Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Birth of a Learning Curve

*Note: A piece I wrote for the February Issue of Robious Corridor Magazine.

In December, I ended a job I’d had for 7 years. I’d been on the job so long I could do it with my eyes closed, on auto pilot, hands free. I left to ‘pursue greener pastures’, to ‘expand my knowledge base’….in honesty I left to ‘pursue more dough’ and to ‘expand my bank account’. I’m as pragmatic as the next person and darn if those kids of mine don’t expect an education beyond high school.

Call me a sucker.

Leaving the old gig wasn’t an easy decision: I liked the company and people a lot. Then we were acquired by a giant logo so big it is only eclipsed by Coca-Cola. It wasn’t a bad thing at all; it just didn’t strike me as my thing. I like the ‘small pond’ ideal: it keeps me motivated, accountable. My last few days at my former employer were frenzied; I respected the opportunity for having worked for them enough to leave them with my whole effort. At the end of my last week, as I was catching my breath, I realized the finality of my situation. My first thought was this: Here endeth the lesson. I was closing a chapter on a book with the smug satisfaction that I’d move seamlessly on to the next chapter.

I was wrong. Very, very WRONG.

I started my new job in January. And within a few hours I was reminded of a couple things: Labor pains and the subjunctive tense in French.

OK, stay with me here, this may take some explaining.

I started in a similar job in software but in a completely new ‘space’. In software that means more the purpose of the application and less about the moon and stars. Learning a new space means not only what it does, but how it is applied across different business types. Which leads me to labor pains.

It suddenly occurred to me that learning is very similar to giving birth: you work hard, sweat, breathe heavily, fret, and wish to the heavens for it to be over. Then, when the process is done and you’re looking at the product of your work, you forget the pain. You feel joy and self-satisfaction. I’m convinced if anyone remembered how hard the learning curve is, they’d never switch jobs. I’m also wholly convinced that ‘lifers’ – those who stay with a company their entire careers – are not unmotivated or lacking in adventure, but remember how brutal it is to ‘ramp up’.

On to the French subjunctive tense. Learning this new software space and conquering all the unknowns transported me back to my days of learning a new language. You can learn the alphabet, get the hang of conjugating verbs, and learn some idiomatic expressions. During the process, you can giggle that a term of endearment is “my little cabbage”. The English equivalent is probably something along the lines of “sweet pea”. Produce, apparently, is the universal language. In English, we have pragmatic tenses. You know when to use them. But we have no subjunctive tense. It’s based on ‘maybe’, on feeling. This linguistic mystery is all too  apparent in French. I personally think if the French had employed it during WWI instead of the Maginot Line, WWII could have been completely avoided. To me, it’s a complete mystery.

I remember my days toiling to understand this tense that French toddlers could pick up with such ease and wishing I had some Gallic Rosetta Stone. And now I look at my children struggling over algebra or some other concept with new eyes: I’ve forgotten the frustration. For years they’ve expressed theirs in a variety of forms but my response has basically taken the same form: buck up, put on your big kid britches, think, and deal with it.

And now, I’m in their place. AGAIN. I’m faced with the French Subjunctive in the form of a software space and the clock is ticking. And the labor pains start. I think back to Lamaze classes, that silly concept that regular breathing will help you cope. Until the anesthesiologist gets there. Regular breathing helps nothing but to keep you living. Between that and the birth, we have to just use our minds and hope like heck there isn’t a pop quiz. So here I am, mid-learning curve, in pain and breathing for all I’m worth. And I envy the future because when I get there, I’ll forget how hard these current weeks have been. I’ll feel the comfort of the learning amnesia. And I’ll fix dinner and smugly cluck to my homework-grumbling children to buck up, put on their big kid britches, think, and deal with it.  But definitely not in the French subjunctive.

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