Penelope Trunk, my favorite blogger, had a post recently about how prom is a career stepping stone for teens.  Why?  Because it’s about learning how to fit into a culture.  Here’s what she says about careers and culture fit:

“The thing that is most difficult in work life is adjusting to different cultures as seamlessly as possible. People do not lose jobs because they don’t get the job done. People generally lose jobs because of poor cultural fit. If people think you fit on the team, they’ll cut you slack even when you don’t get the job done. In fact, the Harvard Business Review reports that people don’t even care if you don’t get the job done if they like you…The question is not ‘how to always know the rules for blending in’ because you can’t—especially if you are constantly challenging yourself with new work environments. The question is, instead, ‘How can you recover from a cultural misstep?'”

I believe this is true.  I lost a job once because of poor culture fit.  Well, I quit actually, but if I hadn’t quit I was going to get fired soon.  Everyone said it was because I wasn’t getting the job done but I believe the perception that I wasn’t getting the job done stemmed directly from my failure to read and understand how the organizational culture was different from any culture I’d ever worked in before.  It was a culture where “employee engagement” was supposed to look like hyper-attention to detail, documentation and follow-up rather than like passion, creativity and big picture thinking.  For some reason I just couldn’t get that through my head, and once the perception of me as “disengaged” spread through the organization I could not recover.  Hell, I couldn’t even see that it was happening until it was too late.

I’m troubled by this prom analogy though.  Because I think teens learn to imitate each other in middle school and high school in order to be accepted, and that’s different than being your own person with your own thoughts and ideas and simply knowing, in a utilitarian fashion, how to modify your behavior in order to fit in with a particular group of people.  Teenagers believe in conformity, and if they never get shown another way, they grow up doing things because that’s what they’re supposed to do.  They get a solid job with a government agency or a Fortune 500 company and stay there for ten, twenty years.  They get married and have 2.5 children and buy a three-bedroom house in the suburbs.  And one day they wake up and realize they’re 50 years old and haven’t seen the world or climbed Kilimanjaro or gone out for that “crazy” job they once dreamed about or done anything else they really wanted to do.

Am I out of touch?  Is it possible that today’s kids are different than they were when I was a kid, that they understand “fitting in” as a  tool instead of a mandate from god?  I never had kids so I just don’t know.  I hope so.

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