Certain things aren’t talked about — or at least are avoided because they are uncomfortable to talk about — in polite society; that is, beyond our immediate circle of intimates: politics, religion, race, gender, sex, salary, feelings, whether or not I’m happy at work and seeking other employment. The strange personalized anonymity of the Internet changed this a bit. We put on masks and play roles with more ease, swapping one identity for another as circumstances dictate, or in a search for ourselves.

Sam Altman of YCombinator asked for applicants for a research fellowship at YC Research to study the effects of a basic income. I applied.

I applied, even though I have no work experience in the field, because I want to do this work, and because of this statement in the posting: as always we’re more interested in someone’s potential than his or her past.

That friendly statement was important. One of my foibles is that I remove myself from consideration for a lot of work that I would like to do because I don’t meet, or think I don’t meet, the specified requirements for the position. And even if I do apply, I find it difficult to sell myself, even though I feel confident that I could do any work required, because there’s that learning curve that experience and training do help overcome. More importantly, perhaps, why should someone have faith that I can do the work if I haven’t done the work before? What intangible assets are they willing to buy when they expressed a preference for certain tangible assets, such as a college degree or certification in the field? Why should I be considered for CIO, for example, if I do not have an MBA and have not supervised a large number of people in addition to a large number of computers?

The last position that I applied for before this was also one for which I was nominally unqualified. While a position in IT it involved Microsoft products, which I have studiously avoided for well over ten years. I applied at the behest of a friend, who thought I would be a great fit for his team because I had the soft skills he wanted: specifically, he wanted someone who could step in for him as Director of IT Operations if he were hit by a bus. His boss, the VP of Technology, however, wanted certification and experience with the products the company used. Or, as he put it, he wanted someone who could hit the ground running. I applied despite this, because I agreed with my friend, and because the salary would have been three times what I’m currently making, and one does need to pay for one’s children somehow. As expected, the VP followed his preferences, and did not accept our argument that general practical experience combined with the ability to learn quickly and solve problems were more important than specific experience with a given product. Basically, the two of them were hiring for different positions. I wonder how they’re doing these days.

I’ve found, in my professional experience, that certifications are relatively meaningless. Rare has it been that the nominally qualified candidate has met my performance expectations. Usually it has been the opposite. But if certifications are worthless, how then does someone know whether you are good, if you can do the work they want you to do? The evidence of the work done, or, loosely, experience. Which is the difficulty if one is entering a field for the first time, whether as a recent graduate or someone seeking a mid-life career change; we are all neophytes.

In the past I’ve leaned on learning things quickly, or at least more quickly than others, to make up for a lack of direct experience. But I don’t know how to sell that. Doesn’t everyone claim that they can communicate well, that they learn quickly, that they can solve problems, even if not as well as AlphaGo? Does one simply assert that something is true, and let the buyer learn from their disappointment or delight?

And so we have spec work and trials — or, online portfolios and blogs.