those notions- how could one achieve anything if it were not doable in the first place?

But I was amused at the antics of many of my successful colleagues who achieved much more than they deserved. They had some common traits. They learnt early in their careers that there are much easier ways than making serious technical contributions, to garner appreciation and attention of their superiors. Then they practised not only the art of staying late in office but also to make known of this fact to their bosses.

One illustrious gentleman was rarely visible in labs but very strongly audible on the first and last hours of any technical review, whether he was invited in or not. These are the precious hours when bosses are around in the reviews, either to start the review or to understand the conclusions of the review. He managed to get a formidable reputation by asking “intelligent” questions. In his office hours, he was mostly a campus trotter, trying to sneak in the info about what are going on in the campus. He even became authority on almost all the secrets in campus affairs. Best part was, he would diligently write long emails late at night, around 9-10 pm, with his suggestions, comments to individuals who matter. Those hapless seniors will encounter those mails on the top of their inbox in the first place next morning. Though they may not make head or tail out of those lengthy monologues, they were definitely impressed with his supposed hard working nature by his propensity of him wring mails in office at so unearthly hours. When bosses are pleased, can success in career stay behind?

There was another illustrious person. He was one step higher. He could manage week long travels to other ISRO centres with ostensible reason of being a member of umpteen committees, strewn all around ISRO. He had legendary capacity of projecting himself as expert in any subject in which he hardly has any exposure or knowledge. After week long sojourn in different cities and different airlines, he will appear as weekender in SAC, making family lives of his colleagues and juniors miserable by conducting long meetings to apprise himself with all the works carried out in his absence on working days! He had a favourite question to floor any presenter in any review, “What is the practical utility of the work to serve common people?” He was so enamoured with this earthshaking enquiry that he managed to corner one astrophysicist from PRL into numbed silence, who was presenting his study on esoteric cosmological observations, with the same intelligent question on societal application of his findings. He impressed his clueless bosses with his inane expertise and supposed hardworking nature so much so that he rose to stratospheric heights.

I have marked consistently that the very much contributing women scientists were assessed and rewarded much lower than far inferior male colleagues. The reason will stump you. When I used to enquire about the reason, I used to be told that women scientists are not hard working enough, they generally do not stay beyond office hours, they do not come to office on week ends or on holidays. Their real contributions became a subject of secondary importance.

Late in my career, I came across proper explanation of this phenomenon. It is called Locksmith’s Paradox. It is common knowledge that apprentice locksmiths are learning different tricks employed in different locks by trial and error. In the process they take more time in solving the issues with problematic locks. As they become more and more senior, they get a vast experience and also improvise on the tools required to unlock the secrets of a lock’s riddle. Hence they spend much less time in repairing the locks. Customers usually are ready to pay the apprentice whatever price they ask as they equate expertise with time spent on completing the task. Same customers will haggle with the expert locksmith arguing that he solved a simple problem as he took much shorter time to fix the problem.

Same Locksmith’s Paradox is applicable to any work place whether it is ISRO or a bank or public utility service or bureaucracy. The people in the position to evaluate performance, more often than not, tend to equate long office hours as a measure of contribution of the individuals. They are not in a position with requisite expertise to evaluate the real worth or contributions of the individuals under their purview. After all they also climbed the ladder by using the techniques in my illustrations. The same management tradition continues generations after generations.

Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist. He was Director Space Application Centre and has the credit for building the Indian SAR.

One comment

  1. Is this a complex in India? Yes with achievements, humans are generally perceptive decisions based ‘Optics’, what is visible. People with talent will always prevail. Those who seek others approval, from the start, set themselves for failure.


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