Archive for July, 2007
A local water company likes to post words of wisdom on their freeway-side marquis billboard. This weekend, the marquis read:
“SUCCESS HAS MADE A FAILURE OF MANY.”
The quote got me thinking. It reminds me of Harvard’s Success/Failure Project, for which they ask well-known alumni and faculty to tell stories of their most “sorry success” (or their “favorite failure”), the idea being to show nail-biting overachiever students that perfectionism is not necessarily in the best interest of their growth or mental health.
I’d say my most sorry success was landing a job at a consulting firm right out of college. Following the lead of my overachiever classmates out of our East Coast university, this kind of gig was the thing to do, the measure of success. After just a few weeks, I knew the corporate consulting world was not for me. (Actually, I’d always known it, but those times when we lose sight of ourselves are often our most sorry.) The fact that my early 90’s suede, fringed boots didn’t fly among the D.C. navy suits tipped me off right away.
I lasted a few months before growing anxiety, weight gain, and staying in bed all day with my journal during a snowstorm finally woke me up. I jumped ship for a fellowship at a non-profit PR firm, then it took me a couple more career and life steps to get back on track to the writing and creative work that feels most authentic to me, back to health and sanity, and back to my heart’s home of California.
I missed out on certain freedoms and explorations post-college, jumping into this big-city, pressure-cooker world of work so fast. However, I’m still glad I did it because it reminds me to be true to who I am, not who others want me to be, and also that I can always get back on track if I stray. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it reminds me that I had and have choices, and I am where I am because I choose to be. (I also fully realize how fortunate I am to have such choices, and, as I discuss in my welcome post, how loaded the concept of choice can be!)
For me, though, this particular sorry success was a defining moment in my career path. I had begun to figure out something crucial: what I am willing to sacrifice and what I need to feel myself. Corporate suits and corporate salary ultimately did not work for me (and I know this for sure, because I tried corporate one other time on this winding career path — better the next time, but still not it). What works for me now is more creative freedom as a freelancer (and creative necessity, without a corporate salary!), more time with family (and the right family for me), and a simpler lifestyle. Ahhhhh. I’m much happier here.
Of course, it took many, many more missteps, backsteps and forward steps — more sorry successes and favorite failures, including several up-and-down years in academia — to get here, which I’m sure I’ll discuss in future posts. But, each step has led me to this freelance writing/training/brain-never-off business, this marriage to a still-surprises-me surfer/teacher I’ve known since adolescence, this motherhood to an enlightening-every-day girl, this web of complicated and gratifying relationships with family and friends, and this little life in this little townhouse three miles from the Pacific in a sleepy beach town.
In short, a sorry success, turned to failure, can be a critical life lesson — and a great step toward liberation.
So, Readers: What’s your sorriest success story?
An organization I like a lot, The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, just published a summer reading list. One book on there has struck my interest, and I just requested it at my local library. It’s called Buy, Buy, Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Gregory Thomas. CCFC calls it:
“a startling look at how corporate marketers prey on parents’ insecurities and target the youngest and most vulnerable children. Using interviews with marketing professionals, product developers, and child development experts, Thomas details disturbing trends, such as the rise of the baby video industry, the false and deceptive marketing of toys and videos as educational, the growth of commercial activities in preschools, and the increased use of licensed characters to sell anything and everything to babies and toddlers. An essential read for anyone concerned about the commercialization of childhood and the perfect eye-opening gift for new and expecting parents.”
According to some excellent reviews I found online, it also talks about the phenomenon of “kids getting older younger,” and one reviewer said it reads like a detective novel and changed his mind about how “harmless” it is for young children to watch TV.
What does this have to do with “Having Enough”? Lots! How early we start to learn that we “need stuff” (and don’t have enough), how large systems are in place to ensure this feeling, and, I’m hoping, some ideas for how we can try to counteract this with our own kids, the next generation.
Want to read it with me? Get it at your local library (or buy it, if you like), and let’s chat about it soon.
I recently read a book called Women Confidential: Midlife Women Explode the Myths of Having it All by psychologist/”career guru” Barbara Moses, Ph.D. Moses’ book is based on her twenty years of counseling, an ongoing survey of thousands of women, and in-depth interviews with a selective group of “interesting” midlife women. She says of this group, I love this:
“In spite of the temptation to describe these women as successful, I call them interesting because they have defined success on their own terms. Like many women, I struggle with the word successful…”
She goes on to describe how some are traditionally successful businesswomen, while others left career paths for lives of leisurely country living or volunteer work. All are university-educated, two-thirds have children, and they “respresent all the tangled possibilities” in partner relationships. Then she says:
“Regardless of their path, the women understand the choices they have made and can reflect on what was and wasn’t wise. They accept who they are instead of endlessly second-guessing decisions they have made (and if they had any bitterness, they have moved on). They are excited about their futures. As the French say, they are bien dans sa peau, they feel good in their skin.”
So, what do you think? Does this sound like a fair description of success to you? Not the traditional description of success and “having it all,” at least, a more realistic image of what we can aspire to at midlife.
Anyway, the book is an interesting collection of insights from these women, covering topics from corporate life, approval-seeking, friendships, kids (having them or not), marriage, midlife decisions, and more. Here’s an abbreviated version of her “Summary Dish: Fourteen Secrets of Success for Work and Life from Women for Women”:
1. Know and act on what is really important to you.
2. Undrestand what you are really good at.
3. Be authentic.
4. Define yourself independently of your roles–as mother, daughter, worker, leader, friend, partner.
5. Make your own decision. (Drop people-pleasing.)
6. Pay attention to the niggling voice that says, “I’m not happy.”
7. Think in terms of life chapters. (You can have it all, but not all at once.)
8. Cherish and grow your friendships.
9. Give back to individuals and the community.
10. Invest in yourself, and stretch yourself.
11. Accept others for who they are.
12. Edit out the stuff that doesn’t add value to your life.
13. Have a healthy relationship to money.
14. Be kind to yourself and others. (This is perhaps the most important secret of all.)
So, readers, what do you think? If you’re a midlife women, does this ring true? If you’re a younger woman, do these wisdoms make sense? They do to me, and this book supports for me what “Having Enough” is all about — being real, being authentic, being kind, generous, making mistakes, letting things go, struggling and learning, becoming ourselves.
I just finished reading this book a few days ago, and I must say it has only confirmed my fears about what “top” public schools have become in the wake of No Child Left Behind, SAT-mania, US News rankings, and all that go with these cultural developments. Robbins follows a handful of student overachievers through a year and alternates between their personal stories and her own investigative research on the “bigger issues” of overachiever culture.
The kids are doing way too much, and they are mostly (some extremely) miserable, never feeling good enough even with crazy high GPAs, yadda yadda. She admits she’s one of them, a Yale grad and NYT best-selling author in her 20’s. But she is recovering, as she nicely explains in a Forbes essay from this March. Here’s a quote that captures her book’s thesis:
“We live in an achievement-oriented, workaholic culture that can no longer distinguish between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. It is time to stop prioritizing how children look on paper over their health, happiness, and well-being. By now the message should be clear: Ease up, calm down, and back off. If students are free to follow paths toward their personal joys and interests, then it is worth trusting that everything will be all right in the end.” (p. 400)
I highly recommend this book, if nothing else for a conversation starter in your own family on the meaning of achievement. As a parent, it reminds me of what I don’t want for my daughter. It reminds me of my own grade obsession, which started in first grade when I got my (literally) first wrong answer. (It was a worksheet with drawings and we had to fill in the blanks to make words. The picture was a 3-D square with a jagged top and it said “B” with two blanks. I wrote “A-G” in the blanks, but the answer was “O-X.” I was horrified and indignant. And, yes, I remember the worksheet. Overachieverism starts very early.)
I’m considering alternatives to public school for my daughter, which I never thought I’d say. I don’t want her to be over-tested by first grade, as NCLB requires (and my husband sees first-hand as a public school teacher). I don’t want her surrounded by kids with cell phones whose parents drive big SUVs and take big vacations and wear big designer clothes.
I know I can’t avoid it all, but I can at least try to find educational settings where there is an awareness of these issues and a true desire to lessen their impact. What I can do: not overschedule her (I’m already boycotting all the baby classes!), not give into the consumer crazies, be aware, not push her to “achieve,” but rather show a love of learning for its own sake in our home. Still, it takes a village and all that.
We are considering Waldorf education, a philosophy we really like but we need to see it in action. We’re also looking at California charter schools, many of which allow for full or partial homeschooling and other alternative learning methods (and are free and public!). My brother and his wife homeschool in Maryland, and are loving it.
I’m still unsure for us. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts or experiences about school settings that allow for joyful and holistic learning, and don’t push children too fast, too soon, too competitively. And, also, I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins!