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Archive for the ‘decision’ Category

I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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This being graduation season, the other day I asked the over-achieving rockstars in my senior journalism capstone class what they’d most like to hear from a commencement speaker.

Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings.  (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate:  “In a Word: Plastics”)

But anyway.

The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.

Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed.  And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?

If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail.  In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward.  Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure.  But regret?  It’s not recoverable.”

In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”

And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:

Emily Dickinson:  Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems.  Only a handful were published in her lifetime.

Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.

Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary.  Why?  She wasn’t attractive enough.

Kathryn Stockett:  Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.

Oprah Winfrey:  At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired.  Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.

Hilary Clinton:  The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill.  The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.

The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back.  Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.

Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.

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So Wednesday I had an interview with Kathryn Zox on VoiceAmerica and she asked me if I could think of a more positive word for “compromise.”  And to be honest — well,  it was early in the morning — I could not.

Can you?  Thing is, life is all about the trade-offs.  But “compromise”?  It’s a dirty word.

We had been talking about the choices that women have to make when navigating the uncertain terrain that goes under the general heading of “you can have it all.”  Killer career.  Great family life.  Making it all work.   And all at the same time.  It goes to the heart of what makes decisions so difficult for women in this new reality:  opportunity cost.  If you are doing A, by definition you can’t be doing B.  Or at least, not well.  And yet.  We try.  Because to be less than perfect at one or the other means we think we have failed.

Case in point:  Kathryn spoke of taking the train up from New York one night not long ago, riding in business class, where though she tried to avoid listening, she was privy to a long cellphone conversation between a well-dressed business woman and her husband.  And her little girl.  And then her husband.  And then her little girl.  And on and on.  The gist?  Mommy was coming home from a business trip, but apparently felt obliged to be the one to put her little girl to bed.  A bedtime story?  Mommy loves you?  Daddy, are you doing it right?

And there you have it.  A good metaphor for trying to do it all, have it all.  And all the pressure we put on ourselves, whether we have a family, whether we don’t, or whether we ever will.

We don’t like to talk about compromise because it implies that we have settled for something less than perfect.  Or maybe, we’re uncomfortable with the word because we still haven’t figure out how to make our way through this uncharted territory.   So maybe when we parse it all out, when we cast about for a more positive way to say “compromise,” the operative word is choice.

Or maybe the term is letting go.  As Lori, one of the women in our book, told us, “Maybe it’s that society is telling us all that we have to be successful career women — but the world has forgotten to mention that if we want to do that, we can let go of worrying about our pound cake.”

And is that so bad?  I call it compromise.  You call it trade-off.  We all call it growing pains.

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Or, you know, the jeans.

What got me thinking today was word of a new study suggesting that one of the reasons we birds of a feather flock together could be more than a common interest in flying south.  It turns out, there’s often genetic similarity in the folks we choose as friends. As in: we may be genetically predisposed to like the stuff we like — and choose our friends accordingly — a phenomenon that keeps us trapped in our own private “us group”.

Clearly, this can’t always end well.

In the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors addressed the fact that people disposed to alcoholism befriend folks who like to drink.  Not a surprise:  you like to throw down a few cocktails, you tend to hang out with those who like them, too.  But here’s the interesting thing.  Apart from the social behavior, when the researchers analyzed genetic traits, they found that long before the future drinkers even began to raid their parent’s liquor cabinet, they tended to choose friends who shared the same genetic predisposition:

For example, a person with a genotype that makes her susceptible to alcoholism may be directly influenced to drink. However, she may also be indirectly influenced to drink because she chooses friends with the same genotype (homophily)who are more likely to make alcohol available to her.

Okay, words like genotype and homophily make us want to reach for the Pinot.  So let’s go over to Time.com, which referred to the phenomenon as “Friends with (Genetic) Benefits.”  In that post, James Fowler, one of the study’s authors, told Time that we might choose our friends not only because we share the same interests — but because we might have some similar DNA:

The [genetic link to alcoholism] makes sense, says Fowler, since it’s true that “if I’m more impulsive, I might choose to be with friends with others who are more impulsive.” Another way that such a gene might affect friendship is that impulsive people might be drawn to the same types of environments—for example, amusement parks— and tend to make friends with others they find there. Not surprisingly, a kid who sneaks beer and cigarettes in the high school parking lot and drag races on weekends is unlikely to befriend the guy who spends all his time with the chess club.

Not surprising, right?  But, says Fowler:

“There can be a feedback effect. We know that [this gene] shows an association with alcoholism. Now the evidence here is that if you have this gene, your friends are more likely to have it. You’re not only susceptible biologically to this behavior, you’re also more likely to be surrounded by people who are susceptible to this behavior.”

And there you go.  You’re destined to drink too much, you gravitate towards those eventually who will, too.   Next thing you know, Leaving Las Vegas.  But let’s leave the lab (and the bar) behind and extrapolate a little, about what happens when we’re stuck in bubbles of our own making.   Genomes notwithstanding, unless we watch out, do we still surround ourselves with those who like what we like, drink what we drink, and dress like we do?  You get the picture. Skinny jeans, anyone?  Yes, please.
In a way, this bubble business smacks of  the tyranny of the echo chamber, which can be its own kind of trap.   We wrote about this before, riffing on a piece in Marie Claire by Lori Gottlieb (of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) that suggested that girlfriends often serve as one another’s “yes women”.  Our point was this:  When we surround ourselves with people like us, such as those likely to tell us what we want to hear, can we ever really figure out for ourselves what we want to do with our lives (or for that matter,  even what to wear to class?)  As we wrote last summer:

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.

As we wrote before, where it all gets dicey is when our bubble, like the echo chamber, becomes the norm.  When we are surrounded by folks who are just like us, who think like us, who dress like us, and who tell us what we want to hear, how hard is it to make a decision that doesn’t follow what’s predesigned, that doesn’t conform — and to be happy with that decision if we do?  Are we ever able to trust our gut?  Break from the pack?



Which leads us back to that genome study.   I’m not sure that I buy this stuff about our friendships — and our behavior — being completely predetermined by our DNA.   But I do know this.  When we’re stuck in a bubble, of our own making or not, it’s pretty hard to figure out for ourselves who we really are, what we want to do with our lives (we wrote a whole book about this) or even what we wear.   Yep, most days you’ll find me in my skinny jeans.  But what I really like are my flares.
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Here you go:  in no particular order, a dozen New Year’s resolutions designed especially for the undecided.  Let us know what speaks to you – and add a couple of your own.

Ready?  Set.  Go!

• Inhabit the moment.  You can’t rewrite the past.  You can’t be sure of the future.  All you really have is now.  Make the most of it.

• Sidestep the buzzkills.  You know what we mean — the friends who make you feel “less than”.  Like the ones who, intentionally or not, have you convinced their grass is ever greener. Or the friends who not only have to be the star in their own movie, but in yours as well.  Wise, wise Bernie used to call them the folks who needed to be the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral.

• Exercise. To quote Tweety (and Shannon, too), working out is the one thing in life that after you’ve done it, you’ll never be sorry you did.

• Expect good things. When it’s equally likely that the outcome of a given situation could go either way, think positive rather than negative.   Similarly…

• When you hear hoofbeats behind you, think horses, not zebras. Which is another way of stating Occam’s Razor:  The simplest solution is often the most likely.

• Don’t judge. And don’t worry about others judging you.  Both, equally destructive.  And let’s face it.  Who knows for sure what goes on in someone else’s head.

• Make your bed. Thank you, Gretchen Rubin and “The Happiness Project.”

• Call out the bullshit: policies, comments or jokes that are sexist, racist or likely to perpetuate marginalization.  Done well, you might change some minds.  And while you’re at it, call out the knee-jerk nonsense, too, whether it comes from the right or the left.   As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Love it.

• Put yourself out there. Kiss a frog (or a prince), cut bangs, take a tough class, cook a soufflé, or apply for a job/assignment that takes you outside your comfort zone.  You’ll always get over a failure, rejection or a bad haircut.  But as one of our sources told us, what you’ll always regret is never having taken a risk.  Or, as Lucille Ball once said: “I would rather regret the things that I have done than the things that I have not.”

• Spend time alone. Reflect.  Get to know your best friend — that would be you — and she will never lead you astray.  Find your enthusiasm, and notice what you love:  that’s what will make you happy.  Take it from Thoreau:  “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have always imagined.”   Or, for that matter, Oscar Wilde:  “Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.”

• Count your blessings. (Thanks, everyone’s mom and the Dalai Lama)  But by the same token, if something needs changing, fight for it.

• Drink water. It does a body good.  Really.  And while you’re at it, ditch the jammy wine.  It’s as bad as the punch.

There you have it.  Have a great 2011 — and pass it on.

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On this day of dreary election post-mortems, I couldn’t help reflecting on an article from Bloomberg News that I read  last week.  It reminded me of the ways in which the constant noise messes with our ability to think for ourselves.

I’ve got a larger point here, but indulge me while I take a detour: call it politics as metaphor.

Bloomberg Business News — hardly considered a pillar of the “liberal press” even by those who try to pigeonhole news orgs as necessarily left or right — conducted a poll in late October that found that by a margin of two-to-one, prospective voters believed that in the past two years of the Obama administration:

taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) won’t be recovered.

You may believe that too.  And clearly, the poll’s findings were borne out by the results of Tuesday’s election — the biggest Republican upset, by the way,  since the Truman administration.

But here’s the thing, as the Bloomberg piece points out.  Those popular beliefs, the ones that may well be responsible for what Obama called Tuesday’s “shellacking”, are at complete odds with the reality.   It’s as if it’s sunny outside, but people are continually being told it’s actually raining, so all they do is bitch about the weather.  Let’s check back in with Bloomberg, shall we?  (This is business news, remember.  Not a partisan editorial.)

The Obama administration has cut taxes — largely for the middle class — by $240 billion since taking office Jan. 20, 2009. A program aimed at families earning less than $150,000 that was contained in the stimulus package lowered the burden for 95 percent of working Americans by $116 billion, or about $400 per year for individuals and $800 for married couples. Other measures include breaks for college education, moderate- income families and the unemployed and incentives to promote renewable energy.
and:
In an October report to Congress, released as TARP turned two years old, the Treasury said it had recovered most of the $245 billion spent on the Wall Street bank part of the rescue, and expects to turn a $16 billion profit. In the Bloomberg poll, 60 percent of respondents say they believe most of the TARP money to the banks is lost and only 33 percent say most of the funds will be recovered.
and:
The perceptions of voters about the performance of the economy are also at odds with official data. The recession that began in December 2007 officially ended in June 2009, making the 18-month stretch the longest since the Great Depression. In the past year, the economy has grown 3 percent and is expected to show improvement in the second quarter of this year.
Bloomberg’s point was that Democrats have done a singularly lousy job of getting their message out and would pay the price on election day. True that, as we found out Tuesday.  But my point goes beyond the ballot box and here it is:  Are we so surrounded by noise, engulfed in mind clutter, that the message flat out gets lost?

Do we get sucked so far into into the rhetoric that we never have time to think for ourselves?  Do we buy a seat on the bandwagon without even without even considering whether we want to be there?

When it comes to making political decisions, the noise comes at us from all directions: straight news, op-eds, blogs, cable TV, campaign ads, facebook share tags, tweets, bloviators, opinionators and blahdeblah.  The list goes on, but the bottom line is this.  Too. Much. Information.   And the result is that all of it, every bit, becomes so confusing that it becomes a real chore to sort the real from the rhetoric.  So that we’re tempted to  just walk away and say:  Screw it.  I’ll just have what she’s having.   (We know how that one ends)

And so I wonder.  As in politics, so in life? Does this constant state of TMI, this state of confusion, super-saturate us when it comes to life decisions, too?  Consider the cacophany: opinion pieces, media images, personal essays, status updates, tweets upon tweets,  messages from everyone from family to friends to Suzy from Ohio, all selling their own version of “ought.”  Small wonder, then, that going quiet, taking the time to figure out what’s real and what’s not, deciding who we are and what we want to be becomes a pretty impossible task.

Unless, of course, we cover our ears.

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What goes around,  you know, comes around.  That’s what came to mind yesterday when someone sent me a link to this post on College Candy wherein Charlsie, a new college grad, charts the difference between choosing a major and, sigh, choosing a life.  Let’s look:

Looking back, college didn’t require a lot of serious decision making – even though I thought it did. For the most part, I made decisions about frivolous things such as: Should I wear pajamas to class today? Should I stick to rum and Coke or go for the Jager bombs? Should I go out tonight or should I spend time working on that eleven-page term paper? I know at times these choices sure stressed me out, but looking back, they really didn’t matter the way post-grad decisions seem to.

First, it must be said: Call me old, but I’m more than a little flummoxed by anyone’s choice to opt for a Jager bomb.  But back to Charlsie.  Our new grad then lists the decisions that lie in front of her:  Where to live.  Where to work.  Grad school or law school.  Prep for the LSAT or sign on for the full-time job offer with the big bucks and benefitsand extra hours beyond the normal nine-to-five.

Can’t you just feel the angst?   All of which brought me back to this very time last year, give or take a day.  Almost one year ago when we launched our blog, the questions were the same as the ones that plague our Ms. Charlsie:  Door No. 1 versus door No. 2.  Risk or security.  Passion or Paycheck.  All of which echo our initial theme:  It’s great to have options.  But dealing with them can be a bitch.  As we wrote then:

… we’re out to explore why the generation of women who have more options than our mothers ever dreamed possible suffers from a terminal case of grass-is-greener syndrome, perpetually distracted by what we’re not doing. We’re stressed. Restless. Constantly second-guessing ourselves. Always wondering what we left behind Door Number Two. And we can’t figure out why.

It’s a sign of the times, with much of this unspoken angst revolving around the pressure to choose, something old-school feminists might never have predicted. So how do we get past it? A shift in perspective might be a good place to start. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman may have said it best: “There is talk about too many pressures and too many choices, it’s as if the success of feminism was to blame, rather than its unfinished work.”

We’re up for getting on with the finishing, and we think the first step is to recognize our shared experience. So if this all sounds familiar, tell us about it.

Tell us about it, you did.  Here’s what we heard from Lauren:

I do, however, feel concern that I might be overlooking the one thing that is my “calling.” From orchestra conductor to herpetologist to cartographer to photographer to writer, I’ve wanted to do it all. I also know that I can, we all can.

And from Marisa:

My sister used to tease me that I was on the semester system in life because I was always moving and changing jobs. But really I was just worried that I was missing my “true calling” or not doing enough to fulfill my parents’ expectations after all that schooling. (Come to find out later that their only expectation was that I be happy.) Now I’m almost 40 and starting yet a new career (this one will be THE ONE . . . I hope). Looking back I can see how the choices and self-inflicted expectations led to a major paralysis in my mid-20′s…”

And Marjorie:

I majored in theatre in college, only to burn out on it and give it up after college. but now, every day, I think about that life, the performance life…and I wonder what I’m missing. What did I give up? Would I be happier if I had just stuck with it? Would I , could I be more fulfilled if I were doing it right now? Oy, it drives me mad and I keep hoping that maybe all of my going around about it will make me so nauseous I’ll actually get sick (of myself) and do something….

…All of these questions resonate with me. It’s so wonderful to have the plethora of options that we do…but I have no idea which way to go. Some of the stuff I have absolutely nailed down – I know what kind of clothes I like to wear; I know that I DON’T want to be a mathematician…

And Samantha:

The itching thought that runs though my conciousness is that it is ok to think or dream or believe a girl can do anything, yet the doing and execution is what can undo her. Coupled with a family and the people whose feelings and egos may be bruised and battered along the way. The absolute reality is that any job or hobby that evokes passion requires an equal if not greater sacrifice. That notion of ‘What do you want to be when grow up’, is not coupled with ok, you can do it, but it’s going to be hard. Mom doesn’t say ‘Gee little Sammy that’s great — so when you fall in love and get married make sure you can integrate all of your passion and dreams into your marriage.’ That would have been the best advice anyone could have given me. Instead I plunged head long into a decision before I had the courage to really declare my dreams, AND the ramifications of those dreams.

The thoughtful comments from bright women rolled in throughout the year, all of which convince us that this analysis paralysis, this longing for the road not taken, the buyer’s remorse that plagues us all is, one year later, still real.  The solutions?  The first step is recognizing we’re in it together.

As for the forementioned Charlsie?  She blew off the job offer and opted instead to concentrate on studying for the LSAT and applying to law schools.  Good for her.  So long as she lays off the Jager bombs.

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