Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘choices’

As Americans, we put quite a bit of stock in happiness. Our founding fathers even name its pursuit as an inalienable right–up there with life and liberty. And I challenge you to find a person who’d answer the question “Do you want to be happy?” with an “Eh, I could take it or leave it.”

But a recent post by Penelope Trunk on her Brazen Careerist blog suggests that, not only is happiness not so admirable a pursuit–in fact, she uses the word “vacuous”–but that, in choosing to chase a life defined by happiness, we are necessarily opting out of an interesting one. Why’s that? Choices. In her post “Do you overemphasize happiness?” she writes:

I think choosing a life that is interesting to us and choosing a life that makes us feel happy are probably very different choices.

For one thing, people who are happy do not look for a lot of choices, according to Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice. People who want to have an interesting life are always looking for more choices and better choices, and they make decisions for their life based on maximizing choices.

She then riffs on her different experiences living in New York City and Madison, Wisconsin, where she currently resides, letting the judgments fly. (New York offers choices and opportunities, the promise of access to the best of everything. Madison offers cheese, football, and PETA-inflaming bioscience departments.) She explains her need to go there thus:

The fact that I feel compelled to have a tirade about Wisconsin in the middle of this post is interetsting to me. People who value choices over happiness never argue about it. They are proud of it. People who value happiness over having a life full of interesting opportunities get indignant over being accused that they made that choice…

What this illustrates, though, is how different the world of lots of choices is. People will pay a ton of money to have a lot of choices, which is what they perceive as an interesting life. (See the average rent per square foot in NYC) but people will not pay a ton of money for a life with relatively few choices. (See the average rent per square foot in Madison.) This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.

That they do. After all, a life of PB&J for lunch every day is a reliable snooze. No sushi? No ceviche? No curry? No thank you. But that it’s interesting or happy, one or the other–much as it pains me to say it, I think maybe she has a point. But, as always, I think we’d be missing something if we didn’t look a little harder at what she means when she says happiness–and it seems that, in this post, what she’s really talking about is ease. While one might argue that it’s a given that choices make life more interesting, the women we’ve spoken to for our book seem to all agree: choices make life hard. But do difficulty and challenge necessarily equate to unhappiness? And does seeking them out make us gluttons for punishment? I’m not so sure.

And, to her point that, as opposed to those who choose a “happy life”, those who opt for a life filled with options don’t feel the need to defend themselves, I’d argue: probably not. As we’ve said time and again, when it comes to women who’ve been told how lucky they are that they can be anything they want — well, to suggest that there’s something wrong with seeking out options, hoping for that access to the best of everything, that’d be right up there with suggesting that the earth is flat. As hard as dealing with all the choices afforded to women today can be, very few of us would trade all those opportunities–even if, as Trunk suggests, doing so might offer a shortcut to happiness.  Maybe that’s because happiness is in the definition, and if an interesting life is what one is after, creating and living one brings its own variety of happiness.

Read Full Post »

Marcus Buckingham has done it again. In this week’s HuffPo installment, Buckingham gets started by citing Time magazine’s special on the State of Women as saying that the gender war is over, and it was a tie. But Buckingham takes it one step further:

I’m not so sure. In a war, no matter the outcome of a certain skirmish or battle, the winner is the party whose attitudes, behaviors and preoccupations come to dominate the postwar landscape. By this measure, the outcome of the gender wars, if wars they were, is clear: women won.

He makes his case by saying that “men’s attitudes more and more resemble women’s attitudes”, citing the fact that fewer men now believe that men should be the breadwinners, women the caretakers, than did in 1977. He says that “men’s behaviors are becoming more and more like women’s”, using the fact that men now do more housework than they did in 1977 as evidence. He even cites popular culture:

Even our entertainment heroes have lost their masculine muscle. Arnold, Bruce, and Stallone are long gone from the screen, but even the flirty, flaky, funny adolescents–Tom, Brad, Jim, and Will–no longer charm us quite as much as they once did. Instead our leading men are the likes of Zac Efron who, though he can still “Michael Jordan” it on the court, now has to sing and dance charmingly to earn our affection.

Um, okayyyy. But here’s where it gets interesting:

The war is over. Women won. And, as ever, to the victor go the spoils.

And what are the spoils of this particular war?

The spoils are choice. Women have more choice than ever before in their work, home, and lifestyles. And yes, men are becoming more like women, and so men are starting to face the same multitude of choices that women tackle.

Today, with many companies offering paternal leave, men now have the choice to stay at home after the birth of their newborn… But they also have the choice to take advantage of this leave and stay at home wondering whether or not this absence will hurt their careers.

Men have the choice to stay at home even longer and assume the chief caregiver role… But they have to face the fact that, in making this choice, their skills might become obsolete and their wages, when they re-enter the workforce, will wind up reflecting their out-of-date proficiency.

Men have the choice to arrange their schedules so they can pick up the kids from school twice a week. And they have the choice not to, and then to feel guilty about this choice.

The choice-filled world that women have bestowed on men is a tough world. Tough on women; even tougher on men. At least that’s what the data reveal. In 1977, 41 percent of women reported feeling some level of work/life conflict, whereas only 35% of men did. Today, about the same percentage of women report work/life conflict, but 59 percent of men are now similarly torn.

Buckingham, Buckingham, Buckingham. Welcome to our world. While what he has to say about our choices is interesting (as is his use of self-reported statistics to back up his points), what’s more interesting is what he doesn’t say. Like this:

A study in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal reveals that bosses generally perceive women workers to have more family-work conflict than men, even though this isn’t the case. And this belief, mistaken though it is, leads supervisors to take a negative view of women employees’ suitability for promotion.

Or this, from the Economix blog at the New York Times‘ web site:

In most jobs, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings narrows greatly when you adjust for factors like career path and experience. But at the top of the income scale–jobs paying more than $100,000–the salary gap between equally qualified men and women is still vast.

Or this, which Laura Liswood, co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders, wrote yesterday:

In its annual measurement of global progress in the lives of women and girls, released October 27, 2009, the World Economic Forum reported some major improvements in surprising places. The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report–which, country by country, examines data indicating the resources and status of women compared to men–ranks Lesotho, for example, in the top 10, a marked improvement from its place at 16 last year and 43 in 2006. By contrast, the United States moved down three slots last year and now ranks 31st.

In terms of why you might be a little irritated by that, feel free to pick your poison: that the U.S. is ranked 31st, or that we moved down three slots last year. I myself am having a little of both. Liswood spells out the characteristics of our grouping thus:

Group III Gaps in these countries (including the United States and United Kingdom) have been almost completely closed in education and health; progress is occurring on economic and political participation. What is lagging is women’s presence at the highest levels of power be it management of a business or head of state or government or parliament. Countries that adopt quotas for business or politics often see an immediate jump in their standing once these mechanisms kick in.

Ooh, quotas. Scary. But why should we be so opposed? As Latoya Peterson notes in her Jezebel piece about the report:

Norway has legislation that demands all public institutions “promote gender equity, and these efforts are to be documented each year.” The top ranking country, Iceland, passed this type of legislation back in 2000 as the Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women. Finland employs an “Ombudsman for Equality, the Gender Equality Unit, and the Council for Equality” in its pursuit of gender parity. And in Sweden, there is an Ombudsman on Discrimination, as well as measures taken in schools and workplaces to ensure women do not face bias.

Why should we care what goes on in Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden? They hold the top four spots in that report. The one where the U.S. ranks 31st.

Let’s read just a little more from Liswood:

Data are a necessary component to start the process of resource allocation and policy shift. Data collection alone can’t make the sea level rise, but many political and business leaders hide behind the excuse that women must ‘make the case’ for change. The case can rarely be made without information that proves what women may intuitively already know. And looking at a gender gap that has been indexed should give leaders pause if they are not fully utilizing 50 percent of their talent.

It certainly should. The thing is, if we were to proactively address the measurable inequities, like Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, then–if Buckingham’s right–everyone would stand to benefit. But where Buckingham–where the very United States–has fallen short, is in viewing it as a personal issue, an issue of behavior, or attitude, or whether Zac Ephron is cashing in at the box office… In choosing to look at such heavy decisions merely as personal dilemmas, left to each of us to handle on our own, in our own way, we are missing the point. Yes, we have choices in our lives, and it stands on each of us to make them. But they’re made harder by the lack of institutional support. The war may be over, but the battle has just begun.

Read Full Post »

This ever-elusive work-life balance thing we’re all so fond of talking about? Well, what if the cold, hard truth is that there’s just no such thing?

I know, I know. Telling a woman who works and also has a life that there’s no such thing as work/life balance is pretty much on par with telling a little kid who’s foregone all manner of enjoyable mischief in the hopes of quality returns come Christmas morning that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Yet that’s just what author Fawn Germer suggests in a recent Huffington Post piece. And she might be onto something.

In “Work-Life Balance? The Mantra That Balances What Matters,” she tells us of her own experience:

Years ago, when I was still married and working as a newspaper reporter, I was drowning in an investigative project that stretched for ten brutal months. It was the most challenging and important work I’d ever done, but as that series became more consuming, I kept moving the mail and my junk to the guest bedroom where it amassed itself into a giant pile of unresolved clutter. One evening, friends gathered at our home before we all went out to dinner. Imagine my horror when my then-husband opened the door to the guest bedroom and said, “Look at this!” before exposing my secret mess.

Been there? Yeah, me too. Gerner continues:

In the midst of some of my greatest accomplishments as a journalist, I was exposed for the one failing that trumped everything. I’d failed in my traditional role as wife. I don’t think it was his intent to land that kind of blow on me, but I felt that, if I wasn’t a good housekeeper, I was not worthy. I was humiliated and I was crushed.

That, though, that one hits pretty close to home. The guilt she alludes to, the being judged, the need for approval, but even more: that “failure” on one scale can trump all our other successes. It’s a familiar feeling. And it makes me think. Is it a uniquely woman kind of a thing? How many men do you know who consider their successes at work irrelevant, or even slightly diminished, because they don’t vacuum as much as they should? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, back to Germer. She suggests that, ultimately, in our search for balance, what we find instead are choices.

Of course, if you come by my house today, you will see that my office doesn’t look much better than the guest room did on that particular occasion. I’ve grown into my identity and balanced myself out by making decisions that let me define success and failure, rather than tradition or guilt. That is how you achieve life balance. You do it consciously and on your own terms.

Though it seems so much easier said than done, I can see what she’s saying. And I think perhaps there’s a gem in her logic, a gem that should, in theory, help make our decisions easier: Do what you like; skip what you don’t. (For me, that means read, write, run, cook; as for making the bed and blow-drying my hair? Never, ever again.) All we need is to take an honest look at our lives, what we enjoy spending our time on and what we don’t; from that, we should be able to glean a little wisdom as to what really is most important to us. And then, we can use that to help us prioritize, to make our choices a little easier.

It’s a sweet idea in theory. But, it seems that, for women, often it just is not that simple. Suddenly opting to drop the balls that don’t matter as much to us as the others? That’s contrary to all the messaging we’ve heard for years: have it all, do it all. Be all things to all people. Friend, employee, wife, mother, daughter, office mom, domestic goddess, sexual superhero, kitchen queen, triathlete who can speak intelligently on any number of important subjects and tackle the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle in pen. On some level, we want to, we feel like we should be able to be superwoman, even while we call out that unholy icon as bullshit.

And so we keep those balls in the air. And we watch our sisters, with all their balls in the air, and think to ourselves: Well, if she can do it, I should be able to do it, too. What’s the matter with me? Rather than: I bet she’s as overwhelmed as I am. Why are we doing this to ourselves again?

(Not to mention the sad, not insignificant fact that if we were to blow off all the stuff we’re not so fond of doing, there is no bed-making, laundry-folding, hair-drying fairy waiting to swoop in and pick up our slack.)

But maybe, if we could decide to throw caution to the wind and let a few of those balls drop, maybe we’d find ourselves a little happier, our sisters a little less stressed out by the juggling act they’re trying to pull off, our lives perhaps a little less balanced, but tilted more in our favor?

Is such an idea way too good to be true?

I don’t know. But I’m going to mull it over in a minute. Just as soon as I make the bed.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday I came across a post by Cindy Krischer Goodman on the Miami Herald‘s Web site, about a speech given by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Commonwealth Institute South Florida. The appearance featured tales from Albright’s recently published book, “Read My Pins,” as well as a little personal history: she was a journalist, researcher, full time (single) mom to three daughters, and later a professor… all before ever stepping foot on Capitol Hill.

Pretty amazing. So amazing you might think you’ve nothing in common with the Artist Formerly Known as Madame Secretary. But believe me, you do.

In regard to work/life balance, Albright said: ‘There are no easy choices. Every woman’s middle name is guilt.’

Told you.

Guilt. It’s truly a woman’s problem, isn’t it? Much like the need for approval, it’s almost a birthright.

And what is it good for, anyway? I mean, I’m sure Jiminy Cricket would insist it serves a certain purpose, helping that know-it-all goody two-shoes on our shoulder ensure we don’t actually beat up the idiot driver who cut us off or steal the shoes we can’t afford or get busy with the guy in the mailroom, no matter how tempted we might be. But it’s not the same as a conscience–and I think we’re quick to confuse the two.

Nor do I think there’s any doubt that guilt weighs heavily on our choices. To a certain extent, it drives them. And keeps us looking over our shoulders. And stresses us out. That wicked emotion can be downright paralyzing. We don’t want to hurt anyone, put anyone out, do the wrong thing. It hits us from both sides, too: Sometimes we make choices we don’t really want, strictly because we’d rather not deal with the guilt. And other times, we choose to go the other way–and then are left feeling guilty over it. It complicates things, loading each choice down with some additional–and not necessarily relevant–worry. In the same way that factoring others’ feelings and our own fear of being judged out of our decisions requires conscious work, so does eliminating the guilt factor. How often do we do things we don’t want to do? Say yes when we don’t mean it? And women, with our oversized To-Do lists and our underdeveloped sense of balance–well, I don’t think it’s too wild a stretch to suggest the two are related.

So, how do we get rid of it? Hell if I know. But perhaps a good place to start would be to take back our middle names and cut that Guilt Monster down to size. Are you with me?

Crickets…

Read Full Post »

48486191-1Someone who is smarter than me (and who shall remain nameless) forwarded a link to an L.A. Times op-ed written by Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two journalists who were imprisoned in North Korea and released last month.

Their piece, this smart kid suggested, serves as a good wake-up call for the rest of us: Not necessarily Ling and Lee’s own story of being captured on a frozen river that divides China from North Korea and thrown into jail, but the story they were trying to cover. It’s a story that is ultimately all about choices — or lack of same.

Excerpts from their op-ed:

We had traveled to the area to document a grim story of human trafficking for Current TV. During the previous week, we had met and interviewed several North Korean defectors — women who had fled poverty and repression in their homeland, only to find themselves living in a bleak limbo in China. Some had, out of desperation, found work in the online sex industry; others had been forced into arranged marriages….

Our motivations for covering this story were many. First and foremost, we believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored. One of us, Euna, is a devout Christian whose faith infused her interest in the story. The other, Laura, has reported on the exploitation of women around the world for years. We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland…

Most of the North Koreans we spoke with said they were fleeing poverty and food shortages. One girl in her early 20s said she had been told she could find work in the computer industry in China. After being smuggled across the Tumen River, she found herself working with computers, but not in the way she had expected. She became one of a growing number of North Korean women who are being used as Internet sex workers, undressing for online clients on streaming video. Some defectors appeared more nervous about being interviewed than others. But they all agreed that their lives in China, while stark, were better than what they had left behind in North Korea.

Are you awake now? As the forementioned smart girl wrote in her email:

The underlying story is a good wake up call to us: Better to be an internet sex worker than live in North Korea where they have no choices. That’s what faces them — and here we are whining about doctor vs lawyer vs mother?

Photo: Euna Lee, left, hugs her husband and daughter and Laura Ling hugs her husband, Iain Clayton (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Read Full Post »

I’m going to begin with a caveat here: I like Judd Apatow’s movies. They make me laugh. And part of me feels a little sorry for him, as it seems he’s maxed out his cool outsider cred as of late and is now veering into the territory of the overexposed love-t0-be-hated. But.

I also confess that I agree with one of main criticisms sent his way: while the men in his movies tend to be funny and lovable, the women tend to be unfunny–and frankly, a little shrewish. But I’m willing to grant him a little latitude there; he is, after all, a guy, so I guess it stands to reason that he approaches his work from a (guy’s) guy’s perspective. And there’s something else, too. I think, in their way, the differences between the men and women of his movies reflect one of the defining differences of today’s real-life young men and women: the ways in which women struggle so desperately with the choices they face, that men just don’t.

DoubleX’s Lael Loewenstein touches on this, in her piece “Apatow’s Women Have to Face Up to Reality,” when she mentions a scene from this summer’s Funny People, in which Laura (played by Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann), debating leaving her husband for her old flame, puts him to the test: she plays video of their daughter’s recital, gauging his reaction all the while. As Loewenstein put it:

What Laura wants in a prospective partner–and what George fails to provide–is validation for the choices she’s made. To a woman who’s opted to sacrifice her career so she can have a family, George’s disinterest in Mabel’s performance is especially painful: it’s tantamount to personal rejection. …What the women of Knocked Up and Funny People share is a certain ambivalence and anxiety about their life choices, as well as an acute awareness of their responsibilities. [They] are constantly reminded of their sacrifices. …the message is plain: If you think you can have it all, sister, you’d better think again.

And think again we do. Again and again and again. While the men are busy riding out the remains of an on-the-fly Vegas/mushroom trip gone wrong, the women are left home, to deal with their responsibilities, and to agonize. And that is a sentiment that’s easy to relate to.

And I think that’s where Apatow gets it really, painfully right. And that’s why I’m willing to tolerate the unfunny portrayals–because I recognize the angst behind them. For women, our choices are more wrenching because to get them at all was the prize of a long, hard-fought fight–in a word, valuable–and now that we have them, and have had them long enough to realize that ‘having it all’ is basically a myth, there’s a certain heartbreak that comes with picking. And heartbreak is never very funny.

Read Full Post »

So. How’s this for ridiculous? One of the most life-changing, loaded, and deeply personal choices a woman can face is that over whether or not to have children. Rather than listing them, let’s just acknowledge that the pros and cons could go on forever. Let’s also acknowledge that one of the most significant cons of having children might be the impact on a woman’s career; moms with young children are often passed over for promotions, while childless women of childbearing age are often passed over as well, on the grounds that they’ll likely have children soon. Despite the fact that fathers’ roles have begun to change as they’ve become more involved in child-rearing, work-life balance is still considered a women’s issue. And yet. A recent study by Lancaster University prof Dr. Caroline Gatrell found that some employers see their female employees who don’t want children as wanting in some “essential humanity,” and view them as

“cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.”

Wow. It’s enough to make me think conspiracy.

It also makes me think of Barbara’s post from yesterday, about the obnoxious way in which Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was condescended to, and the equally obnoxious critiques Surgeon General nom Regina Benjamin has had to endure regarding her weight. But this is not a rant, I promise. Because the thing that strikes me about all of it has to do with choices, and why women in particular find them so difficult. I think often, when deep in the throes of a which-way-should-I-go, part of the angst is the knowledge that, no matter which way we go, we will be judged. In all sorts of ways. We’re judged in ways that men aren’t, and in ways that are often contradictory. And, the damnedest truth of all, we often do it to each other. But we can’t just take our ball (or lack of same) and go home — nor should we. So the question becomes, what do we do?

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts