Can you lean in if you’re over 40?

I just finished “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg yesterday and was pleasantly inspired by it. I had heard a few things that made me think I might not like it (perspectives on children, HR practices, an emphasis on careerism at the expense of family). My reading was a good reminder not to rely on the reviews of others in evaluating a book. And with that: here is, not a review, but a reflection.
The main argument I took away was the encouragement to be honest about what work I want to do, and to pursue it actively. Her examples of how women can hold themselves back from challenging careers did not feel like “blame the victim” to me: they felt very true and important to reflect on. It made me wonder about times I’ve held myself back from challenging work, which I think was more of a challenge in my education than career. Unfortunately, lack of challenging myself educationally definitely has a career impact. I also realized how significant negotiation skills are to all aspects of work – including the work I want to do – and am inspired to develop mine.

In terms of what work this might inspire me to do, I also appreciated three key reminders: that I will have a long life beyond children and so might as well build up a challenging and exciting career to enjoy; that the example I set for my daughter of doing work I love is more important than I’ve given it credit for; and that the more I advance in my career and become well-positioned, the more flexibility and opportunities I will have. Even with all the emphasis on pursuing a career, I loved that she very consciously positioned herself as respectful of varied lifestyle choices, and I actually believed her. Her arguments about men’s responsibilities, and about the need for systemic changes in support of eliminating gender biases, were also meaningful.

So, can I lean in at my age? Sort of. I don’t believe I can, at this point, achieve the career success I might have if I had engaged more actively at a younger age. And my personal beliefs about time with young children make it more challenging to put the time into a career. And, my location: not exactly a hot spot for career advancement! However, the example Sandberg offers of her mother is very encouraging in that it shows that people of all backgrounds, of all ages, can make a decided, positive, significant impact on their world if they choose to do so. I do choose that, and am thrilled with the advice in this book that can move me forward towards whatever work I pursue.

 

On Speaking Out Effectively

I’m enjoying the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. In sum: talent does not exist. People excel through “deliberate practice”: hard, focused work on key skills that stretch their growth, repeated with feedback for a lot of hours; followed by similar work on the next set of skills to extend their growth. It is hard; it is time intensive; it is self-aware; it is rare.
Reading the first part, I thought to myself “okay, how can I apply this to my life?” because that’s what I do with all self-improvement: I try to do it. On the bandwagon, instantly! About half way through I started to ask, “do I want to do this?” And now I feel like it may be the only reasonable choice, though I am not really trying to excel or become world class – I just want to do well and grow.

Reflecting on the principles helps me understand better people who do excel: who hold high level positions, have extraordinary jobs or do anything with incredible skill. You learn how to improve yourself; you get on an improvement track; you start becoming who you want and it is, I imagine, hard to stop the momentum in spite of the hard work it takes. If you make a habit of working, and those habits are designed for maximum learning, then you may have set yourself up to succeed in spite of your best efforts. I can now wrap my head around people who climb the academic ladder, for example: they start learning, growing and excelling and their progress fuels further growth.

Relevance to me: I spoke on the radio on Friday morning. Check out the Facebook page for the interview (scroll down to Friday, September 21, 2012 and the segment on diversity and Kelowna) and community comments. Honestly, though I knew there would be views on both sides, I expected at least a few more people to identify with the concerns I raised. Great learning opportunity, I must say, and a chance to check why I spoke out about the issue.

I’ve been on the radio & TV a reasonable number of times for someone who’s not in the media. I generally like public speaking and generally do pretty well. The Talent book has me wondering what I can do to do it not just well, but better. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

  • General prep: in preparing for a specific interview, I can (as I did) consider the key aspects of the issue and have imaginary conversations in my head (or with friends), responding to a variety of questions. I could take this more seriously, generating a list of key questions – supportive and critical – and the key aspects of a response
  • Study: I could do some research on the issue; look for similar stories or related studies that can support what I want to say.
  • Set my message: I could, after the two above steps, highlight the top 2 – 5 points that I want to make. I then can expand on and condense them so I have a sense of different ways I could integrate those ideas into the interview. At that point, I could look back on my questions and find ways that they could fit into responses
  • Practice: I could practice with a friend: fire questions at me, I respond!
  • Speech therapy: I lithp. I’m okay with it, but it’s occasionally a bit embarrassing the way some words come out. I could take classes, get a coach or find a way to speak more clearly. This also could help me eliminate pauses and “ums” in my speech.

There you have it. The next time I’m in demand as the go-to speaker on a topic, I know what I need to do to make it not just “pretty good” but great.

Unconditional

First, a link to follow up on my comments yesterday about work, loving work or not, looking for my passion. I appreciate the comments about procrastination – I do procrastinate at work – and then I think about what  I do even if I’m not paid for it: write; write; read; prepare talks and presentations; organize events I believe in; take on issues I think are important. And declutter 🙂
Now: a book review. I just finished Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn and I highly recommend it as the best parenting book I’ve read. It inspires me to be a better person so I can be a better parent; and it sets out for me a paradigm I can use to consider my parenting choices. And, it’s easy to read, research-based, and resonates with me as truth.

Alfie (he feels like the kind of person you’d refer to by first name – I hope I’m right about that) uses extensive research studies to describe two types of parenting. Conditional parenting, which is by far the most common, teaches children that they are loved to the extent that they live up to the expectations of the parents: behaviour, accomplishments, etc. They are rewarded for doing what the parents want, including praise, punished when they fail. He writes elsewhere about the problems that praise creates. Parenting tends to be of the control, tell and dictate variety. Discipline techniques are based on “love withdrawal” – time-outs, punishment, doing things to children and controlling them. From this approach, children develop a less certain sense of self. They tend to have weaker relationships with their parents; lower levels of moral development (yes. study after study show this.); are less likely to obey the parents; less likely to take on the parents’ values; less likely to be happy and fulfilled.

Unconditional parenting involves letting kids know that you love them always and no matter what: your love isn’t based on what they do but who they are. How do you let kids know this? Rather than a “doing to” approach, you take a “working with” approach. You work hard to take your child’s perspective, and consider it. This informs what you ask of the child and how you respond when what you want and the child wants differ. You refrain from praise but instead let your kids reach their own evaluation of what they’ve done (rather than praise – ask questions; make statements of fact; or just let the child be). You use reason, discussion and modeling to reach collaborative solutions. You avoid using your power as a parent to overpower your child – instead, you respect her autonomy as a person and work with her to facilitate her growth.

There is so much more to the book; I’m not doing it justice here. I was left with a few strong convictions about how I want to raise my child.

  1. Rather than praise, questions or give her space to be.
  2. Let her immerse herself in her work; I don’t need to interrupt her.
  3. Respect! I want her to maintain her dignity even as a baby. I want to work with her, not force her, whether it be into a car at the end of the day or onto the toilet when she’s not in the mood. Talk with her, listen to her, offer her options, listen other preferences. Relatedly: speak about her, and in front of her, as respectfully as I’d speak about/with anyone else.
  4. I need to model much better for her, especially perspective-taking. She was woken up on our walk today by a very, very noisy car. Rather than blame the car, I could inquire, I wonder why they don’t have a muffler – are they too poor? Do they like the noise? OR something like that, just more sophisticated and useful.
  5. Discuss, ask questions, do my best to respect and hear her point of view.

The praise part is a challenging thing to shift. I plan to read the book again and keep discussing the ideas to develop an approach that will work for us.

Sub-optimal

This week has definitely not been one of outstanding performance on any front. Tired. Sick. A bit low. Unmotivated.
So, motivation: what is it, and why don’t I have more? I’ve been thinking about the things I sink my teeth into and the ones I don’t. I would like to figure out what it is I really want to do and then do it.

when I look back on my career and even education, I seem to have veered significantly off-course. I was quite passionate about my undergrad and even masters’ studies (geography, culture) but once I got to my PhD, I lost it. I wasn’t that excited about anything I studied – any topic, any course. I did love working on my dissertation, but not necessarily on any of the literature on which it was based. I went on to teach education, about which I felt luke-warm at best. Some topics riled me up (equity and literacy) but not enough for it to be a calling.

Right now, what things get me excited? Infant sleep and breastfeeding. Decluttering. Family life. Home, family, mothering-based topics. And getting things done, at work or at home. Plus, watching my child learn, grow, advance.

In terms of work, some projects interest me but in different ways from how I get passionate about cleaning out my closet. Others, not as much.

I don’t know what this means about the work I do. Is it right for me? Is there something else that might be just right, the ME thing to do? If anyone asks me about my dream life, it’s to be a writer from home and home-school my kids. I keep coming back to that over and over – and yet I still don’t know if that’s my truth or just something I say.

Anyhow, those are my random thoughts for this evening. It’s 10:00, time to hang diapers, make kale chips (maybe) and go to sleep.

Just Relax

This post today by a friend resonated, specifically the doctor’s diagnosis. It reminded me of past times in my life when it seemed people all around would tell me the same thing: “just relax!” The implications of this were many: I was uptight, they weren’t, I was upset about things that I should just let go, they had already achieved that state. I had forgotten about going through that until reading her post. Have I changed, or have the people around me changed?
I can say with a reasonable level of honesty that I probably could have relaxed some. I could have realized that I had very little control and not worried about things that were beyond my responsibility. I definitely could have had more patience and been okay with waiting for certain outcomes to be reached, or not. I could have let things go that weren’t exactly the way I wanted.

I also think, as I look back on those situations, that there was a certain level of sexism at work. I was a young, intelligent, motivated, idealistic woman who had no trouble stating what I wanted and speaking up with my ideas. I loved to talk, and couldn’t let a bad idea go by without contesting it (in general, by and large, as long as I felt reasonably comfortable). I don’t think men – friends, colleagues, supervisors, potential mentors – were necessarily used to a woman who had clear ideas and would become upset when her ideas weren’t respected.

In, fact, when I look back, I have the strong impression that most if not all of the people who told me to relax were men. I may be misremembering, but I really can’t recall women telling me to relax. They tended to take me seriously. The men, however, wanted to mold me and it seems the most important shape I could assume was accommodating and flexible.

Grad school was a massive struggle in this regard. In an overwhelmingly male environment, I struggled for 3.5 years to maintain my sense of self while playing as an equal with the boys. In the end, I am very proud of how I came through. I excelled academically and reconstructed my sense of self through numerous encounters with the men around me as I stood up for myself.

At the same time, I look at where all of us are now. 3 of my male colleagues have tenure-track positions at universities. One has an advanced position at an international development agency. I have a good job at  good university that I only got a couple of years ago. It’s not really the same. Unravelling the whole system of patriarchy, education, mentorship, socialization and old boy network that lead us on our respective paths will probably go on for the rest of my life.