Archive for July, 2009

Interesting conversations started on Undecided — and on our Facebook page (and our fans’ FB pages) — this week. To continue the chitchat or read the whole comments, click the links. We’re just getting started:

Several comments revolved around Jack Welch and his comments on the impossibility of work-life balance:

The only way this will ever change is when the definitions “mother” and “father” and the traditional roles at home change. Of course women leave the work force when they are expected to work as hard, if not harder, than men in the workplace AND do all the traditional “mother” roles, cooking, cleaning, staying home with the sick child, driving kids to practices, taking kids shopping etc. etc. But, maybe that goes to the differences between men and women. I, for one, cannot imagine missing out on that stuff (well maybe the cleaning) for a long night at the office. — Colleen

As I’m reading this blog at work (hey, it’s break time), I can hear the President and owner of the financial services company that I work for making a personal call – which happens during the 3:30 coffee/debriefing hour and generally happens with the door open. Annoying, you might think? Nah. It’s been back-to-back conference calls and meetings all day. In fact, the check-ins reinforce the culture of this office and demonstrate our owner’s belief that success outside of the office is equally as important as success in the office; in fact perhaps one begets the other. … Sounds like my boss will be enjoying grilled salmon for dinner tonight and they DID remember (phew) to pick up the dry-cleaning this afternoon. Oh, and HER daughter finished the SAT prep homework already and HER husband picked up the birthday gift they’d discussed…. — Page

Nothing infuriates me more than the fact that men are never told that they can’t have it all, but women are almost always the ones who are expected to choose at the fork in the road. — Lorraine

I think that in general, everyone has the choice. Men also can’t be a great dad and a great powerful CEO any more than women can. It is just more societally acceptable for men to pick work over family…. Also, it is based on what you expect from a mom or dad. ..And honestly, I feel kind of lucky to be a woman to know that when the time comes, I’ll (hopefully) be able to do both, work, but not be chained to a desk fulltime, and be at home. Not too many men can do that… — Kelley

Another chat revolved around the inverse relationship between choice and creativity — and the curse of the plaid skirt:

I think limitation/less choice absolutely leads to more creativity. Which is why great art is usually made by people who come from lesser means. I, too, did time in Catholic school, and actually had this very observation in highschool. Not that I enjoyed the itchy, ill-fitting plaid skirt—but it was sort of a game/challenge to find a way to allow one’s personality to shine through—hair color, shoe color, nail polish color. It just goes to show choice or “lack of” can be a blessing and a curse. I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves. — Tamara

I wore a plaid skirt everyday for 12 years. I loved free dress days and would literally plan out my outfit for weeks. Flash forward 15 years, I am a lawyer, and some days, I am excited when I have to go to court, not because I am pumped for whatever hearing, but because I can just grab a suit (kinda like a uniform) and not think about what I’m going to wear that day…. — Colleen

Since I can’t really relate to ensconcing myself in much other than my daily uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, I’ll go with what I know (artmaking).At my best, I know enough to have a self-imposed limited palette of one type or another. The art is almost always more interesting. I think this works for people like me who have a tendency to want to sum everything up, because there are truly SO many choices….The more I try to stay true to the chaotic everythingness of everything, the more immobilizing it is for me. Sometimes the smallest thing (which I often discover is much more expansive than I expected) can be a testament to that larger rule... — Warren

On whether to stay put or move on:

Dude, I’m doing what I wanted to do out of college and now I’m OVER IT. Sometimes what we originally think is glamorous turns out to be the opposite. After 10 years in this industry I’m ready for a BIG change….. ideally owning my own business and not ever having to worry about a director not enjoying his sandwich. — Samantha

“If I stay there will be trouble; if I leave there will be double.” I think that what is important is making some kind of choice…doing nothing is the worst choice of all. Newton was right about a body at rest staying at rest and a body in motion staying in motion. Physics — governs everything we do, feel, believe, spiritually, emotionally, physically. Inertia…make a choice and keep moving, you can always make another choice. But staying at rest, not growing, not changing…ahh…that would be awful. Leap, knowing you can choose again and keep moving forward. — Leslie

Finally, from Shannon’s brilliant take on what happens when your life unfolds just the way you had it planned — and why we get the heebie-jeebies when it does:

I don’t think second guessing yourself and having that “grass is greener” feeling happens for women only. I’m speaking for myself (as a man) but I have those second guess feelings as well.Maybe men don’t speak of it because we feel more of a responsibility to be the main source of income and create a stable environment for our family. The dream option is often not practical. -and who is to say you won’t still have those feelings about what you left if you do leave. — Pablo

I wonder if choices are so difficult for women because we are led to believe THEY MEAN TOO MUCH. And so we avoid choosing? Or regret the choices we make? Forgetting … that most of our career choices are destined to change, anyhow.So maybe the question is why women think their choices are so important — and irrevocable? — Yours Truly.

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Yesterday in Cary Tennis’ advice column in Salon.com, he doled out some wisdom to a tormented soon-to-be law student. Or maybe not. In her letter, “Terrified” has this to say:

With every day that passes, I am fighting a rising sense of utter panic. I don’t know if I want to do this. I have been working my whole life toward this moment… all with my eye on the prize of admission to law school and an eventual J.D. My father is a lawyer and since I was a little girl I have dreamed about following in his footsteps. The problem, I think, is that law school has been my goal for so long that I’ve never really stopped to examine it, and now I’m afraid that it’s way too late to change my mind… Despite the fact that my dad and I are very similar people, he never had experiences like mine. My priorities are just… well, different. He graduated from a state law school and has practiced in his home state ever since. I am a mover; I yearn to go; I don’t want to stay in one place and work myself to the bone… When I think about being a lawyer, I panic. In my heart I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

My heart bleeds for the girl—maybe because I’ve been there. Haven’t we all? That unpleasant place where it feels as though you’re on cruise control, being driven by inertia, watching the time go by, second-guessing every decision you’ve ever made that’s brought you to this point, and convinced that stopping the train would take strength of superhuman proportions. “Terrified” describes feeling that it’s “way too late” to change directions. I stuck on those words, let my mind ramble, and lingered on a thought: do you ever hear men talk this way? Do you think the message we as women are fed—that our stock goes down as our age goes up—makes us extra conscious of the clock, an underlying worry that seeps into everything, intensifying the pressure we feel every time we find ourselves at a crossroads? And then there’s Jack Welch’s “women can’t have it all” comment, which Barbara blogged about yesterday. It’s 2009, and still we fight that idea, even as we internalize it: if I can’t have it all, I better pick wisely. And in a hurry. The clock’s a-tickin’.

Tennis’ advice? Think happy thoughts, go to law school. You can always drop out if you change your mind.

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… the more they remain the same?

A woman can be a good mommy. Or she can be a good CEO. But never both.

That was the message from Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, in a recent speech that rightly ignited a firestorm in the press and the blogosphere. It wasn’t just that he said that for women, life itself is one big choice. That’s kind of what we’ve been saying here. But he defined that choice in mid-century terms:

Women can have a family. Or a successful career. But gee whiz, they can’t have both. Work-life balance? All a pipe-dream, girls.

(Funny. No one ever says men can’t have both. But that’s another story.)

Still. As offputting as Welch’s comments were, could they hint at one source of the angst felt by young women who DO want it all — but are still being told it can never work? Is it any wonder that analysis paralysis steps in when women believe that they must decide between career and family?

And is this either/or business a false choice?

Back in the day, of course, women didn’t even have the choice. It was often made for them by well-meaning males in bad suits who were allowed to ask rude questions – and make hiring decisions based on the answers.

Case in point: A few years out of college, I took a test for a management training program for a large corporation. Never mind the name. I scored high, made it through the first round of interviews, and then ran up against a smug middle-manager who asked:

What did my husband do? (Strike one)

Isn’t it likely that I might be moving if he got a better job somewhere else? (Strike two)

And, once his career took off, wouldn’t I be eager to start a family? (Strike three)

And out. On my way to the door, this guy said something to the effect that management training was a costly process, so surely I could understand why they would be reluctant to risk all that money on someone: Who. Might. Leave.

All of which is to show how far we’ve come. But, as Welch’s comments clearly show, we’ve got a ways to go.

Making the case in the Washington Post that American companies need more senior women, Womenomics authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote:

Professional women have been leaving the workplace in droves, and we need to stop the brain drain. Recent studies show that almost a third of professional women opt out at some point in their careers and, strikingly, that MBAs are more likely than lawyers or doctors to choose to stay home with their children.

Beyond a certain point, many women find that the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great. We need to recognize that the glass ceiling is in part a self-imposed, defensive perimeter. But we can’t afford to have women take themselves out of the running for top slots. And the only way to prevent that is changing the workplace to allow us the freedom to fit in our personal lives.

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Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column, “This Year’s Model“, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine presents an interesting question: when constrained by a lack of choice, are we forced to get creative? Walker tells the tale of Sheena Matheiken’s Uniform Project, “which involves wearing the same dress every day for a year, and seeing just how aesthetically creative she could be despite that limitation.” Matheiken’s personal background clearly factored into the project’s inspiration: on her site, she writes:

I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality… Poking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare.

This sounded familiar to me: I wore a school uniform for 12 years. In high school, my sartorial self-expression was limited to my shoes. But while part of me engaged in the grass-is-greener fantasy of a post-high-school life in which I could wear whatever I wanted, while stuck in that plaid skirt, I embraced the challenge and got as creative as I possibly could. Doc Martens, alternated with converse low-tops, became my statement of choice. Of this sort of forced creativity, Walker writes:

Rules stifle creativity and enforce conformity. Rules can do something else too: inspire creativity that thwarts conformity.

Which makes me wonder: as it is in fashion, is it in life? Are there instances in which a lack of choice has forced you to get creative? Is that a good thing? Which would you rather have: a lack of choices that forces you to think out of the box, or endless choices proscribed by no box at all?

As for me, fifteen years post-uniform, I still love clothes. I love the freedom to wear whatever I want. (Is it any wonder that one of my regular writing gigs is as the style columnist for the Santa Barbara Independent?) But I’m not gonna lie: with the hours I’ve spent staring at the innards of my closet, digging through drawers, and trying on outfit after outfit, I could have written The Great American Novel (not to mention come up with The Great American Premise for the Great American Novel). Just this morning, I went through three options before deciding on the one in which I’m currently ensconced. But would I go back to the uniformed days of my youth? Not a chance.

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When it comes to your current job, you’ll probably stay — at least until the recession is over. But what you really want to do is go.

New numbers out of a Workplace Insights survey from Adecco, an international staffing company, show that when it comes to work, most of us are dreaming mightily of a new gig. The survey found that over half of all American workers (54 percent) say they’ll be hunting for a new job once the economy picks up.

That’s significant. But the real jolt comes here: Almost three-quarters (a whopping 71 percent!) of 18 – 29 year-olds say they’re off in search of greener pastures once the recession ends.

That’s one boatload of dissatisfaction, all around. You have to wonder why. Are we suffering from a terminal case of grass-is-greener syndrome? Did we choose wrong from the outset? Is it simply a case of growing pains, especially for women?

Another Addeco survey might suggest a remedy. The company asked former college grads what advice they would give to the class of 2009. Their answer: choose passion, not paycheck.

Over two-thirds (71%) of college-educated adults say that today’s graduates should stick to their goals and aim for career fulfillment, many more than those who say they should take any job available or follow the money. In fact, only 13% of previous adult grads advise students to choose a career based only on earning and salary potential.

The survey also found that less than half (48 percent) of all adults who’ve had a full-time job since graduation are still working in the same industry.

Digest the numbers soup, and you’ll see that for most of us, whatever it is we’re doing today is unlikely to be what we’re going to be doing tomorrow. The question is: what’s that gonna be? And how are we going to make that choice?

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Check what some of our readers have had to say this past week. To continue the conversations — or read the whole comments — click the links.

On quarterlife:

“…especially with all the recent layoffs, quarter-lifers like myself are stuck answering the age-old question: what should I do with my life? I have a full-time job I enjoy and am still struggling… The best thing about the mid-20s is that you can dress and act like a teenager (and get away with it) and dress and act like an upwardly mobile junior executive (and get away with it). The worst part about the mid-20s: trying to decide which of those images accurately reflects YOU.”          — Timithie

“I’m getting stressed out just reading those questions! I’ve been trying to decide on a car to purchase for five years. FIVE YEARS. I can make great decisions at the office – but when it comes to this… hybrid? 4-wheel drive? fun? practical? lease? buy? 2-door? navigation? red? leather? floormats? cupholders? aaargh. Hello, indecisions and paralysis. It’s embarrassing, frankly. Although, should I be embarassed, or embrace it? Share it, or hide it? Fake it, or own it? I digress.” — Page

“It’s so wonderful to have the plethora of options that we do…but I have no idea which way to go. Some of the stuff I have absolutely nailed down – I know what kind of clothes I like to wear; I know that I DON’T want to be a mathematician… As for the rest…I’m at a loss.” — Marjorie

About women and their choices:

“I am 65 years old and have had the option to work or not work throughout my marriage. …Up to about 35 I used to worry about why I liked to change and explore new things and what was wrong with me that I could not find one goal or profession and stick to it for life like Georgia O’ Keefe did with her passion for painting. But, at around 40, I decided to accept that this is just who I am… I have continued to and hope to never stop changing, learning and growing as the years go on and love it that way.” — Dottie

“I am mostly happy with my job — it’s challenging and well-paid and flexible — but at the same time I constantly feel like I’m just dancing around in circles on the fringes of “the dream job.” I also struggle with how big and important a role I want career to play in my life anyway. I came out of law school thinking I wanted career to be my entire life, and the older I get, the less important career seems and the more important the rest of life seems…” — Anne

“What a relief to find that I’m not the only one who has experienced this phenomenon! I keep reading everything, thinking, “Yes, yes, yes!” My sister used to tease me that I was on the semester system in life because I was always moving and changing jobs. But really I was just worried that I was missing my “true calling” or not doing enough to fulfill my parents’ expectations after all that schooling. .. Now I’m almost 40 and starting yet a new career… Looking back I can see how the choices and self-inflicted expectations led to a major paralysis in my mid-20’s…” — Marisa

“One of my favorite things about being a woman, and about women in general, is how they tend to be better at adapting to change than men. I feel this is a real benefit when you look at the number of choices before us these days…You have to bend and mold and be flexible to be successful in life and I see that women really tend to show this strength. No wonder we have so many choices before us…women rule. I say “Bring it ON”!! — Ani

“Yes, I swim in a sea of confusion over my options! Being a woman who feels she is unlimited, I’ve spent too much time debating my opportunities instead of picking one path and sticking with it. I can’t complain; life has been good. I do, however, feel concern that I might be overlooking the one thing that is my “calling.” From orchestra conductor to herpetologist to cartographer to photographer to writer, I’ve wanted to do it all. I also know that I can, we all can…”          — Lauren

On “Commencement”:

“…I’m curious to see how women (or men) from previous generations would relate to the characters. One interesting tidbit, I thought, was from one of the character’s mothers, who said — while cooking dinner and doing 90% of the housework — that women with careers and families makes life easier for one gender… men.” — Colleen

On the pressure of the passion versus paycheck dilemma:

“I feel like I have dealt with this issue my entire life, just on a slightly different level. What if you don’t have a passion? It always seems to come up: What would you do if time, money and experience didn’t matter, how would you spend your time? Honestly, I have no idea. … When I did my corporate job for 10 years, I did it well (I have the annual reviews to back that up), but it wasn’t what I lived for. I worked to live, not lived to work. My real life was always on the verge of something else. The verge of what? who knows. I was talking with a friend this weekend who basically thought it was pointless to work in a job that wasn’t emotionally, spiritually, and creatively fullfilling. I thought good for her, but what about everyone else? I kept thinking, this is a first-world problem and really doesn’t apply to much of the world.” — Joanna

On the happiness gap:

“… with so many choices and so many opportunities, it seems like women can now choose careers that they want to pursue rather than doing something they have to do. Unfortunately, our society seems to encourage us to seek out jobs that pay the most money rather than jobs that we enjoy. Finding a high-paying job you love isn’t easy. Of course we all need money to live, but is it worth doing something that causes so much stress just to have the money? Perhaps the women that are the most anxious, stressed and medicated are those that are pursuing high-paying, high-stress jobs that they hate – jobs that in the past may have been held primarily by men.”  — Jennifer

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Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz is the guru of too many choices. His book “The Paradox of Choice” puts forth the argument that, the more choices there are, the more unhappy we’ll be with whichever one we choose. Check the video above (long, but worth watching–especially for his hilarious cartoons) to hear him talking about option excess in the salad dressing aisle, the cell phone store, and his inspiration for the book, something to which we can all relate: shopping for jeans. More specifically, how he found the experience of standing before a wall of options so overwhelming as to leave him longing for the days when jeans came in only one style, only one wash–and not an especially flattering one, at that. He talks about how having so many choices makes picking any one a million times harder than it should be (hello, analysis paralysis), and about how in the face of so many options, there’s no way NOT to come out of the store worrying that the perfect pair was actually one of the ones he’d left discarded on the dressing room floor, or one of the ones he never even got around to trying on. He calls that phenomenon “opportunity cost.” We call it those nagging daydreams about the road not traveled.

The thing is, he’s talking about buying jeans. And yeah, buying jeans is stressful (who wants to wind up with a black bar over her face as a Glamour “Don’t”? More to the point: these days, most of us can only afford one new pair of jeans, if we’re lucky–so if we pick wrong, we’re stuck with the “Don’t”)… but that’s buying jeans. Now extrapolate that stress, that overwhelm, that angst to the ultimate question: What Should I Do With My Life?

Is it any wonder that we’re all in such a state?

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But is that necessarily a bad thing? Not completely.

In a piece in last week’s New York Times, Alex Williams explored what college kids and newly minted graduates might be doing this recessionary summer. The answer? For a great many of them, moving back home with mom and pop. He writes:

The well-paying summer jobs that in previous years seemed like a birthright have grown scarce, and pre-professional internships are disappearing as companies cut back across the board. Recession-strapped parents don’t always have the means or will to bankroll starter apartments or art tours of Tuscany.

So many college students and recent graduates are heading to where they least expected: back home, and facing an unfamiliar prospect: downtime, maybe too much of it. To a high-achieving generation whose schedules were once crammed with extracurricular activities meant to propel them into college, it feels like an empty summer — eerie, and a bit scary.

And yet. For a generation that’s been pushed, prodded,”given trophies just for showing up” and told they could do anything so long as they worked hard enough, the staycation in their high school bedroom might in fact have an upside. For one thing, it’s a safe lesson that, no matter how hard you work, life sometimes intervenes. And, hidden at the end of Williams’ story, is another glimpse of a silver lining:

In the short term, the lost summer of 2009 might actually be a blessing, some psychologists said, especially because members of this generation have lived their lives like track stars trying to run a marathon at the pace of a 100-meter dash — their parents typically waiting at every turn with a stopwatch.

“Parents have really put a lot of pressure on the kids — everything has been organized, they’re all taking A.P. courses, then summer hits and they’re going to learning camps,” said Peter A. Spevak, a psychologist in Rockville, Md. Now, he said, with opportunities for achievement at a minimum this summer, “there is something to be said about sitting out on a warm evening and looking at the stars — they need more of this contemplation and self-evaluation.”

In other words, time off the treadmill. Where passions often have time to percolate, and looking at choices becomes less stressful, and more thoughtful.

One of my students recently told me he will be spending his post grad summer living in his parents’ basement — and, since the job prospects are slim and none, taking the time to do some serious work on his writing and his music.

He’s looking forward to it.

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Not to be all Pollyanna, but is it possible that the current economic reality might offer an escape from the whole passion-v-paycheck debate Barbara addressed in yesterday’s post? Or that maybe, just maybe, when it looks like your choices are diminished, in a strange way, they start to multiply? I came across this piece yesterday, which tells the tale of a Brit who lost his accountant job, a job he took because “I wanted stability and I saw it as a recession-proof job.” Said Brit approached the void left by his new, unemployed status as an opportunity–one he seized in pursuit of his longtime passion: stand-up comedy. It made me think of this quote Life Coach Martha Beck dropped in a recent interview:

I am not saying you have to realize all your dreams when your back is against the wall, but when you have nothing to lose, know that this is the best time for setting your sights toward genuine happiness. You may not travel the path you want to arrive at your ultimate goals, but you must, must, must have the direction clear and the destination pinpointed or you will simply wander in the direction that circumstances take you.

So. Whaddaya think? Is this kind of idea a lovely fantasy but (like oh so many lovely fantasies), far too dangerous to actually consider? Or does a part of you feel that, since the guaranteed paycheck jobs don’t really exist anymore–that, with a limit on what choices are currently available–you have a newfound freedom to pursue that pie-in-the-sky dream, the unrealistic one that gets your soul all a-flutter? Or maybe the current doom-and-gloom has helped you make a tentative peace with your job–the very same one you used to describe as soul-sucking. Maybe you’ve lost your job and decided now’s the time to go back to school, like you’ve kinda always wanted… Or maybe you’ve lost your job, and think I should take this post and shove it. Either way, I’m curious: what do you think?

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The ultimate choice, right? Passion or paycheck. But are the two always mutually exclusive? Can one, eventually, enable the other?

Is sub-par sometimes a means to an end?

I came across this interesting post by a twentysomething web designer from Portland, Ore., who laments her life in a corporate cubicle, doing a job she kinda hates. Sound familiar? But she lets herself off the hook for doing something she doesn’t love…while she paves the way for something she does.

She writes:

There are things about my job that I do care about. I care about performing well enough that I maintain the respect of my coworkers. I certainly care about performing well enough to keep my job. I care about the fact that this is the entry level experience I need to progress in my field. Do I care about the work that I do? Um…

But I do care about some parts of my work. I love coding. But I want more. I want to do more design, be more involved in the creative process, have greater control over the product I turn out. And there are other things I’m interested in, too. I’m interested in marketing and branding and social media. I’m interested in making things, doing things that help people on a very personal level, that helps to build community (local, global, whatever), that does something to add meaning or value to someone’s life. My job doesn’t and will never provide that, and that’s not to say there’s something wrong with my job, but rather, that because my job doesn’t really do what I’m interested in, it’s probably not the best fit for me.

Knowing this, I think it’s okay for me to stop beating myself up over the fact that I’m not feeling fulfilled by my job or satisfied by the kind of work I’m doing. It’s okay not to care. That doesn’t mean I get a license to blow off my work or be a slacker. What it does mean is that I can stop investing so much in my work emotionally, that I can stop being upset because I’m not a “perfect” employee. I’m not meant to be perfect in this position. It’s not what I’m cut out to do, and I can’t make myself better suited for the work any more than I can make my job what I want it to be.

Intriguing perspective. Whether or not it makes dealing with life decisions any easier — no clue. But realizing that you can learn from not-quite-perfect may give us the patience to make peace the buffet of choices out there. As Po Bronson writes in What Should I Do With My Life?:

Finding what we believe in and what we can do about it is one of life’s great dramas… Don’t cling to a single scenario, allow yourself many paths to the same destination. Give it a lifetime to pay off. Things you work hardest for are the things you will most treasure.”

Another way of looking at it, in the words of somebody’s mother: “Sometimes you have to kiss a bunch of frogs.”

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