The Exception that Proves the Rule

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.

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How to Be a Grownup: It Costs a Lot of Money to Look This Minimalist

I read them in the checkout line: organization porn. Magazines like Real Simple, which, like all good science fiction, show things that are beyond our mortal ken (in this case, spare, perfectly tidy children’s bedrooms).

The hot design trend is a “simple,” “minimalist,” Buddha-chic look. A look which says, “I only have a few items in my home, because I am detached and not crassly materialistic like you. Is it my fault that the few items I do have are exquisite? That’s only because God rewards deep spiritual devotion with equally deep Persian rugs.”

So, a few points about all this.

First of all, it’s great to de-clutter. A few years ago I got really into it, and my home looks a lot better for it. Getting rid of so much stuff helped me to get organized, which then gave me positive reinforcement to get even more organized. And that paved the way for me to be able to live in a lovely, small apartment – with my boyfriend – while also working from home. So, yay.

But, there are a few things I want to point out.

First of all, most of the people writing these design books live in New York City.  Only New Yorkers have to think, “Well, I bought this new pillow, so to make room, I’m going to have to throw out the cat.”

New York design is all about overcompensation. These folks live for years in cramped, cluttered quarters, so they spend their free time fantasizing about vast empty spaces filled with beautiful white nothingness.

But you, clever person in Iowa, have a spare bedroom, and you’re not even a millionaire! So live it up and get the second throw rug.

Second of all, I would like to point out that there is a hidden paradox to minimalism: living a beautiful uncluttered life can often take a great deal of money.

Let me explain. When you’re poor, you don’t just have, say, one clock radio — instead, you have the one where the alarm still works, the one that still gets FM on the low end of the dial, and the one that still plays CD’s (sometimes). You cobble together what you need out of half-broken things, and you keep weird crummy items around because they help you gerry-rig your broke-ass life (“No, you can’t throw that away, I use that to jiggle the radiator when the heat won’t come on!”).

Pretty soon, you end up with a lot of . . . stuff. Not stuff you’re proud of, just crap that you can’t afford to get rid of.

By contrast, when you’re rich, you can buy an item that really fits your purpose and needs. You can buy things that are well-made and built to last. And you can afford to maintain, repair, and replace things.

In the Victorian era, when the manufacture of dry goods was laborious and expensive, having lots of things was a sign of wealth — and that led to the fussy, over-decorated Victorian aesthetic.

In this day of planned obsolescence and Ikea, living without a lot of stuff has become, in a strange reverse-snobbery way, a sign of wealth.

It is the ‘white couch’ of life — simple, but hard to achieve without money.

An Open Letter to Facebook and Apple

(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.

Signed,

Sofia Echegaray, Software Tester

“I” Think…

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.

What’s in a Name

A headline caught my attention on wbur.org today:

People Flee Frigid Cold, Fill Homeless Shelters

Homeless shelters in Boston are reporting that they’re filled to capacity as people try to escape the single-digit temperatures.

It’s remarkable what a difference language makes. WBUR is making an effort to refer to the homeless as “people,” rather than just “the homeless.”

Once we call them “people,” it removes the distancing that allows us to feel removed from the situation. When we think of them as people without a place to stay, it shows more clearly the gravity of the situation, and makes us feel an urgency about their plight.

Try this thought experiment: compare the first group of words to the second. Do you feel more empathy for the second group?

“slaves”         vs.          persons who have been kidnapped and forced to work as prisoners

“battered women”    vs.     women married to abusive husbands

“convicts”    vs.    men in prison

“the poor”       vs.   people with low income

“the disabled”   vs.   people with disabilities

“minors”    vs.    young people

“the elderly”   vs.  people over 65

Obviously, some of these expressions would be too cumbersome or inexact to use in regular conversation. Still, it is good to notice. When do our words allow us to forget the humanity of others? And when do they allow us to remember?

Some Great Essays.

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!

How to Be a Grownup: Problem-Solving

(cross-posted on Applied Grace)

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One of the most important principles of problem-solving is that changing the definition of the problem can help you come up with a solution. To illustrate this, I’m going to use a children’s story I read in grade school:

A hero goes to steal a valuable treasure from a king. The king is protective of his treasure, and keeps adding more and more locks to the door of his vault. But the hero is able to open the door and make a clean getaway. How? He takes the door off its hinges.

In other words, the hero re-frames the problem, reducing the problem down to its most basic components. He changes the problem from:

I need to find a way to unlock all of these locks

To:

I need to find a way to open this door

By simplifying the definition of the problem, he removes assumptions that might have kept him from seeing a solution.

Here’s another example: a Brazilian mechanic, Alfredo Moser, came up with a way to light indoor spaces during the day. His town had frequent blackouts, so instead of relying on electric bulbs, he filled some plastic bottles with water and stuck them in the ceiling. Due to the refractory properties of water, each plastic bottle gave off the same amount of light as a 60-watt bulb.

So, when he re-framed the problem, he changed it from a hard-to-solve question:

How can our town get a more steady supply of electricity so that I can turn on my lights?

To:

How can I have better light indoors?

. . . . .

What can we take from this? When problem-solving, it’s best to start by challenging your basic assumptions. Then re-define your problem away from “what you think you need” to “what you actually need.”

Here’s an example of how this might work in daily life, in a conversation about a problem with housing:

Person A: I need an apartment.

Person B: You need a place to live? Because you might be able to rent a room . . .

Person A: No, I can’t deal with roommates. I need to live alone.

Person B: So, you need a place to live, where you can live by yourself.

Person A: Yeah. The problem is, I can’t really afford the rent on a one-bedroom by myself, and this town doesn’t have any studios for rent.

Person B: Well, what about a house-sitting gig? I just saw an ad for a summer housesitter.

Person A: Hunh. I never thought of that.

Person B: You’d be able to live alone, and it would be rent free.

Person A: Yeah, that might work! And if I didn’t have to pay rent for the summer, I could save up enough for a security deposit for my own place in the fall!

So, by unpacking this situation, and separating out what the person thinks he needs (“an apartment”) from what he actually needs (“a place to live by myself”), a solution becomes apparent that addresses both short- and long-term needs.