Friday, April 5, 2013

Seriouser and Seriouser

When you think you can do anything, you do a little of everything...

I've followed some of the discussion about Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, but just so everyone knows that this isn't really another discussion of the book,  I want to be clear that haven't actually read it, and I probably won't, because reading a book from the leadership section always makes me nauseous.  I still have awkward flashbacks from mandatory Who Moved my Cheese management sessions back in the late nineties.   Also, I'm pretty sure Sandberg is talking about a kind of life I've already decided against. I have spent way too much time as a manager already, working the corporate wheeze, sending my children off in the morning and sometimes not seeing them until the next morning, thinking about my workday long before it started and far too long after it ended.   If that is the only way to lean in, I'm definitely leaning back.  But I suspect there are other ways to make use of what Sandberg is talking about when she says things like "don't leave before you leave." 

Looking back, I have to admit that I haven't usually "leaned in." Not that I haven't worked and done plenty of other things, but I've been a dabbler, trying my hand at all kinds of things, rather than turning with laser-like focus to success in any one area. 

Whenever I have a chance, I like to blame my own shortcomings on the cultural zeitgeist, and I see no reason to make an exception here.  My logic goes this way:  in the seventies, when I was a kid, there was an explosion of opportunity for women, thanks to some hard-working feminists.   Those new opportunities were celebrated , as in this commercial, proving that women could do it all. (And smell great doing it!) 

The idea that an excellent job could be combined with a great relationship and a happy family made lots of possibilities seem endlessly appealing.  Have a career, have a sex life, have a kid (or two or three, if that's what you think you need to do.) The only real mistake was limiting yourself.  The message was that I (any girl) could do it all. 

An appropriately disturbing image of trying too much at once.

This cultural propaganda was amplified by the fact that there were some things I could do well without having to try very hard.  I got good grades, As and A minuses, without having to work too hard.  I am a quick learner, but of course, this doesn't instill a great work ethic.  Why try harder, when you can just do more?  I did school plays and dance shows, worked on the yearbook, did academic competitions, any activity (yeah, no sports, you know me) that seemed like it might be fun, because why not round out my college applications, where being a dabbler had some value?  It seemed better to be "fine" at a lot of things than great at just one or two. The ability and propensity to take on activities continued after graduation, and with a couple of tragic exceptions, I did okay.  It wasn't too long before I could competently sew and make jewelry and cook and crochet and and write and do research and manage a store and make schedules and work the big espresso machine at the bookstore, and-- well you get the idea-- all without having to really exert myself, which was good, because I didn't ever like to look like I was trying too hard.

And what is that about?  This fear of showing that I am making an effort. I used to joke that, because I grew up in Southern California, I felt obligated to make everything look easy--no sweat, sail through, stay loose.  Working hard just never seemed cool.
No sweat-- I can do it all from here...

I smugly, and (thank goodness!) mostly silently, chuckled at the hard-working, stressed-out antics of the grinds, the zealots, the gung ho-- what chumps!  All the way through law school in fact, I pointed and shook my head, talking about having a balanced life when I was really running a three ring circus sometimes, trying to work, study and take care of family.  Yeah, I would think, if I applied all that effort and worked my ass off on just one thing like those clowns, I might have finished in the top ten. But I had kids and I had to work, so top twenty-five is great for doing just enough, right?  Who needs to be so serious when you have natural talent to fall back on?

This, I think, gets to the real issue, and I have to admit it: I hate to look like I'm trying too hard because, then, what if I fail?  I'll look like a dumb-ass.  So yeah, if I could get a ninety without really investing myself, it seemed better than aiming for that perfect score and having to possibly face the fact that I failed.  My self esteem has been wrapped up in how well I can do without even trying, how close I can cut it, how smoothly I can skate by.   I have celebrated the narrow escape and felt that was my real skill-- doing just enough to get by and stay in the game.  But this has begun to lose its allure for me. It's tiring really, much more of an effort than making an effort.

And middle age (I'll live to be 98, right?) has clarified the idea that there are not so many new opportunities left after, say, forty five: not so many chances to scrape by and bounce back and act like I didn't really care about what I had been doing anyway.  It is past time to focus, so maybe that's what  "leaning in" will be about for me. Because it turns out that you can't do it all-- at least you can't do it all well-- and you do have to choose, because you can only dabble your life away for so long.  At some point, if you want to feel good about what you do every day, you have to get serious, and you have be willing to say that what you do matters. 

I mean I do. I have to devote my time and effort to something that matters to me.  I have to get serious.

I'm already confronting the fact that "...and she did it so young" is no longer what people will ever say about me, but if I can't give up caring what people will say, then maybe it would be nice for people to say, "...and she gave it her all."  Now I just have to choose what I'm giving it all to.  I have a couple of ideas.  This is the first year that I didn't spend most of every week doing a job I didn't like just to earn a paycheck.  I really need the paycheck, but I know that if I'm going to put in the effort, I have to be doing something I like to do. Especially if I have to work hard at it.

Of course, I still need to be cool, so if this doesn't go anywhere, I can always claim that I could have done better, if I had really really tried. 

Alice in Wonderland image found hereMulti hand image from here. Beach image from here.

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