“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”—[commonly misattributed to] William Butler Yeats, poet

On analogy with the well-known description of the ideal teacher as being one who inspires and starts a fire under otherwise wooden students rather than filling their minds, like filling a bucket, with facts and information, it can be asked which of the two, if either, is the truer mission of a recruiter?

Before you roar “both!”, ask yourself whether you actually attempt to do both, how you attempt it, how often and how often you succeed—but only at one or neither. But even before that, ask yourself what you think “fill a job” and “inspire a candidate” mean in your practice and what they should mean, ideally.

You may be in for a surprise or two.

It also needs to be asked whether the analogy is valid, no matter how it is understood. Are there two different ways of hiring a candidate—simply filling a job vs. starting some kind of “fire” under [re]sourced candidates to fill the job?

  — Starting a fire helps fill a bucket: This is not an endorsement of arson. But, in the context of teaching, this concept does suggest that creating a thirst for knowledge is an excellent, if not the best, way to ensure it is absorbed. Despite any differences between filling a mind and filling a job, this prescription applies in both teaching and recruiting, as domains: Inspiring your clientele can fill not only their minds and hearts, but also their needs, community or company needs, and yours.

So, start a fire under a student or a job applicant, if you want to fill a mind or a job.

Yet, ironically, recruiters can teach teachers a lesson about starting fires, if those teachers believe that starting the fire, viz., inspiring a student should be the main and sufficient goal.  The lesson is that it’s not enough: There remains something to be filled—a mind, with knowledge in the case of teaching; a job, with a candidate, and prospective employee initial skill/experience gaps in the case of recruiting.

More importantly, the fire doesn’t guarantee the filling—in neither recruiting nor in teaching.

What some teachers can learn from recruiters is that passion is one thing, but follow-through, by the student and teacher, or recruiter and candidate, is quite another.

A passionate candidate is not guaranteed the job, even if only because the employer may not be equally passionate or because the passion is not matched by competence. By the same token, a passionate student may not be a disciplined learner, or one with sufficient learning resources, e.g., labs, books, computers, to fill his “well”.

 — The fuel matters as much as the fire: If you are starting any fire, you’ll need fuel. But what is the “fuel” that a recruiter can use to start the fire under and in a job candidate?

1. The job salary and perks? That’s one of the most obvious answers. But as “extrinsic rewards”—i.e., rewards attached to but not inherent in the job, these are merely incentives, not inspiration.

Much better fuel is the “intrinsic reward”—e.g., a pleasure that is experientially and psychologically inseparable from the performance, such as the pleasure of playing in a professional orchestra. Offer that, while dangling the perks, and watch the sparks fly.

2. The skills-challenge match? This is closer to real “fuel”, but is still not enough. Lots of jobs and applicants are very well matched in terms of the required and possessed skills; but suppose the application of those skills in that job, or even any exercise of those skills, doesn’t matter to the candidate, e.g., a Ph.D. in chemistry who is a reluctant, skilled short-order cook in virtue of having had to take a job, any job, including the fast-food grillman’s job he’s applying for with you. 

Nope. In the absence of a great values alignment between the job seeker and the job, the chances of lighting a fire under a job applicant are no better than the odds of successfully setting  a bucket of water on fire.

—  Spontaneous combustion and spontaneous filling: Sometimes teachers and recruiters don’t have to do much at all to start that fire or to fill what needs to be filled.

       In fact, in some instances, especially in the case of gifted students and entrepreneurs who “self-combust”, “less is more”—the less a teacher or recruiter does, the more successful the outcome for the mentored or assisted client, which is one of the rationales for independent study and self-employment. 

       From the perspective of such academic and business self-starters, the teacher and recruiter may seem to be more like firemen—at best just getting in the way; at worst, hosing down the fire.

A wise recruiter who can recognize the self-combusting talent of a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Taylor Wilson [the American teen prodigy who created the world’s first private fusion reactor] will also be wise enough to determine whether that talent

1. can also thrive working for someone—and in particular for the organization that recruiter is representing.

2. will probably self-incinerate, like an unprepared Icarus soaring toward the Sun on wax wings, if not tethered to a job like the one being offered

3. should be encouraged or allowed to follow its own lights, perhaps with recruiter guidance.

A Caution from the Writer’s Well

For a fire-starting or bucket-filling recruiter or teacher, the one thing to armor yourself against is a fate that all too often befalls writers: Instead of setting anything on fire or filling any hearts, minds or jobs, what they have to say and show just falls on deaf ears and blind eyes, before quietly oxidizing into ignored dust.

If that happens to you, you can always chalk it up to the breaks and to common experience.

…or see it as just so much chalk dust to brush off and leave off your bucket list.

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