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Posts Tagged ‘perfection’

The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we’d sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.

Funny, my friend said, but true.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift:  When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it’s not always you that needs fixing.  Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.

In other words: Ain’t me, babe.  It’s you.

If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here’s a taste of what Altstadt had to say:

 … it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt … questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems-mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be? …. Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?

If you read women’s magazine, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.

Hit the like button.  As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel.  But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?

Indeed.  We’re led to believe that if we’re not happy, if we’re less than content, there’s something wrong with us.  But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix?  When we’re unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad — pick one — it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we’re struggling with the second shift, when we’re overworked and underpaid, when we’re striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we’re relentlessly undecided, maybe it’s not us that needs help — it’s the system.

The structures themselves.  Cue the sociologist.

And yet, we’re led to believe that if we would  just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.

All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:

According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time:  workplace massage chairs.  Free sessions with a work-life coach.  Oatmeal-raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office.  All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won’t notice that we’re overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we’re still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy‘s buck?  To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?

To keep us thinking that if it’s happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?

Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack.  Anyway, she writes that she’s tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out.  Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she’d rather do is change it.

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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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So, the subject of our book is certainly in the air as of late. First, Ann Marie Slaughter, and now, a piece on The Daily Beast by Debora Spar, whose take on the issues of women chasing perfection, juggling roles and choices in a not-adequately-changed world was, frankly, so similar to the things we’ve written here and in our book, it took us a moment to realize it wasn’t our byline on her piece.

Ahem.

Now that that’s out of the way, as we noticed way back when we began writing Undecided in 2008, women today, blessed with the abundance of choices our mothers fought to get access to–and our foremothers might have thought impossible–are finding that this blessing is indeed mixed. That the messages on which we were raised, messages delivered with the best of intentions, have a flipside, as though delivered via an evil game of Telephone. Told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that whatever we choose to do, it better be something good… and we better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: that every choice entails a trade-off. That we cannot be in two places at once. That, by definition (not to mention the basic laws of physics), if I am sitting here pounding out this piece right now, I am not taking my dog for a hike, or meeting a friend for happy hour, or cleaning out my closet as I’ve been meaning to do for weeks now. (Though, I am, as a matter of fact, simultaneously cooking dinner. And now my keyboard is getting sticky from the roasted garlic I just pulled out of the oven. Dear Multitasking: You suck.) There are only so many hours in the day. No one really clues us in to that one.

We set off, ready to conquer the world, as we believe we’re supposed to. And then we realize: Having it all is simply not possible. A high-flying career woman is not also a stay-at-home mom. A stay-at-home mom is not also a globe-trotting free spirit. A globe-trotting free spirit is not also putting down roots, and paying down a mortgage. Every time we make a choice in favor of something, we are by default not choosing something else. But the rub is that we think it’s only about us. That we’re not good enough. That if only we were ___er, we’d be able to swing it. But that’s a lie.

That the chorus is getting louder is good. Because there is so much that remains to be done. And that there remains so much to be done–on the public policy and workplace fronts, yes, but in the way we talk to (and about) our sisters, our girlfriends and our selves, as well–in no way diminishes all the work that has been done, all that’s come before. And that we don’t want to diminish all that’s come before doesn’t diminish what lies ahead. The world hasn’t caught up to what we’ve been told–that feminism‘s fight is over, the battles won–policies and structures are still evolving. And we’re still so very, very hard on ourselves. We worry we aren’t measuring up, aren’t successful enough or a good enough parent or pretty enough or in shape enough or organic enough. All while mired in the juggle!

As we wrote in Undecided, women today are experiencing a collective bout of growing pains. And one way to ease those pains is to give up the chase for perfect, the attempt to have it all, and focus instead on, well, finding the life that’s right for us.

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Isn’t it funny, at a time that’s been described as The End of Men And The Rise of Women, during an election season that’s been touted as hinging on the “female vote,” during an era in which young adult humans of the female persuasion have never known a world in which Gloria Steinem wasn’t an icon, how little things have changed?

I write (today) not about politics, though. Or at least not ostensibly. Today what has me fired up are a couple of “most-emailed” headlines that make me want to stage an Extraordinary Act/Everyday Rebellion in the form of hurling a (hardcover) copy of The Beauty Myth through the television.

Exhibit A: Journalist Katie Couric debuts her new eponymous daytime talk show with a big “get.” With an election right around the corner, who’d she score? Jessica Simpson, there for the much-anticipated debut of her post-baby body.

Exhibit B: Original Bachelorette Trista Sutter, taking to Good Morning America to discuss the plastic surgery procedures she treated herself to as a pre-40th birthday gift (and which she enlisted Entertainment Tonight to document). Procedures which left her with an allergic reaction, the treatment of which left her suffering from a severe depression. But, hey, she says, it was totally “worth it.”

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. And you know, I didn’t bring up The Beauty Myth for my health or because it earns me angry feminist points: the entire premise of the (excellent) book is that, as women have gained more power and independence, the pressure to adhere to certain standards of beauty has intensified. Sound familiar? You bet your Spanx it does. But here’s the thing: The Beauty Myth was published in 1991. That’s over twenty years ago. Before Bump Alerts and mommy jobs (aka the boob job/tummy tuck combo) and, yes, Spanx. And I’d argue that not only has that dynamic not changed, it’s continued to intensify.

Women are gaining ever more power and independence, and the pressure to look perfect (let alone to “be perfect“) is more intense than ever. And hey, when we’re all preoccupied with achieving the perfect beach body (or getting our body back) or waxing ourselves hairless or learning how to create this season’s smoky eye, who has the energy to deal with the stuff that matters? Who has the time to remember there is stuff that matters?

And I think there are parallels to be made to what’s happening in politics. (I know, I said I’d leave politics out of it for today. Sorry, I lied. So sue me.) With the legislative changes those on the far right are proposing (and making), namely: making it more difficult for a woman to get birth control by making it okay for a pharmacist to refuse to give her her prescription on the grounds of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs, or chipping away at abortion rights–by enforcing waiting periods and invasive ultrasounds–and continuing to base campaigns on the promise that they’ll overturn Roe V. Wade, when you hear women like Sandra Fluke say that we’re being forced to fight battles we won a long time ago, well, you have to agree that she’s on to something.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all a part of some grand and evil conspiracy. Some plot by those fearing they’re losing their grip on power, clinging by their fingernails to a status quo that’s slipping away, fighting to keep that power structure in place with everything that they have.

But I do know better. And that’s not the whole story (though it’s certainly several lengthy chapters of it). The other part, the darker part, is this: when it comes to the ever-loving Beauty Myth, we buy into it. Boogeymen like the patriarchy and marketers and Republicans and Archie Bunker nostalgics all have a role to play, of course — and play it they will. But when we buy in, expecting perfection not just of our reality-TV-starring sisters but of ourselves as well, we all lose.

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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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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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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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So, today, I must must write about the most shocking, scandalous, jaw-dropping thing I came across this weekend. (And, no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ricky Gervais.) The item of intrigue was a story on Salon.com, entitled… wait for it… “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs: I’m a young, feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake. Why am I addicted to the shiny, happy lives of these women?”

Um, click.

How could I not?? I mean, apparently, there’s like an entire subculture of Zooey Deschanel-bang-sporting, craft-spinning, brood-mommying, hubby-looooooving Mormon housewives out there. As writer Emily Matchar puts it,

young stay-at-home-moms who blog about home and hearth, Latter-day Saint-style.

The women behind “Rockstar Diaries,” “Underaged and Engaged,” “Nie Nie Dialogues“, and “Say Yes to Hoboken” blog about their kids. Their husbands. Their love of hot chocolate. Their love of baked goods. The themed headbands they craft for their pals at the themed dinner parties they host. And how happy they are.

Matchar says that, although their lives bear no resemblance to her own,

On an average day, I’ll skim through a half-dozen Mormon blogs, looking at Polaroids of dogs in raincoats or kids in bow ties, reading gratitude lists, admiring sewing projects.

I’m not alone, either. Two of my closest friends — both chronically overworked Ph.D. candidates — procrastinate for hours poring over Nat the Fat Rat or C. Jane Enjoy It. A recent discussion of Mormonism on the blog Jezebel unleashed a waterfall of confessions in the comments section from other young non-religious women similarly riveted by the shiny, happy domestic lives of their Latter-day Saint sisters.

Which begs a question: Who knew?

Apparently everyone but me. Seriously, though, it begs another question, too: What gives? What’s the appeal? Matchar has a theory:

Well, to use a word that makes me cringe, these blogs are weirdly “uplifting.” To read Mormon lifestyle blogs is to peer into a strange and fascinating world where the most fraught issues of modern living — marriage and child rearing — appear completely unproblematic. This seems practically subversive to someone like me, weaned on an endless media parade of fretful stories about “work-life balance” and soaring divorce rates and the perils of marrying too young/too old/too whatever. And don’t even get me started on the Mommy Blogs, which make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like “guilt” and “chaos” and “BPA-free” and “episiotomy.” Read enough of these, and you’ll be ready to remove your own ovaries with a butter knife.

…Indeed, Mormon bloggers like Holbrook make marriage and motherhood seem, well, fun. Easy. Joyful. These women seem relaxed and untouched by cynicism. They throw elaborate astronaut-themed birthday parties for their kids and go on Sunday family drives to see the fall leaves change and get mani-pedis with their friends. They often have close, large extended families; moms and sisters are always dropping in to watch the kids or help out with cake decorating. Their lives seem adorable and old-fashioned and comforting.

This focus on the positive is especially alluring when your own life seems anything but easy. As my friend G. says, of her fascination with Mormon lifestyle blogs, “I’m just jealous. I want to arrange flowers all day too!” She doesn’t, really. She’s just tired from long days spent in the lab, from a decade of living in a tiny apartment because she’s too poor from student loans to buy a house, from constant negotiations about breadwinning status with her artist husband. It’s not that she or I  want to quit our jobs to bake brownies or sew kiddie Halloween costumes. It’s just that for G., Mormon blogs are an escapist fantasy, a way to imagine a sweeter, simpler life.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about “the New Domesticity” — an increasing interest in old-fashioned, traditionally female tasks like sewing, crafts and jam making. Some pundits see this as a sign that young women yearn to return to some kind of 1950s Ozzie and Harriet existence, that feminism has “failed,” that women are realizing they can’t have it all, after all. That view is utterly nonsense, in my opinion, but I do think women of my generation are looking to the past in an effort to create fulfilling, happy domestic lives, since the modern world doesn’t offer much of a road map. Our parents — divorced, stressed-out baby boomers — are hardly paragons of domestic bliss. Nor are the Gen X “Mommy War” soldiers, busy winging snowballs of judgment at each other from across the Internet. (Formula is poison! Baby wearing is child abuse!)

Gosh! Kinda makes you want to chug a couple of root beers, huh?! But in all seriousness, I think she’s onto a couple of things. One is the allure of the (seemingly) simple, unquestioned life. I think that one of the things that’s become such a big burden to today’s women is the questions that come with the unprecedented freedom we have to live our lives whatever way we want. Whenever everything isn’t coming together as perfectly as a–well, a “vintage-y owl throw pillow,” for example, we wonder if we’ve chosen the wrong life for ourselves. It’s pretty tough not to get sucked into the Life Would Be So Grand If Someone Else Would Just Tell Me What The H-E-DoubleHockeySticks To Do fantasy.

(And, you know, who doesn’t love an escapist fantasy from time to time? Hello, Beverly Hills 90210 The Brenda Years, when every problem was solvable with a MegaBurger. 90210 is clearly not reality–and who knows how lovely these lovely young things’ lives really are? But sometimes we don’t want the nuanced truth. We want a MegaBurger.)

And then, of course, there’s the trap of the grass is greener syndrome: the fact that, time and again, it seems that whenever we play that comparison game, the one constant is this–that we seem categorically unable to image that whatever road we did NOT choose to travel might in fact be as bumpy as the one we did. And when we’re presented with something that looks perfect, why would we question it?

Of course, we’ve said all of this before. And I think there’s one other explanation: I checked out some of those blogs. And they’re pretty flipping cute.


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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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Want to get a job? Change jobs? Get married? Get divorced? Have a baby? Lose the baby weight? Organize your closet? Come out of the closet? Streamline your life? Whatever it is that you’re after, in all likelihood–according to a piece that ran in the L.A. Times this weekend–there’s a coach for that.

Writer Mary MacVean cites everything from “the urge to do things perfectly… and the fear that we’re not up to the task” to the idea that we’re living in “an evolved and specialized world” and the fact that this modern world has many of us isolated from extended family that might have been nearby and available to help out with some of these conundrums as explanations for the coaching phenomenon. All of which make sense. But I, naturally, was particularly struck by this:

A world that can seem like it’s changing before our eyes also can fuel desire for a coach.

A couple of generations ago, most people made three or four important decisions that guided their lives… Today’s complex world requires decisions all the time: Should I move? Where? Is it time for me to change jobs? What’s the best way to invest for retirement? Will my child thrive in school? All these questions put people in unfamiliar territory…

[Evan Marc] Katz [a dating coach in Los Angeles] sees a paradox of choice that leaves many people frustrated. “In today’s society there are more choices, but nobody’s happier,” he said. Too many choices often lead to discontent, he said.

Well, we’ve certainly covered that. But I think it’s so interesting that, again, there’s a connection that comes up between perfection and too many choices. How the more choices there are, the more we feel that surely, one of those options must be the perfect one for us–and it’s our job to find it.

And then, when you couple that with “the more specialized world” she mentions–well, no wonder we want to enlist a professional every time we want to do anything. Say you want to do something relatively manageable, like organize your closet. But, you know, if you’re going to take the time to do it, you want to do it right. So, you do what any modern-day human with Internet access does, and consult the modern-day oracle (read: Google.) That’ll surely point you in the proper direction, right? Well, yeah–I’m sure that somewhere among the 685,000 results is the one that’s perfect for you.

Who wouldn’t throw up her hands and, rather than taking the time to sift through all those options (and watch as her entire wardrobe becomes outdated, thus cleverly negating the need for any organization at all), opt to enlist a pro? (Of course, if you go looking for a “closet organizing coach” on Google, you’ll have 423,000 virtual contenders vying for your business.)

It actually reminds me of something that happened back when I was in college. I was hiking with my (ahem, batshit-crazy, musician) boyfriend (we’ve all been there… right?) and some of his friends. The trail narrowed and became kind of rough at one point, before devolving into rocky, bushwhack-requiring overgrowth with no discernible path to speak of. Crazypants was at the front of the group; I was at the back. One of his friends who was in front of me asked if I wanted to scoot by, to move up to the front of the pack. I said something along the lines of “No, I like to follow, because then I don’t have to think about where to step.” He thought this was hilarious, and when I digested what I’d actually said, I was kind of appalled. Who wants to declare herself a follower?

And yet. Every once in a while, it’s nice to blindly put your faith in someone else; to forfeit the controls; to let them figure out which rocks are stable enough to step on, which trail is actually THE trail, while you just sit back and enjoy the ride, turning your own brain off for a spell, and trusting someone else with all the analysis.

And that’s well and good. Sometimes. A coach, a guide, hell–even a map can do wonders, but first we have to know where it is we’re trying to go. What we want. And that’s something that can’t be outsourced. No matter how nuanced our world, no matter how many choices we face, doesn’t the truest satisfaction come from getting to know ourselves–and then doing things accordingly? It doesn’t lessen the number of options, of course, but, it seems to me that getting to know yourself is the quickest route to getting to know what you want–and that’s surely the first step to getting it. It might be a rocky road; there might even be some bushwhacking involved. But, by taking it, you’ll be way more likely to wind up where you want to be.


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