Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Our Debt To Adolescents

In the last two weeks I've gone on a honeymoon, contracted the flu, moved across town, and received a 20% health insurance premium increase. I guess when it rains it pours, even in Oregon. The convergence has gotten me thinking...

In a person's adult life, it's relatively rare to have so many changes happening at once, and the experience can range from disorienting (as with mine) to overwhelming. But in an adolescent's life, it's just another day. To an adolescent, the society of adults is just one revealed mystery after another, and the unimaginable often turns out to be commonplace. Most adolescents manage to survive and thrive into adulthood so I've been wondering if there's anything we can learn from them.

That led to my compiling the following list of some adolescent coping strategies. See what you think of them.

Cultivate an air of defiant irresponsibility
I don't like this strategy so much, but it does have something to say for itself. Major changes in one's environment are frequently accompanied by a storm of blame, as other people try to pin their discomfort on someone. This strategy avoids having to give any of that blame serious attention. "I didn't do it, and lighten up" is a pretty effective shield.

Shrug things off
I like this strategy better. It's also an effective shield, but without the undercurrent of anger.

Tell it like it is
This is my favorite. Pervasive change (and its accompanying climate of blame) can make every day a minefield. That's no place for illusions or misunderstandings.

Act as if you're invincible
Change can put you in situations where all your choices seem threatening. But if you're invincible, so what – less angst and more time for joy.

Resist being known
Permitting yourself to be known is an act of trust, and the changing terrain doesn't usually seem all that trustworthy.

Be a joker
This is an advanced form of shrugging off. If you don't take anything or anyone seriously, maybe they'll leave you safely alone.

In re-reading this list, I have to admit that after 45 years I'm still using some of these strategies when I'm stressed. (I hope at least I've become more graceful about it.) And as I look around, I notice they're used from time to time by most of the adults I've spent any time with. In your own life you'll find them too. Based on my experience as a mediator, I can say with confidence that you won't have to look very hard, because stress brings out the adolescent in all of us.

In mediation, the ability to see that adolescent is a valuable skill. But it's also valuable in the workplace, where work culture discourages our connecting with each other as people. In that world it's a gift to see (and empathize with) the adolescent behind the bluster of the well-defended adults you work with. The gift is like having x-ray vision – it's a super-power of connection.

So I guess we owe a debt to adolescents, for teaching us how to be kind to each other. Please don't tell them I said that.

(This post was featured in the February edition of TalentedApps' Leadership Development Carnival.)