Friday, August 26, 2011

Mis à jour

It was another one of those endless meetings. That it was in French only made it more insufferable. As my francophone colleagues blathered on, I made sure to make empathetic eye contact and nod my head appreciatively—even though at least half the conversation was as indecipherable to me as if it had been in a language spoken only by an undiscovered Amazonian tribe. Nevertheless, I was sure that my practiced bobble-heading would convince everyone that I was not only fully absorbed in the discussion but worth whatever outlandish consulting fee I was charging. That was until someone mentioned mis à jour.

Mis à jour, mis à jour what the hell does mis à jour mean? Soup du jour throws me for no loops, but about mis à jour—suddenly the main item on the menu of discussion—I had no idea.

"Don't you agree, RO-bear, that the mis à jour should be our top priority?" the boss asked.

"Oui, oui. Bien sûr," I said, while casually trying to look up mis à jour on my mobile phone French-English dictionary, which appeared to have been last updated shortly before Robespierre was led to the guillotine.

When I think of the attributes that have led to whatever success I may have had, pretending to know what I'm talking about figures very high on the list. The times I have only just escaped must number in the hundreds. I'm still astounded that no one has ever looked me dead in the eye and said, "You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"

Faking it was also a key ingredient in my premarital social life. Arriving at Stanford nearly 30 years ago, I quickly scoped out my grad school classmates and invited one of the cutest over for a home-cooked dinner. Not only was she just adorable, but she was witty and smart, having studied math before going to work on Wall Street where—she told me—she used to make models.

Despite having an undergraduate degree in economics, I had no idea why models were needed on Wall Street. As a child, I had been a complete flop at them, forever gumming up my fingers and the little plastic pieces of whatever tank or aircraft carrier I was trying to assemble. As for applying the cellophane-like decals—there I was completely hopeless.

She, however, had been building models to Wall Street's satisfaction and, though we had only just met, already I could see her assembling complicated plastic replicas of multi-engine World War II bombers with our enthralled son. Or, rather, our twin sons. It was love.

Months later, in an introductory finance class, I realized to my great disappointment that the models she knew how to build had as their ingredients dry facts and figures gleaned from SEC filings and not from the boxes of the Revell company.

Still, it was while at Stanford that I set my personal record—21 months—for pretending I knew what people were talking about when I had absolutely no idea. Much like mis à jour, the term that I didn't understand seemed to be fundamental to modern business practices and well established in everyone else's vocabulary.

It's been said there's nothing stupid about a question except not asking it. Experience has taught me otherwise. Indeed, asking about this particular mot inconnu seemed to me akin to asking where the sun rose—and would certainly have had the admissions office reassessing my status.

Whenever a professor or classmate mentioned it, my hand did not bolt up to ask what they were talking about. In those days before the Internet, my research led nowhere. Maps were as clueless as I was. Asking a librarian for help would have presented me with the same acute embarrassment I had felt as a teenager asking a pharmacist for condoms.

Of course, just as I eventually learned what mis à jour means, I now know where to find Silicon Valley. After all, it's right there on Google Earth.

A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2011 edition of Stanford magazine.

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