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Posts Tagged ‘being judged’

imagesThe Year of the Woman? Oy vey.

It’s a phrase that’s always struck me as ridiculous. It would be one thing to declare it the Year of the Short, Redheaded, Left-Handed Woman, or the Year of the Unmarried, Urban-dwelling Thirtysomething Woman, or the Year of the Woman Who Doesn’t Want to Have It All, but, I mean, half the people there are are women. Saying its our year is so broad as to be totally meaningless. And more than a tad condescending. (And, as any good writer knows, a mere three examples is all it takes to make a trend. Which is to say, as easy as it would be to round up three examples that prove it is indeed the year of the woman, it’d be equally simplistic to find three examples that demonstrate that, no, in fact, this was not such a good year for women.)

Interestingly, I got to thinking about this idea while reading Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which, upon first glance, would seem to be proclaiming 2012 as a the year of the woman. The cover story, “Hollywood Heroines,” is accompanied by a beautiful photo spread that spans 21 pages and features the big screen’s biggest ladystars of the year. It’s exactly the sort of thing you see, and expect the accompanying text to be proclaiming the dearth of quality female characters over, the representation equaled, the hierarchy overturned! (Citing three examples, natch.) Oh, actually, the deck did say that the hierarchy had been overturned. But, turns out, the piece, written by A.O. Scott, was right on the money, and its lessons stretch far beyond the reaches of tinsel town.

Scott cites some good examples of movies from this year that feature strong female characters, and/or pass the Bechel Test (the shockingly simple, yet equally, perhaps more, shockingly impossible-to-pass test comprised of three criterion: 1. the movie must have at least two named women characters; 2. they must talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man).

But the heart of the matter, I think, is this:

The rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate. Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance… It is a fact beyond dispute that the roles available to women in what movie-lovers nervously call the real world have expanded significantly in the last half-century, a fact at once celebrated and lamented in backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena like “Mad Men.” But the things that women do–the people they insist on being remain endlessly controversial. It takes very little for individual tastes and decisions to become urgent matters of public debate. It takes, basically, a magazine cover article. Women are breast-feeding their babies, pushing their children to practice violin, reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ on the subway, juggling career and child care, marrying late or not at all, falling behind or taking over the world. Stop the presses!

The problem is not that these issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong? This happened, in the last 12 months, to Sandra Fluke and Paula Broadwell, to Rihanna and Ann Romney, and, closer to the matter at hand, to Lena Dunham.

You did not really think I would get through a whole essay on gender and popular culture without mentioning her, did you? But the reception of ‘Girls,’ even more than the show itself–which is, to keep things in perspective,  a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates–is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation I have been talking about. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.

And while the great majority of us are not Lena Dunham, I’d say that pressure and that judgment–and, more to the point, that expectation that we’re gonna be judged–is something we all deal with. Because no matter how many movies about women or girl heroes or headlines about secretaries of state or tiger mothers get paraded out on (to borrow Scott’s point) magazine covers, the message we take home has far less to do with the specific example itself than it does the analysis. What we absorb is this: Whatever you do, every choice you make, says everything about you, and, by God, you’re gonna be judged for it.

When we write about women and choices and the struggles we have determining what to do with our lives, I think we can’t overstate the lesson here. In order to make choices that are right for us, individually, we have to recognize how much of our pro and con lists are occupied by these pressures. The pressure to get it right, to represent, to set an example, to blaze a path. It’s interesting to wonder, if we could somehow apply a filter that’d shut those considerations down, how much easier our choices would be.

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Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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I received a terrifying letter in the mail the other day: an invitation to a grade school reunion.  As in eighth grade.

Ew, right? The very thought sent chills up my spine.  Did I really want to revisit my adolescent self? Does anyone?

Now, I am old enough to know that every one of us, from the beauty queens to the brainiacs, goes through an awkward stage – unloved, uncool, unsure of ourselves. We’ve gone here before:

Whether we were beauty or brains, prom queen or wallflower, picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we thought others perceived us.

For me, the dork stage came on like a bull at the start of seventh grade, peaked precipitously in eighth and ninth grade, then gradually subsided by the time I started my junior year of high school when, coincidentally, I had gotten both contact lenses and my driver’s license.  Up until then, however, I was the shy, nerdy girl with thick glasses, bad hair and – insult to injury — hay fever.

I was never without a Kleenex.

Yep, I was truly tragic for a few years there, yet not tragic enough to be oblivious to the fact. So clearly, you can imagine my reluctance to willingly go back to the dark days in the form of cocktails and lunch at a chichi restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Would people I hadn’t seen since I turned 14 still remember me as the dorky kid?  Worse, would I suddenly start thinking of myself that way once again?

And then —  insert light bulb here — because I am a grown up and presumably have learned a thing or two about life along the way, I realized that maybe that sorry image of myself wasn’t about mean girls or pecking orders. It was really about me.  A prison of my own making.

Sometimes what keeps us from growing into ourselves, what holds us back in any number of ways and often keeps us undecided when it comes to figuring out what to do with our lives — and being happy with that decision once we’ve made it — is the fear of being judged.  But what it takes a while to realize is this:  often the almighty judge who had us quaking in our grade school plaid is made of straw.  The mythical mean girls we feared then – and those we fear now — may exist only in our own heads. And when it comes to all this leftover adolescent angst, women seem to have much thinner skins than men.

Is it the lingering legacy of adolescence? We’re held back by the fear that we are going to be judged when in fact, the only judge is the girl in the mirror.  Sure, we know this.  And yet: still we second-guess our decisions.  We search for approval.  We let ourselves be tyrannized by the shoulds. We worry about whether we will measure up.  Whether we fit in. We see ourselves as (we assume) others see us.

We end up, in fact, imprisoned by our own assumptions of what other folks will think – based on who we think those people actually are.  The funny thing is, what we’re doing is judging them.  It’s often unfair — and insulting, to boot. And we do it all the time.

Anyway, if all of the above sounds like a pep talk to get me to shell out the fifty-five bucks for that reunion, you’re right.  I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to go. On the plus side, I am considerably better looking than I was at 14, I have a pretty cool job, and have finally mastered the art of conversation.  I also spend a good amount of money to have good hair.

But then again: I still have hay fever.  Don’t judge.

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In an epic case of What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around, Janice Min, founding editor of Us Weekly magazine (a magazine which traffics in “cute mum and baby” porn and is nearly singlehandedly responsible for introducing terms including “baby bump” and “post-baby body” into the lexicon) who helmed the junkreading juggernaut for six years and now collects her paychecks from the Hollywood Reporter, is bummed because of the pressure she feels, a mere four months after her baby was born, to “get her body back.”

Cue the finger violins.

Don’t get me wrong. I empathize with her plight. No really, I do. But this is the woman who built an empire on careful monitoring of the size and curvature of other womens’ bellies in images superimposed with circles and arrows to help the viewer discern where there might either be a growing baby or, like, the remnants of an Umami burger, under the heading “Bump Alert!” (Such a fun game. If it actually is a baby, it’s so exciting! And if it’s not, it’s so fun to laugh at someone else’s gut!) On cover stories of women who’ve just given birth, prancing in bikinis under headlines like, “How I Got My Body Back” — and stories worrying over the poor souls who haven’t managed to lose the baby weight immediately. Oh, and can’t forget baby: why, it’s the chicest accessory of the season! Min was not only shoveling this schlock week after week after week, she was taking it straight to the bank.

Had anyone else written the piece, which ran in Sunday’s NYT with the title “Can A Mom Get A Break?” I’d be backing her up. But this is simply too much. It’s four months since Min welcomed baby, and the manicurists want to know when she’s due.

There, in the stacks of periodicals at the nail salon, these genetic aberrations smile at us from celebrity magazines, or from our computer screens, wearing bikinis on the beach in Cabo weeks after Caesarean sections, or going straight from the recovery room to Victoria’s Secret runway…
You see, in today’s celebrity narrative, just two kinds of desirable maternal female physiques exist: the adorable gestating one (with bellies called “bumps”) and its follow-up, the body that boomerangs back from birth possibly even better than before.

The “Wow, I totally see the error of my ways and man you really do reap what you sow” you’re waiting for? It begins and ends with this:

I am partly to blame for my own physical netherworld. As the editor of Us Weekly, covering the Suris and Shilohs of Hollywood for six years, I delivered what the young female audience wanted: cute moms and babies. So much so that Tom Wolfe once remarked, ‘The one thing that Us Weekly has done that’s a great boost to the nation is they’ve probably increased the birthrate.”

I don’t know about that (although I honestly wouldn’t be surprised), but a glossy tabloid as ubiquitous as Us can certainly take a leading role in shaping the culture, the “narrative” to which Min refers. (After all: the Stars, as Us likes to point out, Are Just Like Us!) A narrative that’s about appearances. Which is bad. Worse, as Min suggests, is the way in which it morphs:

The recent “Are You Mom Enough?” cover of Time magazine was either the apex or nadir of all our current mama drama. If it wasn’t enough to get creeped out hearing grown men express envy of the breast-feeding 4 year-old boy latched onto his attractive mother, the question posed on the cover seemed to encompass not only the article’s attachment parenting debate, but also the self-doubt that all mothers perpetually face… It’s like our helicopter parenting (with nowhere else to go) turned inward.

Or the judgment we foist upon others turned onto ourselves.

I promise you, I am not taking pleasure in this woman’s pain. In fact, I think there’s a lesson in it for all of us: It’s hard to be a woman. It’s hard to manage the juggle and the pressure and the expectations. But when we pick each other apart for sport, where does that leave us? Spending our baby’s first months of life consumed with getting back into our skinny jeans.

And there’s one more lesson worth thinking about: Karma, as they say, is a bitch. (Especially when she gets her post-baby body back to pre-baby form faster than you.)

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Is mediocrity the last taboo?

The question came to mind a while back when I spied a column by Thomas Friedman, who suggested that in our global economy where work gets done cheaper overseas and where, here at home, technology is eating jobs in a rapidly accelerating pace, only the strong  will survive.  His overall point?  Average is officially over.

Your pulse just started racing, right?

Whether or not we happen to be gainfully employed, it’s a message that pushes a button for so many women:  We’re convinced that mediocre is never going to cut it, that “average” is something barely north of failure.  And in fact, that was the subtext of what many of the women we interviewed for Undecided told us about their struggles with career and life decisions, with second guesses about the road not taken, and with the pervasive belief that today’s women can/should/will have it all: great career, hot sex, well-behaved children, and granite in the kitchen.

Ever wonder how we got to this place?

1.  The Treadmill.  It starts early and stays late.  We’ve written before about young girls building their resumes at their mama’s knee — always with an eye on five years down the road: the right high school, the best soccer team, the prestigious college.  It’s a bad habit to break.  But what’s worse is that when young girls especially are trained to keep their eye on the prize — we have to take advantage of all those doors that have suddenly flown open, right? — what happens early on is that they become afraid to take risks, to rule things out, for fear that they could fail.  Is this future-thinking why I see students who get an assignment back with a “B-plus” on the top — and dissolve into tears?  Why “good enough” — never is?

2.  We aim to please.  Why?  We were raised that way — from the days when we were Daddy’s little girl.  We talked to an admissions director/counselor at a prestigious girls high school in an affluent area of California, and that’s what she told us she sees in many of the over-achievers in her school. When she talks to students these days, a lot of the chat revolves around serious stress. They admit that a lot is self-induced, but when she asks them, “Well, do you really need to take six honors courses?” the answer will be “But I want to.” What they really want, she suspects, is to please. “Studies show girls have so many more problems than boys— depression, eating disorders, migraines—because girls will stick with the craziness a lot longer than boys will,” she said. “Girls are hard-wired to please, which makes the pressure even bigger. They won’t give up, because to do so would be a failure. And they don’t want anybody to feel they’re a failure, because then they’d be letting people down.”

3.  Social Media.  Ah, yes.  It’s become our own private echo chambers that keeps us comparing and contrasting, the alternate reality where only perfect will do.  After all, what else do we see in our news feeds? When was the last time you saw an ugly baby on Facebook?  Heard your friend got fired — as opposed to hired?  I’ve heard of college girls who have their make-up done before they head out on Friday nights because they want to look good in the pictures that will inevitably appear on Facebook the next day. No joke. And let’s get real: When was the last time you posted anything that was less than, well, cute and witty.  Sure, we all know our own online personnas are carefully crafted, that we use them to brand ourselves, but that doesn’t prevent us from looking at all those others out there and believing in the surreality of it all, with the nagging feeling that those folks out there are doing it better, faster, cuter — and having lots more fun.

4.  The judge.  It’s become a cliche that we tend to judge each other by our choices: Defending what we’ve chosen for our lives—and what we’ve chosen to leave behind. Judging our friends’ choices. Interpreting the fact that our friend has chosen something different as her judgment (and rejection) of what we’ve chosen for ourselves. But what we often forget is that the worst judge of all is often the one in the mirror, holding us to impossible standards and feeding our self doubt. (Be honest here: how many of you sat glued to the tube during the summer Olympics when you were a child, watching those preternaturally small gymnasts — and feeling like you yourself had failed because at the ripe old age of 10 or 12  you had never nailed a vault —  and most likely never would?)  When we’re deep in the throes of a “Which way should I go,” part of the angst is often the knowledge that no matter what we choose, we will be judged. In all sorts of ways. In ways that men aren’t, and in ways that are often contradictory. And the damnedest truth of all: We often do it to ourselves.

5.  The Great Expectations.  Especially those that go hand in hand with the mantras with which we’ve been raised:  You can do anything!  You can do everything!  And it will all be amazing!  No wonder that the thought of mediocrity sucks our soul.  One of our sources who is herself far from mediocre said it best:  “I wonder if some of our frustration is about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to excel at everything—wife, writer, teacher, runner, in my case—and so we’re always worried about the area in which we’re not measuring up to our own expectations.”

Sigh.  All of which could be the ultimate buzzkill if it weren’t for a bit of wisdom we heard from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, who told us about a recent study that found that starting at age 50, people actually get happier.  Why?  “What you learn from experience,” he told us, “is exactly that good enough is good enough, and once you learn that, you stop torturing yourself looking for the best, and life gets a lot simpler.”

And, we might add, far from mediocre.

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In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of “personal branding,” of Rachel Zoe–a woman famous for dressing other famous, ahem, grown women–how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?

I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece is a well-timed tease–especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile–whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:

“Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on “Fashion Police” on the E! network. In recent years, he said, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.”

As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. “If your client plays nefarious characters,” said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate “that she’s really a fresh ingénue.”

Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld’s reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis’s transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new “face” of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.

Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.

Stylists at the time catered to stars’ insecurities. “The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture,” Ms. Press observed. “Their very existence says of an actress, ‘I don’t trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can’t bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn’t deliver.’ ”

Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior anytime soon, but I think there’s something in here that’s pretty universal. The need to (pause for barf-in-my-mouth) brand ourselves.

Gross, right? And yet. We all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands…), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated–some might say contrived–image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we’re all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it’s little wonder:

Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn’t true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee’s or Levi’s, then your jeans didn’t tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear… What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It’s not just about jeans that fit; it’s about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it’s not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they’re not trivial anymore.

Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:

Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

It all makes you wonder: is all this “personal branding” we’re doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand–or, as we like to call it, our “iconic self“–a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn’t it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging out our sloppy, indefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?

But all of it surely comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we’d have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.

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 Last week during all the memorializing of Apple founder/college dropout/cultural visionary Steve Jobs, I found myself watching the commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005 — and, in all that wisdom, one line in particular gave me the chills: Don’t Live Someone Else’s Life, he said. Actually, what he said was:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Living someone else’s life? Now, I (vaguely) recall being a fresh college grad, and I’m sure such words might have just made me chuckle then, but with a few additional years under my belt, I can say I know exactly what he’s talking about. I think most of us do, if we’re honest.

So often, we make choices based on shoulds, on expectations, biases, images, maybe even out of fear. Women in particular often find our decisions are colored by worries about being judged or getting approval, and we’re often battling some deeply entrenched beliefs around it somehow being virtuous to put ourselves last — at the bottom of our own list. Sometimes we just drift. But, with each choice we make, our life picks up a little bit of steam, until, sometimes, before we know it, we find the life we’re living is one that’s being driven by inertia, heading off in some direction we never planned.

As Molly, a young Manhattanite we profiled in the book, told us:

I did everything my boss asked, I did it perfectly, I sucked up. In six months, I got promoted. It was one of the fastest promotions they’d ever experienced. I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step; I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step. And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, wait a minute, how did I get this far? I just blindly tried really hard without really thinking, What’s the end? Where is this getting me?

To quote the Talking Heads: Self, how did I get here? 

Sounds familiar, no? But maybe the more important question is this: How do I take back the wheel?

Well here’s the good news: You don’t have to take back anything! You’re not powerless. It was you who made the choices that got you to this point — this job, this relationship, this roommate, this pet chinchilla — and you are not powerless to make choices that’ll take you down a different path from here. Those are your hands on the wheel — they’ve been there all along.

Once you acknowledge you’re the one in control of those hands, your next step should be to take some time to notice where they’re steering you, your focus, your time, your energy? Because here’s the thing: everything is a choice — and every choice, by definition, entails a trade-off. Whether we go into it consciously or not.

Whether or not you consciously think to yourself: this time I’m spending baking cookies for the kids’ bake sale or agonizing over which color to use in the graph on Slide 4 in this PowerPoint is time I am not spending in the garden, or researching the yoga teacher training course I’ve been thinking about since I dropped my first “Om,” you’re still making the trade. You can’t be in two places at once. And the decisions you make about what to do with your time, where to focus your energy — well, they shape your life. So if you’re feeling like you’re living someone else’s life, start going into those choices consciously — really thinking about what you are and are not choosing to do. Once you do, you might discover you’re spending your time and energy on things (and maybe even people and jobs) that you don’t really care about, letting the things you’re most passionate about slip by the wayside, while you’re on cruise control.

It can be scary — maybe our passion seems weird, our dreams too far out of reach. Maybe you’ll fail. And maybe after that, you’ll try again. But wouldn’t you rather fail at your own dreams than succeed at someone else’s? And hey, failure’s recoverable — even Steve Jobs got fired.

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