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(Work)life is a highway - The 'why' behind poor skills transfer and intolerance in the workplace.

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Whilst life is a highway we want to ride all night long, working life isn't...necessarily...most of the time. Growth happens when we are pushed out of our comfort zones, and sometimes that requires us to change lanes.

Whether it is the Tom Cochrane original from '91 or the Rascal Flatts version from 2006, I could not keep Life is a Highway from worming its way into my ear whilst writing this. Life is a highway I want to ride all night long, however, working life isn't...necessarily...most of the time. Well, depending on what 'work' I am doing. If it is the stuff that gives me goosebumps as I watch someone grow and succeed, then yes, please, all life long! If it is the other thing I dread going back to after the weekend, it's a firm no from me.

I recently had a thought about 'staying in my lane'. I mean this in the sense of the colloquialism that translates to minding one's own business or sticking to what one knows and not venturing into the intimidating unknown. Okay, but I was on an actual road at the time, which sparked the thought. I had planned to write a post concerning how one needs to not 'stay in their lane' if they want to grow or slow down for that matter (negative growth perhaps? Shrink?). My point is, to overcome Newton’s 1st Law (inertia), we have to take action. Remember those memes and shirts from a few years ago? "Train insane or remain the same." Similar thing, different context. Regardless, when I created the post, I found myself going down a far more complex analogous rabbit hole, as my mind tends to do. So here it is.

Imagine a three-lane freeway or highway. In the traditional sense, like in Durban (South Africa), imagine on-ramps to and off-ramps from the left side of the roadway. Now, if you want to take it a step further, imagine Johannesburg, where at places like Gillooly's Interchange, those joining and those leaving the N3 share the same strip of road and have to cross paths at some point. This situation makes my entire analogy even more relevant.

Okay, now that we have our scene set a-la 'In fair Verona...blah blah blah...', let us view one's work or career as being 'life' from the song, which is now a highway, and each of us is a motor vehicle. Joining the freeway are the new cars, fresh from the factory, full of enthusiasm and new technology. Up to date with the latest ways of using that tech to optimise performance. Each of those vehicles has different aspirations for its future. Each of those vehicles is also slightly different in some way or another. Colours may be the same, but they could have come from different factories. Those that came from the same factory and are not of different colours, designs, or specifications are still each unique. The tiniest difference in alloying elements, from pour to pour at the foundry that made one's engine block, makes it unique. Even though within metallurgy (the scientific study of metals down to the microscopic level), we standardise a set of properties to a range of alloying elements, there is still the combination with other parts in the car that makes each genuinely unique.

So we have a generation of vehicles that will be similar on a quantitative level. Still, each requires different tweaking for optimal performance. These vehicles are busy joining the slower-paced left lane as they become a part of the traffic that is the working world. As we traverse our careers or drive down that highway, we cannot change what we are (vehicles/humans), but we do have choice. We can choose how we interact with the other vehicles on the road, influence the state in which they exist whilst on it, and how they leave when the time comes.

The older cars may not understand some of the tech and differences in the new vehicles, like hybrid and electric cars, or cars that are more than one colour, or even pearlescent ones that transition from one colour to another. Those new cars don't know a different world. They can learn about one but have never experienced it in any other way. The older cars that came from that world, which shaped them into the rugged and resilient vehicles that they are, may not want to learn about the new ways of thinking or living, with tech etc. Still, they have so much to tell the new cars about how they got all those dings and scratches but are still running and so sought after. Their hearts may not be high-efficiency, turbo-charged engines but are big block V8s. Raw power and torque that still make hearts skip a beat in 2022 and get the job done equally as well as any other model, in many instances faster, thanks to having been down that road before, knowing what lies ahead and how to navigate the familiar path (experience).

Suppose we start working with the new cars whilst they are still in production. In that case, we open the door to getting them to absorb information from the outgoing vehicles at a higher rate and, secondly, to progress to the middle and right lanes much sooner. Further, suppose we continue to sustain their advancement as the road surface conditions change with time, by looking ahead and evolving to the anticipated change. In that case, we will be able to meet the demands of the change and maintain the stability of the vehicles, keeping them on OUR roads, and in a healthy and safe condition.

Summary Version:

  • We are all vehicles on the highway which is the working world.

  • Older vehicles (seniors in the workplace) are experienced, and have become that way through years of hard work and may be on their way out (toward retirement).

  • New vehicles (graduates and junior employees) are joining the working world, fresh from the factory (school or tertiary institution).

  • The three lanes from left to right are representative of the pace of one's career and life.

  • Left lane = Slow for vehicles entering and exiting.

  • Middle lane = Consistent and stable.

  • Right lane = Fast for rapidly growing and climbing the ladder, or advancing one's position in society.

  • Vehicles entering may have new tech and optimised ways of operating, and may come in many variations. Colours and specifications are an analogy for race, gender, culture, sexual orientation etc.

  • The older vehicles may not identify with and subsequently understand the new vehicles.

  • The older vehicles do have experience that has hardened them, the battle scars to prove it and the experience to be faster in some tasks than new vehicles.

  • The new vehicles would integrate faster if preparation were started in the factory, ie. begin teaching soon-to-be employees the necessary skills before they enter the workplace.

  • The left lane is the intersection between the new and old vehicles and it is in this space that there can be an exchange of information and skills.

  • That exchange is made efficient and effective by creating an environment in which the vehicles are made aware of, and learn to work with each other's differences.

  • If we are able to nurture and sustain the mentorship relationship, we can keep the vehicles on OUR roads (ie. employee retention) and help each other live a happy, successful and healthy life.


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