Posts Tagged ‘decision-making’

Hey you! Yes, you–the one with all those balls in the air! Before you take another bite of pumpkin pie, read this.

A couple of new books–Willpower, by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD and New York Times reporter John Tierney, and The Willpower Instinct by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD–dig into the science of this mysterious and elusive thing we call willpower, and a little examination of their findings reveals that the current reality of women’s lives leaves us particularly screwed. And that’s just in regular life: add on the stress of the holidays and the abundance of temptation that surrounds during this most wonderful time of year, and it’s little wonder we find it so difficult to say no to the second helping, the umpteenth glass of bubbly, the fifty-seventh mini-quiche, one more little goat-cheese stuffed date…

Where was I? Oh, willpower. So, in an example of a serious willpower fail, the other day, after writing for several hours, I opted to flip through the latest issue of Elle, rather than do my laundry, go to the grocery store, or sweep the house. Although the slip proved serendipitous, as that’s when I came across Rachel Combe’s piece, “Control Freak-Out.” In it, she takes on how this science affects women, and she gets it exactly right. Check it:

We tend to think of self-control as a spiritual virtue, like love or charity. However, research shows it’s more like a muscle, subject to fatigue, lifestyle, and energy supply. You can wear out self-control not only through traditional tests of will–resisting pastries, not cheating on your spouse–but through less obvious means: making too many decisions, having lots of competing goals, castigating yourself if you fall off whatever wagon you’re trying to stay on, failing to sleep or eat well.

The list of willpower sappers pretty much describes my life and those of most women who are out there trying to have it all… It seems to me that women are at particular risk of having their self-control henpecked to death… Marketing studies show that we make, on average, 80 percent of major and minor household purchases and decisions such as food, cars, health care, and the house itself…

Sociologists say that women inhabit more roles these days than ever. This multiplicity of hats can translate into nonstop competing goals (work or kids, kids or spouse, spouse or self, self or community, community or extended family)… [A] study found that the more subjects’ goals clashed, the more they worried, the less they got done, and the more likely they were to be physically and/or mentally ill.

The above is likely not news to you: more than likely, to a certain extent, it is you. The question is, in this season of gravy and eggnog, of cocktail parties and family get-togethers, of shopping and traveling, how can you keep your willpower muscle in shape, so you’ll be equipped to flex it when you need it most? (I’m talking to you, Thanksgiving dinner.) Here are some tips:

1. Don’t be the decider: Decision making is wildly taxing on your self-control. So do what you can to delegate (surely your husband can handle choosing which brand of TP to take home?) and simplify, and–most importantly–consider the timing. Study after study has shown that the more choices we have to make, the more likely our rational brain will just check out–and with it, our willpower. So don’t spend an entire afternoon at the mall agonizing over what to buy whom on your list, and then expect to be able to behave like anything other than a mindless vacuum cleaner in the face of the buffet at the Williams’ holiday party, with its dessert table piled high with homemade fudge and macaroons, and that cheese plate that undoubtedly cost more to assemble than your fanciest little black dress did to accessorize. (Oh, and speaking of little black dresses, consider one of Combe’s strategies, and come up with a “uniform.” One less decision to make.)

2. Ratchet down the stress by putting things in perspective. I spent upwards of 10 hours over the past two days worrying over how to prepare the items I’m responsible for at Thanksgiving… an amount of attention that’s decidedly out of proportion with the importance of the decision at hand. (After much deliberation, I’m opting to go savory on the sweet potatoes; cheesy on the brussels, for the record.) This tends to be harder for women, though. Just as an example, during a recent interview, I was explaining the concept of “Opportunity cost”–the idea that when you’re doing A, you are by definition not doing B–to the woman who was interviewing me. So, I said, “if you’re staying up late to make cupcakes for your kid’s bake sale, you are by definition not working on your report for work, or having sex with your husband.” “So, you’re saying you should figure out if your kids are more important than your work?” she asked. “No!” I said, “Not at all, in fact. A cupcake is not your child.” Sometimes we ascribe too much weight to things. Sometimes, finishing a particular report is more important than lovin (or the oven) but that doesn’t mean work is more important to you than your children or the sexual state of your marriage. Sometimes, in fact, a cupcake is just a cupcake. Something to remember the next time you find yourself freaking out over the napkin rings or the wrapping paper. (Ahem. Guilty.)

3. Fail well! This time of year is loaded with land mines. You will, inevitably, have one too many at the office party, realize you’ve inhaled a platter of cookies without even tasting them, swear at a fellow shopper, and/or snap at someone you love. But there are good and bad ways to deal with your missteps. Combe writes:

The What-The-Hell effect applies to eating, drinking, procrastination, and just about any other act of will. The key, however, isn’t that you shouldn’t try to control eating or drinking; it’s how you react when you fail. In studies of drinkers, the worse people felt about drinking too much one night, the more they drank the next two. The same went for procrastinating students: The harder they were on themselves for missing a deadline, the more likely they were to miss a subsequent one. On the flip side, the more compassion people show for themselves, the more likely they are to take responsibility for failures, seek advice, and correct the situation.

Realize that traversing the holiday season is like running a gauntlet of temptations. And when one of them knocks you off track, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put your party shoes back on, and dare to face another tray of passed appetizers. Forgetting the gift for your office Secret Santa, indulging in a pumpkin scone AND a pumpkin latte on the same day, sending your kid to her performance of the Nutcracker with uncombed hair — these things happen. They do not make you a bad person (though they might make you an undesirable Secret Santa); they make you human. (And–hello!–slip-ups of the caloric variety are generally delicious, or they wouldn’t tempt us so. Shouldn’t you be enjoying that mouthful of peppermint bark, rather than silently berating yourself for eating it?) Give yourself a break.

4. Be good to yourself: The very things that keep you healthy boost your willpower, too. Yes, this season is hectic, but capitalize on those moments when it’s not. You know you’ll have more than enough baked goods in your life over the next couple of weeks, so squeeze in a salad where you can. Exercise. Sleep. See your friends. And, failing all of that, just take one minute a day, 60 seconds to close your eyes and be thankful for every last bit of your crazy, imperfect life, and all of the crazy, imperfect people in it. Then open them back up, and face the fondue pot like the soldier you are.

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This one’s a taboo buster, people, buckle up.

So, last week, the Santa Barbara independent published a couple of excerpts from Undecided as its (incredibly illustrated!) cover story. One was long; one was medium; one was wee—just one lonely paragraph. But an important one. Despite the fact that I picked it (and, you know, wrote it), I honestly don’t think I realized just how important, actually, until I got a long email from a dear friend who lost her father last year. It was a catching-up variety email, but she’d seen the story, and ended the note with a sharp aside:

P.S. your book is unmistakably about loss. Do we just need to grieve more?

If you’re thinking she’s got the wrong book, here is the excerpt in question:

Here comes some wisdom, (from Daria Todor, an Employment Assistance Counselor, career coach, and psychotherapist who has dealt with thousands of women in the workplace for the past 20 years). “Every decision entails trade-off, and it entails commitment,” she says. “And with that comes the sense of grief and loss. You make a commitment to one thing, you are by definition turning your back on other options. Not knowing how to grieve a loss is really powerful. And I believe that a lot of what shows up in a therapist’s office as depression may be a form of this grieving that is a natural part of growing up. And so there’s an avoidance of making a decision because of the pain threshold.”

Think about it. Could the woman be more right on the money??

Interestingly, late last week I was on the local radio station, and the host of the show—a dude—brought up another item from the Indy story, from a different excerpt, that he just couldn’t get his head around.

Chloe’s story cuts to the chase: “I was walking home from work, having a low self-esteem day, and I saw this sign in a storefront. It was of three smiling women, around my age, and I just thought to myself, I bet they all have kids.”

Chloe doesn’t even want to have children — an assertion she reiterated before admitting that, nevertheless, it didn’t stop her tears. “I just feel like life is passing me by.”

For the record, Chloe is amazing and enviable in her own right: She’s lived and worked everywhere from New York City to Brazil, Mexico to Southern California, and she is successful, beautiful, talented, and happily married. But those things never seem to matter much when we’re confronted with the green-grassed monster; when we catch a glimpse of the place where that road we opted not to travel may have led.

“I’m a guy; help me understand this,” he said, seeming quite honestly flummoxed.

And so I answered–and my answer had to do with grief: Consciously, we might not want to have kids, but as women, I think the vast majority of us grew up with the unconscious assumption that we would. And so, I said to the baffled man-host, maybe Chloe just needed to take a moment, to allow herself to consciously grieve the children she’d never have; the mother she’d never be.

(Interestingly, though, even while the words were spilling forth, I don’t think I would have said that the matter at hand was grief. I needed my friend, my friend who’s in the thick of it and can therefore recognize it, I guess, to point it out for me. Even when what she was pointing out were, in fact, my words.)

And that idea applies not just to the kids question. For women who’ve been told we can do anything—well, I think that somewhere, deep down (and not so deep down), there lies the assumption that we will do everything. And so whenever we sign on to do one thing, there’s a whole bunch of other things we’re signing off on. Maybe we don’t ever write them off outright, but, with every day that passes, certain dreams grow more and more out of reach. And maybe, just maybe, all of that leaves us with a little bit of latent grief, lurking within. Maybe that grief is showing up as something else, but, more and more, I believe that it’s there.

Feeling uncomfortable yet? Me too. I also happen to think that this whole issue is made worse by the fact that our culture is not exactly what you’d call ‘grief-friendly.’ I can think of few subjects more roundly avoided.

And I think Todor makes another important point: that we avoid making decisions not just because we’ve been told we can do anything and are therefore holding out for the perfect thing, but also because we’re avoiding the pain of closing a door. We’re avoiding the grieving that will entail. And no wonder: is anything less allowed in our culture? Where happiness is the holy grail, and achieving it in its most perfect form is national sport? Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, and spending our days adrift upon it, driven by its current, well, where does that get us, other than deeper?

The whole thing just kind of makes me wonder: would the decisions we make every day, big and small, be so hard if we knew how to grieve? If our culture recognized it, allowed it, showed us how to do it in a healthy way? Would it make decisions easier, if, rather than hopping on a raft on that river, we were allowed—and encouraged—to recognize the shadow side of our choices: those things we aren’t choosing? And to take a moment to be sad, to say goodbye?


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On this day of dreary election post-mortems, I couldn’t help reflecting on an article from Bloomberg News that I read  last week.  It reminded me of the ways in which the constant noise messes with our ability to think for ourselves.

I’ve got a larger point here, but indulge me while I take a detour: call it politics as metaphor.

Bloomberg Business News — hardly considered a pillar of the “liberal press” even by those who try to pigeonhole news orgs as necessarily left or right — conducted a poll in late October that found that by a margin of two-to-one, prospective voters believed that in the past two years of the Obama administration:

taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) won’t be recovered.

You may believe that too.  And clearly, the poll’s findings were borne out by the results of Tuesday’s election — the biggest Republican upset, by the way,  since the Truman administration.

But here’s the thing, as the Bloomberg piece points out.  Those popular beliefs, the ones that may well be responsible for what Obama called Tuesday’s “shellacking”, are at complete odds with the reality.   It’s as if it’s sunny outside, but people are continually being told it’s actually raining, so all they do is bitch about the weather.  Let’s check back in with Bloomberg, shall we?  (This is business news, remember.  Not a partisan editorial.)

The Obama administration has cut taxes — largely for the middle class — by $240 billion since taking office Jan. 20, 2009. A program aimed at families earning less than $150,000 that was contained in the stimulus package lowered the burden for 95 percent of working Americans by $116 billion, or about $400 per year for individuals and $800 for married couples. Other measures include breaks for college education, moderate- income families and the unemployed and incentives to promote renewable energy.
In an October report to Congress, released as TARP turned two years old, the Treasury said it had recovered most of the $245 billion spent on the Wall Street bank part of the rescue, and expects to turn a $16 billion profit. In the Bloomberg poll, 60 percent of respondents say they believe most of the TARP money to the banks is lost and only 33 percent say most of the funds will be recovered.
The perceptions of voters about the performance of the economy are also at odds with official data. The recession that began in December 2007 officially ended in June 2009, making the 18-month stretch the longest since the Great Depression. In the past year, the economy has grown 3 percent and is expected to show improvement in the second quarter of this year.
Bloomberg’s point was that Democrats have done a singularly lousy job of getting their message out and would pay the price on election day. True that, as we found out Tuesday.  But my point goes beyond the ballot box and here it is:  Are we so surrounded by noise, engulfed in mind clutter, that the message flat out gets lost?

Do we get sucked so far into into the rhetoric that we never have time to think for ourselves?  Do we buy a seat on the bandwagon without even without even considering whether we want to be there?

When it comes to making political decisions, the noise comes at us from all directions: straight news, op-eds, blogs, cable TV, campaign ads, facebook share tags, tweets, bloviators, opinionators and blahdeblah.  The list goes on, but the bottom line is this.  Too. Much. Information.   And the result is that all of it, every bit, becomes so confusing that it becomes a real chore to sort the real from the rhetoric.  So that we’re tempted to  just walk away and say:  Screw it.  I’ll just have what she’s having.   (We know how that one ends)

And so I wonder.  As in politics, so in life? Does this constant state of TMI, this state of confusion, super-saturate us when it comes to life decisions, too?  Consider the cacophany: opinion pieces, media images, personal essays, status updates, tweets upon tweets,  messages from everyone from family to friends to Suzy from Ohio, all selling their own version of “ought.”  Small wonder, then, that going quiet, taking the time to figure out what’s real and what’s not, deciding who we are and what we want to be becomes a pretty impossible task.

Unless, of course, we cover our ears.


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Is this the trouble with girlfriends?  They tell us what we want to hear?

That’s what controversial writer Lori Gottlieb (she of “Marry Him: The case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) suggests in a piece in the July issue of Marie Claire that I came across the other day.   She’s writing mainly about bad boyfriends and dating dilemmas (that is, after all, her shtick), but some of what she says applies to other issues, too.   Such as what to do with our lives.  (Full disclosure:  Gottlieb was gracious enough to give us an insightful interview for our book.)

She starts the piece by referencing SATC, not at all favorably.  But if you can get beyond the dig at Samantha, head down to the boldface (mine) at the end of the graf.  That’s where the truth hangs out:

Remember the scene at the end of the first Sex and the City movie, when the fabulous foursome was sitting down to cocktails? Samantha had just left Smith, her gorgeous, adoring boyfriend — whom she loved and who had lovingly supported her through breast cancer — because “I love myself more.” That’s right: She dumped a keeper using what was arguably the most idiotic grrrl-power proclamation in the history of chick flicks (and there’s some formidable competition there). And how did the gals react? They toasted her! As always, the bobble-headed brunch mates unquestioningly took her side. And something dawned on me: This is exactly how I am with my friends (minus, perhaps, the four-figure handbags). Just like the girls did in every episode of SATC — and in the new film, currently luring Miatas-ful of women to theaters like well-shod moths to a flame — we cheer each other on, thinking we’re being supportive, when often we’re just enabling bad choices. To put it plainly, we’re one another’s yes women.

One another’s yes womenEnablers? Ouch.  But there it is.  In our efforts to be supportive, sympathetic and sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice to our girlfriends, do we get caught up telling our besties only what we think they want to hear?  Are we reluctant to tell the truth if it means we might lose a friend? And do we seek out friends who will serve as our personal echo chambers, who cross over that thin line that divides support from enabling?

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.
And about that tough love?  We’re probably as afraid to give it as to get it.

This may be a silly example, but when was the last time you told a friend that, um, she looks bad in green?  Or continued to hang out with someone who would say as much to you?  Even if you really do, you know, look like shit in green.  But let’s get back to Gottlieb, who puts herself in the picture:

I’ve always enjoyed the unconditional support of my female friends. Life can be a rough ride, and I count on that cheerleading squad when things get me down. But for women, a bit of consolation can balloon into a complex system of chronic ego-inflation. Was the lawyer boyfriend who didn’t call me for a daily check-in when in court “too into his career,” even though he was really attentive the rest of the time? Probably not. But I heard a round of hurrahs from my friends when I broke it off. And the next guy I dated, who never responded to my e-mails, was he secretly gay? “Yes!” shouted my book group, practically in unison. Look at you, they said, successful, smart, and cute! He must be gay. We “yes” our friends into false presumptions and bad decisions — tell your demanding boss off! Buy the $700 Alexander Wang stilettos; you’ll wear them everywhere! — convincing one another that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong because, according to those who know us best, we’re always right. But instead of a frenzied pack of enablers nurturing our self-delusion, what we need is someone brave enough to give us the truth.

Clearly, this girlfriend stuff goes beyond shoes or boyfriends, and that’s where it all gets truly dicey.  Because with larger decisions this echo chamber business can do some significant damage to our ability to choose for ourselves — and feel comfortable with our decisions when we do.  If we surround ourselves with friends who tell us what we want to hear, who validate our every choice, what then?    Do we ever learn to think critically about our own decisions?  Trust our own guts?  Decide what to do with our lives without looking outside for someone to say, “You go, girl!”  And do we automatically disregard anyone brave enough to play the devil’s advocate?  It’s like faux-empowerment.  We tend to believe what we hear — and yeah, it might be what we really need to hear to pull our chin off the ground — but what we’re left with if we don’t watch out is the idea that we are so goddamn fabulous, so absolutely right, that we deserve nothing short of perfect.  And that, dear reader, is something that almost never ends well.

Not coincidentally, I keep thinking of that classic Jack Nicholson snarl from “A Few Good Men”:  “You can’t handle the truth!”   Well, you know what? Maybe we could, if we got used to hearing it more often.

In other words, tell us what you think.  As opposed to what you think we want to hear.


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What goes around,  you know, comes around.  That’s what came to mind yesterday when someone sent me a link to this post on College Candy wherein Charlsie, a new college grad, charts the difference between choosing a major and, sigh, choosing a life.  Let’s look:

Looking back, college didn’t require a lot of serious decision making – even though I thought it did. For the most part, I made decisions about frivolous things such as: Should I wear pajamas to class today? Should I stick to rum and Coke or go for the Jager bombs? Should I go out tonight or should I spend time working on that eleven-page term paper? I know at times these choices sure stressed me out, but looking back, they really didn’t matter the way post-grad decisions seem to.

First, it must be said: Call me old, but I’m more than a little flummoxed by anyone’s choice to opt for a Jager bomb.  But back to Charlsie.  Our new grad then lists the decisions that lie in front of her:  Where to live.  Where to work.  Grad school or law school.  Prep for the LSAT or sign on for the full-time job offer with the big bucks and benefitsand extra hours beyond the normal nine-to-five.

Can’t you just feel the angst?   All of which brought me back to this very time last year, give or take a day.  Almost one year ago when we launched our blog, the questions were the same as the ones that plague our Ms. Charlsie:  Door No. 1 versus door No. 2.  Risk or security.  Passion or Paycheck.  All of which echo our initial theme:  It’s great to have options.  But dealing with them can be a bitch.  As we wrote then:

… we’re out to explore why the generation of women who have more options than our mothers ever dreamed possible suffers from a terminal case of grass-is-greener syndrome, perpetually distracted by what we’re not doing. We’re stressed. Restless. Constantly second-guessing ourselves. Always wondering what we left behind Door Number Two. And we can’t figure out why.

It’s a sign of the times, with much of this unspoken angst revolving around the pressure to choose, something old-school feminists might never have predicted. So how do we get past it? A shift in perspective might be a good place to start. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman may have said it best: “There is talk about too many pressures and too many choices, it’s as if the success of feminism was to blame, rather than its unfinished work.”

We’re up for getting on with the finishing, and we think the first step is to recognize our shared experience. So if this all sounds familiar, tell us about it.

Tell us about it, you did.  Here’s what we heard from Lauren:

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.

And from Marisa:

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. (Come to find out later that their only expectation was that I be happy.) Now I’m almost 40 and starting yet a new career (this one will be THE ONE . . . I hope). Looking back I can see how the choices and self-inflicted expectations led to a major paralysis in my mid-20′s…”

And Marjorie:

I majored in theatre in college, only to burn out on it and give it up after college. but now, every day, I think about that life, the performance life…and I wonder what I’m missing. What did I give up? Would I be happier if I had just stuck with it? Would I , could I be more fulfilled if I were doing it right now? Oy, it drives me mad and I keep hoping that maybe all of my going around about it will make me so nauseous I’ll actually get sick (of myself) and do something….

…All of these questions resonate with me. 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…

And Samantha:

The itching thought that runs though my conciousness is that it is ok to think or dream or believe a girl can do anything, yet the doing and execution is what can undo her. Coupled with a family and the people whose feelings and egos may be bruised and battered along the way. The absolute reality is that any job or hobby that evokes passion requires an equal if not greater sacrifice. That notion of ‘What do you want to be when grow up’, is not coupled with ok, you can do it, but it’s going to be hard. Mom doesn’t say ‘Gee little Sammy that’s great — so when you fall in love and get married make sure you can integrate all of your passion and dreams into your marriage.’ That would have been the best advice anyone could have given me. Instead I plunged head long into a decision before I had the courage to really declare my dreams, AND the ramifications of those dreams.

The thoughtful comments from bright women rolled in throughout the year, all of which convince us that this analysis paralysis, this longing for the road not taken, the buyer’s remorse that plagues us all is, one year later, still real.  The solutions?  The first step is recognizing we’re in it together.

As for the forementioned Charlsie?  She blew off the job offer and opted instead to concentrate on studying for the LSAT and applying to law schools.  Good for her.  So long as she lays off the Jager bombs.


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Here’s something you might not know: a writer generally spends as much (or more) time cutting words as writing them. And it can be heartbreaking–once you finally have your thoughts out and onto the page in clear, organized, rhythmic form, the last thing you want to do is commence a blood bath. But, assignments usually come with a word count, and editors don’t take kindly to egregious over-writing. (Egregious? Gone!) What to keep? What to cut? Every piece entails countless such decisions. So, how do we decide? A lot of ways, but there’s a saying among writers: Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.

(I know; it’s a tad dark. But haven’t you heard? Writers are morbid.)

(Note: parenthesis are a one-way ticket to the cutting room floor.)

The idea here is that, sometimes, we come up with a clever little turn of phrase, metaphor, anecdote, or some other word-heavy sentiment that’s quite pleasing to our writerly soul. So pleasing that, when we’re going over (and over, and over) our story, looking for unnecessary, or repetitive, or ineloquent words to get rid of, we don’t even think about axing them. We adore them so much, they’re not even on our radar.

So, if we love them so, what’s up with the kill ’em edict? Because often, they’re unnecessary. They don’t offer much in the way of facts or clarification or color. Cleverly-constructed though they might be, more often than not, they’re just a waste of space. And the truth of the matter is that a story is usually a lot better after passing through the hands of a ruthless editor.

Speaking of ruthless editors, the inspiration for today’s post was the film “The September Issue,” which I saw this weekend. In it–a documentary about the making of Vogue magazine’s September 2007 issue–there is one story line that stands out. Creative Director Grace Coddington–a bonafide genius, by the way (and, by the way, any phrase that includes ‘by the way’ would be out without a second thought)–orchestrates one shoot in particular that becomes her undeniable darling. And with good reason; to say the 1920s-inspired images, shot by Steven Meisel, are transcendent would not be much of an exaggeration. But, there were a lot of shots. And Coddington loved every single one of them. But, after a cursory review, Anna Wintour was quick to get rid of several of Coddington’s favorites, whittling the story down to a precious few pictures. Coddington was crushed.

After the fact, though, what did she have to say about it? Check this quote (and maybe take it with a grain of salt; it’s from an interview for Vogue’s website, about the film):

I also believe that everyone needs an editor. What [Wintour] does is edit and make my work stronger.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, it occurs to me that maybe, when it comes to the big life decisions, the many paths we find ourselves facing, we’d do well to wield the proverbial red pen. And, even, god forbid, to take it to some of our darlings. Maybe some of the energy we expend clinging to certain options would be better spent devoted to the few that really could work.

Maybe we’ve always wanted to sail around the world solo, write a novel, get our PhD–they’re lovely dreams, so we refuse to let them go. Despite the fact that we’ve never learned to sail, have no idea how to go about crafting a work of fiction, and, though we like how those extra letters look after our names, we have zero interest in actually doing the work required to earn them. It hurts to cross them off the bucket list–and, in a way, such an idea amounts to blasphemy to anyone weaned on the idea that she can be anything she wants–but I do wonder: as with a well-edited story, might our lives be stronger if we could just let them go?

And now (in honor of me finally accepting that a slot on Vogue‘s masthead is not likely in the cards–and because I have no editor), some gratuitous fashion porn.


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And again and again and again and again….

Undoubtedly, you’ve asked yourself this very question more than once in your life, wished for a replay, a do-over, a little taste of what Bill Murray was forced to endure in the 1993 flick Groundhog Day–giving an entirely new meaning to the term while he was at it.

It would make choices so much easier, wouldn’t it? After all, if you came to a fork in the road, yet knew you’d have the opportunity to take the other path the very next day, well, I doubt you’d spend too much time debating which way to go. I wouldn’t. Of course, we’d never get a chance to see where those roads led, how they played out in the long-term, either. Our decisions would become so much less weighty, in fact, they’d be all but meaningless.

And that’s the hell–well, that and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania–in which Phil the Weatherman finds himself. At first, reveling in a life free of consequences, he behaves shamelessly. And, in the same situation, who wouldn’t? Consuming one’s weight in baked goods, driving drunk, bedding unsuspecting women, killing famous vermin…. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how we’d do it, but whatever. The bottom line is that the living for today thing gets old pretty quickly. And so he gets outside of himself, he makes nice with the townspeople, takes a genuine interest in the woman he really wants, does a fabulous report on the Groundhog Day festival, and wakes up to find the spell is broken.

So what’s the moral? Well, according to Wikipedia:

In philosophyGroundhog Day has been considered a tale of self-improvement which emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence.[19][20] As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists[21][22] because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”[23]

I don’t know about all that, but I will say this: whether that vermin sees his shadow or not, tomorrow’s a comin. And, as hard as our decisions can be, they matter… and it’s because they matter that they are so hard. But maybe the half-full way of looking at it is that with every choice we make, we take a little control of the tomorrow we’ll wake up to… tomorrow.

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There’s this charming story, about a Zen student and his teacher, trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness. “When drinking tea,” the teacher told his student, “just drink tea.”

How often do you just drink tea?

Such a beautifully simple idea. Be Here Now. Focus. Breathe. So quaint… and yet, so hopelessly impossible. At the moment, I have not less than seven other windows open on my computer. Among them: two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter. My cell phone is to my right; my land line receiver to my left. I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, and am trying to determine what to have for dinner as I write this.

Oh, I’m also drinking tea.

I know I’m not the exception. We spend our days assaulted by information, stimulation, texts, tweets, pings, and rings. So I listened with special interest when I came across this edition of NPR’s On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook summarizes the show thus:

Americans love to be horrified by multitasking. Well, some Americans. For many younger Americans, it’s just life. Especially “media multitasking.” Phoning, texting, reading, tweeting, with a movie on the laptop, a video chat in the corner, IM on the side. And–God forbid–maybe driving, too.

A new study out of Stanford seems to confirm the worst fears about multitasking–that in the midst of the “multi,” nothing gets done well. This hour, we’ll talk with an author of that study–and with two twenty-somethings who say it’s just life.

While the debate over how much we’re able to do well at once is an interesting one–because, at least in part, it hits all of us where we live–it’s also kind of moot. To varying degrees, the multitasking is a given. And, regardless of how much is actually a given, the assumption is that, in life, multitasking is as certain as death and taxes. (See: any media portrayal of life in the modern world.)

In a way, it all reminds me of that evil old ad, the one that celebrated the success of the women’s movement by singing that we can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. (Don’t touch that dial: point is coming, soon.) Well, yes. We can. But between all that’s required to bring it home and fry it up, do we ever get a second to stop and think? Or, more to the point, to stop and feel: are we enjoying bringing it home? Are we enjoying frying it up? Do we have enough psychic space available to even notice how it smells as it’s cookin’, let alone how it tastes?

That sent my mind back to spinning on all the multitasking we do a little bit more. Consider: For all the lip service we pay to the importance of finding our passion, with our attention splintered among all the things crying out for it, how do we even know if we’re actually enjoying something? And might this fractured consciousness have a little something to do with why we’re so damn angsty in the face of big life decisions? It’s hard enough to make a truly informed decision. But how can we feel adequately informed if we can’t focus, if we can’t  just drink the tea?

Oh, and that tea? The end of the story might make you feel a little bit better. One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, “When drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!”


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“If life is just a series of decisions, then making smart ones is paramount, especially now.” So begins a piece from this month’s Elle magazine, entitled “Analyze This: Should you go with your head or your heart?” In it, writer Louisa Kamps goes on to explore the ways in which fear — which, she implies, is in abundant supply these days, especially on the work front — mucks up the decision-making circuitry in our brains. She writes:

Fear has a way of leading us to dubious decisions, sloppy mistakes, and serious brain fog when it comes to figuring out a master plan for your career and all the major things it’s connected with, from finances to relationships.

So, in addition to the sleep, skin, overall health and relationship havoc stress hormones can wreak, apparently they screw up our decisions as well. Swell. And if that’s the case, then what does this mean for those of us who find the very prospect of making a decision stressful? Other than that we’re screwed.

Kamps cites some science, saying that, when we relax, our prefrontal cortexes tend to follow suit, leaving us better able to see the big picture. But even still. The big picture can be even more confusing. More factors to consider. More stress. So, then, when facing a huge decision, how do we decide? Kamps goes on:

Experts say people tend to make major life decisions either out of ‘a crystallization of discontent,’ when a situation becomes unbearable, or out of ‘a crystallization of desire,’ when they feel a surge of enthusiasm for a new idea. ‘People are much more satisfied when they’ve made decisions not only out of fear but out of desire,’ says Jack Bauer, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Dayton.

So, that’s something to shoot for. But might this all have something to do with why sitting around, idling in neutral is so self-perpetuating? We sit around, analyzing every little thing, which stresses us out, which limits our ability to make any decision at all, which leads to more sitting around… Oy. But, for those of us interested in kicking it into gear, I wonder: maybe the fear, the stress we feel in the face of making a decision is something to simply take note of–and rather than focusing on which way we’re going to go, maybe we’d do better if we shifted our perspective, and took it as an opportunity to get to know ourselves better, to discern what it is we really value. What is it that’s pulling us to it, and what it is that’s pushing us away? And maybe, when we look at it like that, is becomes easier to decide which direction to go.

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So it’s come to this. “This” being Hunch.com, the website that “helps you make decisions and gets smarter the more you use it.” Whatever you’re struggling with–where to live, what kind of job to have, what cocktail to make your signature–it’ll tell you what to do. It’s kind of 1984, doncha think? Are decisions really so hard (and technology really so advanced) that we’d rather put our trust in the ability of a machine to translate our answers to a couple of questions into a string of zeros and ones and, from that, into a suitable prescription than in that of our own gut?

Actually, sometimes decisions are that hard. After all, guts are fickle barometers. Easily swayed. Impressionable. And if we choose wrong, we’ve no one to blame but ourselves for our disappointment. I’ll confess: whenever I go out to eat, I ask the waiter what he recommends, and order that (now you know how I voted in this week’s poll). That way, if I hate it, at least it’s not my fault. Of course, this is not a failsafe stragety. (I’ll spare you the details; suffice it to say that as reluctant as I can be to trust my own gut, the feeling is likely mutual.) And though hunch likely isn’t failsafe either, perhaps it’s as good a strategy as any.

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