First lessons in work: "There's gonna be some changes made"
My school days are not over… yet. I’m currently writing my Masters thesis within the domain of Aesthetics and Culture and as my topic I chose Techno Fashion, the embedding of nanotechnology in fashion design and how that impacts on our contemporary culture.
The most recent, and most pertinent job experience I’ve had was when I took an internship in Berlin last summer, where I worked for an artist duo. It was my first time officially working in a creative field and I had no idea what to expect from my employers, my job or the city of Berlin. This internship was a mandatory part of my study and usually students have to take a course on organizational theory so they can build up a theoretical basis and the necessary knowledge before being thrown out into the real world where they can apply that knowledge. But the university decided it would be better to let students get the empirical evidence first and then come back and process it through the prism of organizational theory. So my class was one of the first to try this system out.
When I got to Berlin and started my internship, I was a complete blank. So for the first month I didn’t dare do much else than follow instructions, do what I’m told and lay low. In the meantime I was trying to analyze my surroundings, the workplace, and the different work situations/relations in order to better do my job. But that didn’t work out too great for me. Because I didn’t have the basic knowledge on how to deal with different situations and conflicts in the workplace. And I personally felt that if I didn’t have that knowledge, I shouldn’t take charge and try to steer the situations or conflicts in any way. This is in great part due to my personal background that implies a certain fear of authorities. But this experience has helped me a step further towards shedding that fear and taking more charge.
Anyways, I came back home from Berlin with a lot of unanswered questions and hiatuses. And when I took the aforementioned course on organizational theory, all those questions got answered one by one and I was able to reflect on my acquired experience in a very constructive way. Now I feel much more prepared to face any job situation knowing what to expect. One of the wisest universal truths my teacher told in class – or at least the one that stuck with me most – was that where there are two or more people gathered in a work space there will always be conflicts of some sort. This might seem banal and simple at first, but I had previously thought that it is possible to live la vie en rose if you find the perfect job. I have now acquired the tools to assess coworkers and job situations with the help of models like the PaEI and of theoreticians like Edgar Schein, Gareth Morgan, Henry Jenkins and Dominique Bouchet.
The reason this method worked for me is that I find it extremely helpful to put my personal experience in a broader socio-political and cultural context. That helps me better understand myself, the people around me and the role I’m playing in this whole scheme. I believe most people lack someone (qualified) to share those nasty experiences with. And it doesn’t always help to talk to your coworkers about everything that’s wrong in your workplace because they’re in it themselves. Then it can snowball and become a bickering club of the discontent workers, which can drag down the atmosphere and is in no way constructive.
To give you a concrete example, my employers were in a deep identity crisis both personally and professionally. It didn’t help that the “office” was in their living room, which made it even more difficult – both for them and for us – to keep private life and professional endeavors separate. They were at a crossroad in their lives that made them very uncertain of what to do, what step to take next etc. This is where the PaEI model came in handy (although in hindsight). It was such a relief for me to be able to pinpoint exactly where the problem was. This young business was in its baby-stage. That meant that there was not much long-term planning to speak of, everything was chaotic and projects kept piling up on top of everyone’s desks because the bosses couldn’t focus on one thing at a time out of fear that they would miss ten other opportunities to do something more constructive. This system… or lack thereof, was detrimental to the state of mind of everyone. Had I known about the PaEI model in advance, I would’ve probably been more prepared to tackle the problem and even help structure the work progress so that every day at work wouldn’t have to be an emotional rollercoaster for everyone. Now pile an identity crisis on top of all that, which occasionally meant that I was instructed to do one thing, but when I did it, I was “chastised” for doing so, and Houston, we have a problem.
Now, I understand that school doesn’t prepare you for anything. And the school system is flawed more often than not. But I was personally lucky enough to study at a university that matched my personal learning patterns, and in the end, I think that’s where the problem finds its core: the mismatch between individual learning patterns/personalities and an extremely rigid school system.
We can all agree that the current work market can not accommodate most of the population. Employers are under-stimulated, stressed and bereaved. And I guess my biggest shock in my encounter with the Berlin artist-duo, derived from the realization that this doesn’t only apply to boring accountant or lawyer firms, but it’s right there at the heart of the creative business as well. Because it’s a BUSINESS. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we can take small steps towards changing that, and if we don’t all have the possibility to become self-starters and entrepreneurs who can employ different work methods, we can change things by speaking our minds. Employers need feedback just as much as employees, it’s a part of the human innate need for recognition. Had I had the necessary tools at the time, I would have been able to help my employers figure things out. It was first after I’d finished the class that I realized that I could’ve done soooooo much.
In closing, my point is that theoretical knowledge shouldn’t be cast aside as useless. But if you don’t have a professor who can help you contextualize your experience, start a club/forum/discussion group/blog whatchamacallit and use people around you who can help. Or try reading some organizational theorists, and channel their writings through your own experience. Internalize their teachings and apply them on your everyday situations in order to understand them and be able to apply them later. If you do that, it’s not going to be such a boring read, I promise!