(tip o’ the nib to Wil Barbour!)
What makes one person the exception? What makes someone rise above their station, and become a Sonia Sotomayor or a Neil DeGrasse Tyson?
Every once in a while, someone is imbued with a special protection against discouragement.
Perhaps they are simply so much more talented than an ordinary person that their talent cannot be denied.
Perhaps they are raised or taught in such a way that they gain a strong psychological buffer.
Or perhaps it’s deep in their temperament to believe in themselves.
For whatever reason, these few rise above the masses and excel beyond the confines of others’ definitions of them. But then, they are held up as the “truly” talented of their group, the exception that proves the rule . . . and damn to the rest.
But it’s not that they are (necessarily) the most talented; they are just the most immune to despair.
You don’t have to be the absolute best. You just have to be stubborn and a little bit deaf.
They can’t discourage you, if you’re not listening.
(This letter is in response to a recent article in the Guardian: Apple and Facebook to Pay for Female Employees to Freeze Their Eggs)
Dear Apple and Facebook,
Let’s say you have a wonderful programmer, but he has a prosthetic leg, and the elevator is broken in your building. It’s no big deal – he just comes to work half an hour early every day to slowly make his way up the stairs. Oh, and he always packs a lunch so he doesn’t have to leave during the day. Also, even though he would love a promotion, he avoids talking to management because they’re three extra floors up. He makes these sacrifices, he works around what’s missing, and he does a killer job.
Then one day you make an announcement: You are going to invest in robotics! In 15 years, your employee might be able to get his very own bionic leg!
That’s great. But you know what would help today?
Fixing the damn elevator.
So, you’re going to pay for women employees to freeze their eggs. That’s great, really, but you know what would help today? If you announced 6 months of paid maternity leave, and gave all workers the option to work part time with a prorated salary. If you made these adjustments, women would go through hell and high water just to work for you.
Which is easier: asking women to completely upend their biological clocks to stay in line with the current work culture? Or adjusting the work culture – just a little bit – and the institutional expectations – just a little bit – so that women don’t have to make these kinds of sacrifices in the first place?
Ultimately, this problem is not technological, but cultural and institutional. Relying on a technological fix so that women can put off childbearing until their 40’s is a crude, stopgap workaround for a culture that requires successful women to be as much like men as possible. You will only truly succeed in attracting women to your field when you accept that being as good as a man is not mutually exclusive with being a woman and a mother.
Sofia Echegaray, Software Tester
There was an interesting story on NPR this morning on how sentence structure reveals a lot of about relationships. A psychologist named James Pennebaker used computers to scan conversations between people, and one of the things he discovered is that you can tell who is high-status and who is low-status in a conversation just by looking at their use of the word “I.”
For example, if you are the lowly underling and you’re emailing your boss, you use the word “I” a lot:
“I was looking at the reports and I think we might drop the Smith account. I’d like to talk to you about them on Monday.”
But when the boss replies, she rarely if ever uses the word “I”:
“That’s fine, but Monday’s no good. Tuesday works.”
Pennebaker’s explanation is that low-status people feel insecure and self-conscious, and their inward focus makes them use the word “I” more.
Respectfully, I think there’s another reason for this. It’s not about being self-conscious. It’s about being extremely conscious — of power.
When I was at Andover and Harvard, men still outnumbered the women students by a slight majority, and the female students rarely had the same “to the manor born” self-assurance that I saw in some of the men. Some male students clearly perceived themselves as high-status, or at least high-status-in-waiting.
Often I engaged in friendly lunchtime debates with these guys, but it was an uphill battle. I was constantly interrupted and contradicted:
Me: “Women are still not equal in society…”
Some Dude: “That’s not true! I happen to know a woman who’s a CEO and who’s very successful! Where’s your data to back up your argument?”
I got shouted down all the time. Even when we discussed innocuous topics, like music and art, I got a lot of flak. Simple comments like “She’s a great actress” or “That was an excellent movie” got contradicted, interrupted, or minimized.
Subconsciously, I started to defend myself against the constant onslaught by couching all of my opinions in extremely personal language. So, instead of saying, “She’s such a brilliant actress,” I started saying, “I really like that actress.” After all, you can’t really contradict someone else’s opinion.
It took me years to realize what was happening at a conscious level. These guys weren’t jumping down my throat because they disagreed with my opinions per se. They were jumping down my throat because I was daring to express my opinions as declarative statements.
In other words, if you say, “This situation is appalling!” it translates to “I am a free and equal member of this society, and my opinion carries just as much weight as anyone else’s.”
However, if you say, “I am really upset by this situation” it also has a translation: “I am a supplicant in this community, and I am presenting my case to those with power in the hopes that they will hear me.”
Anyone who makes an opinion into a declarative statement is stating that they have the right to define the universe according to their own point of view. And that is an incredible declaration of power.
Subconsciously, most of us know this, and so we vary our own choice to use declarative statements based on our perception of the power dynamic. So, this way of speaking is not an irrational reaction to our own insecurities, but rather an extremely rational response to a given situation.
So one way of perceiving who has the power is, Who gets to make the declarative statements?
Which members of the team get to say “This will never work,” and which have to say, “I don’t think we can do it in that time frame?”
Who gets to say, “This interface is clunky” and who has to say “The home page doesn’t feel right to me?”
It’s all about power.
When I lived in NYC, they had a program where they’d put poetry in the subway cars. Here is my favorite one:
Lullaby For a Daughter ~ Mary Jo Salter
Someday, when the sands of time
invert, may you find perfect rest
as a newborn nurses from
the hourglass of your breast.
Every once in a while, I find an essay that really stays with me. Here are a few gems I’ve found over the years.
In You’re a Good Man, Dr. Smurf — one of my favorite essays of all time — Martha Beck describes her intimidation as a Harvard student, surrounded by colleagues who appear brilliant and omniscient. Until, one day, in a very funny way, she realizes that everyone around her is totally and utterly bullshitting.
Rebecca Solnit’s essay Men Explain Things to Me is the essay that launched a thousand blog entries. She begins with a story of the time an older man patronizingly describes a book to her — her own book, as it happens. This essay inspired the term “mansplaining.”
In Does Gender Matter? Dr. Ben Barres describes the culture of the sciences from his unique vantage point as a transgender scientist: Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”
If you like a long, richly-detailed essay, try The Marriage Cure by Katherine Boo. It explores the theme of poverty, by following several women trying to make the best out of terrible situations. A moving essay that provides no easy answers, but plenty of questions.
And finally, a short essay called “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” — published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times of all places! — had a simple but profound effect on me. It’s about a middle-aged man who tries to solve his midlife crisis by breaking up his marriage, and how his wife’s verbal jujitsu enables them to get through his rough patch and stay together.
Now go ye forth, and Read!
One of my loves is flamenco music, and along with it, all music of North Africa and the Middle East — especially music that harkens back to the era when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in southern Spain.
Here’s a sampling of some great music of the Al-Andalus diaspora.
The first is a clip of a movie called “Ladino: 500 Years Young.” Ladino is the language that Jews spoke in Spain, and when they left for North Africa, Mexico, and other places, they took their language and their songs with them. The film follows Yasmin Levy, an Israeli singer who breathes new life into old Sephardic songs.
The second is a wonderful excerpt from an all-female concert in Morocco. The music blends flamenco, Sephardic songs, Arab music, and other music as well. It’s an incredible back-and-forth that always gives me chills when I watch it.
Here’s a song called Wahashtini, recently sung by an American who shocked everyone by placing 3rd in “Arab’s Got Talent:”
And finally, two songs from the very old Spanish song collection, “Cancionero de Palacios.” This song is called Tres Morillas. The first line goes, “I fell in love with three Moorish girls in Jaen: Axa, Fatima, and Marien…”
This last one is called Pase el Agua. It’s in old Catalan, I think:
During the holidays, a lot of my female friends are writing about body image, weight gain, etc. While it’s not exactly the same thing, it reminds me of Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis 2, writing about the experience of taking on the veil in Iran:
“The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: ‘Are my trousers long enough?’ ‘Is my veil in place?’ ‘Can my makeup be seen?’ ‘Are they going to whip me?”
No longer asks herself: ‘Where is my freedom of thought?’ ‘ Where is my freedom of speech?’ ‘My life, is it livable?’ ‘What’s going on in the political prisons?”
What if we women took all the energy we spend thinking about how much we suck, and put it into getting fair wages? Reducing discrimination? Acquiring affordable daycare? Reducing poverty?
You only have so much time. How do you want to spend it?
As I’ve mentioned before, we often trust a leader, follow advice, or buy a product based more on who we want to be than on what we want to do. In other words, we pay for useless diet advice from someone who was born with an extremely fast metabolism, rather than taking the advice of our average-sized friend who lost 30 pounds through real, reproducible steps.
The role of natural charisma in the stories of “self-made” success stories always irritates me, because it’s generally unstated in the public narrative. For that reason, I tend to feel a lot more comfortable when persons in the public eye acknowledge how much their beauty and charisma accelerated their success. (Here’s two examples: Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, and Barbara Corcoran, the real estate mogul.)
So, we’ve established that super-hot and/or charming people can sell ice to Eskimos. The Eskimos don’t need the ice; what they need is to be near those people.
But, there are other ways to lead, market, promote, and be successful. After all, Michael Bloomberg did not become a billionaire businessman with movie-star looks and charm.
Beth Grant has some interesting things to say about this subject. Here’s a summary of some of her online talks:
Everyone has a different style of personality, and a different ability to influence and engage others. For example:
Charismatic – People buy from you because they want to be near you
Conversational – People buy from you because you’re a good speaker and they want to talk with and listen to you
Content – People buy from you because they want your content
In addition, every person has a natural “persuasion power.” They may be a Guru/Star, a Wisdom Guide (think: therapist, life coach), or a Connector/ Supporter.
Beth Grant says that most advice on sales and marketing is written by and for Charismatic Guru-Stars. So, if your personal style is something else, like a Conversational Wisdom Guide, when you try to use a hard-sell “Charismatic” technique, it will not seem authentic to your audience. Your audience will be turned off by your pitch, because they won’t want to buy from someone who’s fake. According to Ms. Grant, in order to succeed at sales and promotion, you need to use a sales technique that is in alignment with your influence style and personality.
What kind of sales techniques work for the other style and personality combinations? I have no idea, as that’s the info she has behind the paywall. Still, it’s an interesting jumping-off point.
In our own lives, we can surely think of folks who work in helping professions and do a great job, but are barely able to keep the electricity on. And then there are other people, also very caring, also with a goal of helping others, but whose businesses are prospering. What are they doing differently? Looking at the differences in their approaches may be instructive for our own pursuits.