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Posts Tagged ‘follow your passion’

 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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There’s a 13 year-old pitching prodigy ruling the ranks of Florida’s Little Leagues, who’s been known to send opponents back to the dugout in tears. And this pitcher is a she, and the only girl on the team.

Her name is Chelsea Baker, and her stats are impressive: on the mound, she boasts a 65-mph fastball, as well as a knuckle curve she learned from MLB knuckleballer Joe Niekro. She hasn’t lost a game in four seasons, and has pitched two perfect games–one of them, an all-star game.

A Google alert directed me to the feel-good story on Good Morning America‘s website, which included clips of her mom, who recalled looking forward to having a daughter she could dress up and put in pageants, her dad, whose pride is pretty much written all over his face, and one boy she’d just struck out, who, when asked if it’s worse being struck out by a girl than by a boy said with a shrug: “Some people might make fun of me, but I can deal with it.”

Warm fuzzies all around, right?

Fraid not. Here’s a quote from Chelsea:

Some of the challenges playing with all boys is getting all of the negative comments that people say. Most of the negative comments come from the parents–you ain’t ever gonna be able to stay with the boys, you should switch to softball and stuff like that.

Most of the negative comments come from the parents??

She doesn’t seem deterred, but I kind of had to wonder. What happens to us as we grow up? Is physical growth correlated with a shrinking of the imagination? Do we become so ensconced in The Way Things Are that we give up on imagining The Way Things Could Be? Does exposure to one too many naysayers mute our natural, yay-saying self?

Chelsea’s is an unusual example (not least because the knuckleball is something so few have mastered), but it points to more universal questions–especially for women. In the piece, she sounded so confident, so sure of herself, so unconcerned with what other people think, so full of belief in her potential to do nothing less than change the world.

[When] people say negative things about me, it just makes me want to try harder. I think I’m breaking barriers. I’m doing a new thing that not many people have done. I really want to prove people wrong because it will probably change your world.

How many of us hit those tricky, teenage years just as confident as Chelsea, dreaming just as big, as unconcerned with what other people thought as we were with whatever real world obstacles might be lying in wait? And then, what happens? Maybe, deep down, we really do change, decide we want different things, lose interest in what we were once most passionate about. And there’s obviously no doubt that we all need to put food on the table, and would probably prefer to have at least some measure of social acceptance. But at the same time, how often do we let our dreams go, because we’ve gotten the message that they’re just a little too wild, a little too far out of reach, a little too… big? And where might we be if we’d decided to chase them?

Of course, life offers no guarantees. And it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll find ourselves facing a curve ball or two along the way. But the thing is, if we’re taking our swings from a foundation of who we really, truly are, well we might just have a better shot of, you know, hitting it out of the park. Unless Chelsea’s pitching.


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There’s this charming story, about a Zen student and his teacher, trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness. “When drinking tea,” the teacher told his student, “just drink tea.”

How often do you just drink tea?

Such a beautifully simple idea. Be Here Now. Focus. Breathe. So quaint… and yet, so hopelessly impossible. At the moment, I have not less than seven other windows open on my computer. Among them: two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter. My cell phone is to my right; my land line receiver to my left. I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, and am trying to determine what to have for dinner as I write this.

Oh, I’m also drinking tea.

I know I’m not the exception. We spend our days assaulted by information, stimulation, texts, tweets, pings, and rings. So I listened with special interest when I came across this edition of NPR’s On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook summarizes the show thus:

Americans love to be horrified by multitasking. Well, some Americans. For many younger Americans, it’s just life. Especially “media multitasking.” Phoning, texting, reading, tweeting, with a movie on the laptop, a video chat in the corner, IM on the side. And–God forbid–maybe driving, too.

A new study out of Stanford seems to confirm the worst fears about multitasking–that in the midst of the “multi,” nothing gets done well. This hour, we’ll talk with an author of that study–and with two twenty-somethings who say it’s just life.

While the debate over how much we’re able to do well at once is an interesting one–because, at least in part, it hits all of us where we live–it’s also kind of moot. To varying degrees, the multitasking is a given. And, regardless of how much is actually a given, the assumption is that, in life, multitasking is as certain as death and taxes. (See: any media portrayal of life in the modern world.)

In a way, it all reminds me of that evil old ad, the one that celebrated the success of the women’s movement by singing that we can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. (Don’t touch that dial: point is coming, soon.) Well, yes. We can. But between all that’s required to bring it home and fry it up, do we ever get a second to stop and think? Or, more to the point, to stop and feel: are we enjoying bringing it home? Are we enjoying frying it up? Do we have enough psychic space available to even notice how it smells as it’s cookin’, let alone how it tastes?

That sent my mind back to spinning on all the multitasking we do a little bit more. Consider: For all the lip service we pay to the importance of finding our passion, with our attention splintered among all the things crying out for it, how do we even know if we’re actually enjoying something? And might this fractured consciousness have a little something to do with why we’re so damn angsty in the face of big life decisions? It’s hard enough to make a truly informed decision. But how can we feel adequately informed if we can’t focus, if we can’t  just drink the tea?

Oh, and that tea? The end of the story might make you feel a little bit better. One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, “When drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!”

Yup.

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The other day, one of our Twitter followers sent me a link, with a “What do you think?”-type note. (Using 140 characters or less, natch.) A click landed me on Harvard Business’ blog, and a post entitled “Why Are Women So Unhappy At Work?” The piece (written by a man–just for the record) quotes the findings from an earlier post by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. In that post, entitled “Are Your Best Female Employees a Flight Risk?” Hewlett writes:

We found that in the wake of last year’s financial crash, high-powered women were more than twice as likely as men–84% compared with 40%–to be seriously thinking jumping ship. And when the head and the heart are out the door, the rest of the body is sure to follow.

Hewlett goes on to cite examples of what various companies are doing in order to keep their ladies on board. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the subject of passion came up:

Intel created workshops aimed squarely at retaining one of its most at-risk populations: mid-level female engineers. Exit interviews revealed that many of these talented technologists were leaving not to spend time with their family but because they no longer felt challenged by or passionate about their work. In the 21st century, talented people of both sexes often feel stymied by a traditional vertical career path that follows a straight line up a narrow ladder. Rather, they’re interested in and open to lateral moves and a variety of “work style” options, such as flex schedules and telecommuting, as long as these options are intellectually and professionally challenging and/or satisfy personal obligations.

That’s surely a part of it. Now, consider this, from Russell Bishop, via the Huffington Post, still rumbling with riffs on the Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness study:

The implication seems to be that if you were to gain more in terms of physical world success you would naturally become happier… My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mentality of the 50s and 60s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career, or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the eother end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys? Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there? How are those trades looking now?

An interesting take. Going back to the original post, the one our Twitter friend sent, author Sean Silverthorne writes:

Unfortunately, Hewlett doesn’t answer my burning question: Why are women more likely than men to consider jumping ship? Certainly there are career opportunity questions. If women believe they don’t have as good a chance as their male colleagues of advancing, of course they should be considering options. But a 2x factor suggests something much more deep seeded. Something about the nature of work in the modern company.

His post earned a slew of responses, citing reasons for our wandering eyes ranging from discrimination from the good old boys’ clubbers, to a need for more corporate support for work/life balance, to female “dogs in power that insist on running a place like a sorority.” No woman wants to take part in the proverbial workplace pissing contests–and even if she did, she’s not properly equipped. But this comment really made me think:

I also think there’s a fundamentally different paradigm that can exist in female-oriented workplaces and it takes us away from the whole aggressive, money and progress-oriented approach to work–it is collaborative, nurturing, fun approach which while achieving goals and earning a living isn’t centered or structured the same way–it’s like a circle not a hierarchy and goes to the heart of our culture.

Lest you think that sounds a little too kumbaya to actually work, consider these points, enumerated by Hewlett:

  • Research demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment
  • A study has shown that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research posits, counters ‘groupthink’–the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way
  • Another study–out of France–showed that firms in the CAC 40 (the French euivalent of the Dow Jones) with a high ration of women in top management showed better resistance to the financial crisis. The fewer female managers a company has, the greater drop in its share price since January 2008.

So, clearly it behooves everyone to keep women engaged, in the game. But if a whopping 84% of us are thinking exit strategy, what’s the answer?

I kind of think they all touched on a part of it: Hewlett pointed out the need for passion and challenge at work; Bishop noted the inevitable let-down that comes from chasing–and then catching–material things; and Silverthorne offered a tease, earning comments that allude to something deeper, something about the very way in which workplace structures are organized, a la Elizabeth Lesser’s suggestion I first wrote about here:

The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

But in order to change them, we’ve got to stick around.

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See, here’s the thing. This health care debate? It’s really important. And even more so for women.

Consider these words from the press release summarizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s speech at a press conference yesterday:

Women will continue to face discrimination in both coverage and costs if health reform fails.

How are women discriminated against? Allow me to crib a couple of basic points as enumerated by USA Today:

  • insurance companies are allowed to charge women more for the same policies as men in 40 states and the District of Columbia;
  • in those same states and D.C., insurance companies can charge businesses with mostly female employees higher group rates;
  • many companies don’t provide maternity coverage as part of their basic plans (perhaps you heard Rep. Senator Jon Kyl, of Arizona’s sensitive take on this issue? “I don’t need maternity care and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don’t need and will make the policy more expensive.” Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, called him on the jackass remark, replying “Your mom probably did.”);
  • insurance companies can exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions; having had a C-section is one of them;
  • if a woman is pregnant when she buys an insurance company, insurance companies can deny maternity coverage;
  • 8 states and D.C. allow insurance companies to deny coverage to victims of domestic violence.

While all that is incredibly infuriating and appalling, what’s worse is that, inevitably, abortion rights will be singled out, as they have been for years, THE go-to tactic for dividing and conquering. It’s already co-opting the news: both the NY Times’ David Kirkpatrick and the Boston Globe’s Ellen Goodman have weighed in. Granted, access to abortion is an important issue, but there is so much more than that at stake. Re-read those items above and consider: in those 40 states, there’s a distinct disincentive to hiring women. Non-employer-insured women who’d then have to buy their own coverage will then likely pay more for a policy which may or may not cover them during pregnancy, when health care is critical.

In case you’re not adequately pissed off, consider this, written in June of this year by Brigette Courtot, a Policy Analyst with the National Women’s Law Center:

In 2007, the majority of all bankruptcies–a whopping 60%–had a medical cause. For the most part, those filing for medical bankruptcy were well-educated, middle-income earners, and had health insurance when they filed. Researchers also found that being female significantly increases the odds that a person will file a medical bankruptcy–no surprise there, since we have plenty of evidence that because women have lower incomes and greater health care needs than men, they are more likely to face unaffordable medical bills and debt, and to delay or skip necessary care because of cost.

Wow, right? Feministing said it well:

And I know that health care is a feminist issue. Because women are more likely than men to go without needed care. Because nearly twice as many women as men access health care as a dependent–in other words, they’re not covered under their own name. Because low-income women and immigrant women and women of color have a disproportionately difficult time accessing regular care. Because women are more likely to have patchwork-style careers, dropping in and out of the workforce because of family care obligations, which makes dependence on employer-provided health care exceptionally hard. Because a larger percentage of women than men have a hard time paying their medical bills.

But the thing is, it’s also critical for less obvious reasons–reasons alluded to in the above mention of our “patchwork-style careers”. Health care is yet another insidious part of the “You can be anything you want!” mirage, rendering many of our “choices” illusory. Opting in or out? Is there really an option? And what about ditching the corporate grind to follow our passion? Getting back to Pelosi, take a moment to let this sink in:

It is great for our economy to have the dynamism of a work force that is not job locked but that can move from job to job or start their own business or be self-employed. All of this is about the dynamism of our economy and our competitiveness in world markets not to have the anvil of heavy and ever-increasing medical expenses make us less competitive.

At its core, the feminist movement of the 70s was about changing institutions. And somewhere along the way, we lost that focus. And today, when we’re talking about women’s declining happiness in the face of greater opportunity as though it were a paradox, we’re missing a huge point: our opportunity is not supported by our institutions. And until that happens, I think we’re going to remain largely unsatisfied.

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