So I found myself at the hair salon the other day — sans the folder of work perennially tucked under my arm (Trust me, I really did forget to bring it along). And thus I found myself with no other option but to dive into the stack of women’s magazines beside my chair. And hooray for that.
Nothing but guilty pleasure! And better yet, with a shot of wisdom on the side, courtesy of the “Editor’s Letter” in the April issue of Elle. (You won’t find a link. But if you happen to be hanging at the hairdresser’s any time soon, it’s on p. 102).
Riffing on the magazine’s cover feature that profiles eleven successful career women, the editor reflected on the essence of work — and coincidentally, touched on many of the themes we’ve hit on here. She started by confessing that when she saw “The Blind Side”, the character she most identified with was Michael Oher, the homeless football player taken in by Sandra Bullock. Why? Because at age 16, she too found herself adrift, after starting her sophomore year at yet another new school, with no friends, no GPA and no purpose:
…Yet in a stroke of luck almost too corny to be believable, the swimming coach saw me flipping on the trampoline one day and asked me to go out for the diving team. I worked hard enough and got good enough grades that by my senior year, I held the school record and was ranked eighth in the state of Florida. I went to college with a diving scholarship and an identity. More than anything else in my life, becoming a diver taught me the true nature of work: It’s hard, failure is inevitable and survivable, success is achieved incrementally, and it’s not enough to have talent. As one of my good friends likes to say (quoting Chuck Close), “inspiration is for amateurs.”
So many lessons there: Success comes by inches. Failure is valuable. Talent is not enough. Hitting closer to home (well, my world, anyhow), she goes on:
I feel for the talented, beautifully educated college graduates who come to see me and don’t yet realize that the attention lavished on them by their professors, who were so invested in their ideas and intellectual growth, was part of a contract: Teachers are paid to pay attention and nurture their students. The real world, well, it doesn’t give a damn what they think about the AIG bailout. The real world cares how fast they can fetch a latte from Starbucks and whether they can figure out the copy machine. It will take them a while to realize that their clueless bosses also once seethed in cubicles about their overlooked genius, muttering, ‘I went to college for this?’
Ding-ding. Actually, you didn’t go to college for that. And that’s kind of the point. You went to college to get an education, to think the big thoughts. To, well, learn. Lots of stuff. But it’s a hard lesson, one that is becoming scarily outdated with each graduating class, this idea of education versus career training. In fact, this precise issue has been the topic of debate in my senior capstone class this spring, where one student especially, let’s call her Olivia, has begun to bring up the big questions as to what the past four years was all about.
Was it about education in the broadest sense? Talking the big ideas? Or simply part and parcel of the five-year plan? And what about those students who worked so hard outside of class not only to pay the bills, but to build a kick-ass resume? Do they end up with a diploma, but not an education? And what happens when Plan A turns out to be a big fat bust — and it’s too late for Plan B?
What happens to the five-year plan then?
I tell my students that I, ahem, know well two very successful professional young women who never really had one. One of them majored in religious studies. She’s now a journalist. The other studied Italian. She’s now a lawyer. They came out of college without much in the way of job skills. But they got an education. And it served them well. But when I bring up these examples to my students, they’re baffled. Truly.
Is it all about the treadmill? Possibly so. Which makes me wonder if this is another way in which great expectations do women in. When you’ve felt the pressure of unlimited options ever since Career Girl Barbie or whatever-her-name-was first peeked out from under the Christmas tree, do you feel the roar of indecision, the fight between the red one or the blue one, early on — and shut it down by choosing a path too soon? And then sticking with it.
That’s certainly one way to kill the angst. Whew.
But maybe that’s why choices are so loaded, too, because they become so narrowly focussed — and by definition, do not include a back-up plan. Failure, that great teacher, is not an option. (Nor, for that matter, is the broad-based education. Classics, anyone?) And then, out into the real world, when that first job is more about fetching lattes than writing business plans, there’s that thing called regret. Grass-is-greener syndrome suddenly comes calling and kicks the best and the brightest right there in the ass. That race ? Yeah, not in first place anymore.
Which brings us back to that “Editor’s Letter”:
… I often think of a friend who knows literally all of the world’s billionaires (there aren’t that many, he says) and his remark that what they have in common is that they’re all a little weird. And interesting, and giving. They aren’t happy because they’re billionaires (my argument); they’re billionaires, at least in part, because they’re happy. Sounds simultaneously Pollyannaish and damning to those of us born with darker temperaments. But what seems to be the key is that these highly successful people long ago stopped comparing themselves with the person in the next cubicle and instead learned to trust their instincts. This freed them to look at themselves, and others, more generously, which made them happier.
On the flipside of the bankroll, let me finish by flipping to the career feature itself, and a sidebar of quick quotes from smart women from the pages of Elle over the past several decades. My favorite is from Gloria Steinen, January 1988 (for this, I DO have a link), which makes no mention of long-term plans or college majors:
“[Success is] doing what you love and having a positive impact on people’s lives without starving to death.”—Gloria Steinem, feminist
Gotta love it. Meanwhile, my hair? The lowlights look fabulous.