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All That You Job Seekers Must Know about the Crisis of Individuality

"My father was a man who went through life selling off little bits of himself until there was nothing left. Then they just threw away the husk. Willy Loman! I told myself I'd never, never get into that spot. And now here I am." Those are the words of a woman in anguish over the realization that ten years has wedged her firmly into a monotonous dead-end job that, as she puts it, could be done by a zombie.

Some people do not seem to have an identity apart from their work. "Who are you with?" observes John Kenneth Galbraith. "Until this is known, the individual is a cipher." But you have an individuality that is all your own. Must you have it amputated before you can join the mainstream of economic activity?

This can be one of the most difficult and frightening crises of various stages. Your individuality is precious to you. But now it is under attack. It seems that to keep your job-or at least to flourish in it-you must accept a little conformity. Is "a little conformity" like "a little pregnancy"? Will it grow until you are an out-and-out hypocrite?

Your feelings of identity and self-worth are deeply challenged by this threat. You will-and should-fight for your individuality throughout your career. During the twenties, the fight is most likely to erupt in flaring crises of anger and disgust.

The issue of conformity can take many guises: the necessity of wearing a tie or dress; the requirement not to say what you fervently believe; the obligation to accept another course of action when you know you are right.

Some years ago, Alan Harrington wrote The Revelations of Doctor Modesto, a burlesque of business and success methods. The hero, a lackluster insurance executive, answers an ad and receives the secret of Dr. Modesto. The key is "centralism." Dr. Modesto's pupils always wear neutral shades, speak in neutral voices, walk neither fast nor slow. In a crowd, they always seek the center. (More recently, in Power, Michael Korda offered advice on where to stand at an office party in order to achieve control.)

Must one practice centralism to achieve success? No. Is it possible, in pursuing a career, to escape the conflict between the need to remain an individual and the need to conform to the rule? Again, no, unless one's "career" is that of a hermit. Even within a monastery or a convent, the conflict exists. The self fights against the obligations imposed by the larger organism.

Peter Drucker cites Kierkegaard's concept of the tension between man's simultaneous life as an individual in the spirit and as a citizen in society. The only true freedom is freedom within order. The individual can act voluntarily- but within the framework of the organization. "He has to accept its reality," says Drucker, "has to affirm its objectives and values, has to focus his values, knowledge and efforts on its needs and opportunities."

It's that last part-the focusing of individual values, knowledge, and efforts on the needs of the organization- that is tough. It is always going to be tough. At the core of a career is this dualism that produces a constant tension.

Those who seek to resolve the tension by self-stereotyping are playing a losing game. John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, says, "It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation. ... In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others."

Social adjustment is adaptation of behavior to societal requirements, society being the environment. When we're young, there is something in us that fights against adaptation. Any accommodation of the individual to the social environment, according to this instinct, is hypocrisy.

When growing up, it is often possible to shield yourself from the full impact of the claims of the societal environment. But when you go to work, you are fully exposed.

The crisis of self-disgust arising from the self-accusation of hypocrisy is cumulative. Your abhorrence of the perceived phoniness of your business life rises steadily with a series of experiences. The burden of hypocrisy is offset from time to time by the rewards and satisfactions of work. But for some, the level rises until it boils over in a froth of self-hatred. Few people can stand this hypocrisy another minute and will tell off an uncaring boss, or let a colleague have it between the eyes, or stop being pleasant to a loutish customer.

The rebellion against hypocrisy occurs most often in the early years. Sometimes, however, a person in middle age will suddenly erupt in fury and overturn his life and the lives of those around him because he is fed up with being a hypocrite. That's bad. Like measles, excessive reaction against hypocrisy becomes more dangerous with age.

A lot of people don't erupt-ever. They glumly label themselves "phonies" and their whole lives "shams." They continue to live those lives miserably.

Then there are those who brazenly trumpet forth their lack of genuineness. "Sure, I sold out, but so what? I make a damn good living out of it, and what the hell good is a soul, anyway? Yeah, I have to do and say things I don't believe in-but then, we're all hypocrites in a sense, aren't we?" And on and on. In many ways, this poor soul is the most pitiable of all. Certainly he is the most annoying of all, since he insists on proclaiming his shame ad nauseam to anyone within earshot.

What most crises in this area seem to boil down to is that, in business, you have to be nice to people. Instead of saying to a hesitant subordinate, "God! What a pain in the ass you are!" you may feel obliged to speak softly and reasonably to that subordinate and help her or him get straightened out. You are more or less obliged to listen to the boss spout absolute nonsense, and keep your opinions to yourself.

And it's even worse in businesses in which selling is involved. For here, when the salesperson encounters an unpleasant customer, the impulse to let fly with a frank word or to just walk out must be stifled-usually.

Well, yes, the world of work calls for these sacrifices. But then, so does the world at large. What a strange world it would be without hypocrisy.

Tony Zabruski has no doubts about where he would be. Tony is a big bear of a man, a successful salesman, a skillful sales manager, and now a sound and canny marketing vice-president.

"Yeah," he tells you, "I worried about all that when I was-what-twenty-two? How I was debasing my purity by saying good morning to people I didn't like.

"If this went on, I could see where it would begin to hurt my selling effectiveness. So I did a selling job on myself. I rationalized it. Rationalize, that's another one of those words; one of those things that no decent, honest person does. But what's wrong with making things rational?

"Anyway, I did what I often do with a tough prospect. I get the prospect to consider the alternative. You know, like when you are selling life insurance and the guy says, 'Let me think about it,' and you say, 'Sure.' Then you pause at the door and say, 'By the way, if you're not here next time, whom shall I ask for?'

"The alternative to hypocrisy is not honesty. It's the jungle. If we all did exactly what we felt like doing at the moment we felt like doing it, who would be left alive? In other words, hypocrisy is civilization.

"Yeah, I sometimes say things just to make other people feel good-or at least not to make them feel bad. Sometimes I do it to make money; sometimes just for a quiet life; sometimes for other reasons. Now and then some of this stuff I say is out-and-out lies.

"This makes me a hypocrite. Okay, I'll try to bear up under the shame."

A lot of people admire the all-out individualist, even though they do not emulate him. They feel a little ashamed of themselves for letting the self/others tension cause them to modify their behavior. Are they right?

Let's try to understand the positive ways in which this self/others tension should be felt, as against the negative ways. Listen to Paul:

"Did you see that meeting? Could you believe what you saw? God, I thought a hundred times, What am I doing here, why am I wasting my time with these clods? That's why I blew my stack. George may mean well, but he's an idiot. If they want the thing done, they'll let me do it. If they don't, then they can do it themselves. But how can anybody keep any self-respect and continually keep trying to explain things to these morons? I am just about ready to tell these people exactly what I think. If they don't like it, they know what they can do."

Not a paragon of pleasant associations. But it seems he is a person who is at least maintaining a good, healthy individualism, right? Paul may not work out in the job, but at least he seems to be fulfilling himself. Or is he?

Not necessarily. The psychologist A. H. Maslow's studies on human needs and organizational behavior form a cornerstone of management-training theory. In his celebrated essay on self-actualization, Maslow has some things to say about the connection between true individualism and the surrounding human network.

In Maslow's formulation, the self-actualizing person maintains a healthy grasp on individuality while achieving success by means of translating ideas into reality. He writes, "Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have been to others. For such people, even the casual workaday, moment-to-moment business of living can be thrilling, exciting and ecstatic."

Maslow goes on to say that truly self-actualizing people often feel what William James called the "mystic experience"-strong and deep emotions aroused by natural and even everyday events.

However, self-actualizing people also "have deeper and more profound interpersonal relations than any other adults," says Maslow. He adds that their "acute richness of subjective experience is an aspect of closeness of relationship to the concrete. ..." These happy people get that way because they are in close touch with reality, not divorced from it.

And yet they look and act like anyone else. "All these people fall well within the limits of apparent conventionality in choice of clothes, of language, of food, of ways of doing things in our culture. And yet they are not really conventional… Hardly any of these people can be called authority rebels. . . . They show no active impatience or moment-to-moment, chronic, long-time discontent with the culture or preoccupation with changing it quickly..."

They work within the system, but they do not permit themselves to be absorbed heart and soul into the system. Those who function within the societal network-and the workplace is a primary part of that network-while retaining their inner detachment, are most likely to find success and, at the same time, contentment.

The tension between individuality and conformity is not in itself a crisis. But it can be a culture for crisis. And its first manifestation is likely to seem very critical indeed.

Best to get used to it. And accommodate to it. If not, then your whole career can be a crisis. Every time you do something that is dictated more by job need than by pure raw preference, you will feel that you are compromising yourself. "God, when I kowtow to those customers, I feel like such a hypocrite!" Well, although nobody has a good word to say for hypocrisy, maybe it can at least be said that we sometimes lump things under the label of "hypocrisy" that woud better be called "courtesy," or "consideration," or "tact," or "commonplace interpersonal behavior."

Torn between the self-you and the job-you? There's something wrong if you're not.

Those who are best at self-actualization understand that they live in a constant state of tense equilibrium between interior and exterior. It comes with the human territory. You do not oscillate between extremes, toadying shamelessly one moment, lashing out viciously the next. You try to maintain an even keel.