“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”—Thomas Jefferson
This happens to all of us, all of the time: When we try to remove our laptop adaptor, mouse and cable, and headset (with wire) from their carrying case, they’ve magically become an impossibly tangled mess, resembling knitting or Celtic knots. The same thing always happens with any other wires, strings and cables. Simply putting them together in a confined space is somehow sufficient to interweave them. As will be shown, this tangling, far from being accidental, occasional or coincidental is—according to landmark research conducted by a University of California, San Diego physics department team—an absolutely inescapable and predictable result of string dynamics.
Now, if this happens in all cases of this kind of storage—perhaps the result of some deep principle of some kind of macro-cosmic “string theory”, might it not happen in analogous as well as identical ways that impact your job?
The key questions here are two: First, what could possibly count as a “recruitment knot”? Second, could such knots arise as spontaneously as the knots in cables and wires randomly thrown together or otherwise accidentally knotted through simple daily use?
As a preliminary to that investigation, consider the most basic features of knots.
Features of knots:
- SELF-CROSSING: Repeated self-crossing (like the two ends of a shoelace being tied)
- REDUCTION OF TWO POINTS TO ONE: Contact and overlap between at least two points that were previously separated by an interval on the string reduces, in an infinitely tight knot, two previously separated point on the string to one (At the “node” of the knot, tiny bits—like points—of the string come in contact with each other, kind of melding into that one point.)
- RESISTANCE TO UNDOING: Undoing is, where there is resistance in the form of friction, harder than doing (a rare case of undoing being harder than doing. Compare making and breaking a vase—“undoing” a vase by smashing it is infinitely easier than making one.)
What could a recruitment “knot” possibly be?
- Appointments: You have a string of appointments, arranged and ordered like the beads on a necklace or the points on a shoelace. Everything is going fine, but then one of them, a very important client, through misunderstanding, jumps the queue and doubles back to an earlier time slot that you have not been able to clear. You cannot reach the second VIP client to reschedule, so, they are both on their way to your office. Now you’ve got a double-booking problem. If you think of the points on a string as times, e.g., 1:30, 2:00, 2:30….4:30, then a knot on a string exactly matches this situation: Previously two different appointments and their associated times now coincide. Moreover, just like the shoelace, undoing the knot is not going to be any easier than its creation.
- Placements: Your agency has a long, unbroken string of successes over the years in placing applicants at a particular company. Think of each placed candidate as being a point on that recruitment string. Everything is fine, until one day your agency gets an angry phone call from the HR manager.
It seems that the most recently placed candidate is actually someone who was hired and fired four years ago, but who, having successfully covered his tracks by omitting some information, falsifying others and shaving his beard, got hired back at the same multinational company—although at a different branch and in a different department. The pretender got through your filters by re-applying while you were on holidays.
Now you’ve got a knot: That’s because at one location on the previously clean and straight string, you have what were previously two points—two candidates—that now occupy the same point (the knot’s node), as one and the same candidate.
But there is one consolation: In this case, the undoing may be easier than its creation, since pulling off that kind of improbable fraud required exotic and elaborate efforts by the fraudster. Perhaps the undoing is easier because, unlike the appointment knot above, there is much less resistance from a client to undoing the knot—much as boiled linguine will unknot more easily than knotted dental floss.
- Commissions: You have an unbroken string of accepted allowable income tax deductions as business expenses. Then upon filing your annual tax return, you are told by the IRS that what you thought were two separate and allowable deductions have been reduced to one, because one has been deemed a disallowed duplication, e.g., you claimed a lunch with Tony Robbins as both a professional development expense and as an allowable per diem meal expense. Another knot, in which two points become one.
Knots: Annoying Coincidences, or Annoying Destiny?
Given that there are credible analogues of “tangling” and “knotting” of strings in recruitment, it is appropriate to ask the second question of whether these will occur as spontaneously and unavoidably as they do with physical strings such as computer cables. In 2006, intrigued, if not vexed, by string and cable knotting in everyday life, Professor Douglas E. Smith and then graduate student Dorian M. Raymer conducted detailed experiments at UCSD, with strings of varying lengths, to determine knot formation frequencies, probabilities, speeds, numbers and types.
They did this, as can be seen in this Youtube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNWEuMJCMEk, by placing their strings in a box and then rotating the box. Like tangled laundry removed from a drier, the strings were then visually examined for numbers and categories of knots. Even though in the video Raymer sounds more like a kid with a new skateboard than a co-acclaimed researcher with a new discovery, if you ignore his youthful and exuberant overuse of “cool”, “stuff” and “like”, you will glimpse the deep mathematics and physics underlying the team’s insights, e.g., “Kauffman bracket polynomials”, “Moebius transformations” and“Jones polynomials”. (If you have an appetite for heavy food for thought and preferably a Ph.D. in something really hard, here’s their original 2006 research report, “Spontaneous Knotting in an Agitated String”: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/42/16432.full.)
The upshot of their research was that far from being random, coincidental annoyances, the damned knots are as inescapable as the IRS and equally predictable, despite their own manifestations in vexingly multifarious forms.
What are the implications for recruiters? The main implication is that perhaps, despite your best efforts, you will eventually and ineluctably have your own tangles with tangles. You, like all of us opening our carrying cases and staring agape at the mess of knotted cable, will have to grapple with the irksome challenge of having to undo your professional knots as well as your cable knots (of the kind shown in my photo of my laptop power cord).
We can all be forgiven if contemplating this prospect, like trying to undo knotted cables and shoelaces,….
….leaves our stomachs in knots.