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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Help Yourself to Success

I had to return those self-help books to the library today. I’ve renewed them twice already, which is the limit, and since they came to my branch through interlibrary loan, I’m going to have to request them all again.

I did have a chance to skim them, though, and I’ve gleaned a few tidbits.

I started with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s a classic. I know this because I’ve heard of it.

The first strategy I learned is that Dale Carnegie wants me to read his book twice, skimming the first time. Then I’m to keep it close by me for frequent study, perhaps by my bed. Bedside, huh? Good sales trick. If I need it bedside forever, then borrowing it from the library won’t do. I’ll have to spring for it, nevermind the cost. No indeed, I don’t need to worry, because one of Carnegie’s other books, bound up with this one is How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

I’ve skimmed them both (pat on the back), the latter between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m., so I’m certain I’ve got all the basics now, ready to pass on to you, my tens of readers.


Yes, yup. It’s that simple. Smile at people. Act interested in them, because they’re interested in themselves. Assume everyone is self-interested first and handle it by noticing something about them and making them feel appreciated. That’s right, because the first principle of success, according to Carnegie, is that everyone wants to be appreciated, or recognized. (I give myself props for coming up with that one, if you’ll remember.)

Also, assume that people always have two motives for whatever they do, one they will be aware of, and one perhaps less laudible or more self-interested. Always appeal to their nobler instincts.

Since I work from home with a sales force of zero, and therefore have only myself to motivate, I’ve been practicing on sales clerks -- and circulation desk librarians. Also on neighbors and aquaintances. I don’t bother with close friends and family – they know the real me.

Okay, okay, I’m being glib. The smile thing does make sense. People have told me that when they first met me, they found me a little aloof, or possibly shy. Well, I’m not shy, just reluctant to risk rejection by starting a conversation with someone who doesn’t want it. So it makes sense to smile. I agree with Dale. Mr.Carnegie. 

So I smiled at the receptionist at the optician, complimenting her eye make-up, which had precise swoops of eyeliner and eyeshadow so neatly shaded they looked airbrushed. These compliments, according to Carnegie, must be genuine, and this was. I was genuinely impressed by her precision. I was wearing my usual "natural" look, and given the two decades between us and her poreless, photographic exterior, I felt a bit carbuncular, but I was genuine about her artistry.

Next I smiled at the sales assistant, whom she called over to help me. I flapped my new prescription and mumbled that I wanted to try those rimless Silhouette glasses but wasn't sure they were appropriate for extreme myopia and he mumbled that they were probably not the best choice. He spoke very softly, though.

Then he fitted me for the rimless frames.

He did not repeat his mumblings about them being a poor choice for my prescription. I began believing perhaps I'd misheard him. I really wanted those rimless ones, the kind that look pretty much invisible against your face, but I hesitated. Could they really be okay?  With Mr. Carnegie in mind -- the assistant's first motive is to make a sale, even if it means fitting someone with the wrong frames-- I asked him again, holding out my prescription, and he took a look at it for the first time. He shook his head. Not a good choice. So instead of getting annoyed that I was the one who had to bring home this unpleasant point to myself, I just said how disappointed I was.

"You don't want to look at anything else?" he said, starting to walk away, sensing that I wasn't likely to be a sale.

"I just need a minute to get over it," I said.

And then something switched on in the guy. He took my prescription and he went over to his computer and did some calculations and some measurements and he showed me exactly why rimless is not the look for me. Can you say "Coke bottle?"

Still thinking of Mr. Carnegie (appeal to the nobler motive), I said I appreciated his honesty. (Hard wrung though it had been.) He had the decency to mumble about not wanting me to buy something I'd be unhappy with.

Then we went and picked out a really nice pair of plastic frames.

Reading this over, I'm impressed. I effectively used what I learned from Dale Carnegie-- to allow someone else to make me a sale.

Did I say I'd pass along tips? Well, I'm not going to give them all away at once. You'll just have to come back and read some more...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Expectations and Success, Part Deux
It's one thing to feel a terrible pressure to go to law school because your father wants you to, a pressure so strong that you have to let yourself fail out to convince him to let you choose your own career (true story - not mine); but what about the people whose parents, families, friends expect little or nothing? Or say little or nothing?

Did you read Jhumpa Lahiri's article in the New Yorker about her start as a writer? How she disappointed her parents' expectations for her, and that even with all the success she's had, she has struggled to feel successful?

Lahiri notes that her father never read fiction, and though her mother did, she read in Bengali, and kept her stories at a distance from her daughter. She says, “But my parents did not read to me or tell me stories; my father did not read any fiction, and the stories my mother may have loved as a young girl in Calcutta were not passed down.”  So that when she became a reader and a writer, she felt she was “trespassing” and “defying” them. Guilt. Treading into territory that wasn't meant to be hers.

What they most wanted for her was steady, reliable work--becoming a professor was good, assuming it would lead to steady, reliable work. So when she went into a creative writing program instead of continuing her PhD, her parents remained "neutral." A devastating neutrality, for sure.

She writes, "Even after I received the Pulitzer Prize, my father reminded me that writing stories was not something to count on, and that I must always be prepared to earn my living in some other way." 

If this is how Jhumpa Lahiri feels, well I can just put down my peeler and leave that carrot alone. 

What strikes me in what she writes is how much of what she incorporated into her sense of what her parents wanted was unspoken. Simply by remaining "neutral" about creative writing, her parents sent her a loud message. 

Remember the 1960s PhD candidate who dropped out before writing her dissertation, despite her star status, and despite the respect of her peers? She disappointed those expectationsConsider, though, the societal expectations for a woman at that time. It’s possible to view her decision to leave her program as fulfilling a more common expectation for an educated woman then. Perhaps her parents never expected her to have a career in academia--though surely they expected her to excel in school, and supported her education all the way. So perhaps she bowed to an unexpressed expectation that spoke through silence.

Trying to fulfill someone else's idea of how you should succeed is one kind of challenge. The flip side of great expectations to live up to, is none, or low.

It's hard to conceive of great expectations for oneself if others don't have them for you.

My own parents adopted a studied silence on most aspects of my life after college.
I could rely only on my own interpretation. To me, based on our rocky relationship during my adolesence, their silence registered either disapproval, or a fear that if they spoke out one way or another, I'd likely choose the most perverse road imaginable, so they'd better not trigger me.

Sort of a don’t wake the baby feeling.

I've come to see that there was a sense, conveyed to me through silence and intuition, that people were just hoping I'd "make it." I call it the "poor Hope" phenomenon. Sort of a sense that my parents took a look at this damaged goods they were educating, feeding, and sending off to therapy, and every so often they lobbed an idea at it to see if it would stick, but really the idea was just to get this package up and out, and make sure it earned some kind of paycheck and wasn't a burden on society, and that was really about all you could expect from it. 

Other people who were more supportive or encouraging also reinforced this "poor Hope" phenomenon. Trying to be helpful, they would say, "Look how well you've done, considering." Considering the dead mother. Considering the challenging stepmother. Considering the restrained father. 

I always listened to this kind of talk with a mix of self-pity and irritation.

Yes, I would think. Yes, yes. Poor me. I don't have a mother, I have a shrink. But on the other hand, I have food, clothing, and medical attention. I have the best education money can buy. I live in the United States. I've never experienced war. Many others have been through much worse and succeeded. Why should the traumas of my early childhood define me? 

What were the silent or negative expectations you faced? Which ones are you passing on to your children? 


Monday, July 18, 2011

Dyspepsia and Success: Are They Flip Sides of the Same Coin?
Thanks to my friend Amy, I don't need to come up with anything new for this post. I will note that Orley Farm is one of my favorite Trollope novels, along with most of the others I've read. I'm also fond of The Way We Live Now, which is frighteningly topical.

Discerning readers will note that this quotation appeared in the comments section of my previous post. It was too good to languish there. It needs breathing room.

"Nothing makes a man so cross as success, or so soon turns a pleasant friend into a captious acquaintance. Your successful man eats too much and his stomach troubles him ; he drinks too much and his nose becomes blue. He wants pleasure and excitement, and roams about looking for satisfaction in places where no man ever found it. He frets himself with his banker's book, and everything tastes amiss to him that has not on it the flavour of gold. The straw of an omnibus always stinks ; the linings of the cabs are filthy. There are but three houses round London at which an eatable dinner may be obtained. And yet a few years since how delicious was that cut of roast goose to be had for a shilling at the eating-house near Golden Square. ... Success is the very misfortune of life, but is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early." - Anthony Trollope, Orley Farm

Discuss: agree?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Expectations and Success
Somebody told me a story. A college student who wanted to go on and study 18th century English Lit in grad school hit a wall: his father. His father told him to do something practical, like be a doctor, so he went to medical school and became a doctor. He got married, he joined a private practice, he lived in a wealthy suburb of Boston. He was successful, no doubt. But he didn't love his work. Eventually, when his own children were heading into the teenage years, he left his practice and went to graduate school where he earned his doctorate in English Literature. 18th century English Literature. Because he started out "later in life," and because, presumably he wasn't as flexible about where he would live as a young PhD graduate has to be, he never became a full professor. He worked in adjunct positions and so forth. And yes, he was very happy.

Now I don't know this guy. I only know his story third hand. What strikes me, besides his interest in 18th Century English Literature, which is what I would have studied in grad school if I'd decided to go, is that what finally made the guy happy was doing work that tapped into his True Self.   As a private doc, he had a high income (this was in the dawn of HMOs and Managed Care), prestige, etc. But he was unsatisfied. When he changed to literature, he found work was inherently intrinsically motivating. (He also had a nice portfolio, equity in a home in a desirable neighborhood, and who knows, maybe a nice inheritance from the now-deceased paternal wall, but never mind. Bucking expectations takes courage, whatever the circumstances.)

What also strikes me is that success is often defined by someone else's expectations for us. If we are approval-seekers, or non-confrontational types, or just upper middle class strivers, we often sublimate our own interests in pursuit of Success.We might not trust our instincts about what we want to do (my situation), or we might just buy into our elders' world view without question. We may never question it (result: mid life crisis involving expensive car/plastic surgery/affairs) or we may finally (result: major change of career or marriage.)

Here's another story. As a graduate student in the early 1960s, she was at the top of her class; yet she never finished her PhD. Her classmates and professors all expected her to go on, but she didn't. She lost interest in the topic and chose not to. Instead, she raised a family and pursued her academic interests informally. She's pretty hard line about success. She "never accomplished anything" that people expected of her. Nothing to show, not known in a field? Not successful. According to her own inherited beliefs about success.

Neither this person, nor the late-blooming English teacher qualify as successful under such guidelines. However, this doesn't prevent them from feeling satisfied and fulfilled in life. And this is where my thoughts get a little murky. On some level, what I'm getting at is similar to those folks who dissect happiness or contentment or fulfillment. At the feeling level, these terms are somewhat interchangeable. This brings me back to where I started: at the macro level of success, visible, notable, recognizable accomplishments are the best indicators. Is it really any more complicated than that? What do the rest of us do then? Do we feel like failures until and unless we achieve at this level? Do we do what I perhaps have been doing and bring it down to the micro level, charting our mini-accomplishments, breaking our goals down into chewable size and swalling little tastes of mini-success? Or do we do what this woman does, and remove success from the equation of life? Does success matter?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Charting Success

So, while I’ve been compiling my ideas about success, I’ve been trying to be practical, too. All this with an eye on that stack of self-help books. I want to see what I’m accomplishing without them, so I can compare how I’m proceeding before reading them to how I’m going to eject from my desk into the stratosphere once I’ve read them and started implementing their strategies.

First off, I needed some way to feel like I was actually accomplishing stuff. Accomplishing stuff – or feeling like I’m accomplishing stuff – lies at the heart of my feelings of success, nestled up close to feeling recognized. So I bought a notebook and dedicated it to everything about this project.

Next, I needed to channel my favorite Type As. Since I don't match my socks to my underwear, and my long time friend who does is far away and hard to contact, I turned, as always, to a book.

Remember that list of stuff that I’m trying to accomplish at any one time? Well, cribbing from Gretchen Rubin, I decided to try charting my activities on a nice weekly grid, so that I could check off everything I was doing every day, check, check, check, without taking a lot of time.

I made a chart:

Did I mention that the husband stifled a smile when I told him I had done this? The usually so supportive and kind husband? Yes, it’s true. And it is also true that I’m really not a chart person. I’m more of a list person; rather, I’m more of a write-a-list-on-a-sticky-note-and-forget-it person. Still, it doesn’t hurt to try to imitate more accomplished people, and so I made a pretty chart.

Still copying –er, adapting--from Gretchen Rubin, I decided to keep the chart for 2 weeks. Even a rule-evader like myself could stick to that, if all I had to do was a quick check-off before bed.

By the end of the second or third day, I realized how much a check-mark could not convey about some of these topics, so I decided that after my 2 weeks charting, I’d spend 2 weeks keeping a daily log. It also quickly became clear that some of my categories were uncheckable. Perhaps unsurprising. Much of what I do is ongoing. I mean, when is it appropriate to put a check mark alongside “Spouse," as in "To Spouse?" After an argument is resolved? When we actually go out alone together? (Well, that will be blank for months). Similarly with "Parent," as in "To Parent." Still, I did put a check mark under those once or twice, if there was some issue that I had to deal with out of the ordinary.

I could go into detail about all the categories, including the ones I never checked in that first week. But I won't. I will say that despite the smirk of  the Usually So Supportive Husband, I stuck to it for 3 weeks before trying the log. I actually preferred the chart. Logging proved self-defeating. If I added details to what I’d done, then the information became repetitive, since I was already writing about it in a notebook. If I just listed things, then I felt as jumbled as I always do as a mom/writer/job seeker/human/spouse, etc etc. I started avoiding the notebook. It turns out I’m better at lengthy notes every few days, interspersed with interview notes and so forth. To record that I’ve accomplished tasks, the chart works for me.

Anything work for you?