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Posts Tagged ‘great expectations’

So, you know that special brand of squelched eye-roll/mini-smirk you trot out whenever you find yourself cornered by your Positive Thinking-evangelizing sister/friend/coworker? Turns out, raining on her parade might be the best thing you can do for her.

In a comical opinion piece in Sunday’s NYT that’ll make the cynic in you chuckle, Oliver Burkeman lays out a solid argument for being an Eeyore. The impetus for his piece was last month’s debacle involving 21 Tony Robbins devotees who wound up being treated for burns after “Unleashing the Power Within” (read: attempting to walk across hot coals).

(Quoth the fire captain: “We discourage people from walking over hot coals.”)

Schadenfreude aside, Burkeman lays out a pretty solid argument for leaving the power alone, and instead unleashing the grouch within.

He quotes social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, cites The Stoics and principles of Buddhist meditation, debunks the power of visualization:

Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they’d already achieved their objective.

Interestingly, elsewhere in the paper (O, glorious Sunday on the couch!), in a (much-emailed) piece titled “Raising Successful Children” Madeline Levine, practicing clinician and author of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” takes down not just helicopter parents and tiger moms, but “overparenting lite.” It’s a topic we’ve covered before, but Levine mentions an interesting study:

In a typical experiment, Dr. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle. Most do so with little difficulty. But then Dr. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

Interesting, huh? Taken together, the two certainly got me wondering. How much positivity is too much? Exactly how deeply rose should our glasses be colored? Where does healthy stop and delusional begin? And, maybe more to the point: why does this kind of stuff feel, in some (albeit slightly uncomfortable) way, like a relief?

We write often about the importance of embracing failure, how it is not only surmountable, but a teacher. We also write often about the crushing pressure of great expectations. How they can turn out to be more paralyzing than empowering. (And how the message so many of us are fed, that you can do anything you want, is internalized with the pressurizing conclusion: so it better be something really freaking good.) And so I wonder: how much better off would we all be were the pressure to be positive ratcheted down, even just a tad? And not just because the pressure would be off: because failure, imperfection, moments of (gasp!) mediocrity are kind of a fact of life.

In her piece, Levine notes that becoming who we are (and being allowed the space to accomplish this deceptively simple task) is kind of the most important work at hand for a fledgling human being (or the people tasked with raising said human being). I’d agree. And accepting and getting to like that person is pretty important work, too. And accepting and liking ourselves is considerably easier if we’re not expecting perfection, not least because people–all people–are inherently imperfect. (And through no fault of our not thinking positively enough.)

Here’s a little more from Burkeman:

Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

Everything’s not always going to be great. And that’s perfectly fine.

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

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

But anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What if the surest indicator of your future success–of living a happy, meaningful, and productive life–is how good you are at failing?

Brace yourselves, perfectionists, because the evidence is mounting: in order to fly, you’ve first got to fail. And (worse!) how well you fail may be one of the biggest predictors of success. Bigger even than, say, IQ. Paul Tough’s recent piece in the New York Times, entitled “The Character Test: Why our kids’ success–and happiness–may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure,” looks at character-development programs in two schools–one school affluent, one not; both programs inspired by the character strengths inventory developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson–which seem to show that the kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. Of course, in order to move through a failure, they have to be allowed to fail. An issue about which Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School–one of NYC’s most prestigious private schools–is worried:

People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, I think they’re going to be screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to handle that.

It’s a bit like the kid who eats the occasional fistful of dirt, versus the one whose every move is greeted with an anti-bacterial wipe. Sure, one will get dirty (and perhaps cooties)–but, long term, whose immune system is going to be stronger?

When it comes to failure, the trick is being able to look at it objectively: easier said than done, when you’re in the midst of being dressed down in the boardroom or rejected in the bedroom. And for women, as we explore in Undecided, there are even more complications: often we’re carrying the weight of some great expectations–whether our own, or those of our (real and proverbial) mothers who never had the opportunity we do–born of the well-intentioned message that we can do anything! (And that we’re so lucky that we can do anything.) And the kicker: we’re doing it blind! After all, as Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote,

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female  role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.

You look at it that way, and it seems we’ve all been set up for failure! But might that be a good thing–if only we could figure out how to fail well? Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at Kipp Infinity School in the Bronx, says of the “character conversations” that have infiltrated all aspects of the curriculum:

what’s going on… isn’t academic instruction at all, or even disciple, it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like “self-talk”–putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding you of the larger context… “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m OK. Tomorrow is a new day.”

It’s tough not to let our ego get in the way (even when we know there are worse things than messing up or being wrong), but when we succumb to that knee-jerk defensiveness (a “baby attack,” in KIPP school parlance), we deprive ourselves real growth. What if we could just tell our ego to chill, and take a minute to observe: what can this situation teach me about the areas where I have a little room for improvement? What can I do better next time? (And then, the fun part: holy crap! Imagine how successful I could be if I could figure out a way to get better at the things I’m not as good at yet!)

The thing is, blowing it every once in a while is inevitable: we might as well do it well.

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Everything is going to be great!

Don’t you just hate it when someone says that? They’re cheap words that come in handy when we’re psyching up ourselves–or someone else–for a march into the unknown, but really. Who do we think we’re fooling? We can’t know the future. And everything can’t always be great. So why do we even bother? I myself would much prefer a “Holy Crap!” a “Good luck,” or even a nice, honest “Yeah, you might be screwed.”

Rachel Shukert, the author of a new book called–ahem–“Everything Is Going To Be Great,” is clearly of the same school of thought. In a piece on The Wall Street Journal‘s Web site posted yesterday, Shukert proclaims herself thrilled at Jezebel’s early review of the book, in which writer Anna North declared:

Everything… does something unfortunately rare in women’s writing: celebrating mistakes.

Shukert says her mom’s reaction was somewhat different, unable to understand why her daughter would want to publish an account of her drunken escapades, her sexually and romantically unconventional (and frequently disastrous) shenanigans. Of her mom’s perspective, Shukert writes:

The girls of my generation were raised to be perfect. Our high-achieving baby-boomer mothers had labored mightily to raise us in a world where our potential would be unfettered. We were supposed to grow up to be physicists and judges and CEOs. Failing grades, ill-advised sexual encounters, or as I did, running penniless to Europe for two years to get away from an expectation of success no less restrictive than one of Betty Draper’s iron girdles (not to mention falling into a painful and destructive relationship with a man who already had a girlfriend): these were more than simply personal failings. These were an affront to the sisterhood, all the battles that had been waged a generation ago in our name. If we screwed up, we were letting the team down.

That is a lot of pressure. And, Shukert argues, it’s not only the judgment from those we’re close to that’s so oppressive, it’s our culture too. Bad girls are vilified; good girls are ridiculed, caricatured as crazy perfectionists–until they’re toppled from their thrones, which is generally met with nothing less than popular glee. This is why, Shukert says, in Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert fell into a familiar trap, compelled to present herself in such an exacting way: self-deprecating to a (well-documented) fault on the one hand; yet–according to Shukert anyway–happy to leave out the real, unflattering details about the demise of her marriage on the other. But really, who could blame her?

Gilbert exchanged honesty for likability, and now she’s being played by Julia Roberts in a movie. It’s a canny trade-off, but it’s one I wish she hadn’t had to make.

Jezebel’s North would say that such reticence to let our flawed, freak flag fly has to do with the fact that, while men can chalk up screw-ups of all shapes and sizes as growing experiences, women aren’t given the same sort of latitude, perhaps for the very reasons Shukert alluded to above–a man is just a man; where a woman is representing the whole damn team:

Near the end of the book, when Shukert is grieving over her breakup with her boyfriend who already has a girlfriend, she tells her friend, “maybe I don’t deserve better. Maybe this is exactly what I deserve.” The friend counters that she’s not a bad person — “you’re just messy.” And indeed, lots and lots of women lead messy lives — but we’re still not supposed to. In a piece called “Screwing Up” at The Good Men Project, Tom Matlack asked men to share their biggest mistakes. They range from the silly — “Drinking a third martini. Then talking.” — to the serious — “Having a child before I was married or ready to have kids.” But regardless of the severity of their mistakes, many of the men think of them as learning experiences. Too often, women are expected to learn without screwing up, to accept restrictions put in place for our own good… rather than finding our own way. And while the latter may be more dangerous, it’s also more exciting — and perhaps more likely to lead to a big and satisfying life. Women may not need to be told that everything is going to be great — Shukert’s title is largely tongue-in-cheek anyway. But we may need to hear that even if we fuck up from time to time, we can still be great people.

We do need to hear it, early and often. As Shukert writes,

Women are constantly judged, so we reflexively judge each other. We’re too fat or too thin; too sexy or not sexy enough; too uptight or too lazy; too feminist or not feminist enough. But in our hypercritical judgment, we miss the entire point of feminism, which was not to transform us all into high-achieving super-beings (or sympathetic victims), but about the universal recognition of the fact that women are as fully human as men…

We are none of us perfect. And that’s what makes us great.

Or, as Wavy Gravy said, “We’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.” And guess what? The ride will likely be smooth and bumpy, uncomfortable and thrilling. And boring and beautiful and exciting and awful and nauseating and inspiring. Much like life–and the people who live it. (And much like a night that involves talking after three martinis.) And if we could all learn to cut ourselves–and each other–a little bit of slack, everything will be… exactly what it will be. And that is pretty great.


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Earlier this week, I got an email from Feminista author/blogger Erica Kennedy (you remember the interview I did with her back in December), asking if I’d seen this item in the UK’s Daily Mail, a trend piece about (unmarried, non-mom) women opting out of the rat race in favor of waiting tables, walking dogs, and QT with grandma, sprung from a book entitled–get this!–“30-Something And Over It: What Happens When You Wake Up One Morning And Don’t Want To Go To Work… Ever Again” by Kasey Edwards. I hadn’t yet, but once I did, my fingers got to twitchin. Why’d I feel the need to pen my own post about it? Well, consider:

‘Have you ever woken up and realised that you didn’t want to go to work?’ [Edwards] asks.

‘I don’t mean you had a big night and you’d prefer to sleep in, or it’s a nice day and you’d rather take your dog to the park instead. I’m talking about being over it.

Completely and utterly over it. Sure, you might have a gold card, but you’ve maxed it out buying things you can’t afford and that you don’t even need, trying to fill a void that just can’t be filled. You numb your discontentment every night with gin and tonics.’

Okay, this being the United States and not the United Kingdom, I’m inclined to doubt we do our numbing with gin and tonics. But still. The sentiment tends to ring true. Those fat dinners at the hottest restaurants with the open kitchens and mixologist-conceived cocktails…. Those boots… Those highlights… Those weekends away–filled with spas and syrahs and tapaaas…

Here’s a bit more from Edwards in the Daily Mail piece:

‘All through your teens and 20s you’re working towards something, and there’s this sense of delayed gratification: ‘I’ll work hard now and I’ll get a better job.’ And you get to your 30s and you go: ‘Where’s the pay-off?’ The gratification that you’ve been expecting for years doesn’t come, or when the reward comes, it’s not satisfying. I really did think: ‘Is this all there is?’

…And far from fuelling our ambition, it seems that the current economic crisis is only compounding our sense that status, success and money are a fool’s gold.

First, let’s back up. The girls from the piece? They had fat jobs. But they were busting their asses. And they saw their bosses… and didn’t want to be them. And so they up and quit, trading in their expense accounts for pooper scoopers, their time in the executive suite for time in the rec room at the retirement home. This recession? It’s global. And they’re barely covering their bills. So what made them do it?

I tend to think it’s the great expectation question all over again. And, having just written about the little-bit-marrieds, welll, I couldn’t help but see a little parallel: Are our working girl fantasies, perhaps of Melanie Griffith, scoring the corner office and the pretty new briefcase–given to her by one Harrison Ford, every bit as ridiculous as those spawned by Disney, in which the princess scores the happy ending wedding and the glass slipper–given to her by Prince What’s-his-name? Which is to say, do we find disappointment in our real lives because we’re expecting a Hollywood-style happy ending?

Actually, I don’t know if it’s as simple as that. In fact, I don’t think it is at all–I just like movies. Really, I think it’s more a generational thing–and a too many choices thing. These milestone institutions–career, marriage, mortgage–they all involve a pretty serious dose of commitment. And our generation, with everything on the menu… well, 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–in the loveliest possible way, of course? Or are we categorically incapable of satisfaction–do we equate finding, even looking for, satisfaction with a certain complacency, with settling? Is that friggen grass always going to be greener, no matter which yard is ours?

Or is this non-attachment, this willingness to pass on the status-proving trappings a step on the path to enlightenment, an epiphany? You know, kinda like the one in The Devil Wears Prada, where the put-upon assistant working the job “a million girls would kill to have” up and quits to find happiness in a shabby newsroom…

And then kinda ends up with the prince?

Someone stop me. I’m doing it again.

Kennedy’s take?

Is this cool or crazy — I can’t decide. (Actually, I think these women are going to spend a year going on long walks and hanging out with Grandma then they’ll figure out what they’d rather be doing and get back to work.)

In other words, the grass will still be greener.

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