Learning From Others' Lives

By Dr. Walter Reichman

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated about people’s lives, dating back to when my father told me stories about growing up in a small village (known as a shtetl) in what is now the Ukraine. These were scary times, and he and his brothers experienced all sorts of difficulties that made them escape across a frozen river and to America in steerage. He told us about his adventures and mishaps learning to adapt to a new world and a very different life. I saw the relationship between his experiences and the kindness in the way he treated me. I recall a set of books in elementary school about the lives of American heroes from their childhood to their great accomplishments. To this day, I remember the stories about Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Dolly Madison, Theodore Roosevelt and Paul Revere. I recall relishing a book I received as a prize at my elementary school graduation, a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. My favorite books for book reports in high school were usually biographies or autobiographies and when I began reading newspapers for pleasure, I would turn to the obituaries and read about the lives of both the famous and not famous. My fascination with people’s lives certainly contributed to my interest in psychology and to my decision to major in it. I also recall as a psychology student enjoying the book, Lives in Progress, a study of the lives of three people and the development of their personalities.

During my career, I had the opportunity to participate in two major research projects centered on understanding the lives of people. The first was as a research assistant in graduate school following the career development of 140 boys beginning at age 14 and continuing to age 35. It was the Career Pattern Study, headed by Dr. Donald Super, one of the originators of vocational psychology. He interviewed the boys and administered interest, aptitude, and cognitive tests and followed them up every five years. He also interviewed their parents and teachers and collected information about their career aspirations and information they had about work, jobs and careers. Professor Super’s research had a profound effect on the educational process in New York; his findings that boys of 14 and 15 had minimal knowledge about the world of work and were unprepared to make decisions about attending an academic or vocational high school led to the elimination of vocational high schools. It also revealed a strong relationship between the socioeconomic level of the family and their knowledge of jobs and careers.

When I entered the research project, I was 23, the same age as the “boys.” As part of my work I examined the data collected from age 14 to the most recent follow- up at age 20. As I read the interviews I was intrigued by the way they changed over the years because of life experiences. They were certainly more verbal, more reflective, and more self-understanding as they dealt with the reality of finding a vocational place for themselves. The project ran into a financial disaster in the 20th year as federal funding was unexpectedly cut off. Professor Super reached out to all of us who had been a part of the research project over the 20 years and asked us to volunteer to conduct the final interviews and collect the final data. This gave me the opportunity to meet, interview, and test two men I had been studying since they were teenagers. At age 35 the first man was a pilot and the second an FBI agent. Contrary to the research on career development and unlike most of the other “boys,” these two had careers very close to their aspirations at age 14, and even exceeded their adolescent aspirations. The pilot, at age 14 said he wanted to be in the air force or be a soldier. He joined the air force after high school and did become a pilot and moved up the ranks and at our meeting was a pilot for Airforce One, the President’s plane. The second “boy” joined the local police force after high school, which matched his aspirations at age 14. He attributed his moving beyond that level to his wife, who convinced him to go to college at night and obtain a degree in accounting that made him eligible to apply for an FBI position. He loved his work but could not give me much information about his activities because it was secret and, he joked, if he told me he’d have to kill me. What I found particularly interesting is that both these boys at age 14 had typical job choices of boys that age and the probability of those changing over time was considerable. For these two boys their adolescent dreams became reality. I was also pleased that these two boys came from lower socioeconomic levels in their community.

My second pivotal experience in dealing with lives of individuals occurred when I was a consultant to an AT&T project called the Management Progress Study. The initial study was on 240 young men who were entering management training programs at AT&T. Two- thirds were college graduates and one-third had been designated as high potentials from within the company. They were given three days of psychological tests that included personality, interests, cognition, projectives, interviews and performance assessments. Based on the data collected the research team predicted the managerial level the men would achieve. Their predictions were 60% accurate. The procedure was followed up at 8, 15, and 20 years. I was one of the consultants at the last follow-up. As part of the research I showed the men their test results and predictions at the 8 and 15 year follow-ups and asked them to talk about their scores and what they believed contributed to their responses. I worked with about 50 of the men and in the process learned about their lives. They were forthcoming and candid about the positives and the negatives, their joys and sorrows, their achievements and failures and most often about their regrets at the choices they made. I learned a great deal about what goes into 20 years of a man’s life. One of the findings that stands out was the change in their psychological needs over the years as it related to their managerial achievements. At the beginning of the study the need for achievement was the highest-ranking need for all the men. For those who achieved managerial success the need for achievement continued to be the highest. For those who did not reach a high level of success, the need for achievement decreased as the need for affiliation and nurturance increased. The interviews supported these results. As life and careers progressed, needing to take care of others, and to receive care from others became more important than achievement. In many cases life experiences accounted for the change but for many others the causal relationship was unclear. Did diminished achievement result in a lessening of the need or did the lessening cause the diminishment? This remains a question to this day.

My interests in the lives of people result in an interest in the events that formed my own life and as I grew older and more reflective this desire became stronger. My Trove articles seems to fulfill this need for me, and I hope there are people out there who enjoy reading about my life stories as much as I have enjoyed reading about others.

Dr. Walter Reichman is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, the president of the Psychology Coalition of the United Nations, and the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is also a Professor Emeritus from Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Walter is the editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Help the Vulnerable: Serving the Underserved. Walter has an MBA from City College of the City University of New York and an MA and Ed.D from Teachers College of Columbia University.

This article is part seven of our series on the life of Dr. Walter Reichman.

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