A few years ago, I attempted a career change. After taking classes in a variety of fields, sensible fields where jobs were available, I found that I loved programming and I had a knack for it. When I discovered that I loved programming I was first elated, then deflated. I tried to explain to a friend the discouragement that kicked in. I said, “No one’s going hire a middle-aged, female newbie programmer.”
My tall, wealthy Wasp male friend said to me, “That’s the depression talking.”
I said, “No, that’s just reality. Perhaps ‘no one’ is an exaggeration, but I have a couple of strikes against me in being hired and it would be counter-productive to close my eyes to that.”
Several times in posts I’ve thrown out the line, “Can I have a job?” Like many of my jokes, it’s based in reality. The only part of it that’s a joke is that I don’t actually expect an offer this way. I’ve had jobs, but never one that was the beginning of a career. They were always the dead-end type, data entry clerk, accounts payable clerk, accounts receivable clerk, receptionist, straight hourly wage, no benefits, no paid holidays, no insurance. For many years in my twenties I would regularly go on job interviews, constantly in search of that “entry-level” job. When I complained about my lack of a career, older family friends would say, “You can’t start at the top,” as if I was complaining about not being the CEO. I didn’t want to start at the top, I just wanted to be on the first rung of something that was actually a ladder, not a step-stool. Where does the career path of a receptionist go? Nowhere. There is nothing past receptionist. You don’t work your way up to anything. Sure, the research assistants and editorial assistants in the offices weren’t getting paid any better, but they had a future.
I would apply for those jobs and never get them. Sometimes, I wish I had some insight as to why. Once I applied for the job of editorial assistant, or whatever they called their entry-level position, at Reuters. The woman in the H.R. department who interviewed me looked me up and down. “We have a receptionist position open,” she said brightly. I rose and said thank-you and good-bye and tried to get out of there fast enough so no one would see me cry. Why was I always being pigeon holed into these low-level jobs? More than one person did it, many in fact, so it probably wasn’t a fluke.
Earlier, in school, I had been a good student, the kind who everyone thinks has a bright future ahead of her. My sessions with my guidance counselor generally included him shrugging and saying, “Well, you can do anything you want to do,” or “You can go to any college you want to go to.” I graduated from high school early.
I did drop out of college and finished my degree by going part-time while I worked. Although that definitely got me off the “fast track” I had been on, it shouldn’t have derailed my ability to have any kind of career whatsoever. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that had I graduated on time I wouldn’t have had greater difficulty with HR departments in comparison to my peers.
Over the years, I’ve developed great anxiety at the thought of a job interview. Even those low-level jobs came mostly through acquaintances. I never found a job by applying to an ad in the paper, although I’ve been interviewed for many.
I thought of this after reading an article in the New York Times Magazine about “the marshmallow experiment.”
In a series of famous experiments in the 1960s and ’70s conducted by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, preschoolers were invited to sit alone in a room furnished only with a small desk. On the desk sat two marshmallows (or equivalently tempting treats) and a bell. The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows. If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both. Then the researcher shut the door, leaving the child alone with the forbidden marshmallows.
Some children gobbled a marshmallow the minute the door was closed, while others distracted themselves by covering their eyes, singing and kicking the desk. One resourceful child somehow managed to take a nap. But here’s the part that made the experiment famous: In follow-up studies, children who had resisted temptation turned out years later to be not only skinnier and better socially adapted, but they also scored as much as 210 points higher on their SATs than the most impatient children in the studies did.
The writer describes it as a Calvinist fable. At four years old we can determine if we are on of the elect. The irony for me is that I am absolutely certain that as a child I would not have eaten the marshmallow. I know this because for all of my childhood and much of my adult life I’ve had a reputation for having great willpower and being very responsible. In recent years, with the arrival of my depression, those qualities have declined, although they haven’t disappeared altogether.
Just last year, a study by researchers at the University of Rochester called the conclusions of the Stanford experiments into question, showing that some children were more likely to eat the first marshmallow when they had reason to doubt the researcher’s promise to come back with a second one. In the study, published in January 2013 in Cognition under the delectable title “Rational Snacking,” Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri and Richard N. Aslin wrote that for a child raised in an unstable environment, “the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed,” while a child raised in a more stable environment, in which promises are routinely delivered upon, might be willing to wait a few more minutes, confident that he will get that second treat.
So, I ask myself, how did I go from a marshmallow abstainer to a marshmallow swallower?
My childhood was fairly stable and relatively happy and I’m sure I would have believed any adult who said that I could have two marshmallows in the future. Even throughout most of my high school years, while things became more difficult, there was a high correlation in my case between effort and reward. I did have one high school teacher give me a low grade for rejecting his sexual advances, but the general impression was that this man was a horrible exception. All my other grades were good, my standardized test scores were high, and this person did not impede me in any way.
However, during adulthood, all connection between effort and reward has been severed. For decades, I continued to behave as if the connection was still there. Maybe, I thought, like that high school teacher, I may have had a bit of bad luck, but my general sense that the overall world functioned and was more or less just remained intact. If I kept trying one day my ship would come in.
I no longer believe that. I haven’t yet worked up the heart to actually apply for a programming job. One of the reasons I spent so many years self-employed is that the idea of a job interview now causes me tremendous anxiety. I see job interviews as an elaborate charade at best, and a form of emotional abuse at worst. It’s as if the researcher in the marshmallow test would come in and say to the waiting child. “Ha! Ha! You’re an idiot. No marshmallows for you.” I fear being on an interview for a programming job and having an HR person say to me, “You know, we have a receptionist position open.” If that were to happen again, I wouldn’t be able to control myself before leaving the office and I think I’d start sobbing right then and there.