© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
“The price of the bargain dress is not paid by Tilda or Ray who wears it. The real cost is borne by the workers in the sweatshops that are springing up in hard-pressed communities.”
In the aftermath of the Bangladesh building collapse that killed more than 1,000 garment factory workers last April, these words have a timely ring. But in fact, they are drawn from U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins’ 1933 essay “The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress.”
I couldn’t help but be struck by the many parallels between now and then—including the reluctance of us cash-strapped shoppers to pay more than necessary. “[I]n hard times it is perhaps asking too much of the consumer to hope that he (or she) will refuse to purchase specially priced’ clothing as a protest against sweatshop products,” acknowledged the pragmatic Perkins (who was, incidentally, the first woman to hold a U.S. cabinet post).
Even for consumers committed to putting their dollars where their values are, the situation is far from simple. “I really want to do the right thing but I don’t know how to do that on my income. I certainly can’t make my own clothes for a host of reasons. I do buy many things at thrift shops, but does that solve the problem if they were still made cheaply in the first place?” was one friend’s response to my recent essay on “The Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion.”
There is also concern that even expensive clothes may have been manufactured under bad conditions—so given that we don’t know for sure, why pay more? (For what it’s worth, here’s my take: It’s true that money is no guarantee—that a pricey item may have come from an overseas sweatshop. But that $15 skirt or pair of pants? You can be pretty sure of it.)
Moreover—and I hate to tell you this—factory conditions are not the only potential moral hazard here. Consider the fact, as I learned just this morning from my law professor friend Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, that the tin in the zippers and buckles we wear is often inextricably linked to bloody armed conflicts and human rights abuses. (For more on this issue, see Ciara’s disturbing Slate piece about how “conflict minerals” are integral to our cell phones—and that the companies who make these products are currently engaged in a legal battle to secure their right not to tell us.)
So what do we do?
For starters, I suggest we not simply throw up our hands or turn away–and that we keep looking for information and answers even as we acknowledge our own complicity.
In the meantime, many of us can spend more but buy less—though some no doubt would question this. To wit, one reader of my previous piece was horrified at the suggestion that eight or ten pairs of shoes are more than a teen girl strictly needs. “Eight or ten pairs of shoes is extravagant? Where did you grow up? Well-dressed women have, at a minimum, a pair of workout shoes, sandals, boots, bad-weather boots, flats, and some dressier heels of varying heights — and then they have some if not all of those in different colors and styles, depending on their lifestyle. I doubt there’s a woman above the poverty line in America with two feet and fewer than ten pairs of shoes. The average woman in the US has at least 19 pairs.”
I will also continue to sound the thrift shop drum. Yes, the clothing we buy there—like the $2.00 Gap t-shirt I’m now wearing—may have been manufactured under bad conditions, but the fact is, it’s already here. We are talking sunk costs, both environmental and human, and in buying used clothing, at least we keep it out of landfills. As I see it, thrift shops are one place we can still feel good about that five dollar dress. Or that five dollar dress that’s not a dress—just ask this woman here.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
A friend’s highly discriminating child wrote home from camp: “The swimming here is not the best.”
That’s pretty much the review I’d give this entire summer—not that it’s the summer’s fault. We’ve been slammed with deadlines at work, and my one week out of the office in June feels like a lifetime ago. I’m still up in the air about whether I’m going to move apartments. (On the pro side, this building is sort of a wreck. On the con side, I’m living here now.) A sultry two-week heat wave practically did me in.
At such times of feeling not the best, I often find myself casting about for new perspectives—ways of thinking about my life that inspire and recharge me. Here are four that have recently captured my imagination. I’m planning to spend more time with them. Perhaps some of you will join me.
1. Clarify your values, don’t focus on goals.
Reading these words I had a bit of an ah hah moment. I am really really good at meeting goals, but more and more, I’m finding that the reward often doesn’t match the effort. What would happen if I shifted the focus to my values? This suggestion comes via George Mason psychology professor Todd B. Kashdan, whose “Your First Step Down a Purposeful Path” graphic is now making the Internet rounds.“Make up a declarative list of what’s important to you” is what Kashdan counsels. In any case, it’s bound to be interesting. I’ll let you know.
2. What part of your life is unlived?
This is the question at the heart of Living Your Unlived Life, by Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, who views living out the answer as “the most important task of our mature years.” In particular, he asks us to consider “What is unlived yet still has some urgency within you?” I’m intrigued by this question, by what amounts to an invitation to evaluate existing goals in a new and larger context.
“We all carry with us a vast inventory of abandoned, unrealized and underdeveloped talents and potentials,” Johnson writes. “Even if you have achieved your major goals and seemingly have few regrets, there still are significant life experiences that have been closed to you.… Of course no one can live out all of life’s possibilities, but there are key aspects of your being that must be brought into your life or you will never realize your fulfillment.”
3. Move towards pleasure. Now.
This is the message my life coach friend Max Daniels gives her clients. Instead of waiting until we “deserve” the trip to Portland or Amsterdam or whatever that thing is we yearn for—or until the perfect conditions fall miraculously into place—she encourages us to take action now. What especially intrigues me is her idea that, in taking these steps in the present moment, we in essence move closer to being the person we want to be. Do I believe this? I’m not entirely sure. But she doesn’t ask me to. She suggests that I collect my own evidence—which is what I’m planning to do.
4. What are you looking forward to?
From my busy summer, I am moving into an even more busy fall, and at times I can feel like my friend’s three-year-old who, informed that she couldn’t wear her sundress in January, hurled herself onto her bed with the cry: “I’ll never be happy again!” That’s when this question comes in handy. Because right at this very moment, I can think of a number of things coming up to which I’m looking forward. Yoga and brunch with fellow western Mass ex-pat Molly tomorrow. Dinner next week with Meta and (maybe) Delia. Meeting virtual writer friends Trish and Dorie in real life (that’s irl, to the cyber-centric) early next month. And those are just the things that come to mind in 30 seconds. Taking time to regularly ask myself this question is a way of balancing out my tendency to focus on the hard stuff. It doesn’t make it go away, but it puts things into perspective.
5. Take stock of how you rocked
Take my advice—I’m not using it! This quip came to mind yesterday as I read Trish’s post inspired by one of mine about taking stock of all we’ve accomplished in the previous year at times when it feels like that list is mighty paltry. You know what? It never is, as I was (once again) happily reminded. Next month will mark a year since I moved back to Boston, which seems like a perfect moment to give this little exercise another whirl.
* * *
And now: Your turn. Do you have a question or strategy that helps move you forward ? If so, I’d love to hear it.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Hand Chain Saw - a must have Survival tool, with many uses.
A couple years back, in quick succession, I submitted three essays to a well-respected website, all of which were snapped up. My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my editor said—and I haven’t sent her anything since.
I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and practical reflections on the submission process. Here is what she said in a Facebook post excerpted from her upcoming e-book:
“I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to multiple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate—or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)
So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?
It’s because I was too stubborn to give up, even when I was failing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.
So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing: Rejection isn’t about you. If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.
When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product itself?
No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.
The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.
It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”
If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from trying, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!
The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. Easier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who succeed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.”
Yes, easier said than done—and for some of us more so than others. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have an absurdly heightened (and self-defeating) response to perceived rejection. I really can’t say why. Temperament? Childhood experiences? Cultural messages? For whatever reason, I quail at the prospect of pushing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glimmer that interest may be lacking.
But you know what? I’m getting better. The most helpful thing has simply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am thinking something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes it also helps to play with gamifying the process. So what if I send this here? I wonder what will happen? I also try to focus on actions and measure success in those terms. Submitted the essay to three outlets? Excellent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has nothing to do with me.
I had a chance to deploy all of these strategies a couple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two editors went into a media black hole. One editor never responded at all. The second, just back from vacation, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some reason, I decided to first reach out to another writer, someone I’d met on Twitter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it happened, she did. The piece went to her editor at Forbes.com who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to publish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blogging contract.
To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Having Its Moment, and you can read it here.
So in the end, I was lucky that the first two editors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remember: It sometimes does.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Hand Chain Saw - a must have Survival tool, with many uses.
A few weeks back, it hit me that I’m trying to do too much—especially given that I’m happiest with a good bit of downtime. How to reconcile Type A tendencies with my need for a balanced life? It came to me, a strategy: “Seven things in seven hours.” Rather than cramming weekend days with endless to-do list items, I’d limit myself to one per hour. I’d be selective, strategic.
But when I sat down to make a list, that’s not what I wrote. Instead of typing the word “things,” I typed the word “days.”Seven days in seven hours. I had to laugh. It so exactly captured the absurdity of my efforts.
Which goes to explain why Plan B Nation is on extended vacation. When I took a week off from my Harvard communications jobs last month, I’d planned to spend a lot of it catching up on blogging. Luckily, I quickly determined that this was a bad idea. Instead, I visited Polly in Maine and pretty much took it easy. Bananagrams, dogs, kids, long walks, books—that’s pretty much what my vacation looked like.
Then last week, without quite meaning to, I went on a writing bender, resulting in two pieces that went live yesterday. Along with my Atlantic debut—a piece on women and drinking (including my personal take on AA)—I also wrote about so-called “slash careers” on the Cognoscenti blog. Lawyer/writer, minister/physician–you get the idea. It’s a piece I’d had in the pipeline for quite some time, and it felt great to finally get it out of my head and onto the web.
Seven things in seven hours. Clearly, my efforts to pare down are a work in progress. There are so many things I want to write, and far too little time. But if I’m still taking on too much, I’m also taking breaks. This afternoon, I got a massage. Tomorrow I have yoga. And as soon I get this post up, I’ll be watching House of Cards.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
He loved dried apricots, rotisserie chicken, and sleeping in the sink. He detested other members of his species. He cost $70, shots included, and I acquired him back in 1996 while still working in Manhattan as a lawyer.
It wasn’t my idea to get a cat. The directive came from two separate friends, both exasperated by my failure to get over a not-so-recent breakup. They thought that a cat would be good for me. I suspect they hoped it would shut me up—or at least shift the conversation.
He came home with me in a taxi cradled in my blue Coach purse, having won release from a cardboard box through piteous kitten mews. An antic feather-light ball of fluff, he developed a disconcerting habit of racing through my Upper West Side apartment and hurtling off the bed, legs splayed in all directions, nothing to break his fall. I named him Clarence—not for Clarence Darrow, the most frequent of all first guesses, but for Clarence, the disheveled Angel Second Class who struggles to rescue George Bailey from despair in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Seventeen – almost 18 – years is a very long time, and we went through a lot together Mr. C and I. We moved from New York to western Massachusetts to Cambridge then back to western Mass and finally to Brookline. I quit law, published two novels, cycled through jobs and unemployment. Through every challenge, every disappointment, the cat was there beside me—splendidly furry and impervious, purring and reassuring.
He’d been losing weight for more than a year, and it was clear something was wrong. Kidney failure was one possibility. Cancer was another. Diagnostic tests were inconclusive. I began giving him subcutaneous fluids to help with hydration, pills to stimulate his appetite. (“You … you are like a nurse for your cat!” sputtered a courtly Latin gentleman on hearing of my ministrations.) Then, six weeks ago, with his appetite flagging, came another round of tests. The verdict: Late-stage cancer, in both his abdomen and lungs. When I brought him home, groggy and weak, from the hated animal hospital, I whispered to him a promise that he’d never have to go back.
I knew that I wanted him to die at home, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know what that would entail, or what I should do or when. Not surprisingly, it was one of those times when the Internet proves a godsend. With a bit of searching, I discovered Harbor Veterinary House Calls, which not only does home visits but also offers pet hospice care. As the lovely and kind Dr. Maija Mikkola Curtis explained on her first home visit, hospice care for animals—as for humans—is about quality of life. She told me to think of her as a partner, to email her if I had any questions at all about ongoing treatment or next steps.
The next weeks were pretty good ones for Clarence—lots and lots of rotisserie chicken, tuna, and attention—but by the end of last week, he began a precipitous decline. He stopped eating and took to retreating to the darkest reaches of a closet. Already frail, having dropped more than half of his weight in the course of the past 18 months, he grew even weaker and frailer. With a heavy heart, I contacted Maija, and she came out the next evening.
We watched Clarence for a while, Maija and I, as I reached a final decision. “The spark has gone,” she said quietly. I had to agree. The process of euthanasia was simple and very peaceful. I’d already been saying good-bye for a very long time, and I petted and whispered my love to him as his life ebbed away.
Early last month—shortly after learning how very sick Clarence was—I happened on an advice column about a guy who was spending thousands of dollars to keep his cat alive despite living on a disability pension and, from the perspective of his best friend (the letter writer), having “no extra cash for luxuries.” I loved the columnist’s response:
It may be that your friend’s relationship with his cat is something he truly cannot live without; it may be that he feels something toward this cat that is beyond the understanding of outsiders and without the protection of social sanction or naming.… [P]erhaps eventually we will come to see that a man’s relationship with a cat is not simply that of a person to a luxury item, but something else, something sacred.
I’m down with that.
The house is very quiet when I get home these days. “Where’s the boy?” I call. Not because I’ve forgotten but because it’s what I do. I’ve also taken to scrolling through Petfinder, gazing at the pictures of the countless cats waiting to find homes. There’s Glad who reminds me oh-so-much of Clarence. (Would that be strange or good?) There’s sweet-faced Herman with his gorgeous coat and playful goofball Mr. Then I look at a photo of Clarence that Monica took in April. So present, so very there. He was—is—a beloved being. You are a beloved being.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
When Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship last year, with the apparent goal of saving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazilian native had no shortage of outraged critics.
“He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one example. “The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.”
But for all the furious accusations, Saverin seems to have been on the cutting edge of a growing trend. “U.S. citizens ditch passports in record numbers” was the headline on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece reporting that more than 670 U.S. passport holders gave up their citizenship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quarter since the IRS began publishing figures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total number for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daughter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christopher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.
This got me to thinking. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger question, implicit yet unaddressed. How much money is sufficient for any single person? Does someone like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on pushing until you have all the money in the world?
As I turn over these questions, I also find myself thinking about another man—one who could not be more different from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life savings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar.
“Unlike the average American—wallowing in credit-card debt, clinging to a mortgage, terrified of the next downsizing at the office—he isn’t worried about the economic crisis. That’s because he figured out that the best way to stay solvent is to never be solvent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details magazine summed up Suelo’s financial non-plan.
Born into an evangelical Christian family whose beliefs he’s long since discarded, Suelo’s personal philosophy eludes easy definitions. He lives in the caves and wilderness of Utah. He forages, dumpster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t panhandle, collect food stamps, or accept other government support—not that he sees anything wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of public libraries—borrowing books, checking email, and keeping his website and blog. “He wants to have the smallest ecological footprint and the largest possible impact at improving the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as little and give as much as possible,” his best friend told writer Mark Sundeen, whose compelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012).
As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in opposites, I marvel over the vast elasticity of our concept of need. Saverin thinks he needs billions of dollars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objective facts. They reflect values and choices.
I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equitable place. What I am suggesting is that, in the meantime, we give ourselves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our convictions (which starts with knowing what they are).
For me, this perspective is liberating. Early retirement, single-family homes, college educations – these accoutrements of the American Dream are increasingly hard to come by. Do we simply redouble our efforts to achieve such established socially sanctioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our repertoire of options? (Another terrific example of someone doing just that is Ken Ilgunas, a Duke graduate student who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his experience into the wonderful memoir Walden on Wheels (New Harvest, 2013)
Few of us are likely to follow Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my dental cavities with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his journey. Rather it’s his capacity to find fulfillment while lacking things that most of us reflexively assume to be essential. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I sometimes muse, perhaps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].
There are those who attack Suelo for failing to contribute to some larger social good. (One exasperated fan finally got his detractors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donating her share to Suelo.) But to my mind, his provocative life is contribution enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of possibility. And that, to me, is priceless.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
So you go to a spin class in your progressive neighborhood, in your progressive city, at your progressive women’s gym—one that has as its stated mission to “empower women to be strong, both physically and mentally.”
You have never been all that keen on spin class—indeed, truth be told, you’d admit to having Facebook opined that “there are two kinds of people: Those who like spin class and those who do not like spin class.” Still, you are there. You get your bike set up, and soon class begins.
You are not crazy about the music (you are someone who joined this gym in part because it plays classical music in the locker room and also for the reasons described by Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams in a piece that, curiously enough, appeared just last month). But hey, it is spin class. You aren’t here for entertainment. You’re here because you’re feeling stressed and aerobic exercise improves your mood. That is until you hear the lyrics, when your mood takes a decided nosedive.
Shake that ass for me, shake that ass for me …
Seriously? This is the music of choice for empowered women? You try to ignore the words. You manage … for a while.
If good girls get down on the floor
Tell me, how low will a bad girl go?
She’ll probably pick it up, drop it down real slow
Either that or she’s upside down on the pole .…
And that’s when you get off your bike, collect your things, and leave.
* * * *
My friend Lynne Marie Wanamaker—a fitness trainer and anti-violence educator—wasn’t a bit surprised by my experience. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her to weigh in:
“We live in a rape culture and even the most progressive people don’t see it. I am told all the time that certain things are not a problem or are not a problem here. (i.e, teen dating violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia–I could go on and on.) It’s a QED of denial: We are a progressive community of good people on the side of good, therefore that isn’t happening. Even if it is. I have decided to call this ‘Progressive Self Congratulatory Disorder.’”
It feels important to say that my own reaction was in no way self-consciously political—it was immediate and visceral. Anyone who knows me knows that I am far from being a political correctness queen. My concerns lie in the realm of human experience, not in abstract theory.
I’m also a woman who, in retrospect, spent way too much of my youth thinking about what men think of me—a willing if clueless collaborator on the larger social project of turning women into objects. Messages like the ones I heard in spin class? For decades, I absorbed them without thinking. The results were not good. (A fascinating side note: Research has shown that women who see themselves as objects are less able to count their own heartbeats—a finding that further underscores how music that objectifies women is fundamentally at odds with the goal of empowering women to inhabit their own bodies, “to be strong, both physically and mentally,” in the words of my gym’s purported mission.)
Finally: You know what? I simply couldn’t care less how low a bad girl can go—I’m way more interested in hearing about how far a smart one can. In my era, there was music that was energizing and enlivening without turning women into disposable body parts—think Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads, R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha. I assume—at least I profoundly hope—it still exists today. Next time I’m in spin class, I’d really like to hear it.
* * * *
Note: In a subsequent email exchange, a Healthworks spokeswoman wrote that instructors, who choose their own music, are expected to play “clean versions” of the songs they select and to “use good judgment in choosing music that would not be considered distasteful or offensive” and that they would follow up with the instructor who taught the class I attended. I wrote back: “With all due respect, it doesn’t seem to me that you are providing adequate guidelines here.” I did not receive a response.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
On Monday, the bombs exploded. On Friday, the city was put on lockdown, and on Sunday I boarded a plane to fly across the country to a place I’d never been.
It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Portland, Oregon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I finished up my packing and managed a last few errands, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. What I wanted was normality – a return to the usual routines of writing, work, and friends. It was then that I realized, with some surprise, that this place I’ve been living since September has come to feel like home.
For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very beginning, like where she was meant to be. “Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzying days after law enforcement staked out the Cambridge residence of the alleged marathon bombers.
My own relationship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Harvard campus at the age of 18, a serious, shy Midwesterner abruptly catapulted into a foreign land. In the 20th–century intellectual history class I took freshman year, our professor lectured on the 1897 novel Les Déracinés, about seven young provincials who lose their way after arriving in Paris, the price of having been torn away from their native traditions. That word stayed with me— déraciné, unrooted. I certainly wasn’t living in France at the turn of the century. Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.
I did not cope especially well. I went to a lot of parties, and I began a drinking career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a couple of half-hearted visits to Harvard University health services with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chronicle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s undergraduate houses. An Ethiopian student, lonely and unstable, stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death then hung herself. Reading Thernstrom’s account of the systemic failings of Harvard’s psychological services, I would nod my head thinking, yes, this is what it was like.
Being young, confused, and far from home, bereft of support structures—it’s never been a recipe for happiness. Yet why do some triumph against all odds, while others self-destruct, while still others lash out violently with tragically horrific results?
By all accounts, the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were considered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seemingly assimilated immigrants to murderous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a history of uncertainty and dislocation is unlikely to have helped.
Wherever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat aphorism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many different reasons, home is not a place to which we return, it is something we create, and that act of creation takes energy, resources, and support, along with that undefinable and elusive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.
Perhaps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bombings is the image of a man in a cowboy hat leaping to the aid of a critically injured victim, having beaten down flames and tied a tourniquet to one of his partially severed legs. We now know that the rescuer is Carlos Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of personal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learning that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Two years, ago a second son committed suicide, having never recovered from his brother’s death and father’s resulting meltdown.
How do we account for this sort of gorgeous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a terrorist, we would have no shortage of ready explanations. But instead his anguish fueled a passion to save and rescue. “Cities are not resilient, people are. And, sometimes, they are not,” wrote Boston journalist Elaine McNamara. The journey from despair and loss is both profoundly personal and unpredictable. Wrong turns happen. Not everyone makes it back.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Having already read the book and heard the interviews, only two things caught me by surprise last Thursday when Sheryl Sanderg brought her Lean In roadshow to a packed Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts.
First was The Dress, a form-fitting little black number, at first glance unremarkable in this era of Corporate Alpha Female 2.0, where sexuality is proudly featured rather than downplayed—unremarkable, that is, until she turned her back and disclosed a gold-toned zipper running from top to bottom. (And before you get all “You-Wouldn’t-Be-Talking-About-What-She-Was-Wearing-If-She-Were-A-Man” on me, let me be clear: If Barack Obama showed up in a traditional suit with a contrasting zipper running down its back, I would remark upon it.) For me, this took the outfit from Seen This Before, to WTF. It seemed to be demanding some sort of response, though I’ve yet to figure out just what.
Second, and far more significant, was Sandberg’s pointed reference to how companies are quickly moving to adopt the Lean In model—which, depending on your perspective, could be either a great thing or a very ominous sign.
I’m of the second view. Let me explain why.
Women’s workplace initiatives of the sort that began to take root during the booming 90s—the period during which I practiced law in a large New York firm—focused on helping women balance motherhood and career. Being single with no kids, I always had my issues with this exclusive focus (I want to write a novel! What about flex-time for that?), but all in all, it was a big step in the right direction. There is more to life than work. We need to recognize that.
Enter Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon.
While purportedly respecting – even celebrating – the diverse choices women make as they balance family and career, Lean In’s core message is something very different. “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster,” writes former Facebook employee Kate Losse in her terrifically trenchant and insightful piece in Dissent “The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”
You may think this is a great way to live or a terrible way to live (and research suggests that most women with young kids will go with the latter), but that’s not what primarily concerns me here. Rather, my concern is that Sandberg’s prescription purports to be something that it is not – and in this guise is drawing support from women whose lives it’s just going to make harder.
The following exchange is instructive on this point.
Responding to an audience question about navigating both motherhood and overwhelming work demands, Sandberg essentially said that women need to do a better job setting expectations and boundaries, noting that she herself manages to make it home for dinner with her kids.
What she didn’t mention was this (from page 133):
“Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone. And unlike my job at Google, which was based almost exclusively in California, my Facebook role requires a lot of travel.”
The Lean In website currently lists dozens of business partners including financial institutions (American Express, Bank of America), big law firms (Skadden, Sidley Austin), consultants (McKinsey & Company), and other large businesses (Pfizer, AT&T). These institutions doubtless already have women’s and other diversity initiatives. What will the Lean In movement contribute – and what will it take away?
Women with full-time jobs and outside lives have very limited bandwidth. Here’s my, admittedly pessimistic, prognostication: The conversation about leaning in will slowly but surely supplant talk about on-site child care, work/life balance, and other “family friendly” policies. (As for the would-be novelists among us: As you were.)
I can’t help but think that Lean In offers a feminism tailor-made for our New Economy—one where the primary beneficiaries are companies, not women. Through the magic of Lean In, women’s initiative costs – poof! – transform into corporate profits. The Greeks left their model horse outside the gates of Troy and pretended to sail away. As for us, we have more clues than the Trojans did. We know who’s still hanging around.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
My friend Marci Alboher – vice president of Encore.org and author of the terrific new Encore Career Handbook – recalls the moment she realized she’d landed in the right workplace: It was when she discovered that business meetings routinely took place over long walks.
“Walking is a great way to be creative,” she observed. “That’s how I knew I was in the right office culture.”
These reflections came as we finalized plans for this Tuesday’s Encore Town Hall in Newton, Massachusetts, the latest leg of Marci’s national book tour. The topic: The growing wave of people moving into public service in the second half of their careers—and how you can join them. (More about the book here.) I’m excited to be interviewing Marci and also moderating a fascinating panel of people who have made—or are making—the shift into encore careers of their own. If you’re in the area, do try to join us! While the focus will be encore careers, the advice will be valuable to anyone in a career transition or contemplating one.
Finding satisfaction at work can be a complicated undertaking. It’s not just what we do but also where we do it and why. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in the context of my still-pretty-new job at Harvard School of Public Health. Why am I so much happier here than I’ve been in other jobs where the substance of my work wasn’t all that different? As I wrote here, I think the answer lies in workplace culture.
But what is workplace culture?
For starters, it’s far more than office perks—and if we start confusing the two, we’re likely to get into trouble.
“A ping pong table, laundry service, or free coffee is not company culture; not linked to core values and guiding principles,” tweeted Vala Afshar, author of The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence.
Core values and guiding principles, yes: I think he’s on to something. Sometimes perks and policies reflect these. Other times, they are simply an overlay, a calculated distraction.
Shortly after I got off the phone with Marci, my boss appeared in my office doorway for our weekly check-in. He was hoping to do it quickly since he wanted to head out to the Clover food truck to pick up lunch.
“What if I walk over with you, and we can meet that way?” I asked.
This sounded like a great idea to him, so that is what we did. For me, it was another sign that I too have landed in the right place.
Join us in Newton: The Encore Town Hall is just days away—on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, from 7-9pm at Lasell College’s deWitt Hall. Space is limited. For more information or to register, please click here. We hope to see you there!
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Some of the earliest critiques of the critiques of Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial feminist manifesto-cum-rallying cry, complained that few of its hostile critics had actually read the book.
Well, reader, I have now read it. And here’s my bottom line: It’s a book that is fundamentally confused about what it wants to say.
Let’s start with the title. When we say “lean in,” what do we mean? As best I can decipher it, the answer is: It depends.
On the one hand, Lean In is a clarion call to a very specific set of barricades, urging women to aspire to the highest pinnacles of corporate and political life. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg writes in the introduction.
On the other, the book purports to be addressing Everywoman. “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously,” Sandberg writes in that same introduction. “This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just starting out to those who are taking a break and may want to jump back in .… This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious, in any pursuit.”
I’m not buying it.
One big hint as to the highly targeted agenda that lurks beneath this talk of inclusion is Sandberg’s statistical backdrop. Her claim that women “have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry”—an assertion that essentially frames everything that follows—draws its supporting data from only two realms: Fortune 500 companies and national politics. Among the roles ignored in this data capture: University presidents, law firm partners, investment bankers, federal judges, journalists and authors, film producers, medical doctors, technological innovators, entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the statistical frame is the fact that most of the female leaders about whom Sandberg writes so admiringly themselves fail to register on this screen. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem is invisible. So are White House Project founder Marie Wilson, Barnard President Debora Spar, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. (And beyond the book, to name just a few, we have the three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices—Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor; Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (in fact, half of the eight Ivy League schools now have women presidents); WHO Director General Margaret Chan; and Hillary Clinton—who would have made the cut during her time in the U.S. Senate but been dropped from Sandberg’s leadership stats during her years as Secretary of State.)
By none of this do I mean to suggest that women don’t face enormous obstacles on myriad professional fronts—or that the world would not be well served by having far more women in influential, high-profile positions. Rather, I’m balking at what strikes me as a constricted and restrictive notion of leadership. I’m uncomfortable with the word “leadership” being invoked as proxy for “leadership of a Fortune 500 company” or “leading a nation,” with the implicit assumption that this is “real” leadership, leadership in its purest, most significant incarnation. And, as I’ve written before, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that the most lucrative and powerful positions are necessarily the most valuable uses for 21st-century talent and passion.
That said, for all my issues with the book, there was much about it I liked. I often found myself writing “Yes!” in the margins or underlining a point to refer back to later. Sandberg is engaging and likeable, and in the course of reading, I came up with a theory: In the beginning, she envisioned writing a book for younger versions of herself, “high potential” aspirants on the business fast track. But from her publisher’s perspective, the book needed to be far larger—bestsellers aren’t written to niche markets, and this needed to be a bestseller. This would go far towards explaining the book’s schizophrenic nature—its bouncing back and forth between the notion that leadership means looking like Sheryl Sandberg, and the idea that it could equally well mean looking like Sheryl Sandberg’s mother—a schoolteacher who turned down the opportunity to become a school administrator because she wanted to stay in the classroom. (“My mother has leaned in her entire life … . She has always contributed to her community and the world. She is my inspiration,” Sandberg writes in what was for me a whiplash-inducing conclusion.)
In a graduation speech at Barnard that contained the seeds of Lean In, Sandberg exhorted young women to “Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top”—“to lean into your career and run the world.” Recalling this speech, she rhetorically asks: “If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we?”
When can we? Well, if you’re asking me, I’d say the answer is Never.
The goal shouldn’t be to impose our own choices or strategies—to decide what success and happiness look like—but rather to foster the capacity to look within, to identify a uniquely personal vision of what it means to lead. For some, it will look like being COO of Facebook. For many—probably most—I suspect it will look quite different indeed.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon where a guy is standing in his high-rise office talking on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”
I was reminded of this last week when veteran journalist Nate Thayer used his blog to publish an email exchange with an Atlantic editor interested in “repurposing” a piece Thayer had previously written if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of … nothing. (By these standards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky,” with his offers “in the high two figures”–was positively profligate.) Thayer lost no time in registering his outrage.
“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children,” wrote Thayer, later noting the irony of having once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.
The post quickly went viral, with both supporters and detractors flocking to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally saying “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive journalistic overlords. To his critics, Thayer seemed both entitled and unrealistic, foolish in his alienation of the very people who might hire him.
A follow-up piece on Gawker.com—itself an acknowledged user of writers who work for free—used the flap as an object lesson in the ongoing devolution of journalism into a profession largely populated by those with ample resources. “Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money,” Cord Jefferson trenchantly observed.
Not much disagreement on that score. However, there was plenty about what the ultimate takeaway should be.
“When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat American lawyer, now living in England. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the reality is much different.”
A Gawker.com commenter had this to say:
“Maybe they expect people to write for free, because plenty of people are ready and willing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an investment banker or start a business or whatever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re getting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.
My friend spends hours upon hours working on his model trains which he displays and are enjoyed by many people who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your calling is so much more noble and worthy than his.”
Law—one of my several previous professions (and another that, incidentally, is fast heading towards meltdown)—works by analogy: Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself musing over whether a freelance writer is, in fact, similar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analogies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro column: Thayer enjoys writing. He, like the fanatic hobbyist, is doing it because he chooses. In the con: Writing is also Thayer’s profession, one he settled on with an eye to making a living at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than … zero.
My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a matter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Simply put, if you induce me to “change my position” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For example, if you sell me a product to wash my car, I’m entitled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and without stripping the paint.
Law school exams are called issue spotters. They consist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first identify then analyze. The world after the Great Recession is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with people whose lives have been upended by new technologies and seismic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told. If life were an issue spotter exam, it might pose the following questions: Was this reliance justified? Is there a remedy?
Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker cartoon from the recesses of memory.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
The official publication date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall, its historic scope and impact are readily apparent.
Like any self-respecting treatise in the Internet age, Sandberg’s opus—currently #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impassioned commentary, crashing ashore in predictable stages. First comes the announcement, then the critique, then the backlash against the critique, then the meta conversation about the conversation. (For the record—and likely due to time constraints and a problematic Facebook habit–my own contributions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)
My initial plan to track Superstorm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was simply too much coming in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a decision to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been paying attention and reading quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a single question: Why aren’t we just taking what we can use and forgetting about the rest?
A somewhat baffled Paul Krugman seemed to say as much this morning on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s prescription is not for everyone. It seems to be quite helpful for some. What is the big deal?
So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)
The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some of the debate’s ferocity stems from an atavistic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambition often found its outlet in efforts to be the Good Girl, to fulfill goals set by others, not to define our own. The successful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cultivated excellent listening skills and became a world-class mimic. In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.
Put differently, perhaps one of the reasons we care so desperately about what Sandberg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think ourselves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alternately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t comfortable with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be surprising. We live in an age when the competing voices are loud and many—and often far outstrip our capacity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intriguingly, even Sandberg herself sounds familiar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Minutes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this theory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a problem not just for women but for pretty much everyone. Another place it’s especially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the aftermath of the Great Recession.)
But there’s another reason that it’s a big deal, and it’s an important one: The danger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppressive cudgel. The danger that women already struggling–and they are infinitely more numerous than Sandberg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, problems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sandberg intended. But these things have a way of seeping in. The process is gradual. That Sandberg and other uber achievers have become the most visible faces of women’s workplace issues is, as Carolyn Edgar compellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.
Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Walton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me personally, a book that would resonate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Horror, and Run the Other Way,’” she quipped. At the same time, she took the opportunity to take the conversation deeper—to ask friends and readers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in yourself, and in society) need to happen to make that possible?” she wrote on Facebook.
This is another kind of leaning in that I think we could use more of—a leaning into our own lives, to our own values and needs. How do we decide whose advice to follow? Where do we look for guidance? Here, Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Porridge & Clouds is an occasional series on things I’m thinking about + things that make me think.
Those Crimson Women Circa 1978 and the Flavors O’ Success
My musings on the obstacles that may have kept women on the Harvard Crimson in my era from evolving into uber successful journalistic superstars has sparked some lively conversation—especially timely as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall on this International Women’s Day.
Among the comments: My writer friend Cathi Hanauer (Gone, The Bitch in the House) made a compelling case for the myriad ways motherhood may figure into this equation, while college classmate Arthur Kyriazis pointed out that a number of women of my Crimson era had, in fact, been phenomenally successful. Both of these are excellent points, and I revised the post slightly this morning to clarify what I meant.
To quickly recap: I didn’t mean to say that Crimson women of my era didn’t go on to amazing careers, just that—with one salient exception, not in my college class—none became the superstar journalistic brands that an astounding four of the men from my freshman comp did. Similarly, while I don’t have kids myself, it’s obvious to me that moms face unique challenges—but at the same time, I don’t really see that accounting for what I described. It wasn’t that the women of my era didn’t triumph in careers known for their over-the-top non-family-friendly demands—investment banking and corporate law being two examples—it’s that the paths they followed didn’t involve the public act of claiming their voices.
Also, a coda: A college friend who read the piece emailed me, wondering if I remembered a few Crimson women she’d known: Susan Chira, Suzy Spring, and “Nancy” someone. For Susan Chira my answer was a resounding Yes: She was president of the Crimson a couple years ahead of me and went on to a career at the New York Times. (If she’d been in my Crimson comp, she’d have seriously undercut my lede.) “Nancy” didn’t ring a bell. Suzy Spring sounded familiar. “Did she go on to the Herald?” I emailed back. The answer: “SHE MARRIED JACK WELCH.”
Follow Your Heart 2.0: Notes from the Field
A few weeks back, I wrote about how economic pressures are paving the way for a new understanding of what it means to “follow your heart”—one informed by an awareness that bliss is generally easier to come by when you can pay your bills.
In this context, I was intrigued by popular travel blogger Mariellen Ward’s post about her decision to trade the peripatetic life that informs the BreatheDreamGo blog inspired by her passion for India for life in her native Canada. What I love about this piece is its insight into the realities of finding stable footing on the road less traveled–and how this is always a work in progress. In particular, this:
“On my first night in Goa, when I couldn’t sleep because of fear and hunger, I suddenly realized: I’m done. I’m homesick, I’m tired of trying to make a living as a travel writer and blogger, I’m tired of traveling with limited funds, I’m tired of the struggle, of TRYING so hard for so little in return, and I want to go back to Canada. Just like that. I don’t know if it was the house I was staying in, or the planetary alignment, or maybe just the timing. But that night in Goa everything changed.”
Another wonderful post about the highly personal process of forging a meaningful life comes from my friend Lisa Maguire, now contemplating a career change from investment banking to horse care as the still-contracting finance industry continues to bleed jobs.
“It occurred to me that this was the first meaningful work I had done in years,” she writes with characteristic wry humor, describing the experience of volunteering to muck out stalls. “Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies solely on volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to see how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.”
Jobless Rate Falls to 7.7%! Big News—Or Not?
Plenty of excitement about this today—here’s the New York Times piece—but how excited should we really be? I, for one, am putting off judgment until I know more about the quality of the jobs created—specifically, how salaries and benefits stack up against the pre-Recession jobs they replace.
Also: In case you haven’t noticed, jobs are still disappearing. Don’t believe me? Check out the new (and apparently ongoing) series about being laid off after the age of 50 from business journalist Jon Friedman, who is sharing his evolving story in a series of lively posts. Here’s the first.
Managing Stress in Stressful Times
It’s one thing to apply stress-management techniques to the ordinary annoyances of daily life—traffic, noisy neighbors, being put on hold by Comcast—but what if you’re facing far more serious issues shaped by larger economic trends? Think job loss, foreclosure, major investment losses. Last week, Plan B Nation had a chance to put this question to a panel of experts at Harvard School of Public Health, part of a fascinating panel discussion livestreamed from HSPH’s Leadership Studio. Well worth watching (which you can do here).
Recipe: Quinoa Black Bean Burgers
A recipe! There’s always a recipe here on Porridge and Clouds. Last time it was for red velvet cake. This time, it’s quinoa black bean burgers. They come highly recommended by me (assuming you like such things).
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.
I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.
In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson’s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.
So what happened?
Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?
My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.
As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes in detail, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.
That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.) A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.
Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.
So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.
None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.
If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:
“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation .… Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”
That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A. There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.
Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist. Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.
“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.
One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
On the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cabinet to take out a coffee mug and, to my surprise and delight, emerged with one that carried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage.
As regular readers know, I’d just left my beloved Northampton – a western Massachusetts college town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d participated in the Hot Chocolate Run several times myself, and picking up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendipitous, you might even say, a sign.
Over time, however, I’ve come to see it as something else: A reflection of the fact that I’d landed in a simpatico workplace culture.
The coffee mug incident wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I interviewed, the two future colleagues with whom I had lunch were both Buddhist meditators. The fact that my department head took time off from work to campaign for her (and my) candidate before November’s election. The fact that I love my colleagues’ distinctive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.
Much advice about career transitions focuses on the what—on figuring out what you want to do and then finding a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to counsel women in crisis? Do you want to teach kids?
Yes, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) important to consider the where and the how.
I love to write. Whether I’m working on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorption famously described as flow.
But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speaking from experience, I can tell you that I would not. My current job isn’t the most prestigious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, however, overall, one of the more satisfying.
So what accounts for job satisfaction? Over time, I’ve come to identify the qualities that matter most to me, which incidentally, can all be traced directly to workplace culture. Here are three examples:
I’m far from alone here—lots of research suggests that autonomy is critical to on-the-job satisfaction. (One interesting recent study found that high-level leaders have less stress than those lower on the corporate food chain, with researchers hypothesizing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more control over their lives.)
That said, I suspect autonomy is more important to some of us than others. For me, it’s really important, and my most difficult professional experiences have been in workplace cultures where this creates tension. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year trying to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year trying to get out,” one supervisor ruefully remarked many years ago.) I could be writing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.
I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that reason alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.
It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has gotten more demanding, as layoffs and increased “efficiencies” create more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at suggestions that employees simply need to do a better job setting limits, the issue of balance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to dedicate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.
A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Harvard School of Public Health—is a through-line, enriching good days and giving meaning to the inevitable minor slumps. In my experience, it’s also more likely to lead to warm workplace friendships—which themselves have been found to correlate with job satisfaction and success.
Even Cal Newport—an outspoken critic of the “follow your passion” school of decision-making—discourages people from taking a job they think is useless or actively bad for the world. His reasoning is partly pragmatic: If you feel this way, you’re probably going to have a hard time sticking around long enough to build up the sort of career capital that you’ll need to move forward long-term.
* * *
In 2011, as the Great Recession ground onward, I found myself scratching my head over a New York Times article with the headline “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.” The piece recounted the stories of several people who traded steady jobs for entrepreneurial opportunities, launching businesses that included a Greek food stall, a wedding planning business, and an online ceramics store. As Newport might have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were overwhelmed. “I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a marketing professional turned Pilates instructor.
But here’s the curious thing: Only one of the people interviewed regretted their decisions. While the piece didn’t offer any explanation, I have an idea. Even harder than working for yourself is working in an alien culture. If that was their alternative, these choices make total sense.
What workplace culture qualities are important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Last summer, I came across another of those darkly hilarious post-recession job search stories. In this particular installment, one Taylor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales manager from the San Diego Padres, an organization to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the standard radio silence response to her applications, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “opportunity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bargain price of $495.
And that’s when Grey–whose previous experience reportedly included an internship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, firing off an email described by the sports website Deadspin as “one of the great emails of our time.”
“After careful review, I must decline. I realize I may be burning bridges here, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charging to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trouble borrowing one.”
Not surprisingly, her response proceeded to go viral, and—as Deadspin wrote—“perhaps, on balance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, asking her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”
All of which got me thinking about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Normal – and how the best strategies sometimes emerge only after you’ve given up.
My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point. One of the standard pieces of advice to anyone who’s gone through a layoff is to downplay the layoff part and up-play what you’ve accomplished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the beginning. I kept busy! Volunteered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defiant. Which explains my decision to write publicly about being unemployed.
The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unemployment was published with the provocative headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my educational pedigree—though my real point was something quite different: That navigating unemployment requires tremendous inner resources, far more, in my experience, than what’s needed to navigate success.
Like Grey’s, my writing elicited a range of responses—from withering accusations of self-indulgence to heartfelt words of support. (I still cherish one defense: “Does Salon have no standards at all?” my supporter rhetorically asks, quoting an especially virulent attacker. And then goes on to answer: “Obviously not. If they did — most of the first few letters in response to a Gutman piece would be moderated into oblivion. The fact that they allow their excellent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) .…”)
While my Salon essays on unemployment didn’t lead to a job right away, in retrospect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me visible to people in a position to hire me. One of these was a former Harvard colleague who reached out last summer when an opening came up in her department. (A side benefit: When I interviewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the workforce. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last September. Things are going well.
Let me be clear: When I talk about the benefits of hopelessness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever helpful. What I’m talking about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The danger of hope is that it can tie us to a very specific iteration of a very specific story at a time when we’re far better served by staying alert to opportunities in whatever form they take. The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.
I don’t know what’s happened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morning but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Public Figure” Facebook page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the following tagline: “Taylor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the baseball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apologies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a personal brand.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
It Takes a Village to Bake a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change
In honor of the impending blizzard, I’m re-posting these memories from the October 2011 Snowpocalypse, when I was living in Northampton, MA. This essay first appeared in the Hampshire Gazette (and later on this blog).
When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer. (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)
“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie. The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.
Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”
And indeed, he was right. Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread. With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.
The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan. My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.
“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved “I’m. So. Bored.”
Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October! I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.
Then everything went black.
No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.
This did not happen.
When I got up the next day, it was really cold. I flicked the light switch. No response. No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.
A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally! Absolutely!” It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.
And then I remembered the bread.
There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently. Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.
I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9. He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on. We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.
But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open. A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck. (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)
I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit. Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission. “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.” But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no. Again, I was back to square one.
Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal. A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.
So far so good.
But not so fast.
There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up. Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission. Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven? We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam. And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared. Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.
That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines. It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow. Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.
Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films? An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town. Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears. (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.) At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against. It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.
We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw. Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal. Almost but not quite. Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow. Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.
I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round. “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook. And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.
In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom. We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread. And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.
And if you need a soundtrack:
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
The first in an occasional series on things I’m thinking about + things that make me think
Back in the 1970s, Radcliffe President Matina Horner made headlines with research suggesting that American women suffered from a “fear of success” that kept them from reaching their potential. While I came of age in that era, I’ve never felt that Horner’s findings spoke to my experience. What I recall isn’t a fear of success but rather a fear of failure.
I was probably around 14 when I decided not to apply for a spot in a highly selective study abroad program for Indianapolis public school students. I didn’t think my French I was up to par. I didn’t think I’d get in. Today, I feel bad for that girl who gave up before she tried. By all accounts, it was a wonderful program. There’s a good chance I would have made the cut. And if not: Who cares?
All of which is prologue to saying that I have since become a fervent proponent of learning how to fail. Being able to cope with failure strikes me as one of life’s most important skills—which is why I devoted a session to the topic in the Living Strategically Seminar I taught this fall at UMass Amherst (and, on a lighter note, why I couldn’t wait to share the very funny Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success!” video some months back).
It’s also why I was so heartened to see teacher Jessica Lahey’s terrific new piece in the Atlantic on why parents need to let their children fail. As Lahey writes, parents who try to guarantee their children’s personal and academic success are doing them no favors. Rather they are robbing them of opportunities to strengthen resilience—to cultivate “the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.” (My friend Jennifer Rosner also reflects on this issue in an excellent piece just published on the New York Times Motherlode blog.)
* * *
The more open we can be about what life should look like, the greater our chance at happiness.
In this spirit, I was captivated by an essay suggesting that the successful marriages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may include not only the obvious suspects—Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley—but also the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas and pompous Mr. Collins. “Charlotte did the best she could, and if the result is not exactly blinding ecstasy forever after–well, most of us, for the most part, don’t get blinding ecstasy forever after anyway,” Noah Berlatsky writes.
Somehow this got me thinking about the last time I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I’d always thought of as a poignant tale of missed opportunities. I was surprised to myself concluding that the life Newland Archer got was precisely the life he needed. (The fact that he never realized this didn’t mean it wasn’t true.)
* * *
The Great Recession gave birth to a subgenre that I’ve come to think of as the Plan B Nation memoir—stories about life after job loss. Food plays an outsized role in many of these—which makes a lot of sense to me given the prominent role it played in my own post-layoff life. Favorites include Dominique Browning’s Slow Love (wherein the eating is followed by a serious diet), Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (wherein the former Entertainment Weekly book critic reports, sometimes hilariously, on making the things we normally buy—think marshmallows, cream cheese, Pop-Tarts), and guest poster Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby (wherein I discovered a recipe for winter squash and sausage drizzled with maple syrup with which I became somewhat obsessed for a time).
While my Plan B Nation life has evolved a lot in recent months, I’m still always on the lookout for a good recipe. Here’s one for red velvet cake that I can’t wait to try—via one of my (and possibly your) favorite novelists, Elinor Lipman.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job practicing law to write a novel. I had never written a novel before and had, what is in retrospect, a laughably (or rather frighteningly) small cushion of savings. A year later, I had a lucrative deal with a major publisher. My first novel was a People magazine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of foreign rights.
Do what you love, and the money will follow. Along with being the title of a popular self-help book, it sums up a distinctive ethos of a distinctive time in American history—an Oprah-fied vision of possibilities where the only limits were the boundaries of our dreams.
Times have changed.
Looking back, the Follow Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an economy in overdrive. The widespread failure to see this link was a significant if not surprising vestige of ways of thinking that have deep roots in western culture. It is the same point made by any number of characters in Jane Austen’s novels and stated with particular clarity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Margaret Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its existence.”
The danger of such forgetfulness is now apparent from any number of cautionary tales, most recently Elizabeth Wurtzel’s meltdown in the pages of New York magazine. “I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years,” writes the bestselling author of Prozac Nation and graduate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”
And should this example not be sufficiently chilling, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebrities brought low by financial missteps. Most visible among these is Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of the blockbuster Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After making a fortune proclaiming the joys of simple living, Breathnach went on a spending spree, with purchases including Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England and Marilyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with nothing. (While Simple Abundance spent years on bestseller lists, her December 2010 comeback effort—Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Way to Financial Serenity—is ranked 396,776 on Amazon.com as of this writing.)
My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after publishing two books and struggling with a third, I ultimately made my way back into the paid workforce—but looking back, I see a similar thread. I too had a tendency to see the present as prelude, to live as if success, once achieved, laid the groundwork for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)
All of which goes to explain my interest in a trend that I’ve taken to calling Follow Your Heart 2.0. In this iteration, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between idealism and practicality. Rather, the new model recognizes that contentment generally requires stability as well as passion. It’s Follow Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.
An especially clear formulation of what I’m talking about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and co-author Ben Casnocha. The pair urge their readers to consider three interlocking pieces when making work-related decisions: Assets, aspirations and values, and market realities. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our talents, education, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two categories are pretty much what they sound like.
Significantly, the authors aren’t telling readers to forget about their dreams. Rather, they’re saying that dreams exist within a larger framework. Depending on your goals–and depending on your needs–context, including the market, may be critically important. “Of course, it’s worth mentioning that [her] passion is mobile payment systems,” Work Stew blogger Kate Gace Walton remarked dryly of one successful entrepreneur. All dreams are not created equal.
For those of us with ample stocks of education and social capital, the late 90s economy was forgiving and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The economy circa 2013 is a very different place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one literary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Recession began. Five years later, it seems increasingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.
More and more, I’m seeing Follow Your Heart 2.0 infuse the popular conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s apparent in Marci Alboher’s excellent new Encore Career Handbook, which acknowledges the critical role that finances play in making a transition to more meaningful work in the second half of life. It’s also central to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that passion most often follows hard work and success, not the reverse.
As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direction, and I struggle when circumstances channel my energies into other things. For many of us, work that feels meaningful is a big part of what makes life worthwhile, and there may be times when pursuing that is worth almost any sacrifice. But today, the stakes are different, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy endings are harder to come by. Uncertainty is guaranteed.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
I first encountered the remarkable Judy Cockerton when she spoke at Harvard Law School, where I was working at the time. Her topic was Treehouse, the innovative community she founded in Easthampton, Mass., where families adopting kids from foster care live side by side in a neighborhood setting with people over 55 who serve as honorary grandparents.
My first thought: “This is terrific! I want to work with her.” (Which, years later, I did, taking on several small projects as a volunteer. I also wrote this.)
That reaction has been widespread—and this year Judy (now my friend), was one of five people to receive the $100,000 Purpose Prize for 2012, an award for social entrepreneurs over the age of 60. For me, as for so many others, her vision, commitment, and determination to “reinvent foster care” are ongoing inspirations, and I’m thrilled that she’s getting the recognition she so deserves.
But if Judy is unique—and she most certainly is—her broader aspirations are not. Behind the high-profile Purpose Prize is a larger trend, as growing numbers of baby boomers seek work that is both personally meaningful and serves a larger good. Promoting this trend is the goal of Encore.org, the nonprofit that awards the Purpose Prize, and the topic of an endlessly useful new book by Encore.org Vice President (and former New York Times columnist) Marci Alboher.
Being something of an encore careerist myself—as well as a fan of Marci’s previous book on “slash” careers that combine two vocations—I couldn’t wait to get my hands The Encore Career Handbook: How To Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life, out just this month. I wasn’t disappointed.
First and foremost, the book is jam-packed with excellent practical guidance. Here are three big-picture suggestions that especially resonated with me:
Get comfortable with uncertainty: Uncertainty is part of any transition—and moving into an Encore career is a transition. The good news is you’ve likely already had some experience, transitions being a hallmark of life in Plan B Nation. I think about this a lot (as you know if you read this blog). I’ve written about transitions here. And here and here and here.
Get connected: In the end, it’s all about the people you know—and those you meet. If you’re lucky, you (like me) will find this a lot of fun. Marci suggests a number of specific ways to engage your friends and others in the encore career change process. Strategies include using others as a sounding board (akin to the idea of having a personal board of directors), working with career coaches, joining a group or taking a class, volunteering as a way to try on a job or sector, and building vibrant networks (both virtual and real-life). I’ve long been a big believer in always erring in favor of connection, and there are some great ideas here about how to go about that.
Get a handle on your finances: An encore career search means seeking “purpose, passion, and a paycheck,” as Marci puts it. But exactly what that paycheck needs to look like will depend on your situation. Encore careers often—though not always—pay less than the jobs they follow. What kind of trade-offs are you willing to make? What is your risk tolerance? Can you think of creative ways to bring in extra cash or, conversely, to reduce expenses? (The book offers many suggestions.)
There is also lots of excellent nuts-and-bolts stuff: How to go about preparing encore career resumes and cover letters (along with samples), extensive resource and reading lists, basic business planning guidance, and an appendix of promising encore jobs.
Once you start paying attention, encore careers are everywhere. In my own office at Harvard School of Public Health, my colleague Patti came out of the world of hedge funds. “I didn’t want to die having only been a banker,” she said wryly over a recent lunch. My colleague Chris, like me, spent time in corporate law.
That said, encore careers often don’t come easy, even for those with excellent credentials willing to take a pay cut. In his searingly honest Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life, former Time Warner executive James Kunen describes his uncertain path to ultimately fulfilling work teaching English as a second language. “Everyone loves doing something—I love reading at the beach—but not everybody loves doing something that you can get paid for,” he reflects at one point. Closer to home, my friend Kenny—whom I met when I interviewed him for a Psychology Today piece on career choices—had a hard time finding public school teaching work after completing Teach for America training in his 50s.
But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible—or that it’s the wrong thing to do. And thanks to Marci Alboher’s excellent book, it’s now easier than it was.
Want to win a copy of The Encore Career Handbook? Thanks to Workman Publishing, I have two to give away. Tweet a link to this story with the hashtag #encorebookwin. I’ll pick the winners next weekend.
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Just because I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions doesn’t mean I let the years come and go unacknowledged. To the contrary, I love this time of taking stock – especially the part where I remind myself of everything I’ve gotten done over the past 12 months. (I’ve always been surprised by just how much there is, especially during these obstacle-strewn Plan B Nation years.)
I also look ahead, but instead of making resolutions, I tend to reflect on themes – points of orientation rather than destinations. This year, over the past few weeks, I’ve settled on three.
The Year of Connecting – and Re-connecting
I can’t imagine having gotten through the past few years without my friends, old and new, virtual and real-life. This year, I look forward to expanding on this richness, reaching out to people I’d love to meet and strengthening existing ties.
For me, this will be what Tara Sophia Mohr refers to as a gift goal – a goal that is also a joy in the doing. I love spinning the web of human connection. People often tell me that I’m a great networker, which always catches me off guard. In reality, I’m good at this only when I enjoy it. No one would have ever described me thus when I was practicing corporate law, ensconced in a world that never really felt like mine. It’s an aptitude that surfaces only in connection with people who strike me as potentially being members of my tribe (or tribes).
And it’s not only about people. The theme of connection (and re-connection) resonates for me in many spheres. It’s also about connecting – and re-connecting – with places, interests, and ideas that have been sidelined if not forgotten. It includes a yet-to-be disclosed law-related project I’ve been mulling over for years now. (Because while practicing law wasn’t my path, there is much in that world that still speaks to me, and with which I’d like to re-connect.) It also includes my recurring thoughts about paying a visit to the place I grew up and getting back to a regular yoga practice (aka re-connecting with my body). In times of confusion, I imagine asking: What do I need to connect with?
The Year of Emptying and Replenishing
I got this one from Havi, who has proclaimed it the theme for her year. Interestingly (at least to me), my first reaction on hearing it was: Not for me. I’m busy, busy, busy. But for some reason the idea lingered. Because, in fact, it is for me. Busy is a symptom.
I see this as being about both prioritizing and refueling – about letting go of things that don’t enhance my life while creating a greater capacity for the things that will. During my years between full-time jobs, I often struggled to fill days and weeks in ways that felt meaningful and likely to me forward. Life as a blank page, that’s often what it felt like. Today, I struggle with what seems like the opposite dilemma: How to carve out time for work I care about when my days are already more than full.
I have only the faintest glimmerings of how this theme will evolve. Yoga? Time in the country? A more orderly home? I don’t really know. The themes are breadcrumbs, and for now, that’s enough.
The Year of Being with Things As They Are
I find it so endlessly easy to slip into battle mode – Me vs. Things As They Are. My goal: Make Them Different. Life is so much more pleasant when I can remember to let that go, to treat reality as a friend, rather than an adversary.
Do you have New Year’s resolutions, themes, or musings that you care to share? Please leave them in the comments section – and best wishes for 2013!
© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
Last week, a producer at HuffPost Live emailed me to ask if I’d be willing to talk about New Year’s resolutions for an upcoming segment. In particular, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d written about willpower and whether I’d been able to accomplish this year’s goals.
It seemed like something that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by saying that I don’t really make resolutions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to someone else.
Until this conversation, I hadn’t quite realized how deep my resistance runs. Simply put, New Year’s resolutions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for failure. A set-up for staying stuck. Resolutions assume a fixity that, in my experience, simply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me forward today.
This is especially true in times of transition, when life is inherently unpredictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a personal exploration of strategies to navigate loss and uncertainty after the Great Recession. One of my major ongoing lessons has been the importance of staying open – of not insisting that the future take a certain form.
As I drafted this post, I happened on a print out of writer Virginia Woolf’s New Year Resolutions that I’d totally forgotten about until now but likely had been saving for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Virginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fernald.) Dated January 2, 1931, the list begins:
Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.
To have none. Not to be tied.
Indeed. (And I especially love the fact that even the resolution of making no resolutions extends only three months forward.)
Speaking for myself, I could never have predicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envisioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to provide much of what I most needed.
This is why I don’t think of goals as endpoints – I think of them as stepping stones and experiments. This means staying curious and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serving me? Or is it time for something else?
Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Actionable goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in themselves. Goals can be great tools, but they are terrible masters.
That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tactics you may want to try.
Be strategic in how you use your limited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huffington Post piece, which draws heavily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.)
If you’re struggling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re contending with a competing goal. This strategy comes from my one-time professor Robert Kegan, who proposes the following four-column exercise. Identify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find fulfilling work), (2) The behaviors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t meaningful to me), (3) Competing commitments (e.g., I need to maintain a certain income and level of savings), (4) Assumptions that underlie and support the third-column commitments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, everyone will think I’m irresponsible.)
The point here isn’t to promote a particular course of action but rather to gain a better understanding of what drives you – an awareness that can lead to a profound shift in perspective. (The example above is based on an interview I did with Kegan earlier this year for this piece in Psychology Today.)
Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or organize your office or any of the other zillions of tasks that we set for ourselves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and meaning, whatever that is for you.
I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for sharing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.
It has been a jaw-dropping couple of days for reasoned minds tracking the national conversation about what lessons we should draw from the Newtown massacre.
First we had conservative ideologue Charlotte Allen’s bizarre claim that the murder of 20 children and six adults can be traced to the “helpless passivity” that permeates such a “feminized setting.” “Congratulations, National Review: You have published the single most brain dead, idiotic and offensive response to a national tragedy,” is how Salon prefaced its report on Allen’s instantly notorious ramblings. “Noted Asshole Says Sandy Hook Massacre Wouldn’t Have Happened If There Had Been Men Around,” read a headline on Jezebel.
And today, of course, we had the spectacle of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre – the ultimate hired gun – making the case for why there should be a gun in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” was how he put it at this morning’s NRA press conference. (You know another way to stop a guy with a gun? Take away his gun. But I digress.)
LaPierre is not the first to make noises along these lines, and in recent days, I’ve been unable to resist such tantalizing easy pickings. “And I mean, not to over think this or anything, but might it not be a wee bit dangerously confusing to law enforcement when they arrive and see a teacher brandishing a gun? And, oh dear, what about the danger of friendly fire? And — I mean, just because we should consider the possibilities — is there any chance there could be liability issues if a teacher intentionally or inadvertently shoots a student or colleague?” is one typical comment from my Facebook feed.
But you know what? I was wasting my time. Logic isn’t the issue. Not for Charlotte Allen. And not for the NRA. Their goal isn’t to persuade. Their goal is to make money.
On the Internet, provocation pays—just ask, Ann Coulter. The more outrageous your argument, the better your metrics. (And no, that’s not always true. But very often it is.) Is Charlotte Allen delusional or a clever manipulator? It doesn’t really matter: Either way, it pays off for the National Review.
For its part, the NRA is about selling guns. What better way to enhance profits than an arms race in public schools?
There’s one thing that keeps me from slipping into an impotent fury here: A growing sense that such voices are fast becoming victims of their own success.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gives the Second Amendment-brandishing Republican Party only a 30% favorable rating, down significantly since before the presidential election. (In the meantime, the Democratic Party is on the rise.) When asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the GOP, 65% offered a negative comment, including more than half of Republicans. Among the descriptions: “Bad,” “weak,” “negative,” “uncompromising,” “broken,” and “lost.” “Republicans have gone off the image cliff,” Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart is quoted as saying.
Shortly before the November election, Lizzie Skurnick—my brilliant writer friend I’ve never met—humorously chastised Obama supporters for going to such great lengths to identify Romney campaign missteps. “We should be all ‘Heckuva job, Rove!’” she proclaimed, referring to George W. Bush’s post-Katrina plaudits for soon-to-be-disgraced FEMA director Michael D. (“Brownie”) Brown.
Which got me to thinking. The more provocative, confrontational—and yes, crazier—folks like Allen and LaPierre sound, the clearer the line between sensible regulation and sheer lunacy.
Thanks, Charlotte Allen.
You’re making my case way better than I possibly could.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.