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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Success: Some Conclusions

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Okay, so it’s time to check in. What I’ve learned, how I’m feeling about Success. Those self-help how-to be successful books are still in the (reusable) grocery bag. I wanted to wait until I’d examined my own ideas before cracking them – and I still haven’t gotten to them.

So one inspiration for this whole project was Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. Since she’s one of those hard-driving, confident Type-As, her book and her website, because of course she has a website, are full of tasks, steps and mini-projects for her (and her millions of readers) to do to be, um, happier. ‘Course a happily married, materially and professionally successful Ivy-League educated woman seeking additional happiness seems like overkill. She admits it. But even I’ve had a few friends ask me, in re: success, How much is enough?  For me, unlike perhaps for Rubin, my answer is, “Uh, at least some.”

We’re talking about personal measures of subjective states, ultimately, so it’s a little like trying to ride a seal – slippery purchase there.

Anyhoo, since my last two posts have been about my immobility (conflict, tantrums), I thought I ought to show a few of the things I have been actually doing related to feeling more successful.

First, channeling Gretchen Rubin, I bought myself a dedicated notebook to carry around and jot down short or long thoughts on success. With my trusty notebook secreted away, I’ve pigeon-holed any willing friend, relative or acquaintance and asked her or him for thoughts on success and feeling successful. Then, back at home, or huddled in the car, I’ve written down everything I can remember of what they’ve said.

A few conclusions:

  • People have more and different ideas about success than I expected. I expected most people to have what I’ll call the Standard Model.

  • Standard Model people feel successful by comparison to norms. By achieving societally selected markers of achievement, by moving up the ladder, they are able to evaluate their lives and feel successful by looking to their peers who are also climbing rungs. *

            *Ambition drives motivation here, and outward signs of success (material possessions, etc) don’t guarantee feeling successful, as there is the drive to climb, and therefore satisfaction only lasts a short time, until the need to achieve kicks in again.  Catch-22 operates here with the following exception:

  • Self-aware Standard model people, the rarae aves, who know what enough is for them, and can appreciate their achievements. They accept their limitations, etc, or aren’t hung up on proving themselves to others (!!)

  • Classicists take the long view. I’ll call it the Mensch Theory of life. In the Mensch Theory, the question of success is unanswerable until you’re dead, and then you’ll know you were successful if people talk about you at your funeral as a person you could depend on to do the right thing. If you were a mensch, you were successful. The classicists tend to be iconoclasts, or at least unafraid to live individualistically, outside the standard model.

  • Spiritual folk feel successful if they can retain faith in the ultimate worth of the pursuit of the Good while tolerating the problem of the ephemerality of everything in life, even the love of family.*

               *This comes across in some as soldiering on in the face of life’s essential futility (and handing one’s friend who’s obsessed with attaining something in life a copy of the Tao Te Ching.) Kinda the shadow or flip side of spirituality and its implication of belief in something More, but I’m a stubborn gal and I can group them however I like.

  • Creative types, whether in the arts or sciences, seem to need the spur of feeling frustrated with their achievements to generate new ideas and create their next thing. They feel most successful when creating, and perhaps enjoy their creations briefly, before churning up reasons to make more stuff. Ambition obviously comes into play here, too.

Everybody’s definition includes recognition. Oh yes, even the classicists. They’re just willing to be absent when they are recognized as stand-up folk. Modes vary and may include money, approval, thanks, readers, or mourners talking you up, but however you look at it, recognition is one common essential to feeling successful.

Those are my general conclusions. I don’t want to make this too long, so next time I'll get into a few specifics. I will say that I feel more successful--by writing this blog and noting, through comments, or  FB "likes" or compulsive checking of my page view stats, that each time I post, a few more people are reading my writing. That feels GREAT. (Recognition.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Giant Elephant in the Room

There's a story about me and a giant white elephant that my (step)mother liked to tell. Depending on my stage of life, I've listened with different degrees of grimace. It has become one of those family myths that supposedly defines a personality.
I remember this well. We were at my grandparents' for Sunday dinner. I was four or five. The elephant was plush, white and wore some sort of embroidered saddle. It was nearly as large as I was, and I wanted to get it across the room. The grownups were at the dinner table, and I really, really needed help. Or someone to do it with me. Or for me. Whatever.

"Ha, ha, ha," the story always concludes, "there you were, crying for someone to carry that giant stuffed elephant across the room, saying, 'I can't do it, I can't do it,' and all the while, you were doing it."

Now I’ve always heard this story with some degree of humiliation; but depending on my decade or stage in therapy, it’s had different meanings. For years the meaning was, Listen to how my (step)mother likes to humiliate me with this story; wasn’t she mean, weren’t they all mean, to just watch poor, motherless little Hope struggle to carry the giant white elephant across the room? Why didn’t they help her?

A later version, more evolved, went like, Listen to the subtext of this story: poor, motherless little Hope could carry the elephant, but she didn’t realize she could, and she really, really wanted someone to help her, so she wouldn’t have to do it alone. They, the mean grown-ups, thought it was more important for her to realize she could do it on her own than to give into her wish not to have to.

Perhaps the most evolved version is, Look at the situation. The poor old grown-ups are exhausted, they just want to relax and enjoy a dinner someone else cooked for them, and the last thing they want to do is get up out of their dining chairs and help that annoying, perpetual-motion machine known as Hope drag yet another goddam toy out into the living room.

 I thought of the story the other day when I came across a diagram I drew in my Success notebook (more on that later).

My Creative Cycle

Okay, so there’s my creative cycle. Any one segment of it can last from hours to months. The gist of it is, though, that despite how I flail, I do get back to writing eventually. It’s just part of the cycle.

If my tens of readers harken back to when I began my blog, you may recall I was in the middle of a novel. I have been in the middle of this novel for a long time. I’ve been in the middle since before we moved out of NYC, since before we had to make our final, unexpected move within NYC, for over three years.

I’m having a problem with the voice. A problem with my protagonist. I also ran into a problem with the plot when the housing market imploded. Glitch city. So instead of working on it, I’ve written other things, tried to get paying work, and started this blog, when I was feeling really, really bad about everything.

When I looked at that creative cycle diagram in my notebook, it occurred to me that this whole Success/Failure thing I’ve been writing about here is one gigantic tantrum. A productive, entertaining and engrossing (I speak only for myself here) one, but a tantrum nonetheless. A gigantic wail that starts out as “I can’t,” morphs to “I don’t want to,” moves to “but I do want to and I am allowed to want to,” and will eventually end up back where I began, revising my story.

Do you know what this means? It means that my (step)mother was right.

Digest that one.

My stepmother was right? Well, I don’t have to tell her. Luckily for me, she’s developing Alzheimer’s. Which means, I guess, that if she remembers to tell me the elephant story one more time, I won’t hold it against her.

I can do it. I am doing it. Every moment that I think I can’t do it, I am doing it. Carrying that freakin’ elephant across the room.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Negative Capability

I love confident people. Type As, control freaks, just-do-it types, who know how to ignore the urge to second-guess. Love them. They’re like aliens to me, beautiful, frightening aliens. I want to run away from them, but also I am fascinated. I have this feeling that maybe they’ll rub off on me, or that maybe by imitating them I can, you know, fake it.

Because while I love them, I am also completely unlike them. The one thing they have that I don’t, I’ve decided, is the ability to ignore shades of gray. You know, lack of intense introspection, avoidance of naval-gazing, perhaps even an unhealthy fear of being undecided. I can see it, I just can’t get there. The thing I have that they don't? A talent for conflict.

I mean, I debate tuna versus pb&j for lunch, the short cut or the scenic route, or any old decision until I exhaust myself. And that’s just the infinitesimal stuff I’m sweating.  When you get to the bigger questions, I’m forever confused. Is it okay to be a writer? Yes? No? Do I have to get a “real” job, too? Yes? No? Am I moving forward? Yes? No? I'm a muller, a ponderer, a can't-decider. Basically, I'm conflicted. About ambition, money, creativity, professions, motherhood, marriage, suburban living, and crabgrass. (Which we have less of this year, in case my early readers were wondering, because we hired people to put-- organicorganicorganicnotpoisonous-- stuff on the lawn.)

Sure, yeah, I’m talking about self-doubt. Judging from the blogs and memoirs I’ve read, I’m not unique. Dealing with the doubt is part of the artist’s job. But Anne Lamott is only picking up icky spiders of doubt and putting them in a jar (Bird By Bird). I feel like I’m trying to walk a mile wearing leg irons while wrestling off a too-tight sweater.

So my second novel, the one I sent to 39 agents, has this hard-driving, ambitious, young female protagonist. She’s confident, smart, successful in worldly terms, and not introspective. Someone with whom I could only hope to identify. So what did I do to her? Well, naturally, I had to bring her life to a series of crises. I had to rub her face in her lack of insight, to force her to confront herself, to make her change. Like I had to punish her for being everything I’m not. To justify the more introspective, thoughtful life.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want her crushed. I wanted her to just continue being herself, maybe with a bit of insight, enough to make her understand, but not enough to bring her to a standstill. There’s something so beautiful about living out your blunders instead of pondering all the possibilities without risking anything. At least it makes for good stories.

My point? Ah, yes, here it comes: my point. Let me get all Jungian for a moment. Perhaps all this doubt and conflict is the shadow side of something good. Let's put it another way. A Keatsian way. Maybe it's the potential for Negative Capability that I possess.  According to Keats, "what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."*

Keats was talking about being able to dissolve his own personality so as to enter the psyches of all types of people, to understand much about human nature, in order to portray it convincingly in art. After all, nuance is the essence of round characters and the enemy of fundamentalism (to move to the religio-political plane for a moment.)

Well, ahem, I've written myself into a corner. I am NOT comparing myself to Shakespeare (or Keats). Promise. After all, on the "without any irritable reaching after fact and reason," front I'm a fail. It's the acceptance of all these uncertainties and doubts as fundamental to my make-up that I resist. No, I'm just looking for the positive spin, just looking for a way to take another shackled step.

BTW, I'm not loving this blog post, but as any one of my dear Type A friends might say (while completing another triatholon or starting another company), I'm not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

*(The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th Edition, ed.Margaret Drabble, Oxford Univ. Press: 1985, p689.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Another Dreaded Topic

My parents taught me two rules about money, one aloud, the other subliminally.
1. Do not discuss money.
2. Have it.

Am I all done here? I mean, that covers the topic. And I am breaking both rules right now. I don't have even a penny on me. In fact, the only loose change I can think of right now is on top of the dryer.

Yes, money makes me that uncomfortable. Why, aside from the taboo (#1)?  Well, I suppose it's because the finer points of #2 were never clear to me, and because I have arrived at a Certain Age in violation of it.

Nevertheless, I have gleaned some tidbits. Since my parents kept mum, most of what I've learned was inadvertent:

  • They had a lot more than most people. 
  • Money doesn't make you happy.
  • Most of my friends, not all, but most, got through higher education with loans.
  • Money is to be accumulated, not spent.
  • Don't be showy. 
  • Put 5-10% of every paycheck in savings.
  • Invest aligned with the S&P 500 and diversify.
  • College will cost approximately $100,000/year by the time the 7th grader gets in.
  • Choose saving for retirement over saving for college if you can't do both.
  • Lack of money makes you miserable.

I used to say (to myself; never aloud -#1) that I would never decide not to do something because of money. Keeping my word was easy when I was single, even though I was working at a low-paying job, because I had a nice financial portfolio in my name, thanks to my father. So, you know, even if I couldn't afford to buy a car, say, on my salary, I had some means. Lucky for me, I also had such an inferiority complex that I was used to denying myself most everything - something to do with my mother buying me second hand clothes - and identifying with Cinderella-- but that's another story-- so those means lasted a long time. All the way through my husband's medical school, residency & fellowship, which included six years in Manhattan mothering two children and working very part time, and trickling out coincident with the recent financial crisis.


The thing is, and this is hard to write, because I imagine my tens of readers' faces wrinkling in disgust as they perceive the hard-core materialist I am, I really identified with that money. It reminded me where I came from, and bolstered the illusion that I was still a part of that echelon. An echelon I took for granted in a way particular to it, that I could only see when I landed, with the family, in a town I didn't really want to live in, dependent on my husband's income, with a certain amount of credit card debt (Bulletin: Manhattan is expensive), on my proverbial butt.

As usual, I exaggerate. My father did eventually tell me a few things about money. Could you tell from my list? When I was casting about in my twenties, he sent me a few books, which I read and digested. They made my palms sweat and my heart palpitate, because I really couldn't follow any of the advice, not even the bit about saving from every paycheck, because I was working part time--preserving those blocks of free time in the afternoon so important to me, so much more important to me than financial planning.  I'm not sure this counts as "telling" me anything about money, but he did transport the means of self-education to me. We never followed-up with any deep discussions. I consigned the info to the section of my brain that understood the Future would be Different and continued writing that novel and napping on my keyboard at Widener Library. When relaxing in front of the TV, I simply put my head between my knees whenever Suze Orman was on, harranguing women to take responsibilty for themselves, changed channels, and took deep breaths.

I never chose a job for money (beyond the basics of rent & food), nor a friend, nor a husband (alas?) I don't know a single person who vowed out loud to make a few million by thirty or thirty-five, although I know a few who have. I never made any decision with a monetary target in mind.

I pretty much lived by my most unspoken rule about money -- and this one I came up with all by myself. Ready?

When you need it, money will fall from the sky.

Well, really. I mean, is that such a bad way to live? You're not thinking about money, you're not caught up in the dirty business of accumulating it. You're worry free. Manna will arrive. Yes, you might spend your last twenty on a small deerskin pouch to remember your time writing that novel on Martha's Vineyard at your father's friend's house; but there will be a surprise check from your great aunt or a grandmother (disbursing funds tax-free in advance of death) waiting in your mailbox when you get home. Thank Sky, you'll be able to pay your rent after all.

I was recently at two college reunions, the husband's and mine. I couldn't help noticing that the money men weren't at our table. (They were sighted outside the Charles Hotel, comparing Rolexes -- by one of the husband's friends, a poet). I also couldn't helping noticing that with few exceptions, all the husband's friends, like most of mine, aren't in the money-making business. There are teachers, professors, writers, even a stay-at-home dad. People who save lakes in California. Museum folk. Librarians. The aforementioned poet. People in the helping professions. As I pummeled them with questions about success, I became uncomfortably aware that my financial expectations were different than theirs. After listening to me and reading my blog, one friend handed me a copy of the Tao Te Ching. By the end of the visit, I reached two conclusions. One, these people are fantastic; and two, I need to earn some money.

Now, nobody's starving in my house. We're managing, but I'm thinking a lot more about money than I've ever had to do. That change on the dryer? There's a budget line for it. This is an uncomfortable state for me. I'll say it freely. Maybe this is adulthood. Maybe you just have to think about money. Maybe all of you have your budgets and spend time thinking about them. Maybe my parents had a budget line for everything. If so, there's no doubt the allocations were larger, and all the lines were filled in.  I don't know. The flow was mysterious.

Where I live there's a lot of sky. Beautiful clouds. College funds? Retirement accounts? I'm looking.