Long, Slow Distance

First, I want to talk about cheese.

Cheese School 101
Some cheese, yesterday.

I heard the term “big cheese” used in reference to a person for the first time in the mid-nineties, when I moved to the UK. Of course I wondered why on earth you would call someone important that. After all, a cheese is not exactly the most impressive or awe-inspiring thing to be compared to (not to mention that it smells really bad sometimes). Then, recently, I thought I’d found the explanation.

For the first time, I’ve been told that I am “too young” to do a (big cheese type of) job I am very interested in and which several (big cheese type of) people who really should know what they’re talking about have told me I could most certainly do, and probably do well. When turned down, of course I asked for an explanation of what exactly the reference to my age was supposed to mean in terms of actual qualifications for the position. Among the depressingly little that was forthcoming, two comments stuck out: one was a supposed lack of “authority”, the other was a lack of “maturity”. (Note: the circumstances and situation made it very clear that this was directly in reference to my age, not my personality or other factors.)

Yes, maturity can definitely be a mark of quality – or even value – in a big cheese. Unfortunately, the (very interesting) possible origin of the term given by the Oxford Dictionary somehow doesn’t fit with this explanation…:

Big cheese: informal an important person. [1920s: cheese, probably via Urdu from Persian čīz ‘thing’: the phrase the cheese was used earlier to mean ‘first-rate’ (i.e. the thing)]

Maybe I spent just that little bit too much time during my – let’s call them “professionally formative years” in the US, where things are a bit different in this respect, but I still firmly believe that what counts is simply whether a person can do the job – and not whether they are of an age that is perceived to be “mature enough” for a position. After all, neither maturity nor authority come by themselves, but you get old automatically, don’t you? To put it differently: not every old cheese fits for every occasion – and, on the other hand, a younger cheese is sometimes just what you need. (By the way, I reckon I’m a medium cheddar.)

Now to Long, Slow Distance (also called “LSD”): this is a classic training concept to build up fitness when you start running or to get back into shape after a running break. I haven’t run seriously for a long time because I prioritized work in the last couple of years and only had time for the occasional {sigh} “jog”.

But now I am starting to run again. It’s a slog, but there’s still enough basic fitness left that I can do the longer distances that I love so much. I’ve never been the type to slow down on hills (when it gets tough) – I speed up, probably mostly because I want to get past it (= get it done). And of course the training effect is much greater on the hill. Plus I just love a challenge. When I run, I don’t mind getting passed by people who are clearly fitter than me. But I would mind if someone tripped me up or held me back, or if I had to run with ankle and wrist weights while others do not, so I don’t get a chance to win the race – or at least do as well in it as possible.

To use this analogy for my work situation: professionally, I am very fit – I can honestly say that I’ve never slowed down in that part of my life (as I have with running). So, in that respect, I really don’t see the need for a whole lot of long, slow distance work.

I had been thinking very hard for over three months whether I should even apply for the position because – naturally! – I was fully aware of the implications and politics. I finally decided to apply because I felt (and am still convinced) that I am well qualified, considering all factors involved (and being fully aware of the obstacles – hey – I didn’t just hatch from an egg yesterday).

Now, I do realize that I am not the first human being ever to be turned down for a position they were qualified for. And it’s not the first position of some significance I applied for where serious politics were at play. But I’ve certainly never been called too young before, and it was actually quite shocking – and surprisingly insulting – to be called this as an adult, professional being (and a parent – yes, I do want to mention that).

I will be 39 years old in three months. US presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy were only a few years older at their inauguration. On a somewhat more modest scale, the prime minister of the German State I live in is only one year older than me. Not to mention that, if I was out there in the real world – or in any other industry besides science – people would actually say that I am getting on a bit…

On a final note: it hasn’t been easy for me to write this, and I am more than a bit nervous of any possible implications it might have. As you may have guessed, this is not even the whole story and I had to decide what to talk about and what to keep to myself.

Why am I writing about this then? Maybe it’s my heritage – a healthy stoicism of the hanseatic variety (I was born and grew up in Hamburg) paired with a pronounced stubbornness from Lower Saxony (my mother’s side), which may currently be dominating slightly since that’s where I live these days. Of course, while the former might be helpful on occasion – if only to sit things out with a straight face – the latter may not be the best trait to have if you want to avoid getting labelled a troublemaker. But I figure that, if fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger and recent UKRC life-time award winner Athene Donald can write about certain things that really bother her, then so can I (I hope). Someone needs to talk about this stuff.

So, thanks for reading this. Please pass on the link if you feel it’s worth it – I don’t think I’ll pimp this post all that much myself for various reasons.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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10 Responses to Long, Slow Distance

  1. MGG says:

    Thanks for sharing, ‘To sit things out with a straight face’ seems the right thing to do.
    Good luck!

  2. Mike says:

    Heh – I’ve been toying with the idea of “biting the cheeze hand that feeds me cheeze” by blogging about my last fellowship application. No decisions have been made on that yet, but I included my blog in my CV, so perhaps a recent post about how futile much of the application procedure was wouldn’t work too well in my favour.

    In your case, however, you may well have a case for age discrimination. Perhaps you could subtly enquire with people in the know about these things in your area. It’s not just old fogies that can benefit from this sort of legislation.

    Good luck with the running 😉

  3. chall says:

    ahh.. cheeze 🙂

    I’m sorry that you got turned down. And I agree that in theory it shouldn’t be about age… then again, so far I’ve encountered some comments in regards to “experience” and “experience and age”. Some people jsut can’t seem to get around the age thing, even when they look at experiences and references and abilities/skills. They seem to focus on age….

    As someone who apparently looks young, I’ve started to dress old[er] (again, as this was something I guess I did as a teen…) since that is adding to my “maturity” apparently (comments from mentors etc). I guess it might not be helpful for you, but then again – I’m a stubborn endurance person who don’t run fast but I keep going 😉

  4. ricardipus says:

    “the cheese was used earlier to mean ‘first-rate’ (i.e. the thing)”

    Made me smile – think of the current phrase, “it’s the sh*t”, in the same sense that sh*t can mean “stuff” or “things”, e.g. “getting my sh*t together”.

    What goes around, comes around… just like a round of cheese. I guess.

  5. Austin says:

    It is a good point about whether the age thing is simply used as a kind of excuse, Steffi. One possibly relevant point is that, over the years I’ve been in the biz, Professors and Heads of Departments have definitely got younger. When I started in the mid 80s, people who made full Professor under 40 were very, very rare. Nowadays Universities are awash with them. And Heads of Department and even Faculty Deans in their early 40s are not uncommon.

    All of which is by way of saying that age does not seem to be an automatic disqualification for big cheese-ery.. One always wonders if it really means “age relative to the people the boss will be in charge of”. But is that your problem, or the problem the people you would be in charge of? Speaking for myself, as one of the rank-and-file serially managed, I would say that it is the bosses’ abilities in the job (and particularly in dealing with people) that count, not their age.

    PS Though vastly older than you, I realised some years back that I shall never be a Grosse Kaese. Though I might well be a Vieux Fromage. The kids keep telling me that is what my feet smell of, anyway.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    There’s no justification for age discrimination. Ironically, though, it’s usually the other way around with the discrimination (and sometimes it’s very subtle) against those who are too chronologically advanced.

    On the bright side, I guess being “under the hill” is better than “being over the hill”, although either way it’s unfair.

  7. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks very much for your comments, guys.
    (And particularly Austin – I worry that I’ll be thinking of your feet on and off all day now.)

  8. If that stuff was said to your face in front of witnesses, you probably could take them to an employment tribunal under EU law. No excuses for that sort of behavior.

    p.s. I’m interested that you didn’t hear the term ‘big cheese’ while you were in America. It’s just as common there as in the UK – actually I think it might be used even more. Here they tend to be ruder and say ‘big knob’ – an expression I think is so delightful, I used it in my third novel. 😉

    • ricardipus says:

      …which will be available – when?

      *drumdrumdrumdrumdrum* 😉

    • steffi suhr says:

      Are these things ever that open though? Although the same kind of comment was made by more than one person, there was never a real “witness”. Anyway, I’m not really interested in taking anyone to any court, as it would get me (or those in the same position) no further at all (to the contrary, probably – which is another difficult aspect of this). I’m just interested in getting a fair chance – if I’m turned down fair and square, for good reasons, that’s just fine with me. (Of course it would be even better if I got the job.)

      I did hear “big cheese” in the US as well, it’s just that I heard it in the UK for the first time… 🙂