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The Roughest Learning Process of Your Life

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Fear of the unknown is our primordial heritage. What must our early ancestors have felt like when they ventured into cavernous darkness, not knowing what kinds of dangers awaited them?

The brightly lit and lavishly furnished office can be a dark cave. The crises of the 20-30 stage may arise from the fear of the unknown and the shock of the new. They are crises of adaptation, of self-doubt, of disillusionment, and of fear. Working is fundamentally different from anything else.

School is a rough-sometimes very rough-socializing experience. But there is very little in the adolescent days in school or camp or in clubs or on teams to prepare us for the structured world of work.

That's why the first crisis of adjustment often coincides with the first weeks on the job. Individuals learn, sometimes with incredulity, that they are expected to take orders; that they are at the mercy of persons strictly because of their seniority and rank; that they are supposed to accept a whole list of customs and rules developed for their governance by people they have never seen and who in some cases are long since dead.

One major issue is authority. In your life you get to know three authority figures. Parents are the first institutionalization of authority in our consciousness. During school years, teachers tell you what to do and what not to do, praise and criticize, punish and reward. College provides a hiatus rather than a transition. There are, of course, authority figures; but the dominant mode is to scorn and reject them (except for a few favored instructors).

In the working years, the boss takes on the mantle of power. At this point, some people have a problem: They have trouble making the transition from the two previous kinds of authority to the third. The similarities are perplexing. True, the boss has authority and creates a superior-subordinate relationship that can yield benefits as well as confusion. But the sooner one realizes that a boss is not a parent or a stand-in for a favorite or even disliked teacher, the sooner reality can season the relationship. As benign as a boss may be, he or she represents an establishment that is unsentimental. For dependent individuals, this hazard is particularly threatening.

When freedom is suddenly trammeled, when the tether tightens and the self-image is sharply assailed, the results can be distressing and hurtful.

This is what happens when you start to work. You are no longer free. You are at the beck and call of a boss and a tradition; a way of doing things. And your self-esteem is sharply attacked. The assault on self-esteem comes in several ways.

You are no longer in control. The qualities that were important in earning respect and admiration no longer seem important. And the work you are doing is simply not that challenging. You are the low person on the totem pole-something it seemed you would never be again.

All of this becomes more critical because of the urgency placed on each word and action when you start work. It is difficult to "weight" the innumerable questions and problems that come up every day. A casual word at a meeting may be trivial or earthshaking. At any given time, you might do something that will do immense damage to your future-and you won't even know it.

In difficult times, facing dangers and mysteries, the newcomer forms bonds with the people met on the job. These bonds can be a source of great comfort and assistance. But friendship and trust in the workplace are not always repaid. Sometimes they are betrayed. Herein lies another rich vein of crises.

During the past two decades, there has been some very significant research into the subject of attachment behavior. Orthodox psychiatric thinking once held that bonds developed between creatures only if both individuals had needs that were fulfilled by the association; needs like food, sex, dependence. This theory never really seemed to cover the variety of astonishing attachments formed by humans; attachments in which at least one party gets little or nothing out of it. One novel of the many books that have explored such relationships is Of Human Bondage, the whole point of which is the senselessness of Philip Carey's obsession with the sluttish and worthless Mildred.

There is a considerable body of evidence showing that strong bonds can develop between individuals without any rewards being given or needs met. A young monkey will cling to a soft dummy that provides no food and reject a hard figure that does provide food. This is attachment behavior. Psychologists have been saying that the individual engages first in attachment behavior; then sexual bonding; then caretaking behavior. To many observers it is now clear that attachment behavior is not only the first but also the strongest of these bonding mechanisms. Even more to the point, attachment behavior does not stop with adulthood. It is a normal element of human nature throughout life.

During the twenties, attachments are formed with people at work: attachments with bosses and with colleagues. The attachments between comrades-in-arms can be very strong, so a number of the crises in this period might be called "crises of attachment." Someone you trust betrays you. Later in your career, armored by cynicism, you might shrug it off. At this point, it is traumatic.

Then, too, there is the attachment crisis that may be precipitated by the conflict between the lure of another job and the bonds one has formed on the present job.

And of course there is the attachment of sex. That people who work side by side will go to bed with each other is not surprising. It would be surprising if it were not prevalent. This is why articles enjoining us to avoid office love affairs have a Canute-like ring. What happens when close attachments with working colleagues-bosses or peers- are shattered? The results often add up to severe personal crisis.

Yet another class of crises met in this decade grows out of the fact that you are involved in the roughest learning process of your life.

There are various learning theories. Those grouped under the heading "S-R Theories" are based on the concept that learning consists of association of stimulus and response. Pavlov's dog, salivating at the sound of the bell, is the ultimate simplification (and absurdification) of this theory.

B. F. Skinner broadens the range of stimuli from the particular to the universal. To Skinner, every aspect of the environment is a possible influence on learning. One of the most flamboyant enterprises of the great behaviorist was the "air crib," a glassed-in, controlled environment within which he installed his infant daughter for two and a half years.

More recent theories depart from tradition in various ways. Whatever the particulars of the theory, there are several salient facts about learning that are central to our consideration of the decade of the twenties:

  • Learning means changing behavior as a result of experience.

  • When behavior is reinforced, it becomes part of our makeup.

  • When behavior is penalized, we tend not to learn it.

  • We continue to learn as adults; and the years between 20 and 30 involve heavy and sometimes difficult activity.

Learning experience means not just "practical" expe-rience but formal teacher-pupil situations as well. During our school days, the trial-and-error nature of learning is not apparent, because the curriculum has been predigested. Whether this is good or bad is a matter for the educationists to debate (and they do). When you start work, however, most learning is acquired in the crucible of trial and error. This rough-and-ready learning process lies at the heart of many of the crises faced in this stage.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the new arrivals in the world of work are likely to feel that they have changed the rules in the middle of the game. A college senior has become familiar with a certain set of criteria by which the individual is judged: academic criteria and the criteria applied by peers. Influenced by these criteria, the young person has a view of self and of the world.

But entry into the world of work brings the necessity to learn, and to be judged by, a whole new set of standards. Many of these standards are in contradiction to those that applied in the prework world. Some of the criteria appear trivial; others ignoble. And many of the standards, along with the process by which they are applied, are extremely mysterious. In fact, they are Kafkaesque.

Franz Kafka's name has become a commonplace for the paradoxes and absurdities of modern life. In his unfinished novel The Trial, he presents a bank assessor, Joseph K., who is accused of an unknown crime by a faceless authority, and is brought to ruin by forces that remain totally mysterious and impersonal. Something similar happens during this decade. The newcomer to work becomes acquainted with what seems to be an orderly set of rules: listen, weigh the alternatives, decide judiciously, etc. The real rules are several levels deeper. The struggle to reach this level underlies many crises.

Actually, the vagaries of the working world are more likely to resemble the pantheon of the Greek gods, whose wonderful whimsies we discussed in the Introduction. Rewards and punishments flash down from the Olympian executive suite without any apparent connection with merit.

And from this you are supposed to learn? Well, you try to learn. And you hope you'll get used to it.

"You'll get used to it." They are among the most familiar words in job language. During the first few weeks, you can usually count on the comforting presence of someone "older"-in experience if not years-who offers reassurance as you confront the bewildering world of work.

What you are told you'll "get used to" are particular things: the foibles and crotchets of a particular person ("Andy seems pretty abrupt when you first meet him, but his bark is worse than his bite"), the oddness of specific rules and regulations ("Right now you may wonder why we do it that way, but pretty soon you'll see the reason for it"); the unique peculiarities of the company ("IBM has its way of going about these things and we have ours"). But in a broader sense, what you are getting used to is the world of work itself.

"What is work? And what is not work?" asks the Bhagavad-Gita, adding that "these are questions that perplex the wisest of men." Puzzlement about the nature of work feeds the flames of crisis.

What you are undergoing is intended to introduce the "individual animal" into society; in other words, to tame you. Some people just will not make it. They ask, "Why the hell should I get used to it?" And they never do. Unfortunately, some of these same people remain in the world of work that they reject, always at odds with it, always in conflict with its concepts.

A new world; new and fragile attachments; new hopes and fears; new and difficult things to get used to. No wonder crisis is rampant. But at the same time you learn. And if you learn well in the Stage II Decade, you become much better prepared for the crises of later working life.
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