Learning negotiation from Jane Austen

Looking for a job as a software developer can be scary, exhausting, or overwhelming. Where you apply and how you interview impacts whether you’ll get a job offer, and how good it will be, so in some sense the whole job search is a form of negotiation.

So how do you learn to make a good impression, to convince people of your worth, to get picked by the job you want? There are many skills to learn, and in this article I’d like to cover one particular subset.

Let us travel to England, some 200 years in the past, and see what we can learn.

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

What does a novelist writing in the early 19th century have to do with getting a programming job?

In his book Jane Austen, Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe argues quite convincingly that Austen’s goal in writing her books is to teach strategic thinking: understanding what and why people do what they do, and how to interact with them accordingly, in order to achieve the outcomes you want.

Strategic thinking is a core skill in negotiation: you’re trying to understand what the other side wants (even if they don’t explicitly say it), and to find a way to use that to get what you want. The hiring manager might want someone who both understands their particular technical domain and can help a team grow, whereas you might want a higher salary, or a shorter workweek. Strategic thinking can help you use the one to achieve the other.

Strategic thinking is of course a useful skill for anyone, but why would Jane Austen in particular care about strategic thinking? To answer that we need a little historical context.

The worst job search ever

Imagine you could only get one job your whole life, that leaving your job was impossible, and that you’d be married to your boss. This is the “job search” that Austen faced in her own life, and is one the main topics covered in her books.

Austen’s own family, and the people she writes about, were part of a very small and elite minority. Even the poorest of the families Austen writes about have at least one servant, for example.

While the men of the English upper classes, if they were not sufficiently wealthy, could and did work—as lawyers, doctors, officers—their wives and daughters for the most part could not. So if they weren’t married and didn’t have sufficient wealth of their own, upper-class women had very few choices—they could live off money from relations, or take on the social status loss of becoming a governess.

Marriage was therefore the presumed path to social status, economic security, and of course it determined who they would live with for the rest of their lives (divorce was basically impossible).

Finding the right husband was very important. And getting that husband—who had all the legal and social authority—to respect their wishes after marriage was just as important. And of course the women who didn’t marry lived at the mercy of the family members who supported them.

And that’s where strategic thinking comes in: it was a critical skill for women in Austen’s class and circumstances.

Learning from Austen

If, as Michael Chwe argues, Austin’s goal with her books is to teach strategic thinking, how can you use them to improve your negotiation skills?

All of Austen’s books are worth reading—excepting the unfortunate Mansfield Park—but for educational purposes Northanger Abbey is a good starting point. Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine, a naive young woman, and how she becomes less naive and more strategic.

Instead of just reading it as an entertaining novel, you can use it to actively practice your own strategic understanding:

  1. In every social interaction, Catherine has a theory about other people’s motivations, why they’re doing or saying certain things.
  2. Notice the assumptions underlying her theory, and then come up with your alternative theory or explanation for other characters’ actions.
  3. Then, compare both theories as the plot unfolds and you learn more.

Other characters also offer a variety of opportunities to see strategic thinking—or lack of it—in action. Once you’ve gone through the book and experienced the growth of Catherine’s strategic thinking, start practicing those skills in your life.

Why are your coworkers, family, and friends doing what they’re doing? Do they have the same motivations, goals, and expectations that you do? The more you pay attention and compare your assumptions to reality, the more you’ll learn—and the better you’ll do at your next job interview.

Ready to get started? You can get a paper copy from the library, or download a free ebook from Project Gutenberg.


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