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Posts Tagged ‘Undecided’

Anne Lamott and I are friends.  Okay, not personally, but I follow her on Facebook.  (We did have a moment a decade ago when I shook her hand after she gave a talk up in Berkeley. But anyway.)  When her latest post popped up in my news feed this morning, a bunch of bells went off. Abso-effing-lutely, I thought.  I’ll have what she’s having. In her funny and inimitable way, she wrote about doing a “once-in-lifetime writerly thing”:

one of those high octane events where you just KNOW you will feel completely better about yourself for the rest of your life in every way, because it means you will have truly arrived…And I got VERY lost. It has taken me four days, two Kissing dogs, church, three hikes, two huggy girlfriends, and two visiting brothers for me to get found.

Her point was that feeling whole, being happy, is an inside-out kind of deal, rather than vice versa:

My entire life I have believed that there was something I could achieve, own, lease or date that would make me feel permanently whole, and I’m pretty sure that this side of eternity, this will be my default mode. If only THIS would happen, or if only that would fall into place, or if I just met the right person, or got the right review, or got to live in a house with a fill-in-the-blank… But the horrible truth of life is that this whole less, being friends with your own heart, is ALWAYS going to be an inside job.

No kidding.  It’s something we’ve written about a lot – on our blog, in Undecided, which, if you have in your to-read pile, just flip straight to the last two chapters.  What Lamott wrote and what we found in our research on the science of happiness is this:  That Next Best Thing? It might make you giddy for a while.  But the elusive thing we call happiness?  Probably not for the long haul.  As we wrote once before: 

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.

But here’s the spoiler:  Quantitative research by UC-Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness, found that happiness is about 10 percent due to changed circumstances, like, for example, the blue pearl granite on my counter-tops.  The rest? Your genes, your life and how you deal with it.  In other words, all you, baby.

 

There’s a theory called the hedonic treadmill, and what it means is that we adapt to new situations, whether winning the lottery or getting fired from a job. Our happiness quotient might spike – or plummet –at first, but then we revert. And as Dan Ariely—author of The Upside of Irrationality and a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University—found is that the one-shot rush you get from, say, buying a new car or getting a raise is fleeting and, in fact, not nearly as lasting as the sense of well-being you get from meaningful experiences, whether large or small.  Taking a vacation, say, or spending time doing the stuff you love or with the people you love – the memories of which can stick with you, change you, and teach you something significant about your Self.  That’s the stuff, research shows, of which happy is made.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am as aspirational and as ambitious as the next woman.  Maybe more so.  I would also be the last to assert that we should blow off our dreams, to quit our quest to break through the glass ceiling at work, to rise above that nasty 77 cents on the dollar, or to stop fighting for true gender equity.  But what I think is this.  Maybe what we need to do is separate the outside from the inside. 

 

Granted, being a woman of (ahem) a certain age, this may be all the product of hindsight, one of the few benefits of growing older.  But what I have come to realize, and what Lamott reminded me today, is that the inner sense of well-being, the kind you can sink into like a comfy pillow after a long hard day, has more to do with who you are – than what you do or what you have.  The fatter paycheck, the once in a lifetime writerly thing, that bigger better kitchen may be all that – and, in fact, probably are.  But happiness itself, the kind that lasts?  Something else entirely.

 

And often, that something else arises completely unannounced, triggered by a random memory that reminds you what it takes to throw that smile on your face., that puts you in touch with who you are and what you value.  As it turns out, I had one of those moments just this morning when, listening to music while out on a run, up popped Bruce belting out “Pink Cadillac.” Which triggered all kinds of memories.  Every single one of them delicious.  (I’ll share.  Just ask.)

 

And when I took a moment to reflect, I had an aha moment, not unlike Lamott’s.  It reminded me what, within my own private universe, my own sense of happiness is all about.  And that smile?  Still there.

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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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I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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As one more reminder why you see more suits than skirts in the corporate suites, there’s this:  women don’t exaggerate nearly enough.  According to a recent study out of Columbia University Business School, one reason why men are more likely to succeed in business is because they’re much better braggers.  Men are much more likely to puff up their accomplishments.  Women, not so much.

According to Columbia Professor Ernesto Reuben, one of the study’s authors, “men may have a much easier time ‘faking it’ due to natural overconfidence in their performance”:

Part of the persistent gender gap in leadership at firms can be attributed to discrimination. However, most investigations in this area focus on clear-cut instances of discrimination, in which a woman might not be selected for a position or promotion in a male-dominated firm where men either don’t like working with women, feel threatened by women, or believe that women are not as good in a given role or industry. But Reuben suggests that the underlying causes of such selection issues may go beyond simple conscious discrimination.

“We know that there are differences in the way men and women think of themselves and react to incentives,” Reuben says. “That led us to ask what other forces could be creating gender differences than bald out-and-out discrimination.”

What they found was that those other forces had to do with “honest” exaggeration.  In one experiment, MBA students were asked to complete some math problems, then a year later, were asked to recall how well they did.  Both the men and the women inflated their scores — but to a different degree.  Then men rated themselves about 30 percent higher.  The women, only about 15 percent.  Next, the researchers upped the ante by dividing participants into groups, and asking them to choose a leader to represent them in a math contest, based on how the participants thought they’d do.  In groups where the leader was given a cash incentive, both men and women exaggerated how well they thought they’d do.  But those who exaggerated the most, were usually rewarded for it:

When participants had an incentive to lie, they lied more, and the incidence of lying increased as the monetary award for being chosen as leader increased. But while women kept pace with men on how frequently they lied, women did not exaggerate their performance to the same degree, and it cost them: women were selected 1/3 less often than their abilities would otherwise indicate. In other words, while there is no gender differential when it comes to lying, there is a significant gender differential when it comes to “honest” overconfidence: the main difference in women not being selected as leaders appears to be attributable to men’s overconfidence in their abilities.

Something to think about, right?  To be sure, there are a number of reasons why women keep bumping up against the glass ceiling — from overt discrimination in the workplace to the so-called maternal wall.  As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  We also tend to lose the confidence game, sometimes because we fear we won’t fit in.

But the ways in which we’ve learned to communicate plays a part as well.  When it comes to salary, we are less likely to negotiate. We’re more likely to give credit to others than ourselves. We tend to downplay our achievements, even to the point of deflecting compliments.  We’ve learned early on that “nice” girls don’t brag.  Or speak up. And where do es that get us?  As we noted before,

It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, [communication scholar Laura] Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”

But back to that Columbia study.  In a riff in a recent special section of the Sun Times, writer Vickie Milazzo, author of Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman, says that women need “to act (and) think more like men.  Her advice?

“Don’t let anyone-including yourself-forget just how much you’re bringing to the table,” says Milazzo. “The men certainly won’t. Practice talking about your achievements. Be proud of your strengths and abilities and learn to compellingly express them to others. When you position yourself in an appealing way, you’ll unleash success.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Wait a minute…  Yes, dammit, I could!

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More than you might think.

Especially for us women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don’t even recognize.  Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don’t even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women’s progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched — and often unconscious — sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably?  There’s an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”.  The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving.  They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too.  Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is “assertive.”  For men, that’s an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive.  For women? We often don’t bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy.  You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, “feisty”  Which itself is more than just a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media,  points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits.  Organization — think linear thinking — is one.  Another is the fact that while women process — we talk things through –  men act.  “Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary,” she says.

True, that.  And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we’re likely to say “he’s lost it.”  As in, momentary aberration.  When a woman does the same, however, she’s often dismissed as “emotional” (read: bad).  Or “menstrual” (read: worse).  Or even menopausal (read: worse yet).  In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on “60 Minutes” a while back, he was “sensitive.”  When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as “emotional” — there’s that word again — as in not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises.  He becomes a “family man”.  To wit: what a guy! What’s funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she’s, well, home with the kids.  Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well:  A woman without a mate is either unmarried — as in, poor thing — or a spinster. Ugh.  A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He’s a catch.  Throw sex into the equation and we’ve got another humdinger of a double standard.  When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: “He’s a stud, She’s a slut.”  Enough said.

The list goes on.  When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful.  A good thing.  When a woman does the same, especially at home, she’s often called controlling.  Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he’s a good leader.  His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker.  Even clothing carries its own weight.  As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he’s cool.  When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability — or lack of same — to self-promote.  It’s a plus for men, who are expected to “showboat a little.” But women? Not so much. We’re expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves.  Or else we’ll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what’s coming next: if there’s a promotion to be had, you can guess who’s most likely to get it.

Ahem.  Word.

 

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And so a self-assured, kick-ass student we’ll call Jena followed me up to my office after the first day of class last week.  We made some idle chit-chat for a minute or two and then she got down to it:  She wasn’t sure she was going to stick it out.  Why?  For the first time ever, she confessed, a class had scared her shitless – as in, a knot in her stomach that kicked her clear out of her comfort zone.

To which my only response was this: “That’s terrific.”

Fear can be the best signal that you’re about to grow, to learn something new, to take a taste of something you thought was beyond you.  Harness it, and it’s often a source of power.  It’s all about stretching the muscles, as Salon’s Cary Tennis wrote to a teary grad student who was ready to flick it all in:

It hurts. You feel weak at first. Then you keep doing it and you get the muscles. Then you can do things you couldn’t do before.

It will always hurt a little. If it doesn’t hurt a little you’re not doing it right.

Love that. All of which got me thinking about the danger of the comfort zone, that safe little territory that keeps us from taking risks.

Now, you’ll never catch one of us (okay, me) jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.  Or white-water rafting.  Or even climbing to the top of a ladder.  But the two of us do share a healthy love of the kind of risk-taking that pushes women to throw themselves out there, to make those leaps of faith that get us past our initial fears.  In fact, what we believe is that the minute we realize we’re afraid to do something new, afraid to ask for what we want, maybe that’s precisely when we should jump out of the proverbial plane.  Men do that. Why shouldn’t we?

Take the case of Abby, a smart twenty-something we interviewed for our book.  She started out in journalism, left that gig for a job doing PR for a nonprofit, and then traded that one for a job doing PR for another nonprofit. She loved the job at first, but soon outgrew it, and interviewed for two new jobs – one that was merely good, and the other that was great.  She felt good about both interviews, and put in her two-weeks notice.  Risky business, right? That same day, she was offered the merely good job – but heard nothing from the great one.  So she played some guts ball.  She turned down the offer from the merely good job – and waited for an offer for the job she really wanted.  A few days later, it came.

Clearly, it could have gone either way.  But she made a choice, took a risk, and look how it turned out.

The conventional wisdom is that risk-taking is linked to testosterone, that women aren’t all that good at it.  But what we wonder is this: is risk-taking defined solely in terms of skateboarding without a helmet or driving too fast on curvy roads?  And is it nature or nurture, in that we girls have been conditioned to believe that our role is to play it safe?  Have we been too protected by doting parents who decided their role was to save us from ourselves?

Boys will be boys, but girls should be safe?

A recent study out of Columbia University suggests that gender disparities when it comes to risk taking may be different than what we assume.  It’s all pretty complex, writes Rick Nauert PhD, Senior News Editor of Psych Central:

Men are willing to take more risks in finances. But women take more social risks—a category that includes things like starting a new career in your mid-30s or speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work.

The researchers say that experience greatly influences the type of risk-taker a person may become and this explains why women and men perceive risks differently.

“If you have more experience with a risky situation, you may perceive it as less risky,” [said Bernd Figner, Ph.D., who cowrote the paper with Elke Weber, Ph.D]

Differences in how boys and girls encounter the world as they’re growing up may make them more comfortable with different kinds of risks.

Stuff to think about, right?  Meanwhile, back to Jena.  Day two, there she was.  Sitting front and center, flashing me a smile.  Giving it a shot.  And looking confident, indeed.

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