Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed June 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Brian J. Glenn

The need for a watchful eye

By Brian J. Glenn

Brian J. Glenn of Middletown, Conn., recently earned a master's degree in political science from Brown University. He will begin his doctoral work at Oxford University this fall under the scrutiny of no less than four committee members.

... to master a trade, one has to learn more than the rules and the theory. One also has to develop a wisdom and an outlook that only come through experience"

Two recent stories have driven home the dangers of giving young people too much authority early in their careers. In the first case, a 26-year-old writer at a weekly opinion magazine has been exposed for fabricating news stories. His co-workers are reportedly stunned, since there appeared to be no lack of genuine material for him to use in his articles. In the second case, a 25-year-old attorney has been charged with insider trading. The amount of money he made off his activities was paltry, considering his career potential. Both young men were described as intelligent and hard-working individuals who had the whole world ahead of them. Each has ruined his career forever.

Before what we now consider the professions came to be, the professionals were the craftsmen. Young men (women were not welcome) would apprentice for five to ten years with a master, who would teach them the trade. Spending an extended period of time under a master allowed the apprentice not only to learn the skills of the trade, but the intangible aspects as well. Salesmanship, quality, decision-making and presumably integrity were conferred on the young individual under the careful eye of someone who had been around the block a few times. In the end, experience is always the best teacher, and the one crucial element that only experience can convey is the wisdom acquired from making mistakes and having to do the work over.

The beauty of an apprenticeship is that, if done properly, mistakes are caught in time by the master, who can then turn them into a learning experience. The examples of the two young men mentioned above show the danger of giving young individuals too much authority too quickly, without someone experienced watching over them. In the current world of making the fast buck and then moving on, we have lost the concept of building a career over time, and with it, we risk the hazards of decisions being made without the wisdom that comes with experience.

Of course, there are still a few professions where apprenticeship is the norm. New doctors have to serve long residencies where they work under the eyes of highly experienced physicians. Academics spend the first six years as untenured assistant professors where, in theory at least, their progress is scrutinized by the senior members of their department. Ideally, both groups are watched carefully in the beginning and are gradually given more and more freedom with time. Yet in the spheres of law and finance especially, the short term usually seems to win out over the long term. True, the two young men are the exceptions and not the norm, but their stories point to a weakness in a system that often ignores the future for the present.

The last of Wall Street's great privately-held financial institutions is considering going public. Goldman Sacks has developed a reputation for building careers for the long term, and has served its clients well in the process. The great fear among many is that the move to become incorporated will alter permanently the way the institution builds its future leaders, abandoning its career-oriented approach for one which seeks to snatch rising stars from other firms. Whether its corporate culture will be able to sustain itself against the legal mandate of maximizing shareholder returns waits to be seen.

The lesson from all this is that to master a trade, one has to learn more than the rules and the theory. One also has to develop a wisdom and an outlook that only come through experience. Young professionals need to be put in a position where they can make mistakes and learn from them. If they must be placed in positions of authority early in their careers, young professionals need to be more closely watched by someone more experienced than many are now.