Archive for February, 2010

Or, the power of percolation. In which we may find the answers to some of life’s mysteries when we stop looking for them.

Here’s the backstory. We came across a tiny little blurb on Slatest the other day that referenced a blog by Seth Roberts, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He discovered that when you add boring and boring, you end up with pleasant. In Roberts’ case, task No. 1 was studying Chinese via a flashcard system called Anki. Stone bore. Task No. 2 was riding the treadmill. Another big yawn. But when he combined the two, he found that both became pleasurable. He walked, he learned, he enjoyed. All about the distraction? Diversion? Multi-tasking with a purpose? Nope, writes Roberts. More like evolution:

The Anki/treadmill symmetry is odd because lots of people think we need exercise to be healthy but I’ve never heard someone say we need to study to be healthy. The evolutionary reason for this might be to push people to walk in new places (which provide something to learn) rather than old places (which don’t). To push them to explore.

Now Roberts seems to be ruminating on learning in the classic sense. But I wonder if that same evolutionary impluse to explore applies to decision-making, too, as well as creative problem solving. All of which leads me back to the power of percolation: feeding the data into the auto-brain, then letting the gray cells do some work while we’re off doing something else. When we get ourselves all tied up in knots thinking Door No. 1 or Door No 2, when we’re jonesing for that fix of perfection (note to self: doesn’t exist), when we’re lusting after that greener grass, could it be that the answer is just to go take a hike?

Seems to me that if we’re out moving rather than sitting at home angsting, we can call on our subconscious to get busy. While we’re out exploring the new route to the overlook, for example, we can let the synapses take care of business, percolating the data, exploring new connections, and quite possibly finding a new route to some answers. Maybe even helping us get in touch with our gut instincts.

Case in point. That picture up at the top of this post is from the homestretch of the Dipsea Trail, a killer of a 7 mile hike that leads from Mill Valley, Calif, up three flights of stairs as tall as a fifty-story building, through Muir Woods, then back down to Stinson Beach. It’s a no-joke killer of a hike that took Shannon and me the better part of one summer day. At the end of it, we made our way to the first bar in town and found ourselves sitting on a sunny deck, ice-cold beer in hand, with not only a sense of accomplishment — but the focus for this book.

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Tuesday. Weight: not gonna disclose that. Cigarettes consumed: zero. Alcohol units consumed: one more than appropriate.

Yes, I’m channeling Bridget Jones, and it’s not knickers- or Darcy-inspired. Fact is, I’ve been ruminating on Renee Zellweger’s (alleged) statement that, though she’d like to do another Bridget Jones flick, she doesn’t want to pack on the lbs this go-round–and the postulating over the whys–all day long. And, given some particularly fascinating tangents, I figured you might as well join me.

Much as we love the relatable, perpetually plump-ish character, and even despite the reported $20M payday, who can really blame Zellweger for opting to forego the gravy this go-round on the gravy train? While I enjoy the random cupcake/cookie/passed appetizer binge as much as anyone, gaining 20 pounds on command doesn’t exactly sound like my idea of fun. Add to that the psychotic counterpoint, crash-dieting to lose it all in time for the media tour? Nothankyouverymuch. What’s more interesting, though (/of course), is why Zellweger (allegedly) said she didn’t want to go yo-yo again: According to The Frisky:

Also, Renee allegedly thinks the demise of her and Jack White’s relationship had to do with her extra pounds and doesn’t want to risk having it affect her relationship with Bradley Cooper.

Errr, ew. Said ew being fairly self-explanatory, let’s not get into it, shall we? What I would like to get into, however, is what Erica Kennedy–our favorite Feministahas to say about that lil rumor. Check it:

…now that she’s got Bradley Cooper on the hook, she doesn’t want to go down that road again. (And what the article doesn’t say but I will go ahead and add –> especially since she’s 40 now and childless.)

So you know what this means, if true? It means that Renee Zellweger, who gets $20 million a picture and probably has some stake in the gross of the Bridget Jones franchise so stands to make even more, is basically trying to decide between $20+ million (and 20 lbs) or… a man. Ain’t that some shit (allegedly)? That’s a real modern woman conundrum like I’ve never heard!

…At what other time would a woman be in the position to make $20 million? For a few months work? Or be in the position to turn it down?

…But at the same time, Renee can get the $$$ to do another movie where she doesn’t have to gain weight and if I were her, I would be more worried about locking shit down on the home front at this point. If we’re using celebrities as analogies here, I would think Heidi Klum or Jennifer Garner is what you would want, ideally. An involved husband, kids AND a career that you can do until you don’t feel like doing it anymore. What you don’t want to become is Jennifer Aniston (what goes on in HER head at night?) and end up living alone in a ginormous Zen-influenced palace that you design to feel like a big hug. Which is exactly where Renee looks like she’s heading.

Whoa and whoa again. While I adore Ms. Kennedy for her delightful willingness to go there, her thoughts on the subject leave me wondering: What is this really all about? Somewhere deep down, do women believe that we really can’t have it all? That we can’t have the career, the guy, and–in Zellweger’s case anyway–the bod, that everything must always be a choice, an either/or?

Or is it a classic case of grass-is-greener syndrome: That, no matter what we have going for us (ahem, $20M payday much?!), we can’t help but focus on what we don’t?

What is our problem? Are we just spoiled? Or is part of the human condition the absolute inability to focus on what’s in our own backyard–so blinded are we by our Alice in Wonderland perceptions of our neighbors’ oh-so green grass?

Consider: If Zellweger is in fact so consumed with her biological clock that even a cool $20 million won’t assuage the fear of being left alone, that she can’t see how amazingly, craptastically blessed she is to be in such a position, to have a $20 million offer on the table, that she’s financially free enough to turn down, might her perspective be just an eensy bit skewed? Maybe her scary-knickers-sporting counterpart might have a lesson to offer here: I mean, it seems to me it’s all a little bit like Ms. Jones’ lamenting over her ‘smug married’ friends, who, while married, were nowhere near as smugly so as Bridget imagined… or her inability to realize that a Colin Firth in the hand might be worth two Hugh Grants in the (proverbial) bush?

I guess the main question I’m wondering here is this: Are we unable–or unwilling… or both–to imagine that the path we didn’t choose might in fact be as imperfect as the one we did?

A wise person once said that it’s not the cards we draw in life that’s important, it’s how we play the hand we’re dealt. And maybe we’d enjoy the game a whole lot more if we were able to remember that.

And if not, maybe we’d do well to take a cue from Bridget, and have another glass of wine.

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If developmental psychologists have it right, that adolescence is the time we lay the groundwork for the grown-up we will someday become, and if they also have it right that adolescence now extends well into the twenty-somethings, what’s up with the new plan to usher kids out of high school in two years?

Well, not all kids. Just those who can pass a series of tests at the end of their sophomore year, allowing them to move straight to community college. According to the New York Times, the point is to make sure students master their basic high school requirements, then hop into community-college level math and English without needing remedial work.  Now, I’m sure most of us wouldn’t have minded blowing off the junior prom, but car-pooling to college at age 16?!  From the story:

Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Terry Holliday, said high school graduation requirements there had long been based on having students accumulate enough course credits to graduate.

“This would reform that,” Dr. Holliday said. “We’ve been tied to seat time for 100 years. This would allow an approach based on subject mastery — a system based around move-on-when-ready.”

The new system aims to provide students with a clear outline of what they need to study to succeed, said Phil Daro, a consultant based in Berkeley, Calif., who is a member of an advisory committee for the effort.

I vote ugh. Now, I guess it all makes sense when you’re talking about academics, and making efficient use of state education funds. But what about, um, growing up? Did you know what you wanted out of life when you were 16? Did anyone?

Well, there’s Doogie Howser, M.D. But back on point. How do you figure out a life plan when you may not have even passed your driver’s test? Granted, there’s no real need for a 16-year-old college freshman to choose a career, or even a major, but still. Seems to me, this rush to adult-hood is another recipe for a lot of indecision down the line, just one more example of the treadmill we wrote about last fall. In case you missed it first time around, here’s a quick hit:

… Just last week, I came across a piece — call it an advice column — in the New York Times entitled “Helping Teenagers Find their Dreams.” Clearly, it was a parent who was asking for help. Not a kid. Made me want to take drugs.

The response rightly started out with an admonition that parents not force their own dreams on their unsuspecting kids. Cool. But once that was out of the way, the column kicked into overdrive with a double-dose of exercises and whatnot you can do with your teenagers to help them find their bliss. Or whatever.

Ugh. I can’t help wondering if these poor overly-guided teens are the same ones who grew up with (the now discredited) Baby Einstein series or some such. Or teens who, a few years prior, were like a young girl my daughter ran into once in Starbucks. Wearing grade-school plaid and drinking a double-latte, the little girl was working with her tutor, powering through a Kaplan-style prep course for her high school entrance exam. (And, for some reason, no one even questioned the caffeine.)

Or teens currently working with college counsellors, making a mile-long list — and checking it twice — that ranges from “reach” to “safety.”

About just that, we heard from a college counsellor at a private high school shortly after than post ran. She was up to her ears in letters of recommendation for graduating seniors, and wrote to offer her take:

It must be a blessing that your blog address was passed on to me at the time of year when I am writing letters of recommendations for my students.

It seems that so many of them are applying to 15-20 colleges this year. Most of them have been planning for college since they were small children and are so devastated when they are not accepted to their dream school. And they are so crushed because they have been building a “resumé” of activities since they could walk, which is almost as long as I have been teaching.

I see a lot of students who are overscheduled, stressed out beyond belief and afraid to give up some of their activities for fear that it will ruin their chances to get into college and therefore their lives.

Most of them go on to accomplish great things. But I wonder if they are taking the time to enjoy life…

Or to grow up.

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Trusting Your Gut

Yesterday afternoon, there came a knock at my front door. The visitor? Santa Barbara’s favorite cookie delivery girl. The reason? Ever since I wrote about Christina when she started her business, Hot Cookie, six or so years ago, my mom has sent me cookies for every conceivable occasion. Which is fine by me. This was my Valentine’s Day gift; I was waiting for it. (Especially the butter cookies. Ooooohhhhh, the butter cookies.)

When Christina started out, it was a strictly local, brick-and-mortar free affair. You’d call her up or go to the website, order your cookies, and she’d home-bake and hand-deliver them. Adorable, right? Then she got a couple of local accounts–coffee shops, sandwich places. Then she added mail orders. Then she hired an employee or two. And then, a couple of years ago, a storefront. A teeny little space in a shopping center that’s also home to a grocery store, a burrito joint, a Starbucks, and a pet shop. Perfect, right?

Well, ‘fraid not. While we were chatting on my porch yesterday, she told me that she’s coming off of a really, really hard year. No surprise there, I mean, it’s a tough economy, and there are those who cut things like cookies first. (Um, not me. I’d rather live without heat.) Happily, things are looking up now.

But what I thought was so interesting was what she said her experience last year taught her. Not to be agile, not to manage growth, not even to follow your passion–but to “trust that my passion wouldn’t lead me astray.” Those are some pretty bold, wise, interesting words–far wiser than I’ve ever found in a fortune cookie, anyway.

So, naturally, this got me to wondering–later, over a chocolate chip and cup of coffee (note to mom: there was milk in my coffee!)–why should words like that sound so striking, so bold? Isn’t it only logical that a spark that comes from within us would represent something true–something we know–and something we know somewhere other (dare I say, somewhere truer) than our heads? After all, when it comes to the difficulty we have making decisions, dealing with choices, weighing our options, it’s our ever-spinning minds that get us into trouble. Going in circles, it’s the noise those dizzying synapses generate that makes it so difficult to listen to our hearts. Forcing a focus on logic and facts makes it hard to trust our gut and our feelings. But what if we could? What if we could, not only, quiet our minds enough to discern what our hearts are trying to tell us about who we really are and what we’re really passionate about, but if we could quiet our inner critics enough to trust that that passion would never lead us astray, too? Then where might we be?

Baking cookies? Sounds pretty sweet to me.

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What a day for a daydream. Just as we’re settling into another week of work after a blissful three-day weekend, here come three signs of intelligent life in the universe. The common denominator? Changing the norms of how we think of work — and maybe even chipping away at the cult of busy-ness that encourages even five-year-olds to have dayplanners.

Sign No. 1 is a new study out of the U.K’s New Economics Foundation that suggests that a 21 hour workweek might help us all to flourish in the 21st century. From the study:

There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’ today. Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.

And, from a piece in the Guardian about the study:

Citing the example of Utah, the study shows how the US state’s decision in 2008 to place all public-sector workers on a four-day week saved energy, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

The report argues that 21 hours a week is already close to the average length of time spent in paid employment.

“A lot of this is already happening,” said the report’s joint author, Andrew Simms of the NEF. “Job sharing is common practice … It’s going to be increasing. Maybe we’ll have less income and more time.

“Other than the benefit of having more time, what will happen is a reduction in inequality and the potential to be better-quality friends, partners and parents engaging more with communities.

There’s a daydream for you. Scaling back the workweek — even to just forty hours — would clearly allow more time for life itself. And what if that became the norm, rather than the exception, even for those in high-powered careers? I think we’d see a change in workplace expectations with a possible bonus: If we knew that no matter what our life’s work, we could still have a life apart from it, would we be more free in choosing what to do with our lives? More likely to follow our passions?

As for the second sign — something we’ve noted here before but clearly bears repeating — Reuters Life! reports on that Accenture study we noted above that found that millennial women not only believe they will find a balance between a “rewarding career and a fulfilling personal life”, but because of their sheer numbers are likely to have the muscle to make it happen. Possibly a “trickle -up” effect for the rest of us? From the story:

Accenture surveyed the 1,000 women because “we are always interested in attracting and retaining the best and the brightest,” explained LaMae Allen deJongh, noting that globally the company employed 60,000 women.

Women are soon expected to make up half the U.S. workforce and the so-called millennials, those born after 1980, are now one-third of the working population.

DeJongh, managing director of US human capital and diversity at the company, said the survey showed that “one-size is not going to fit all” when it comes to retaining women. Half of the respondents said flexible hours were important to them.

Finally, sign No. 3 may not be representative of anything but one enlightened dad, but here’s a post from our fan Chrysula’s blog. It’s written by a freelance photog who has chosen to be a stay-at-home pop, “a part of the first generation of men that could consider staying home an option.” He explains his choice this way:

My own father, by which I mean– the only father I’ve ever known–was a great dad to me growing up, but he worked until 9pm everyday, and was frequently away on long business trips. I knew this model wasn’t going to work for us. What it all seemed to boil down to was being there for my son when he needed me. A simple proposition at first glance, until I realized that it meant being on call 24/7 for the rest of my life. Simply put, that became my priority. Other parents may prioritize putting food on the table, paying for college tuition, helping others, keeping the world safe, or simply holding on to their own sanity or self respect. And who’s to say they are right or wrong? All I knew was that I never really had a choice.

“Many people would disagree, pointing out that not only is there a choice, but that it is a real luxury. I know I am very lucky, although I resent people highlighting it. On the other hand I know there are many impoverished mothers, who are secretly wealthy because they hold tight to what matters to them most. And I know that even a child can put up with great hardships, as long as they know someone is always watching over them. It seems to me that as a culture when we sacrifice the goal of being there for the sake of practicality, or comfort, or convenience, or even ‘the future’, that we risk a lot more than we gain.

“And that’s my balance. I do most of the cooking, almost all the cleaning, all the laundry, and the weekday food shopping. I do my best to scratch out some profit as a photographer. I don’t give a damn what people think about my life. And I pick my son up from school.”

Wow. Talk about sweet dreams.

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That’s the word from Dr. Susan M. Love, whose new book, “Live A Little!”, advises us to stop beating ourselves up about taking good care of our health.

Her advice? We’re healthier than we think:

Didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night? Don’t stay awake tonight worrying about it.

Only got in a short walk today? Catch up tomorrow.

Still haven’t lost those last five pounds? Yeah, whatever.

Stressed out about work — or life itself? Sometimes that’s the appropriate reaction.

In other words, don’t blame the victim. What Love and coauthors Alice D. Domar Ph.D., Leigh Ann Hirschman, and Nancy L. Snyderman M.D advise is that good-enough health is, well, good enough. When we don’t live up to the rigid numbers of perfect health — nine servings of fresh vegetables; eight hours of sleep; an hour of cardio — we shouldn’t worry that we are making ourselves sick.

After all, doesn’t all that stress cause …. Oh, never mind.

The goal of the book, Love told the New York Times, is to give people perspective on what it means to be healthy:

In the new book, “Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health” (Crown), Dr. Love makes the case that perfect health is a myth and that most of us are living far more healthful lives than we realize.

Dr. Love, a clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that failing to live by the various health rules is a major source of stress and guilt, particularly for women. For most of us, “pretty healthy” is healthy enough.

“Is the goal to live forever?” she said in a recent interview. “I would contend it’s not. It’s really to live as long as you can with the best quality of life you can. The problem was all of these women I kept meeting who were scared to death if they didn’t eat a cup of blueberries a day they would drop dead.”

It’s a pretty healthy message when you think about it, especially when you apply it to the broader sphere of life itself. Liberating, actually, in that it gives us permission to stop judging ourselves when we fail to live up to uber-high expectations. Sure, we’re responsible for our own health as well as our life choices. But in life, as in health, perfection can be an unattainable — and unnecessary — goal.

It just makes us feel bad when, really, we ought to feel good.

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One Foot Out The Door

The other day, one of our Twitter followers sent me a link, with a “What do you think?”-type note. (Using 140 characters or less, natch.) A click landed me on Harvard Business’ blog, and a post entitled “Why Are Women So Unhappy At Work?” The piece (written by a man–just for the record) quotes the findings from an earlier post by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. In that post, entitled “Are Your Best Female Employees a Flight Risk?” Hewlett writes:

We found that in the wake of last year’s financial crash, high-powered women were more than twice as likely as men–84% compared with 40%–to be seriously thinking jumping ship. And when the head and the heart are out the door, the rest of the body is sure to follow.

Hewlett goes on to cite examples of what various companies are doing in order to keep their ladies on board. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the subject of passion came up:

Intel created workshops aimed squarely at retaining one of its most at-risk populations: mid-level female engineers. Exit interviews revealed that many of these talented technologists were leaving not to spend time with their family but because they no longer felt challenged by or passionate about their work. In the 21st century, talented people of both sexes often feel stymied by a traditional vertical career path that follows a straight line up a narrow ladder. Rather, they’re interested in and open to lateral moves and a variety of “work style” options, such as flex schedules and telecommuting, as long as these options are intellectually and professionally challenging and/or satisfy personal obligations.

That’s surely a part of it. Now, consider this, from Russell Bishop, via the Huffington Post, still rumbling with riffs on the Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness study:

The implication seems to be that if you were to gain more in terms of physical world success you would naturally become happier… My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mentality of the 50s and 60s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career, or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the eother end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys? Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there? How are those trades looking now?

An interesting take. Going back to the original post, the one our Twitter friend sent, author Sean Silverthorne writes:

Unfortunately, Hewlett doesn’t answer my burning question: Why are women more likely than men to consider jumping ship? Certainly there are career opportunity questions. If women believe they don’t have as good a chance as their male colleagues of advancing, of course they should be considering options. But a 2x factor suggests something much more deep seeded. Something about the nature of work in the modern company.

His post earned a slew of responses, citing reasons for our wandering eyes ranging from discrimination from the good old boys’ clubbers, to a need for more corporate support for work/life balance, to female “dogs in power that insist on running a place like a sorority.” No woman wants to take part in the proverbial workplace pissing contests–and even if she did, she’s not properly equipped. But this comment really made me think:

I also think there’s a fundamentally different paradigm that can exist in female-oriented workplaces and it takes us away from the whole aggressive, money and progress-oriented approach to work–it is collaborative, nurturing, fun approach which while achieving goals and earning a living isn’t centered or structured the same way–it’s like a circle not a hierarchy and goes to the heart of our culture.

Lest you think that sounds a little too kumbaya to actually work, consider these points, enumerated by Hewlett:

  • Research demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment
  • A study has shown that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research posits, counters ‘groupthink’–the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way
  • Another study–out of France–showed that firms in the CAC 40 (the French euivalent of the Dow Jones) with a high ration of women in top management showed better resistance to the financial crisis. The fewer female managers a company has, the greater drop in its share price since January 2008.

So, clearly it behooves everyone to keep women engaged, in the game. But if a whopping 84% of us are thinking exit strategy, what’s the answer?

I kind of think they all touched on a part of it: Hewlett pointed out the need for passion and challenge at work; Bishop noted the inevitable let-down that comes from chasing–and then catching–material things; and Silverthorne offered a tease, earning comments that allude to something deeper, something about the very way in which workplace structures are organized, a la Elizabeth Lesser’s suggestion I first wrote about here:

The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

But in order to change them, we’ve got to stick around.

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