My neighbor introduced me to The Office back in 2005. Since then, I’ve watched every episode of both the British and American versions. I’ve watched the show obsessively because I’ve been unable to figure out what makes it so devastatingly effective, and elevates it so far above the likes of Dilbert and Office Space.
Until now, that is. Now, after four years, I’ve finally figured the show out. The Office is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore. The theory begins with Hugh MacLeod’s well-known cartoon, Company Hierarchy (below), and its cornerstone is something I will call The Gervais Principle, which supersedes both the Peter Principle and its successor, The Dilbert Principle. Outside of the comic aisle, the only major and significant works consistent with the Gervais Principle are The Organization Manand Images of Organization.
I’ll need to lay just a little bit of groundwork (lest you think this whole post is a riff based on cartoons) before I can get to the principle and my interpretation of The Office. I’ll be basing this entire article on the American version of the show, which is more fully developed than the original British version, though the original is perhaps more satisfyingly bleak. Keep in mind that this is an interpretation of The Office as management science; the truth in the art. Literary/artistic critics don’t really seem to get it. I’ll have some passing comments to offer on the comedy and art of it all, but this is primarily about the truths revealed by the show, pursued with Dwight-like earnestness.
From The Whyte School to The Gervais Principle
Hugh MacLeod’s cartoon is a pitch-perfect symbol of an unorthodox school of management based on the axiom that organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological. So while most most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school, which I’ll call the Whyte school, would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop. Let a natural, if declawed, individualist Darwinism operate beyond that point. The result is the MacLeod hierarchy. It may be horrible, but like democracy, it is the best you can do.
The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties). The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks. I am not making this connection up. Consider this passage from OM:
Of all organization men, the true executive is the one who remains most suspicious of The Organization. If there is one thing that characterizes him, it is a fierce desire to control his own destiny and, deep down, he resents yielding that control to The Organization, no matter how velvety its grip… he wants to dominate, not be dominated…Many people from the great reaches of middle management can become true believers in The Organization…But the most able are not vouchsafed this solace.
Back then, Whyte was extremely pessimistic. He saw signs that in the struggle for dominance between the Sociopaths (whom he admired as the ones actually making the organization effective despite itself) and the middle-management Organization Man, the latter was winning. He was wrong, but not in the way you’d think. The Sociopaths defeated the Organization Men and turned them into The Clueless not by reforming the organization, but by creating a meta-culture of Darwinism in the economy: one based on job-hopping, mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, cataclysmic reorganizations, outsourcing, unforgiving start-up ecosystems, and brutal corporate raiding. In this terrifying meta-world of the Titans, the Organization Man became the Clueless Man. Today, any time an organization grows too brittle, bureaucratic and disconnected from reality, it is simply killed, torn apart and cannibalized, rather than reformed. The result is the modern creative-destructive life cycle of the firm, which I’ll call the MacLeod Life Cycle.
A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction rather than a runaway explosion. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself and anything of value is recycled by the sociopaths according to meta-firm logic.
MacLeod’s Loser layer had me puzzled for a long time, because I was interpreting it in cultural terms: the kind of person you call a “loser.” While some may be losers in that sense too, they are primarily losers in the economic sense: those who have, for various reasons, made (or been forced to make) a bad economic bargain. They’ve given up some potential for long-term economic liberty (as capitalists) for short-term economic stability. Traded freedom for a paycheck in short. They actually produce, but are not compensated in proportion to the value they create (since their compensation is set by Sociopaths operating under conditions of serious moral hazard). They mortgage their lives away, and hope to die before their money runs out. The good news is that Losers have two ways out, which we’ll get to later: turning Sociopath or turning into bare-minimum performers. The Losers destined for cluelessness do not have a choice.
Based on the MacLeod lifecycle, we can also separate the three layers based on the timing of their entry and exit into organizations. The Sociopaths enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top. The contribute creativity in early stages of a organization’s life, neurotic leadership in the middle stages, and cold-bloodedness in the later stages, where they drive decisions like mergers, acquisitions and layoffs that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive. They are also the ones capable of equally impersonally exploiting a young idea for growth in the beginning, killing one good idea to concentrate resources on another at maturity, and milking an end-of-life idea through harvest-and-exit market strategies.
The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot.
The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm — the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned. Unless squeezed out by forces they cannot resist, they hang on as long as possible, long after both Sociopaths and Losers have left (in Douglas Adams’ vicious history of our planet, humanity was founded by a spaceship full of the Clueless, sent here by scheming Sociopaths). When cast adrift in the open ocean, they are the ones most likely to be utterly destroyed.
Which brings us to our main idea. How both the pyramid and its lifecycle are animated. The dynamics are governed by the Newton’s Law of organizations: the Gervais Principle.
The Gervais Principle and Its Consequences
The Gervais Principle is this:
Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.
The Gervais principle differs from the Peter Principle, which it superficially resembles. The Peter Principle states that all people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. It is based on the assumption that future promotions are based on past performance. The Peter Principle is wrong for the simple reason that executives aren’t that stupid, and because there isn’t that much room in an upward-narrowing pyramid. They know what it takes for a promotion candidate to perform at the to level. So if they are promoting people beyond their competence anyway, under conditions of opportunity scarcity, there must be a good reason.
Scott Adams, seeing a different flaw in the Peter Principle, proposed the Dilbert Principle: that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the damage they can do. This again is untrue. The Gervais principle predicts the exact opposite: that the most competent ones will be promoted to middle management. Michael Scott was a star salesman before he become a Clueless middle manager. The least competent employees (but not all of them — only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the Sociopath level.
And in case you are wondering, the unenlightened under-performers get fired.
Let me illustrate the logic and implications of the principle with examples from the show.
The Career of the Clueless
In Season Three, the Dunder-Mifflin executives decide to merge the Stamford and Scranton branches, laying off much of the latter, including Michael Scott. His counterpart, the Sociopath Stamford branch manager, whose promotion is the premise of the re-org, opportunistically leverages his impending promotion into an executive position at a competitor, leaving the c0mpany in disarray. The Dunder-Mifflin executives, forced to deal with the fallout, cynically play out the now-illogical re-org anyway, shutting down Stamford and leaving Michael with the merged branch instead. The executives (David Wallace and Jan Levinson-Gould) are completely aware of Michael’s utter incompetence. Their calculations are obvious: giving Michael the expanded branch allows them to claim short-term success and buy time to maneuver out of having to personally suffer longer-term consequences.
Jim’s remark on the drama is revealing. Comparing Michael to his exiting sociopath peer he says: “Whatever you say about Michael, he would never have done something like this,” a testament to Michael’s determinedly deluded loyalty to the company that will never be loyal to him. We can safely assume that Michael’s previous promotion to regional manager occurred under similar circumstances of callous short-term calculations by sociopaths.
So why is promoting over-performing Losers logical? The simple reason is that if you over-perform at the Loser level, it is clear that you are an idiot. You’ve already made a bad bargain, and now you’re delivering more value than you need to, making your bargain even worse. Unless you very quickly demonstrate that you know your own value by successfully negotiating more money and/or power, you are marked out as an exploitable clueless Loser. At one point, Darryl, angling for a raise, learns to his astonishment that the raise he is asking for would make his salary higher than Michael’s. Michael hasn’t negotiated a better deal in 14 years. Darryl — a minimum-effort Loser with strains of Sociopath — doesn’t miss a step. He convinces and coaches Michael into asking for his own raise, so he can get his.
A Loser who can be suckered into bad bargains is set to become one of the Clueless. That’s why they are promoted: they are worth even more as Clueless pawns in the middle than as direct producers at the bottom, where the average, rationally-disengaged Loser will do. At the bottom, the overperformers can merely add a predictable amount of value. In the middle they can be used by the Sociopaths to escape the consequences of high-risk machinations like re-orgs.
The Career of the Sociopath
The example of the “fast-track the under-performing” part of the principle is Ryan, the intern. He tests himself quickly and rapidly learns and accepts that he is incompetent as a salesman. But he is a born pragmatist with the drive, ambition, daring and lack of principles to make it to the top. So rather than waste time trying to get good at sales, he slips into a wait-watch-grab opportunist mode. But he isn’t checked out; he is engaged, but in an experimental way, probing for his opening. The difference between him and the average checked-out Loser is illustrated in one brilliant scene early in his career. He suggests, during a group stacking effort in the warehouse, that they form a bucket brigade to work more efficiently. The minimum-effort Loser Stanley tells him coldly, “this here is a run-out-the-clock situation.” The line could apply to Stanley’s entire life.
Stanley’s response shows both his intelligence and clear-eyed self-awareness of his Loser bargain with the company. He therefore acts according to a mix of self-preservation and minimum-effort coasting instincts. The same is true of everybody else in the Loser layer with the exception of the over-performers: Dwight and Andy (and in his earlier incarnation as a salesperson, Michael).
The future Sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average Loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out — through experiments and fast failures — that the Loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-Loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.
Ryan’s character displays this path brilliantly. When Michael’s boss and dominatrix-lover Jan suffers a psychotic meltdown, her boss, the uber-sociopath David Wallace, has no great hopes of a good outcome. Setting up yet another band-aid move, he calls up Michael for an interview to take up Jan’s spot. But when the rest of the office learns of Michael’s impending interview (during Michael’s farcical attempts at using a Survivor style contest to choose his successor, which predictably, only Dwight takes seriously), the true Sociopaths act. Jim and his Sociopath girlfriend Karen instantly call up David and announce their candidacies for the same position. Unknown to them, Ryan, the intern-turned-rookie, has also spotted the opportunity. The outcome is spectacular: Ryan gets the job, Michael loses, Karen is promoted to manager of the Utica branch, and Jim — who still has not yet completely embraced his inner Sociopath — returns to Scranton. We learn later — as the Gervais principle would predict — that David Wallace never seriously considered Michael more than a temporary last resort. Much later, in a deposition during Jan’s lawsuit against the company, he reveals that Michael was never a serious candidate.
The Career of the Loser
The career of the Loser is the easiest to understand. Having made a bad bargain, and not marked for either Clueless or Sociopath trajectories, he or she must make the best of a bad situation. The most rational thing to do is slack off and do the minimum necessary. Doing more would be a Clueless thing to do. Doing less would take the high-energy machinations of the Sociopath, since it sets up self-imposed up-or-out time pressure. So the Loser — really not a loser at all if you think about it — pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere. For Stanley it is crossword puzzles. For Angela it is a colorless Martha-Stewartish religious life. For Kevin, it is his rock band. For Kelly, it is mindless airhead pop-culture distractions. Pam has her painting ambitions. Meredith is an alcoholic slut. Oscar, the ironic-token gay character, has his intellectual posturing. Creed, a walking freak-show, marches to the beat of his own obscure different drum (he is the most rationally checked-out of all the losers).
If you leave out the clear marked-for-Clueless characters, Dwight and Andy, you are left with the two most interesting characters in the show: the will-he-won’t-he Sociopath-in-the-making, Jim, and the strange Toby. Toby is a curious case — intellectually a Sociopath, but without the energy or ambition to be an active sociopath. More about these two later.
The Emergence of the MacLeod Hierarchy
Dastardly as all this sounds, it is actually pretty efficient, given the inevitability of the MacLeod hierarchy and life cycle. The Sociopaths know that the only way to make an organization capable of survival is to buffer the intense chemistry between the producer-Losers and the leader-Sociopaths with enough Clueless padding in the middle to mitigate the risks of business. Without it, the company would explode like a nuclear bomb, rather than generate power steadily like a reactor. On the other hand, the business wouldn’t survive very long without enough people actually thinking in cold, calculating ways. The average-performing , mostly-disengaged Losers can create diminishing-margins profitability, but not sustainable performance or growth. You need a steady supply of Sociopaths for that, and you cannot waste time moving them slowly up the ranks, especially since the standard promotion/development path is primarily designed to maneuver the Clueless into position wherever they are needed. The Sociopaths must be freed up as much as possible to actually run the business, with or without official titles.
So Ryan floats directly to the top, where he does what is expected of him — lead a bold strategic gamble by building an online sales channel operation. As with any big strategic move, the operation has its risks, and fails. And here we find that Ryan is still not quite experienced enough as a sociopath. He foolishly goes the Enron route, attempting to cook the books to avoid failure, and is found out and arrested. A true master Sociopath like David Wallace would instead have spotted the impending failure, promoted a Michael to take over (who would obviously be so gratified at being given a new white-elephant title that he would not have seen disaster looming), and have him take the blame for the inevitable failure. Completely legal and efficient.
The Organization as Psychic Prison
Which brings us to the other major management book that is consistent with the Gervais Principle, Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan’s magisterial study of the metaphors through which we understand organizations. Of the eight systemic metaphors in the book, the one that is most relevant here is the metaphor of an organization as a psychic prison. The image is derived from Plato’s allegory of the cave, which I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that it divides people into those who get how the world really works (the Sociopaths and the self-aware slacker Losers) and those who don’t (the over-performer Losers and the Clueless in the middle).
This is where Gervais has broken new ground, primarily because as an artist, he is interested in the subjective experience of being Clueless (most sitcoms are about Losers). For your everyday Sociopath, it is sufficient to label someone clueless and manipulate them. What Gervais managed to create is a very compelling portrait of the Clueless, a work of art with real business value.
Here is the ultimate explanation of Michael Scott’s (and David Brent’s) careers: they are put into a position of having to explain their own apparent, unexpected and unexamined success. It is easy to explain failure. Random success is harder. Remember, they are promoted primarily as passive pawns to either allow the Sociopaths to escape the risks of their actions, or to make way for the Sociopaths to move up faster. They are presented with an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance: being nominally given greater power, but in reality being safely shunted away from the pathways of power. They must choose to either construct false narratives or decline apparent opportunities.
The Clueless resolve this dissonance by choosing to believe in the reality of the organization. Not everybody is capable of this level of suspension of disbelief. Both Ricky Gervais (David Brent) and Steve Carrel (Michael Scott) play the brilliantly drawn characters perfectly. The most visible sign of their capacity for self-delusion is their complete inability to generate an original thought. They quote movie lines, lyrics and perform terrible impersonations (at one point Michael goes, “You talking to me?” a line he attributes, in a masterful display of confusion, to “Al Pacino, Raging Bull“). For much of what he needs to say, he gropes for empty business phrases, deploying them with staggering incompetence. When Michael talks, he is attempting, like a child, to copy the flawless Powertalk spoken by sociopaths like Jan and David Wallace. He is oblivious to the fact that the Sociopaths use Powertalk as a coded language with which to simultaneously sustain the (necessary) delusions of the Clueless and communicate with each other.
It is not just the Sociopaths who conspire to sustain Michael’s delusions. So do the checked-out Losers, sometimes out of kindness, and sometimes out of self-interest. In one particularly perfect summing up, Oscar describes the impending “Dundies” award ceremony (a veritable monument to the consensual enablement of Michael’s delusions) as “The Dundies are kind of like a kid’s birthday party. And you go, and there’s really nothing for you to do there, but the kid’s having a really good time, so you… You’re kind of there. That’s… That’s kind of what it’s like.”
But Michael isn’t entirely a puppet. Buried under layers of denial is a clear understanding of his own, hopeless, powerless life, which makes him marginally more clued-in than say, Dwight. His response is frenetic and desperate manipulation of the drama of false validation that has been set up for his benefit. Some of this is with the knowing consent of his enablers. Like experienced improv-comics, within limits, the rest of the office follows the rule of agreement in the Theater of Michael (in a brilliant piece of meta-commentary, in one episode we get to see Michael at his own impossibly bad worst in his real improv class, where he ruins every single sketch).
But Michael’s grand narrative requires constant, exhausting work to keep up. He must amplify and rope in even the most minor piece of validation into the service of his script. When, in a moment of weakness, Jim shares a genuine confidence with him, Michael is so thrilled that he turns the moment into a deep imaginary friendship, practically becoming a stalker, even mimicking Jim’s hairstyle. At the other end, he over-represses even the slightest potential dent to his self-image. His is a thin-skinnedness gone crazy. Reality is sealed away with psychotic urgency, but to do so, he must first scout it out with equal urgency. And so, when Jim (in the first true Sociopath move of his career) engineers a private meeting with the visiting David Wallace to carve out a promotion, Michael tries to crash the meeting. When politely turned away, he instantly switches scripts and pretends he is too busy and that he is the one who can’t attend. And then he sneaks into the meeting room anyway, first with various excuses, and finally by hiding in a Trojan-Horse cheese cart.
This sort of ability to work hard to sustain the theater of his own delusions, half-aware that he is doing so, is what makes Michael a genuine candidate for promotion to the ranks of the Clueless. Dwight is interesting precisely because he lacks Michael’s capacity for this pathological meta-cognition, and the ability to offer semi-believable scripts that others can at least help bolster. Dwight is not talented enough at Cluelessness to ever be promoted.
Is There More?
You bet. We haven’t even scratched the surface. Dwight, Jim, and Toby each deserve an entire essay. Michael and Ryan probably deserve one each as well, in addition to my quick sketches here. And there are other principles, lemmas and sundry theoretical constructs. But I’ll hold off. Maybe there aren’t as many Office watchers among this blog’s readers as I imagine. You guys tell me if you want more.
I’ll conclude with one thought: Gervais deserves Nobel prizes in both literature and economics.
LOVELL — For someone to win, 7,254 others had to lose.
Most did so graciously. Sure, they wanted to own the quaint bed-and-breakfast in the western Maine mountains, but all they really lost was the time they spent crafting their short essay, a $125 entry fee and a fleeting dream.
But some didn’t go nearly as quietly.
From the moment a winner was picked, they were convinced the contest was rigged.
Long before the paperwork was signed transferring ownership of the Center Lovell Inn from Janice Sage to essay contest winners Roger and Rose Adams, some of the contest entrants began complaining.
The complaints came from everywhere, ranging from whether the rules were changed, to whether the winners and Sage already knew each other, to whether the winning essay was grammatically correct.
The outcry grew loud enough that the Maine State Police investigated – a two-week probe that found no evidence of wrongdoing. But that only fueled the critics.
Others who thought the contest had been conducted fairly began to weigh in.
The two sides began sniping at each other, with some of the back-and-forth comments getting downright ugly, mostly on Facebook and the comment sections of news stories on the contest. The ugliest involved one contestant falsely accusing another of being a convicted murderer – and then refusing to recant.
How did a quirky, simple essay contest to win a bed-and-breakfast in rural Maine devolve into an online cesspool of negativity, turning strangers against one another so easily?
Dan Stone, a behavioral economist and professor at Bowdoin College, said the answers lie in the type of people who are drawn to such contests.
“Entrants in a contest like this are similar to both entrepreneurs and long-shot gamblers, and research has established both of these types of people tend to be overconfident in their chances of success,” he said. “So it’s not surprising that many entrants, after hearing they didn’t win, would look for other explanations and maybe be too quick to suspect foul play. There’s also research showing, as we’d expect, that conspiracy theories are more likely to arise and gain traction in the social media era.”
Some critics are still pushing for an investigation – a federal one this time – on the grounds that the essay contest violated Federal Trade Commission guidelines. An FTC representative would not comment on whether the agency is investigating.
The much-publicized contest involving the Center Lovell Inn has become something of a cautionary tale, both for would-be contestants and other business owners looking to capitalize on Sage’s success.
• • • • •
Janice Sage won ownership of the Center Lovell Inn with her then-husband, Richard Cox, in 1993 through a similar contest.
Bill and Susie Mosca, the original owners of the inn, a former antebellum mansion built in 1805, created the essay contest as a way to transfer their dream to someone else.
The new owners reopened the Center Lovell Inn recently. The previous owner, Janice Sage, also won the inn in an essay contest.
The couple likely were not the first business owners to sell property this way, but theirs generated buzz at the time, including a spot on “The Phil Donahue Show,” a popular TV talk show.
Bill Mosca, who still lives in Lovell, said he, too, faced backlash from some people who thought the contest was not run properly. Police even questioned them after some contestants complained.
“We are all there at the inn when the police showed up,” Mosca said, referring to himself, his wife and the Coxes. “It was a little spooky, but when you honestly know there is no dishonesty, you know it will blow over.”
In the end, the outrage dissipated. There was no Facebook to bring together like-minded critics or provide a forum for conspiracy theories.
In March this year, after trying to sell the property for several months, Sage launched her own essay contest. Like the first, she relied on the media to generate interest, but also used social media to spread the word.
Sage said her goal was 7,000 entries. At $125 per entry, that would have netted her $875,000 – 35 percent more than the $659,000 listing price.
She created a set of rules similar to those for the original contest and limited the essays to 200 words.
Sage later told police that she read each essay and “had the calloused elbows to prove it.” She did not open the envelopes herself. She never saw the contestants’ names. Each entry was assigned a number to be used to identify it.
She winnowed down the entries to 20, and sent them to two judges, who have not been identified but were interviewed by police. They selected the winner: Essay No. 2731, by Roger and Rose Adams of the U.S. Virgin Islands, previously of New York.
The winning essay, published in The Boston Globe, was similar to Sage’s essay more than two decades earlier, and was heavily biographical.
“My wife is the talented chef with a culinary degree, catering and restaurant management experience,” Roger Adams wrote. “I have marketing, inn-keeping, bartending and handyman skills.”
He equated running a successful business to managing a successful marriage: “Undoubtedly our passion, hospitality and commitment is the perfect recipe for a successful marriage to the beautiful Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant.”
Sage, who has not returned multiple phone calls or emails for comment, said after the winner was announced that the essay struck a chord with her because their dream and ambition sounded like her own.
Others, however, don’t believe her.
• • • • •
The losing contestants questioned whether the rules were followed.
After the winner was announced, the contest’s Facebook page was taken down immediately and the contest rules removed from the inn’s website.
Entrants Googled the winning couple and found that they owned a restaurant in the Virgin Islands, which some complained gave them an unfair advantage.
They also discovered that Roger Adams, who goes by the nickname Prince, had self-published a book on crowdfunding, an increasingly popular method to fund a wide variety of endeavors. That generated suspicions about how he won the essay contest.
Kelley Prass Collins, one of the most vocal critics, has alleged that Adams clearly had an advantage. But she said she also had problems with the entire contest.
“Contest sponsor Janice Sage and winner Prince Roger Adams have yet to address the public or answer any of the questions surrounding the Maine State Police investigation of the Center Lovell Inn essay contest,” Collins wrote. “Contestants want to know: the identities and qualifications of the contest judges, the number of entries received and an explanation of the fees and entries that were never accounted for, an explanation as to why the web presence of the contest … was wiped off the internet so quickly after the winner was announced.”
She was among several contestants who formed a Facebook page called Center Lovell Inn Fair Practices Commission, to unite people against the contest.
Angelina Jacobsen-Meerpoel said her biggest problem is that the winning essay did not adhere to the rules.
“Why was (Adams) exempt from having to follow the rules?” she said. “I believe it was because he seemed like the most able to accept the prize and absorb the tax burden of winning this contest.”
A formal essay has an introduction, body and conclusion, she said. The Adamses’ essay did not. Other accepted essays took the form of poems, which were not supposed to be allowed under the rules, some said.
Genneille Efram said she agonized over making sure her essay was formal and that, in doing so, her essay lost voice.
“That’s why, when I finally looked for the winning essay, my heart was broken,” she said.
Other critics focused their complaints on the selection process.
Jason Peers said he never got confirmation that his essay was received. He doesn’t know whether his essay was even read.
Some were upset that the winners had both restaurant and hospitality experience, though the rules stated that the winner would be judged in part on “capability and desire to operate a country inn.”
Christine McKenzie said she wrote three separate essays but feels like she never stood a chance. She believes Sage picked the winner based on qualifications rather than the quality of the essay.
Elizabeth Fulks said Sage was not upfront about several details, including how much land would be included in the transaction.
“Once these facts came to light, there were a lot of people who would not have entered the contest if they had known these facts beforehand,” she said.
People can’t even agree on what the rules said or didn’t say.
Four contestants made formal complaints to Maine State Police, enough to trigger an investigation.
Sgt. Michael Johnston, who oversaw the probe, made it clear from the outset that the state law governing such contests was not written with essay contests in mind. The investigators could only determine whether the contest awarded a winner based on skill – the quality of the essay – rather than chance, which would have made the contest an illegal lottery.
State police concluded that the contest’s only rule change was an extension of the deadline, which was allowed.
“Evidence was obtained that the rules were followed and the winner had been determined without improper influence,” the report concluded.
• • • • •
Judging the quality of an essay in any writing contest is inherently subjective. What may have appealed to Janice Sage or the unnamed judges may not have appealed to others.
Tim Hubbard, an economist at Colby College in Waterville, said one of the things that stood out to him was the vague description on how the winner would be chosen.
“Because the awarding rule was not made clear, this setting sounds more like what I would call a ‘beauty contest,'” Hubbard said.
When the critics began posting that they felt the contest was a scam, other entrants jumped in to offer their own points of view. They said they, too, were disappointed about losing but said criticizing the contest and nitpicking small details or discrepancies in the rules were just sour grapes.
Scott Babcock was one of those who defended the contest, even starting a change.org petition called “Support the Authenticity of the Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant Essay Contest.” More than 100 supporters signed it.
“We believe the former contestants behind this investigation are sore losers who wish to cast (aspersions) on the contest and on Ms. Sage rather than acknowledge that their essay didn’t take the prize because it was simply not a winning essay,” the petition read.
Within days, the critics went after Babcock. They searched his name and discovered that he had spent 16 years in prison for manslaughter when he was a teenager. They found his old mugshot and posted it with warnings.
Babcock was indeed convicted of manslaughter after a fight that left another man dead, but the critics didn’t reveal that after his lengthy incarceration, Babcock became a successful businessman. He said he entered the Center Lovell Inn essay contest to show the world that the system does work, that people can atone for mistakes.
Craig A. Bjork and his wife, Cynthia Wilson, commented on news stories about the contest, saying they thought the contest was great and the winners should be congratulated.
As with Babcock, some of the critics did a Google search for Bjork and Wilson and came up with Craig D. Bjork, who is serving a life sentence for multiple murders. Craig A. Bjork, on the other hand, is a retired U.S. Marine and oil industry professional.
Wilson said some commenters called her husband a murderer and never retracted it.
“They are wreaking havoc on the lives of innocent people, and I don’t see an end to it,” Wilson said. “It had been hoped that they would eventually give up their campaign and resume normal lives, but their misconduct is escalating to an alarming degree.”
Kelley Collins was among those who went after both Babcock and Bjork, said Wilson, who provided the Portland Press Herald with an online conversation between her and Collins.
After Wilson told Collins to stop calling her husband a murderer, Collins replied, “Oh shoot, well somebody must have thought your husband’s opinions sounded dangerously similar to those of a murderer. Sounds more like his problem than mine.”
When asked by a reporter why she still had such strong feelings about the contest, Collins accused him of bias and of covering up the truth.
Efram, one of the Facebook group’s administrators, admitted that some members “are more focused on fringe elements than others.”
The bigger goal, she said, is to regulate how these contests are conducted going forward.
“The important thing here is, we are all working towards the same end, and will likely see better results from our widespread efforts.”
But some contestants say they aren’t bitter about losing.
Tricia Spencer wrote a blog about her experience. She waited the night before the winner was announced with nervous energy and doesn’t regret allowing herself a dream.
“If we attempt new things, give our all and experience exhilaration from the effort, then if that’s not a win, I don’t know what is,” she wrote.
• • • • •
Even though weeks have elapsed since the contest ended, the anger of some contestants has not abated.
Public records indicate that the parcel of land that includes the Center Lovell Inn was only 4 acres, but the essay contest indicated the winner would get 12 acres.
Sage has never said why there was a discrepancy.
The Moscas owned the roughly 4-acre parcel that the inn sits on, as well as another, undeveloped adjacent 8-acre parcel.
When they turned over the inn to Janice and Richard Cox, the Moscas kept the 8 acres and deeded them to their daughters, Krista and Anna.
In 2004, the land was deeded back to the Moscas, who then deeded it to a woman named Jean Stearns, who owns property across the street and is a seasonal resident in Lovell.
Stearns deeded the property back to Janice Sage to be included in the new essay contest. Reached by telephone, Stearns refused to explain the arrangement in further detail.
Some of the critics have been watching to see when the inn would reopen under the Adamses’ ownership, noting that the inn’s website was no longer active.
The opening date was supposed to be July 10. That date came and went. Then it was pushed to July 17, but that was missed, too. The inn finally opened the week before last, but the critics have taken the missed deadlines as evidence that the contest was illegitimate.
Adams acknowledged that the delays created confusion but said he and his wife still had a lot of loose ends to tie up in the Virgin Islands. They are still trying to sell their business there, and most of their belongings haven’t been shipped yet.
“People can say or believe they can say whatever they want with no consequences,” he said. “There has been some ugly stuff.”
Adams said he has more to worry about than the feelings of disgruntled contestants who dispute his win.
As far as he’s concerned, the police investigation settled the question and he’s offended that people still think the contest may have been rigged.
He’s more worried the ongoing vitriol may affect his new business.
“I hope it doesn’t,” Adams said. “We love it here.”
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