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Posts Tagged ‘TED’

If rules were made to be broken, why are so many of us so afraid of breaking them?

They have their function, after all: if everyone took a red light as but a minor suggestion, driving—or merely riding in—a car would be a seriously risky endeavor. Actually though, it occurs to me as I type this, there’s an intersection by my house, near where I get onto the freeway to go North. The light works on some sort of timer or sensor or something. And several times, in the painfully early hours when I’ve been on my way to the airport, I’ve sat at that light. And I’ve waited. And waited. And waited. In fact, I’ve never seen it turn green. More than once I’ve inched into that intersection, staring down the deserted streets, thinking to myself “Should I, or shouldn’t I?”

I got to thinking about all this rule-breaking business after hearing Barry Schwartz’ most recent TED Talk on NPR. In it, he talks about what he calls “practical wisdom,” how ideas and behaviors that typically would fall under the heading of “common sense” are valued less and less. His talk focused primarily on organizations and institutions, how an over-reliance on policies and procedures creates bureaucracies and red tape the navigation of which take precedence over a more thoughtful approach–and which are a nightmare to deal with, to boot. How we can get so focused on objective knowledge that our humanity takes a hit. How sometimes, in fact, the rules can lead us astray – as when one man’s child was taken from him after a security guard spotted the clueless father giving his son a Hard Lemonade at a baseball game, oblivious to the fact that “hard” meant booze. Though it was an honest mistake, it was weeks before the child was returned to his home and his father allowed to see him again.

What’s all this got to do with the rest of us? I tend to think quite a bit. When it comes to what we choose to do with our lives—and the angst around those choices—I’d bet that no small part of the difficulty there has to do with the tension between the desire to be true to ourselves, and the desire to play by the rules. To do the things that are expected of us. To color within the lines. To be the perfect fill-in-the-blank. (And the perfect fill-in-the-other-blank, and the other blank, and the other blank…) Certain things are allowed. Certain things are expected. But are they right? And, more importantly, are they right for us? How can we be sure?

Schwartz quotes Aristotle, saying that practical wisdom is figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time. In other words, it’s subjective. Frustratingly so… except when you consider that, if that’s the goal–to live with practical wisdom–you have all the answers you need. You don’t need to consult the rule book—or bow down to the shoulds—because the only should that matters is that you do what’s right for you, given the circumstances of your life now. If that means coloring outside of the lines, so be it. In fact, if that means coloring outside of the lines, then that’s exactly what you should do.

Just make sure to look both ways first.

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So, as you may or may not have gathered, Undecided loves us some Elizabeth Lesser. She’s an author and co-founder of the Omega Institute and the Women and Power Conference, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the book. We had a fantastic conversation about one of my favorite subjects: my belief that women and men are different–and that our differences might in fact be our strengths. Simple though it may sound, it’s a tremendously controversial topic, because for a long time, the belief (or maybe just the fear) was that, if you said women and men are different, then you were, by extension, saying one or the other is better. That’s not what I think, and that’s not what Elizabeth Lesser thinks, either. And I think what she had to say about it all makes for one of the book’s highlights.

She’s wise and she’s funny, and so I thought I’d share this clip I recently came across of a TEDTalk she gave. It’s called “Take the other to lunch,” and it’s about opening up yourself to other people (even Republicans). And I think there’s a pretty solid lesson within about self-acceptance, too. Because if we can calmly allow other people to just be who they are, no matter how it might not fit with our own ideas, maybe we can allow for that same kind of nuance within ourselves.

Check it out:

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Today, I watched a TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” Sandberg gets into it, leading off with the bleak facts:

Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women.

Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women.

In the corporate sector, women at the top, C0level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent.

Even non-profits aren’t immune: there, only 20% of the top posts are held by women.

Ugly as those numbers are, one of Sandberg’s explanations is infinitely more so:

What the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

In other words, the more successful a woman, the less likable we perceive her to be. Sandberg cites one study that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. In it, Columbia Biz School prof Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson at NYU offered their students a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. But she was only called Heidi in the case study given to half their students; in the other, Heidi became Howard.

And guess what happened?

While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, they liked Howard–but not Heidi. In fact, according to a synopsis of the study,

students felt Heidi was significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than Howard. Why? Students saw Heidi as more “selfish” than Howard.

Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious?

Naturally, I was irked by this. Subsequent Googling led me to a post on Stanford University’s website, about a talk given by Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, to a group of high-level women execs and entrepreneurs at the Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse program. Gruenfeld cited the same study, adding this disturbing little nugget:

And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.

In each instance, when Sandberg and Gruenfeld spoke of the study’s results, they noted all the heads nodding in agreement in the audience. And, truth be told, had I been in either audience, my head would be bobbing with the rest of them.

Both Sandberg and Gruenfeld have good, positive points to make, helpful suggestions to offer. But it all makes me wonder something: as much as these negative perceptions might be a hindrance to our success in the workplace, how might the mixed messages (You can have it all! You can do anything you want! But you won’t be liked if you’re too successful, and be careful not to come off as too ambitious) screw with our decision making? When we’re overwhelmed by our options, how much of the overwhelm is attributable to the options themselves, and how much has to do with our concerns over how we might be perceived were we to choose Option A versus Option B? How quickly are we landed right back at the altar of What Will People Think?

Of course, it’s not just what people think–it’s what they do (and who they hire). But you know what? There is actually a bright side hidden within the actual study. Sort of. Call it the I’m Not Sexist; Some of My Best Friends Are Women! effect:

Flynn and his colleagues ran another experiment on the relationship between the students’ familiarity with their peers and how they rated them. When raters didn’t really know their classmates, they responded just as the students in the Heidi/Howard experiment. More assertive men were seen as more hirable while more assertive women were seen as less hirable. But when students were more familiar with the person they were rating, the “backlash” vanished. Assertive men and women were seen as equally hirable. And more assertive women were more likely to be hired than their less assertive female peers (just like men).

Interesting. And heartening. As are Sandberg’s final words:

I have two children. I have a five year-old son and a two year-old daughter. I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home, and I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.

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