Former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff tells the old joke
about a small boy who, although perfectly healthy in every respect, never
speaks. His frantic parents worry, but even at the age of five, the boy doesn’t
say a word and the doctors can find nothing wrong with him. Then one day his
mother gives him a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, but he burns his mouth on it.
“Ow!” he cries out. “Too hot!” His mother is elated. “Junior! You can speak! But
– why haven’t you ever said anything before?” “Because,” replies the boy, “up
until now everything has been all right.”
There are two points to this story. The first is that the path of child
development is well mapped out. We know what sort of things a five-year-old
ought to be able to do; we know that a seven-year-old has different abilities to
empathise or engage in moral reasoning than a child of three.
But adult development “is a different kettle of fish,” Zuboff says. There’s
no set timeline or series of specific steps relating to how adults develop. As a
result, some people go through the 45-65 age band experiencing some sort of
mid-life crisis, while others do not.
Zuboff has specialised in adult development since she was in her twenties.
“Now that I’m 54 I feel I’m only just beginning to know something about it.” she
What’s it all about?
Zuboff – a serious academic who, she says, is “dogged” by the so-called
pop-psychologists trivialising and “productising” the subject – is particularly
interested in adults who hit a stage when they start to wonder what their lives
are all about and what “the second half of life” holds for them.
Ironically, success is no respecter of people who grow to feel the need for
some sort of change in their life. Some people in their 60s have “the same
outlook and the same drivers and motivations that they had when they were in
their 20s”. For others, she says, “maybe they’re around 55 and they have the net
worth and recognition and status that they dreamt of – but now begin to look
around and say, ‘Is this it? I’ve got so many thousands of minutes left in my
life: is it just a repeat of the thousands of minutes I’ve just lived?’”
All the trappings of success can become a prison for such people. But that
doesn’t mean throwing it all to “go and bake bread in the countryside,” Zuboff
says. “The more common thing is to understand that adulthood is about
predictable and understandable processes of qualitative changes: you can still
be a businessperson, but you can do that with a different self-understanding.”
That might mean learning to apply your skills in new ways, additional to what
you are already doing. One financier used his experience and contacts to set up
a board that helps small municipal governments manage their budgets better so
that they could afford to provide more support to local schools.
The second point of the joke at the beginning of this article is that there is
often a ‘trigger event’ that sets off these changes: for the small boy it was
scalding hot oatmeal; for adults, it might be the loss or illness of a family
member, divorce, or even a seemingly happy event such as the sale of one’s
business. “These triggers throw you into a situation you hadn’t anticipated and
somehow the old meanings and routines begin to lose their lustre and their
point,” Zuboff says. “Sometimes that can be painful.”
But the trigger itself isn’t enough – otherwise everyone would react the same
way to the same stimuli. “For the people who do change, what happens is that the
external trigger challenges us beyond the resources that we have available,” she
explains. “There’s a breakdown of the old without a sufficient
build-up of the new.”
In 1993 Zuboff launched a programme at Harvard called Odyssey, an emotionally
intensive series of residential workshops and lectures to help people identify
what’s valuable and what’s important in their lives. But this isn’t “cheap
thrills” that result in a soon-forgotten experience. To bring about sustainable
change, people who attend the programme must bring their spouse with them for
the second week. “Whoever you’re going to go home to, he or she has to be part
of this experience,” Zuboff insists.
Now, working with London-based executive coaching firm Praesta, Zuboff is
launching the Odyssey programme here. It takes a “very brave” individual to sign
up for it. “It is a leap of faith,” she says. “Step off the wheel for a moment
and reflect and ask the hard questions.”