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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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I’ll bet you do.  That’s right: you, over there.  The one who just fished a shirt to wear to work out of the pile of dirty clothes on your bedroom floor.  Trust me, I do not judge, having worn the same running clothes for three days straight.  (Right.  Ew.)

Seems to me, if we’re in the workforce, we could all use a housewife at home to pick up the groceries and fold the clothes.  But whether we’re married or not, with or without kids, said housewife is likely to be you. No matter where you work, or how hard, when it comes to the second shift, ladies, we own it.

Which is something, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, that needs to change if we ever want to cut into the so-called ambition gap.   Sandberg has emerged as a leading voice in the quest to make life more doable — and the ladder more accessible — for those of us (read: most of us) who want the space to pursue both a career and a life.  And what she suggests is that if we ever want to get to fifty-fifty in the c-suites, we need to get to fifty-fifty back at home.

Unless, of course, we can hire a housewife.

In an interview for the Makers series from PBS and AOL, Sandberg spoke on a number of issues related to the difficulties women face in the workplace, from work-life balance (no such thing, she says) and the division of household labor.  The interview is broken up into mini-soundbites for quick hits of inspiration whenever you might need one, and at approximately 1:57 in this particular cut (scroll to the video at the bottom of the page) what she says is be careful who you marry (Cogent advice: we heard the same from Stanford economist Myra Strober, in an interview for our book):

The most important thing, I’ve said this a hundred times, if you marry a man, marry the right one.  If you can marry a woman, that’s better because the split between two women in the home is pretty even, data shows.

 But find someone to marry who’s going to do half.  Not just support your career by saying things – oh, of course you should work –  but actually get up and change half the diapers, because that’s what it takes.

Her overarching point? If women ran half the institutions, and men ran half the homes, the world would be a better place.  Hard to argue with that one, especially when you consider that, for most of us, the economy doesn’t allow for many single income families.  (And then, of course, there’s  the structure of today’s workplace that demands a 52 hour workweek.  But we’ve covered that.)

Anyway, I thought of all this housewife business the other day, after a class in which a student pitched a story on the lack of women in leadership positions in corporate America.  While we were brainstorming a fresh angle for the piece, one student brought up the issue of stay-at-home dads as one way to close the gap.  Good idea, right?  Especially in a classroom of forward-thinking millennial kids.  And so I turned to the men in the class and said, “Okay, how many of you would consider being a stay at home dad?”  Answers ranged from a reluctant “well, maybe” to “no way” to clearly the most honest answer of the bunch:  “I hate children.”  Which if nothing else was good for a laugh.  Then that student who had brought up the issue in the first place asked how many students had had stay-at-home dads.  Not quite radio silence, but close to it.

What struck me was the fact that here in 2012, a conversation about shifting gender roles seemed, to a classful of kick-ass college seniors, so, you know, quaint.  And so I brought up the topic again today, and one female student voiced a collective worry: I want a career and a family. But when and how do I make it  fit?  From the men, again, radio silence. What was interesting, but not entirely surprising, was that this was something none of the guys had ever considered.  Or, probably, would ever have to. You can be sure I pointed that out.

But then it struck me.  Is the issue the fact that we still define work outside of work in traditional gender terms? The most recent American Time Use Survey found that 20 percent of men did housework on a given day compared with 49 percent of women. Forty-one percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women.  And then there’s this: back in 2008, the Gallup Lifestyle poll (the most recent one) found that married couples still maintain a traditional division of labor:  men did the yardwork and took care of the car, women did the dishes and took care of the kids.  (Which often makes me wonder how the division of labor breaks down in, say, Manhattan, where folks don’t have a lot of cars, and even fewer yards.  But, anyway.)

So maybe that’s our first step:  letting go of traditional gender expectations, especially at home.  I myself just dragged myself home from work.  My husband, who was watching a hockey game, greeted me at the door with a glass of Pinot. Much appreciated. We’re having leftovers for dinner.  And everyday, he packs my lunch.

My students think that’s cute.

As for my running clothes?  Sigh.  Don’t ask.

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Sure, there’s been a lot of chat about everything that’s wrong with Mad Men and why women in general and feminists in particular should hate its unrepentant misogynystic guts.  And let’s face it:  this is a show that glorifies gin, Lucky Strikes and getting laid (by anyone but one’s spouse).

What’s not to hate, right?

Not so fast. As Stephanie Coontz wrote a year or so ago in the Washington Post: “Mad Men’s writers are not sexist. The time period was.”  And so as a woman and a feminist let me unapologetically admit that I can not wait for the season five premiere on Sunday.  Sure, it’s great TV, and the attention to period detail is freakishly fantastic.  (Pause here to drool over those dresses.)  And, as nighttime soaps go, there’s one hell of a story going on.  But the real reason I love Mad Men – as opposed to, say, its short-lived period clones (read: The Playboy Club and Pan Am) — is because it resonates:

Lesson 1:  The Way We Were. Want to know what second-wave feminism was all about?  Or why we needed a focused movement?  Look no further than the women of Sterling Cooper who, with the exception of Peggy (more later), type their days away in the steno pool or, if they’re lucky, move up to the outer office, answering someone else’s phone.  What’s great is that Mad Men doesn’t pretend that these “career girls” are empowered – as Pan Am and The Playboy Club tried to do.  Instead, we get it right away:  these gals are as hemmed in by the intractability of the system as they are by their rigid underwear.  Their only defense against what we now call sexual harassment was a giggle and a shrug. And for those who wonder what The Feminine Mystique was all about, may I introduce you to the chain-smoking Betty Draper?  She left her husband (as well she should have), ignores her kids, and ran off to Vegas to marry another guy who treats her like a house pet.

 Lesson 2. Where We Need to Go. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way in terms of career. Back when I graduated from college — not that long ago.  or maybe it was –  it was still legal for an employer to list an administrative job in the “female” classifieds and a managerial one in the “male.” Most women who graduated from college were told they had three career options:  secretary, teacher or nurse. And prospective employers were allowed to ask women what their husbands did for a living. Ugh. But for all the progress we’ve made, the workplace still hasn’t caught up. Take away the ashtrays and the booze and if you look closely,  you realize that the structure of today’s workplace isn’t all that different from Sterling Cooper’s, where every Don had a Betty at home to take care of business. It’s still designed by, and for, men. But the reality is that in today’s world, Betty puts in 52 hours a week, just like Don, and then comes home to do the laundry.   Even when men step up at home in ways their fathers never did, there’s still the math: take the current workplace expectations, add in the omnipresence of technology that keeps us uber-connected 24/7, and there aren’t enough hours in the day for any of us.  Unless, of course, one has a housewife.

Lesson 3: Ask, dammit.  In a word, Peggy.  She started as a secretary. Ended up a copywriter.  Which apparently was pretty unheard of in those days.  So how did she end up with a title, an office, and a snazzy new job?  She asked. Enough said. All too often, even decades after the days of Sterling Cooper, many of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, for fear we might be labeled as ambitious and thus, less likable.  Or that we might get turned down.  And so we cross our fingers and wait to get the nod from a higher up – and then are grateful if we do.  Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that keeps us from taking those risks — the possibility that the answer might be a big fat no or that even if it’s a yes, we might fall flat on our face. But as the wise woman told us when we were reporting our book:  You’ll always get over a failure. But regret?  It’s not recoverable.

Lesson 4. Beware the personal brand.  And then there’s Don.  Okay, he’s a guy and we write about women.  But, regardless of gender, he is the embodiment of what we call the iconic self, that image we create to project who we wish we were.  Don is an illusionist, a mystery man who invented himself out of whole cloth and, as David Weigand writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, is “on the run from himself.”  Weigand, who compares Draper to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Fun fact: Fitzgerald got his start as an advertising copywriter), writes:

Fitzgerald, the Midwesterner who went East to reinvent himself, saw both sides of the American “dream.” On the one hand, ours has always been a culture of hope and aspiration. On the other, our abiding belief in change and the ability to reinvent ourselves can bring us perilously close to the edge of self-delusion.

In short, Don is a cautionary tale, a desperate example (cue the falling man in the opening credits) of how we can lose ourselves when we work too hard to become our brand. When it comes to Don, we wonder: is there a there there?  Who knows. But it definitely makes you ponder what Don might do with Facebook.  Scary thought.

Lesson 5. Embrace our differences as our strengths.  It’s a revolutionary thought, the idea that men and women bring different strengths and talents to the table. After all, we came up thinking that to be successful, we had to fit in — to be “a man in a skirt,” as one of our sources dubbed it.  But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best:  Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Not to say one gender is better than the other.  Just different.  Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past.  The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”

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The interwebs – and the San Francisco Bay Area, which is quite literally Facebook territory – have been abuzz since news of the social networking site’s IPO broke Wednesday.   Within hours, anyone with a mic or a keyboard was thoroughly a-riff:  Would the projected $5 billion trigger a new housing boom?  Would it save the California economy?

Or was Facebook nothing but a data-mining outfit, selling our info to the highest bidder, and before long, so over.  With nearly half the world’s internet users logged on, how could it grow?

But while the opinionators were opinionating, a good percentage of the social networking site’s 845 million users (58 percent of them women, by the way) were madly liking, sharing and updating their news feeds to call out – if that isn’t too mild a word — Susan G. Komen’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood.

The irony that an organization that proclaims its dedication to curing (there’s some debate on that, too) breast cancer would pull the plug on the funding for free mammograms was way too much.  The backlash was fast, furious and viral.  And it was in our Face.

Within hours, Komen was under immense pressure both within and without the organization.  They backpedaled.  Top officials resigned.  Racers for the cure decided, well, not to.  Comments like this one — I was sort of done when they partnered with KFC to turn the buckets pink – that was a key notion that they weren’t terribly concerned about women’s health. — took on a life of their own.

And Planned Parenthood?  By Wednesday night, it had received $400,000 in donations.  On Thursday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg pledged to give Planned Parenthood $250,000.

For far too long, Planned Parenthood has been in the crosshairs of conservatives, who have tagged the organization as nothing but — as the erstwhile presidential candidate Michele Bachman once called it, “the LensCrafter of big abortion” — when in reality, Planned Parenthood is a prime provider of health care for women who can’t afford it.  (Abortions only make up 10 percent of the services it provides.)

As we’ve written before, we know of one woman, in fact, whose life may have been saved by Planned Parenthood. She discovered a lump in her breast shortly after losing her work-related health insurance. Where did she turn for a mammogram? Yep, Planned Parenthood, which ultimately shepherded her through the scary process of not only the diagnostics, but ultimately surgery, chemo and radiation.

And so, while some folks might look at Facebook  and see a cashbox that will fill our local watering holes and pump some life back into the California economy – and while others argue that it’s nothing but a narcissistic echo chamber that keeps us fixated on the trivial — at least for today, we can see it as something else: the social engine that may well have saved at least one woman’s life.

By the way, this was my favorite update.  To which the only possible response is “like!”

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Once again, the “have it all” myth has reared it’s schizoid head.  This time, the poster-woman is Facebook’s second most famous face, COO Sheryl Sandberg, who graced the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Sandberg.  We all do.  A graduate of the Harvard Business School (and protege of Larry Summers), she’s emerged as one of the country’s most impressive female power brokers, not to mention role model to women and girls everywhere. And rightly so. As the Chronicle story points out, she’s a “passionate advocate for women to claim a far greater share of the top corporate leadership positions”:

But she says the sharing of leadership starts in the home.

“A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world,” Sandberg said during a May commencement address at Barnard College in New York City.

“To solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality, we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored,” she said.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a leadership and organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said Sandberg has become “a symbol for a new wave of feminism, where women can own their power by just being women, where you don’t have to see that as totally incompatible. You can be feminine and be a totally powerful person.”

And hooray for that, right?  But where the story threw me sideways was a throw-away line in the preceding paragraph.  After writer Benny Evangelista noted that last year Forbes named Sandberg the fifth most powerful woman in the world, and Fortune named her the 12th most powerful woman in business, he wrote:

Yet she still managed to balance her professional life with raising two young children, making her the ultimate role model for women who want to have it all.

Have it all? Get real.  She’s got two young kids, a killer career and is married to the CEO of another Silicon Valley company, who presumably is pretty darn busy himself.  Clearly, she might have it all, but she surely can’t be doing it all.  At least not without lots of hired help.  (Sandberg, by the way, declines to be interviewed about anything but the company, according to Evangelista.)

And that’s the issue, isn’t it? As women who have come of age in the second half of the twentieth century, we’ve been raised with the mantra that we can have it all.  We can do anything.  We can do everything.  And yet.  Despite the progress we women have made in scarcely more than a generation, the world has not caught up.  Workplace structures, public policy — even the social culture — is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business.  But who lives like that anymore?  In this economy, who could?  And the 40-hour workweek?  A pipedream, especially once you leap upon the corporate ladder.  Or even if you don’t. Nonetheless, in most households, women own the second shift.  (Even Nobel Prize winners:  Biologist Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University was doing the laundry when she got the call that she had won the Nobel Prize in medicine.)

So, this notion of “having it all.”  It’s great, and all that. But there’s a problem of holding up superstars like Sandberg (or Angelina Jolie: we can all birth/adopt a bunch of kids and still find the time to make movies, right?) to convince us that we can run a company and raise family, all while wearing a big fat smile and some killer high heels. Cue the iconic sex-kitten ad from Enjolie perfume.

And that’s what makes me crazy. First, as we explore in Undecided, when we find our own sense of balance entirely off-kilter, which I suspect is most of the time for most of us, we feel as if we’re the ones who have blown it.  We’ve chosen wrong.  We’ve done it wrong.  Which leaves us lusting after that greener grass: we’ll have what she’s having, thank you very much.  We end up making the political the personal.

And that’s just wrong.  Because what I find most insidious about perpetrating the have-it-all myth is the fact that when we buy into it, we’re lulled into a false state of complacency that keeps us from pushing for the kind of change that would help us all, male and female alike, no matter where we sit on the food chain.  But it’s going to take work.  And conversation.

Not to put more words in Sandberg’s mouth, but I suspect she would approve.

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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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Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in this Sunday’s New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves. (Sales. What’s more inauthentic than that?)

And, as Rosenbloom’s piece points out and as we’ve written before, we’re complicit in this faux-thenticity, too. Think about your Facebook profile–and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I’ve spent so much time in, I’ve literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today’s status update–rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent–might read: Unshowered. Writer’s block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter. Had I documented my status last night, I would have seemed the epitome of uncool, when my neighbor’s band practice inspired not my admiration of his creativity or his nascent musical skills, but a lengthy debate on whether or not to call the cops. (I didn’t. Score another one for inauthenticity. They were more terrible than they were loud–and they were window-rattlingly loud.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on (“Listening to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.”) was “not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined—and wanted—others to react to them.”

Marketing folks might say we’re branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we’re feeding the iconic self, the self-image we’ve constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. (She’s kind of a tyrant, too.) So why do we do it? Are we so desperate for approval that we’d rather pretend to be someone else than our, ahem, authentic self? Women, after all, are raised to be pleasers. Do we feel guilty about veering off the pre-approved path? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why, oh why, do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own?

Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, as Wavy Gravy–he of LSD and ice cream fame–put it, we’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride?

…which is well and good in theory, but who wants to admit to being a bozo? We have images to uphold! And whatever your role, the performance is remarkably similar. Someone asks how you’re doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we’d never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me??

It’s the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that’s understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition–and those things and the good things aren’t mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there’s a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we’re able to own it all. The sky doesn’t fall, but, like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz, the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we’ve got a lot less to factor in. There’s a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I’m Fine! closet, maybe our friends will join us. And that, I’d bet, would make for one hell of a party.

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In case you occasionally channel your inner adolescent, you oughta stay away from Facebook.    It’s not because — as in the days when the Mean Girls were the scourge of seventh grade — you will be judged.  It’s because you will  judge them — and find yourself falling short by comparison.

Compare.  Contrast.  Fail.

You don’t have to know from Justin Beiber to realize this is not necessarily rocket science:  Even though we all know that facebook personas are carefully curated — we do it ourselves, after all — a new study published this week in Pediatrics suggests that while we know our own profiles might be a bit, um, varnished, we tend to get sucked right in to whatever our friends post.  In other words, we believe.  We think they have more fun.

According to the study:

Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.  Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents.

No one can say for sure whether it’s cause and effect or a simple correlation, but here’s what the study’s lead author, Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, told the Associated Press:

But there are aspects of Facebook that can make it a particularly tough social landscape to navigate for kids dealing with poor self-esteem, said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician and lead author of new American Academy of Pediatrics social-media guidelines published today in the group’s journal, Pediatrics.

With in-your-face friends’ tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don’t measure up.

It can be more painful than sitting alone in a crowded school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down, O’Keeffe said, because Facebook provides a skewed view of what’s really going on. Online, there’s no way to see facial expressions or read body language that provide context.

Maybe yes?  Maybe no?  But even when we’re no longer teenagers chasing after those girls who have more fun, is there still a trace of that insecurity that wakes up whenever we get sucked into the great comparison game, the often unintended consequence of social media?  Do we search for constant validation in the form of a “like” button?  Do we end up with one more measure by which we judge ourselves?  Do we saddle up for another frantic chase after all the trappings of our iconic self?

We may have outgrown our awkward adolescent selves, but still, there’s that lingering need to compare, which is facilitated by the minute-to-minute status updates that are up in our face whenever we care to check.  On the one hand, we’re trying to make our way in this brave new land of unlimited options without a roapmap or much in the way of generational role models.  But then, right there, with the click of a button, there’s someone out there who looks to be doing it better, faster, righter — and having a lot more fun.

And just like that, we’re all about the greener grass, living the life of “if only..”   We tend to forget that sometimes life is grand, and sometimes it sucks.  But most of the time, it just is.  As Shannon wrote a while ago:
Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.
But back to that notion of the carefully crafted Facebook persona.   Full disclosure:  The hot-off-the-press copy of our book came in the mail Saturday morning, and before I had a chance to comb my hair or wash my face, my husband grabbed a camera and snapped a shot of me holding it, grinning from ear to ear.   He thought the picture was cute.  Me?  Yeah, not so much.  I immediately posted the pix on our Facebook page — only after I cropped out my face.

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Thanks for the offer.  But let’s just have some chocolate cake and call it a day.

More about this cake business later, but first, there’s this:  Newsweek is the latest to hop aboard the streetcar named Can’t Decide — our own trek for the past two years — with its current cover story on the “twitterization” of our culture, or why we can’t think.

The story references research by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, who found that information overload mucks with our ability to make decisions — and control our emotions:

“With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

So much for the ideal of making well-informed decisions. For earlier generations, that meant simply the due diligence of looking things up in a reference book. Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinion never stops. That can be a good thing, as when information empowers workers and consumers, not to mention whistle-blowers and revolutionaries. You can find out a used car’s accident history, a doctor’s malpractice record, a restaurant’s health-inspection results. Yet research like Dimoka’s is showing that a surfeit of information is changing the way we think, not always for the better. Maybe you consulted scores of travel websites to pick a vacation spot—only to be so overwhelmed with information that you opted for a staycation. Maybe you were this close to choosing a college, when suddenly older friends swamped your inbox with all the reasons to go somewhere else—which made you completely forget why you’d chosen the other school. Maybe you had the Date From Hell after being so inundated with information on “matches” that you chose at random. If so, then you are a victim of info-paralysis.

We devoted a whole chapter in our book to the science of decision making (and several posts, like this one, from over a year ago)  Like Newsweek, we found that too many options sends the brain into overdrive, at which point it often says screw it and just goes off to bed.  Also like Newsweek, we found that the constant beep and buzz of the electronica that has become a part of our every waking moment just adds to the chaos, making it close to impossible for us to make a decision — or be happy with it when we do.

A lot revolves around a pivotal 1950′s study, cleverly titled “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, that found that your rational brain can only hold about seven different things in working memory at any one time.  More than that, and your head starts spinning.  Ms. Rational Brain is likely to say “I quit” — and cede control to the emotional brain.

If you’re thinking this can’t end well, you’d be right.  This is where the chocolate cake comes in.

Several decades after that pivotal study, a Stanford marketing professor named Baba Shiv tested the theory with a bunch of hungry college students.  He had one group memorize two-digits — and the other group, seven.  Afterward, they were offered their choice of reward — fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake — and guess what happened?  The crew that was overloaded with info overwhelmingly chose cake.  The two-digit folks?  Fruit salad, please.

You can guess which group might have had some regrets a little later.  Which brings us to our point.  When you are overloaded with information — or options — decision making becomes a labyrinth of twists and turns that rarely has a happy ending.  We second-guess.  We regret. We start jonesing for the greener grass.   Add the constant distractions of Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and [insert Next Big Thing here] and it’s no wonder we can’t decide what to have for dinner, much less what to do with our lives.

All of which is that much worse for women when it comes to what-do-I-do-now decisions.  Why?  Generational, sister.  Suddenly we’re faced with more options than our mothers or grandmothers ever thought possible, and we’re running the road without a map.  Or role models, either.  We can be doctors.  We can be lawyers.  We can run off to join the circus.  We can stay home to raise  kids.  We can stay home to write books.  We can do anything.  We can do everything.  So how do we choose? Especially when, as Shannon wrote on Tuesday, we live on a steady diet of news feeds, tweets and other app-philia from the land of perfect, all of which seem to proclaim:  Look at me!  I’ve gotten it right.  Ahem, and you?

And me?  Sigh.   There’s more about the science of decision making in the Newsweek piece, and lots more than that in Chapter 5 of our book.  And in fact, I could add quite a bit more to this post.   But you know what?  There’s chocolate cake in the office down the hall, and I’m headed that way.   And you don’t have to tell me:  You want some too.

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Clicking through my Facebook friends, one could be forgiven for assuming I do a lot of socializing at preschools. One would be wrong, of course: the truth is that countless of my pals have replaced their profile pics with snaps of their wee ones; their status updates with diaper-status updates. Continuing along, one might also assume that, somewhere in my travels, I infiltrated a tribe of Carrie Bradshaw clones: beautiful, successful folks living the life, traveling to important places to do important things, wearing fabulous clothes while hanging out with fabulous people.

On the surface (and what is Facebook if not surface?), everyone’s having a dandy time living the lives they chose. Which is dandy. But how real is it?

We’ll come back to that. First, though, let’s take a look at an interesting piece on Salon.com entitled “How Facebook can affirm a woman’s singlehood.” In it, Tracy Clark-Flory makes the point that, for many women, spying on their married-and-mommied friends via the ‘book makes them feel validated to have put career first. Here’s a bit:

My friend Katherine is successful, dynamic, and fiercely intelligent–but, unmarried and childless at 32, she feels pressure from some to hurry up and achieve something that really matters: settling down and having kids. There is nothing new about a woman wondering if she’s sacrificed her love life for her career–but what is new is how Facebook is allowing these women to compare how their life choices have panned out with those of their peers, and sometimes it’s actually validating.

Katherine recently told me, ‘I go on there and I see these beautiful, intelligent women that I grew up with and they’re all married to these accountant types who wear polos and golf on the weekends. Yes, they have kids, a home and a husband — but it just looks so painfully, unbearably boring.’ Granted the whole truth is that she also sometimes feels jealousy — for instance, when a friend who is married with a baby posts about ‘drinking a glass of wine and eating oysters with her husband at their cute house with the bathroom they just remodeled themselves.’

…Despite all the choices available to women today, many still fret that in putting their career first and worrying about marriage and kids later they will ultimately miss out on the latter. There is a biological reality behind those concerns, but there are also plenty of cultural myths and trumped-up anxiety — the lonely cat lady who dies without anyone noticing and ends up being eaten by her hungry companion, for example — that serve as cautionary tales. The warning, of course, is that we will be punished for being too ambitious and going against our basic nature. Given the high stakes, it’s no surprise that this often leads to comparison and competition — and Facebook serves as a virtual looking glass through which to explore the path not taken.

So interesting isn’t it, how even here, life is presented as either-or for women. One path or the other. Career or love. Driven or domesticated. And if that’s the case, no wonder we have such a hard time making the choices that will take us down one road or another: they mean too much. And they’re too narrow. What if we want some of one, but more of the other? Where’s the profile for that?

And speaking of profiles, perhaps all of this angst–and uncertainty–over whether or not we’re making the right choices is why we’re so compelled to present ourselves so charmingly. We all have doubts. Do you think Katherine’s oyster-eating DIY couple posted the fact that they nearly killed each other while drywalling their new commode? Or the flipside:

‘Here I am, sitting in traffic, getting home to my tiny one-bedroom apartment, and eating macaroni and cheese after an 11-hour work day,’ [Katherine] says. ‘But I don’t post things about traffic, or sitting in my pajamas watching ‘Top Chef’ on Facebook! I write status updates about attending premiere parties and meticulously select profile pictures. I have to believe it’s all relative.’

Of course it is. Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.


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