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Posts Tagged ‘expectations’

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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I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

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The last time our family got together — finding all of us in the same zipcode at the same time is a rare and wondrous feat — we hunkered down in a suite at the Holiday Inn Express (Backstory not important). With no bar or restaurant in sight, our family of foodies trekked to the closest place of business, a gas station mini mart, and bought tortilla chips, bean dip and salsa, and wine, which we drank out of styrofoam coffee cups.

I think we were happy.

I got to thinking about all this happiness business the other day via a piece in the New York Times that suggests that our all-American pursuit of happiness leads to nothing but angst.  The writer, Ruth Whippman, a Brit who recently relocated to California, contrasts British grim to American happy and says she’ll take grim any day.  She starts her piece with a quote from Eric Hoffer — “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness” — then sails right in:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

Point taken.  We have tied ourselves up in knots of late by using happiness as the barometer of who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing.  And we find that, no matter what, the scale is such that we don’t measure up.  How could we?  I can’t even define happiness.  Can you?

Nonetheless, this endless quest for what we consider our birthright lands us smack in the land of “yeah, but…” A good job that pays the rent?  And maybe even engaging for some of the day? Yeah, but…  If I put in a few more hours, if I got that raise, if I had a better title, if i didn’t have to grade those papers … Then, I’d be happy.

Family and friends?  We had a blast the last time we got together, but if only we could do it more often.  And, you know, the last time the wine was kinda sub-par….

Great kids?  Well, yeah…  He/she plays well with others, and indeed rocks the playground, but, sigh, we’d all be happier if he/she could get into that Chinese immersion program, get on the select soccer team, score off the charts in math, or get into that pricey school that everyone is talking about.

You get the drift.  We’ve bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook).  Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo.  And, of course, scores well, too.  Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot).  A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club.  And granite in the kitchen.

Is it all about the shoulds? The quest for perfect?  For most of us, the package is unachievable.  But even if we could lay claim to the whole checklist, there’s always this: the next big thing.   Call it the “If-then” fallacy that keeps us living in the future, and blame it on what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbing on Happiness as our uncanny ability to blow it when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.  There’s something else at play here, too:  the American culture itself.   As we wrote in Undecided:

What gets us into trouble is a culture that is both acquisitional and aspirational, leaving us in a constant drool for the Next. Big. Thing. But once we get it, guess what? We’re happy for five minutes, and then we’re off on the chase. We’re back to square one, lusting again over that greener grass. And here’s an irony: Once we’ve jumped the fence, we sometimes wonder if what we had in the first place might have been what we really wanted after all.

Consumer culture doesn’t help. We’re constantly fed the message that we will be happy, sexy, thin, loved—pick one—if we buy the new and improved face cream, wheat bread, plastic wrap. Do we ever see the message that we have enough? Sure, we’re smart enough to know that ads in glossy magazines do not promise happiness, but the subtext spills over: This thing will make you happy. Get the externals in order. Happiness to follow.

But anyway, back to Whitman, whose column sparked this riff.  From her across-the-pond perspective, she has us down:

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Bingo.  In our lifelong chase after the impossible ideal we can’t even define, we’ve blinded ourselves to what happiness may be all about after all: a certain contentment with what is.  An ability to savor  the moment. We might even get there if we could ratchet down our expectations.

Which leads us back to the Holiday Inn Express, where our party of five ended up talking and laughing well into the night.  And even though the wine was sub-par, I think we were happy.  Maybe even with a capital-H.

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“Good girls go to Heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” So said Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and author of the bestselling “Sex and the Single Girl.” And while one can say what one will about Cosmopolitan magazine, few can argue that HGB was not a gamechanger.

Don’t get me wrong: Cosmo will never be mistaken for a bastion of literary sophistication. Indeed, certain types might look down on its not-so-subtle ethos of Empowerment Through Sex Tips. (How many sex tips does an empowered woman really need, after all?) But the thing is, the thing that feels, to American women in the year 2012, so obvious as to be unnecessary to even mention, is that being empowered sexually is inextricably tied to being empowered, period.

In the New York Times’ “99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World,” writer Edith Zimmerman explores the “global juggernaut,”–a phrase which is no exaggeration:

Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country [in the world]), actually) in more than 100 nations–including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.

In fact, Zimmerman says she received an email from the editor of Cosmo India, who wrote:

When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters — women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally — writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information.

That’s pretty wild. And honestly, it’s pretty important.

Back in America (and back in the day), the messages HGB heralded were proportionately eye-opening. You don’t need a husband to be happy (in fact, she once dropped this doosie: “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen”). Your primary fulfillment should come from work. Be self-sufficient. Have sex. (And lots of it! Without shame!) Work hard. Don’t depend on a man for anything.

“So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life–get it for yourself.

And, she championed the “mouseburgers”–women who didn’t come from privilege, pedigree, or Princeton. Her book “Sex and The Single Girl” was published one year before “The Feminine Mystique.” Something was in the air, and she was a part of it.

And her legacy is clear. While one might no longer embrace her ideas about sleeping with married men (HGB: go for it), anorexia (HGB: a touch of it can be a good thing), or dealing with the boss (HGB: seduce him, then marry him), others have become internalized by our collective, womanly subconscious: namely, that we can have it all.

As we wrote about in Undecided, while women have now reached the point where even that message feels, in some ways, constrictive–knotted up with pressure and expectations and juggling and the entrenched inequality that remains–clearly, we’re making progress. HGB and countless others had their eyes on the ball (I refuse to make a Cosmo-worthy pun here); it’s our job to keep running with it.

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I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

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More than likely, you are too.

Give it a try:  n-n-n-n-n-ooooooooooooo.

Can’t say it, can you?  Like me, you are probably over-extended, over-committed and over-booked. Which makes me wonder: Why is it that we can’t give ourselves permission to ever respectfully decline?  And, while we’re at it: why do men have an easier time with the n-word?  Are there, for example, any show tunes about a guy who can’t say no?  Right? Are they the more evolved of the species?  ( I’m sure we’ll find out in the comments section.)

This comes up because, as I write this, I am looking forward to a toxic tomorrow, when I have three major commitments that, had they been on three different days, I would be gladly anticipating.  And, to be sure, each is a case of my, a while ago, saying: Yes, absolutely!  But then, calendars rearranged.  Life intervened.  The calendar went haywire.  And here I am.  Wondering how I will make it through the day.  Or put all those miles on my car.  Could I have declined anywhere along the way?

Of course.  But I did not.  Which is why, as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote– albeit in an entirely different context — I’m in a terrible fix.

This whole issue of saying no came up in class today, when one of my students, talking about the over-extension of today’s college students, talked about an invitation to participate in something (probably spectacular — she’s that kind of kid) where she had just said no. Can’t do it.  And the response from her friends was disbelief.

Part of this is the fact that as women we are raised to please.  It starts early.  When writing our book, we talked to a counselor at a prestigious all-girls high school, who told us that when she talks to many of the girls in her school the main topic of conversation is 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 told us, 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. 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.”

Not sure that need not to let people down ever quite goes away.  (Myself?  See above.)  We are loathe to say no.  (And, as we’ve noted before, damn quick to apologize.)  Is it a question of self-worth?  That we still see ourselves as not worthy? This gets compounded when we get into the real world of work by the fact that we’re so new to the game that, when we get invited to the table, we end up feeling grateful.  Take the case of a woman we met after a speech we gave at a conference not long ago.  She came up to us afterward and told us that the president of her company had called her during the middle of the previous day’s session and offered her a new position, with a new title and a bump in salary.  The call took her by surprise, she said yes, and the call ended.  Bang. But what she said to us a day later was this: shouldn’t she have negotiated her salary?  Wouldn’t a man have done that?

Shouldn’t she have made the big ask?  Probably, yes.

Maybe it’s we haven’t yet learned that it’s okay to be ourselves.  To be true to our very own wants and needs. To be authentic. To ditch what we call the iconic self. To live up to no one’s expectations but our own. And sometimes that means to, well, just say no.

But what the hell do I know.  Here I sit, eating my dinner (burned the crap out of the organic carrots, by the way), finishing this post.  I’d have another glass of wine but, you know, tomorrow is a big day.

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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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The other day, I got a ping from a former student who sent a link to a recent piece she’d read over on Forbes.com.  “Have you seen this?” she wrote.  “It reminds me of Undecided!”

The topic? Burn-out.  Apparently, it’s rampant among high achieving millennial women. At least that’s the skinny according to a piece by Forbes contributor Larissa Faw who writes that “a growing number of young professional women who seem to ‘have it all’ are burning out at work before they reach 30.”

She had me at have it all.  Faw doesn’t necessarily back up the burn-out rate with numbers, but she does offer some compelling stats that link these “early career flameouts” with women’s declining presence on the upper reaches of the corporate ladder:

 Today, 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37% for mid-management roles and 26% for vice presidents and senior managers, according to McKinsey research. Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage

Interesting, but not surprising.  What struck me, though – and what perhaps made that former student think of Undecided — was Faw’s rationale that one of the reasons for the lopsided stats is that, whereas women burnout early and jump ship, men stick around.  Why?  Because our brothers know how to relax.  From the story:

 It seems relaxation is something Millennial women have never experienced. One reason that women are burning out early in their careers is that they have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded resumes. “These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted,” says Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse.

Bingo.

Now, we can’t say whether this inability to take five logically leads to burn-out.  But what we can say, based on the reporting we did for the book, is that this treadmill mentality is very real, especially among young women raised with the message that “you can have it all.”  These are the girls who started building their resumes in grade school, who lived by their day planners and five-year plans, and who crumbled at the sight of a B-plus.

I remember seeing this one little girl, in grade school plaid, sitting in Starbucks, drinking this giant latte, and working w/her tutor on some kind of Princeton Review workbook for acing the high school entrance exam.  No one even questioned the caffeine.  And check this: one study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that college educated parents were spending more time with their kids than ever before.  Cool, right? But what the researchers discovered was the root of all this extra time was the perceived scarcity of college spots. The title of the study? The rug rat race.  No joke.  Another piece on CNN a while back featured hard-driving moms who had either quit their jobs or taken a leave to navigate their kids thru the college admission process.

Whew. I’m verging on burn-out just writing this stuff.  Call it the curse of great expectations: The problem with the treadmill mentality is that it leads to a lot of future thinking — a bad habit that’s hard to break — or what psychologists call the arrival fallacy:  If I make this team, get into that college,  score that fat job – then I’ll be happy.

Or not.  Because where the treadmill ends is in the real world.  And though we’ve come a long way, baby, that world has not quite caught up.  All of which has lead to a lot of growing pains as we – and especially our Millennial sisters – learn to navigate the trade-offs without much in the way of a roadmap.

Thing is, for this newest generation of twenty (or thirty) somethings and the rest of us who’ve been bred on perfection and raised with the mantra that the sky’s our limit, well, with everything on the menu, could it be that, no matter what the routine, once something becomes routine, we’re doomed to be just not that into it anymore? No matter the pluses, are we unable to see anything but the minuses? This isn’t quite perfect, so why should I stick around? Once we’re confronted with reality’s non-perfection, do we begin to imagine what we’re not doing?  Hello, carrot.  Meet stick.

Bottom line, we’re in it together, trying to figure this stuff out.  As Teri Thompson, chief marketing officer and vice president of marketing and media at Purdue, tells Forbes:

 “We’re all a work in progress; new inputs—from new friends to new places visited—mean we’re constantly changing in our thoughts of what’s desired, what’s possible, what’s fun, what we want to do.”

Forbes might call it burnout.  We call it finding our way.  By the way, that former student?  She’s a millennial woman herself.  A high achiever who is currently in the throes of her law school applications.

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Well, it certainly seems like it. According to Pamela Paul’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times,

Mother’s little helper of the new millennium may in fact be the sleeping pill – a prescription not likely to inspire a jaunty pop song anytime soon. Nearly 3 in 10 American women fess up to using some kind of sleep aid at least a few nights a week, according to “Women and Sleep,” a 2007 study by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

And anecdotal research indicates it’s not just mothers who are starved for shut-eye, but women in general:

Sleep-medicine practices are overwhelmingly dominated by female patients. Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, said three out of four insomnia patients at the clinic are women…

In the ‘Women and Sleep’ study, 80 percent of women reported being just too stressed or worried to turn out the proverbial lights.

In a word: unshocking. I myself am firmly in the Fall Asleep Fine But Wake At 3 And Can’t Get Back to Sleep camp. I don’t have kids, but I do have several jobs, and a life. Last night I worried over the writing deadlines I have this week, the speaking engagement I have on Wednesday halfway across the state, and the new coaching client whose appointment I’m going to have to reschedule in order to travel to said speaking engagement… not to mention the shopping list, the whipping wind’s effect on the palm tree that sways outside my front window, the doctor’s appointment I’ve been meaning to make for, oh, the past five months, what I’m going to wear to said speaking engagement… I could go on — but I’m guessing you catch my drift. More than likely, it would seem, you do exactly the same thing. As Paul wrote:

According to IMS Health, a health care consulting firm in Danbury, Conn., the use of prescription sleep aids among women peaks from 40 to 59. Last year, the firm said, 15,473,000 American women between those ages got a prescription to help them sleep, nearly twice the number of men in that age group.

Those figures do not include those who are prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications, frequently used off-label for insomnia. Nor do they include women who zone out with a glass of wine.

The question is, how is it that men aren’t similarly affected?

Well, I’d guess there are more than a couple factors at play: it’s personal, and it’s political. Women hold ourselves to high standards — we internalize the messages that bombard us from all directions, from the media to our mothers. We want to be perfect: perfect employees, perfect partners, perfect moms, perfect friends, perfect looking, perfect yogis, chefs, decorators, you name it. We were weaned on the messages that we could have it all and that we could do anything — and so we fill our days with our valiant attempts to do it all, running at full speed ahead, from this to that and back again, so adrenalized that the only way to unwind, it seems, is to dive into a bottle, whether of pills or Pinot.

But it’s not only our tough inner critic that’s to blame. The fact is, the modern workplace–of which women are now the majority–is still set up as though the workers who fill it were Don Draper clones, men with a full-time Betty at home, able to take care of all of the stuff that keeps a life running smoothly. But the ladies (and gentlemen) of today don’t have a Betty. So we do our best Don–and then we make the time to get Betty’s job done, too. We work our full day–and then we fold the clothes. And do the grocery shopping. And pick up the dry cleaning. And attempt to cook healthy items (or contend with the parking lot at our favorite take-out joint), to exercise, to socialize, to sleep. To quote Germaine Greer:

When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.

…and none of the Zzzs.

So, what to do? Being a little easier on ourselves would certainly be a start. Asking for help might be another. And then: start thinking bigger, recognize the deeper truths for the eye-openers that they are. The world has changed, but the workplace and expectations haven’t. So maybe what we really need to be thinking about is what we can do to change that.

Just, hopefully, not at 3am.

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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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