Posts Tagged ‘nonconformist’

Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can have it all, but we can’t.

That’s really what priorities are all about. If we could have it all, we wouldn’t have to set priorities because we could do all the things. We’d have infinite resources: enough money to pay for life’s necessities and that trip to Bali and five new outfits and front row seats on Broadway. Enough time for a demanding career and friends and a relationship and a second job and kids and pets and vacations and hobbies and volunteering. Enough energy and brain space to keep track of it all.

The media tells us stories about how we can have it all. But the media lies. Penelope Trunk has written a few essays recently about high-powered career women–using Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg as her examples–and how they don’t ever see their kids. Because in order to be that high-powered, it’s necessary to work something like 100-hour weeks. That’s more than fourteen hours every day of the week. So really, there’s very little time for anything else. My first instinct is to think, wow, those two women are among the most important in the Silicon Valley, and they have kids too, so they really do have it all. But they don’t. They’ve set priorities that have led them to where they are, and priorities always involve a trade-off.

  How many hours a day do you think she practices?                                                                                     Photo Credit: Melissa Maples via Compfight cc

It’s so much sexier to talk about priorities in terms of what you can accomplish with them, as opposed to what you have to give up. But the accomplishment and sacrifice come together. Do you remember that movie from the ‘80s, The Competition? It followed a group of professional pianists through a concerto competition, and it shows this idea so clearly. All of these pianists are so talented and accomplished, and in order to be excelling at such a high level, their lives consist almost entirely of practice and music and more practice and their coaches and travel and practice. One of the main plotlines is about how the two protagonists are reluctant to have a romantic affair together because it will take away from the necessary focus and drive to win the competition.

Priorities are set based on how much we want something, but they are also set based on what we’re willing to do without. You’re willing to not have much of a normal social life? Then you can be a concert pianist. You’re willing to not see your kids very often? Then you can be a high-powered CEO. Most of us don’t have choices that are quite as extreme, but the core principle remains the same.

We often forget the trade-offs other people are making. People used to think I was really lucky to be working only part-time at my music teaching business. And I felt very lucky. I was doing work I loved and felt made a difference, and I had time to spare for my personal creative projects. But I was also constantly worried about money and the sustainability of my business model as the price of living kept increasing. I didn’t have a company behind me that provided paid sick days and cheap health insurance and retirement matching. The worry and the skimping were worth it to me in order to have a life focused on artistic pursuits, but I was very aware of the choice I was making. And everyone has made similar compromises somewhere along the line.

We can’t have it all. Nobody can, and that’s okay, as long as we don’t buy into the myth. What’s fabulous is that we get to decide what is most important to us and make our life choices accordingly. We don’t need to have it all in order to lead happy and fulfilled lives. We just need to understand where our priorities lie.

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“I aspire to eccentricity,” I said recently at a party. “By the time I reach my sixties, I want to claim it completely. I want to be a full-blown eccentric.”

It takes a special kind of strength to claim our eccentricity, to go against social norms and expectations, to wave the weird flag. There’s a subculture in the US, consisting of artistic types, unconventional types, adventurous types, and free spirits, who consider the statement “You’re weird” to be one of the highest compliments. It’s a reclamation of words that cut to the bone on the elementary school playground.

What’s interesting about being a free spirit, or a rebel, or any of these other labels, is that there isn’t one way to do it. We talked a couple of years ago about Hollywood’s depictions of free spirits as spacy, often irresponsible, Bohemian, manic pixie dream girls. But allowing ourselves to fit into these pre-constructed molds is an inherent act of conformity. In order to truly be a free spirit, to claim that eccentricity within, we do ourselves a disservice if we follow the map society hands us. “Here’s what you’re supposed to be if you’re a free spirit.” Ha! When the whole point is to decide for yourself.

We are held back by these maps, by these preconceptions. The well-honed ability of human beings to practice self-deception will never cease to amaze me. I am so good at it, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It is only when these maps, these boundaries, and these assumptions are challenged that we can begin to truly cultivate ourselves, eccentricities and all. Otherwise, not only do we limit the choices in our stories to a much more narrow band than necessary, but we fail to know ourselves.

Photo by H Koppdelaney

If we look at what lurks underneath this disconnect, we’ll often find fear. Fear of being different. Fear of not being loved. Fear of change. Fear of loss of safety. Fear of having to confront hard truths, of being stuck into the red hot forge until we become malleable enough to be re-shaped and see more clearly.

In order to know ourselves, in order to discover what shape our eccentricities will take, we have to walk into the fear. We have to gently nudge ourselves forward, and we have to experience the pain that comes with seeing that reality does not always conform with our expectations, our beliefs, and our desires. Claiming eccentricity fully means spending our lives exploring, both what it means to be us and how that intersects with the rest of the world. It means ignoring that innate desire to mirror what and who is around us. It means thinking instead of automatically agreeing. It means creating a ripple of discomfort around ourselves, and perhaps learning to defuse it somewhat with humor, charisma, and tact (and sometimes choosing purposefully to let the discomfort stand). It means choosing how we express ourselves.

What we find when we strip ourselves down, layer by layer, is true eccentricity. A lot of people call this authenticity. I think maybe it’s the same thing, only authenticity sounds more noble. It’s simultaneously a loss of innocence and a rebirth of innocence. Nothing is the way it seemed–not society, not the people we know, not even ourselves. (Get stuck here and you achieve bitterness, disillusionment, cynicism.)

Beyond it, though, lies the innocence of being connected to ourselves in the moment. The innocence of “I am.” The innocence of the joy that is generated by living in harmony with who we are.

I made a joke at a party. But this is really what I meant. There’s something a little eccentric about that, don’t you think?

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All people are the same, and all people are different.

I think sometimes we tend to get into trouble when we forget one (or both) of these statements. Holding both of these ideas in mind at the same time definitely exercises our ability to doublethink, but they are not as mutually exclusive as they might first sound.

Photo by Leo Reynolds

All people are the same.

We are born, we grow older, we die. We get hungry, tired, hot and cold. We feel pain, both physical and emotional.

We want. We want to be loved, we want to obtain safety. We want to stop feeling scared and uncomfortable. We want meaning, whether that be through myth, religion, stories, or science. (Or all of the above.) Some of us want stuff, some of us want intangibles, but most of us want something. And what we think we want and what we actually want is only sometimes the same.

All people are different.

We come from different backgrounds, geographical locations, religious beliefs. We have different bodies, different skin colors, different hair, and different health problems. We have different eccentricities, idiosyncracies, passions, likes and dislikes, loves and hates. We’re skilled and unskilled at different things. Our brains don’t all work exactly the same way either.

We have different memories, even of the same event. We have different ways of communicating. We have different opinions, different eating habits, different ways of conducting relationships. We have different needs and different desires and different ways of expressing ourselves. We have different tastes in style and pets and child-rearing and financial management and music and transportation.

We have different stories, different baggage, and different wounds. All of which lead to different life choices, some of which work for us and some of which don’t.

We are simultaneously the same and different.

When we forget we are the same, we may feel alienated or isolated. We may turn another person or group of people into the Other. We may think we’re better than everyone else, or that we’re not worth the air we’re breathing.

When we forget we are different, we may impose our own life choices on other people. We may become visibly judgmental. We may make inaccurate assumptions and stifle other people’s voices. We may forget there are other points of view.

There is a universality to the human experience, but the details are always different–sometimes very different and sometimes only a little different. We try to understand each other with mixed success. And we forget the following important truth.

You are not me. But we are both human together.


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I had a topic all ready to write about today, but I’m throwing it out the window, and instead I’m going to talk about the recent New York Times editorial “The Busy Trap” that people have been sharing like crazy. Sometimes extremely busy people, which is giving the entire conversation an extra dose of (unintentional?) humor.

I am actually very torn by the idea of the culture of busyness that apparently is not just a Silicon Valley thing (although I can’t pretend to be very surprised it also lives in places like Manhattan). First off, the whole conversation automatically comes from a place of privilege–people who can choose whether or not to be busy because they have time that is not taken up with working to support their families or working insane hours so they will not be fired (and I’m sure there are other examples you can think of).

That being said, it’s still an interesting cultural phenomenon for many of those in the middle class. I’ve certainly seen it countless times here in the Bay Area. And on the one hand, I’m impressed by the busy (which is, after all, partly the point), while on the other hand, it irritates me to no end.

Busy busy.

Sometimes, after all, the busy is really cool. I admire people who have decided to embrace their passions, or go out and change the world, or meet tons of fascinating people, or travel around the world. Their social calendars sound exciting, and when you ask them, at the occasional party, what they’ve been up to, they always have something to say beyond, “Eh. I work. And then I don’t work.” There is a certain energy some of these people have that can be quite intoxicating, as they catapult from event to event and obligation to hobby. And I’m really happy for them and encourage them to follow their dreams.

But on the flip side, it’s hard to become Friends with a capital F with these busy people. Because all those activities take time, and it has to come from somewhere. And when you try to get together and have to schedule a month ahead…to have dinner…and there’s not even kids or babysitters or anything involved…and this happens every time you try to schedule…well, it becomes an obstacle. And it is difficult to build intimacy with local friends who you are not able to see once a month or so, at least during some formative period at the beginning of the friendship (honestly I’d say every other week, but Silicon Valley has forced me to adapt my expectations).

I am not busy. Not like that. I have my weeks that go off the rails, and I travel a fair amount, but here is my secret. I like not being busy. I like having time when I’m sitting around thinking. I like having lazy Sundays when I sleep in, take my dog to the park, read a novel, and maybe go out for sushi in the evening. I like having time to write this blog. I like having time to notice what’s going on around me, and I like silence, and I like days when I have nothing scheduled. And sometimes at parties, all I have to say is, “Well, I’ve been writing.”

Not to give you the wrong idea. I still have stuff I have to get done, obligations to meet, appointments to keep, projects going full swing. I vigilantly guard my writing time, even when I’m invited to do fun stuff. But it’s a very different pace. It is definitely a privilege.

And I have the time to appreciate that.

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When I was in high school, I was very jealous of my classmates who already knew what they were going to do with their lives.

My father knew from childhood he wanted to be a scientist. He went straight from college to a PhD program in chemistry, and from there worked for a total of two or three companies. He worked at the same company for my entire childhood. My mother went straight from college to earning her teaching credential. She quit teaching when she became pregnant with my older sister.

I knew from age seven that I wanted to be a writer. In my clarity I was following in my dad’s footsteps, right? Only not so much. Imagine my alarm, at age ten or eleven, when I somehow began to think I wasn’t allowed to be a writer. Did my parents tell me this? I don’t remember. All I remember is that I knew I couldn’t be a writer because it wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t be able to earn money by doing it, and then I wouldn’t be able to afford the asthma medication I took daily. I was really upset until I soothed myself with the thought that I could always become a librarian.

From this point on, I didn’t feel like I knew what I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be a lawyer or a doctor. I wasn’t so sure about being a classroom teacher. I didn’t want to be a scientist. All of the exciting-sounding jobs in books were, I discovered, also impractical. So I decided to become a musician.

I know. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I’m so grateful I thought it anyway.

Photo by M.G. Kafkas

There’s a common line of thinking: “Follow your passion.” I don’t think this is bad advice, but I think it’s incomplete. I would say, follow your passion, BUT:

  • It may be hard to figure out what your passion is. Not everyone is born knowing in their bones what they want to do. And if you grow up exposed to limited career and life options, you might need to go digging to even become aware of the possibilities.
  • You may not be able to make a living following your passion. But you may have to try it to discover whether this is true or not. And the results may surprise you.
  • You might be able to make a living, but you might also have to compromise on your lifestyle. Some people don’t want to do this. Either choice is completely valid.
  • You may be perfectly happy not feeling passionate about your career. This doesn’t mean you can’t follow your passion anyway. I knew a dental receptionist who went sky diving every weekend because that was her true passion. I know writers who get up early or stay up late to squeeze in writing time. I know musicians who participate in community theater or play in bands by night.
  • Some people have more than one passion. So if you follow one and it doesn’t work out, you might want to fish around in your brain and see if you can discover another one.

There is no one right way to follow our passions. There are an infinite number of ways, and our job is to figure out which way we will follow right now.

How do you follow your passion in your life?

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Elizabeth Bear recently wrote an essay in which she stated her intention to try not to self-denigrate herself out loud. You should go read it because it is thought-provoking and also because she references Sondheim in an awesome way, and who doesn’t love that?

That being said, it was a painful essay to read, at least for me. Yes, a great step would be for people to keep those tenacious feelings of self loathing to themselves so they don’t model them for others. Perhaps without the vocalization and implicit validation of those feelings, they will even lessen over time. But I can’t help but see the tragedy that those feelings of self-hatred and self belittlement are so prevalent in the first place.

In the comments section for the post, there is some mention of bragging, and how terrible it would be if one were to accidentally brag. (Okay, that’s not actually what is said, but that’s how it translated in my own head.) I mean, really, didn’t you know the world will END if you brag? Especially if you are a woman. Heaven forbid that you actually appreciate something awesome about yourself and want to share it with others. Heaven forbid that you give yourself a public pat on the back like I did last week. (And yes, I felt fairly uncomfortable about doing that, which was a signal to myself that it was important to do.) Humility is a great trait to embrace, but according to a recent Psychology Today blog post, “humble people are not self-deprecating but rather accurate in how they regard and present themselves.” And that is a big difference indeed.

I see this kind of unproductive behavior all the time. I talked to a friend this weekend who knows she is under charging for her valuable services. This is not the first friend I’ve talked to with this problem. I’ve talked to award-winning writers who are convinced they suck. On Twitter, a friend was talking about her husband, and how he gets a fabulous performance review every time at work, and then within a week or so he’s already back to worrying about how he’s doing. So many of us have so much trouble embracing our strengths and talents and believing in ourselves.

I recently read some blogging advice that said that in every post, you should be revealing all of your own weaknesses and mess-ups and personal disasters because that is what people like to read. And it’s true, there is a certain appealing rawness to that sort of writing, and certainly it’s not always the most helpful or communicative (or honest) to set oneself up as perfect. But aren’t success stories also instructive? Do I really have to focus only on the parts of me I don’t like in order to engage an audience? We as a culture seem to have this idea that we aren’t allowed to acknowledge our own awesomeness. Instead we wallow in insecurity and resentment, and at our low point, we try to tear other people down because we can’t raise ourselves up.

Photo by Kate McCarthy

Well, screw that! I love that Elizabeth Bear shows how this kind of behavior doesn’t just hurt ourselves, it hurts the people for whom we are role models–it is particularly brilliant because it tricks people into healthier behavior by playing on their concern for others. But can we take it a step further? Let’s have this concern for ourselves. Let’s acknowledge when we do something well, or when we come through in a difficult situation, or when we face our fears and do important work anyway. Let’s acknowledge that we are allowed to have something to say, that we are allowed to have opinions, that we are allowed to value our own expertise. Let’s acknowledge that we are worth it.

And let’s all take a moment to brag and celebrate our own awesomeness. (Oh, the horror!) Leave me a comment and tell me something amazing about you. It can be something small, like the way you rocked your To-Do list yesterday, or it can be something large, like how you raised millions of dollars for charity. Tell me how great you look in that outfit, or how many books you read last year, or the amazing high score you got on your GRE/SAT/whatever test you want. Tell me about the awards you’ve been nominated for (or won!), or the way you totally helped someone out, or how you met one of your goals. The sky is the limit, and the only rule is, you have to brag. About yourself.

I’ll start us off. I sold six stories in my first year of selling anything at all. I am super smart. I have a great smile. I spend most of my time doing things that I love and/or really care about. I read thirty books in the past three months. I am a passionate and dedicated blogger. I am an intellectual bad ass.

Yeesh, that was uncomfortable. And now it’s your turn. Guilt-free bragging! Who’s with me?

I can’t wait to read about how amazing you all are.

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When I announced the Backbone Project two weeks ago, I expected to get some practice at writing essays that weren’t terribly conciliatory, at responding to people who disagreed with me, and at addressing subjects that I might normally hesitate to talk about. And I was right, to a point; I did in fact get practice in all of the above. But I learned a lot more than I anticipated.

First off, I learned that Ferrett is right (which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to many of you). Here I’ve been spending all this energy softening the expression of my viewpoints and trying my hardest to keep everyone happy, and it turns out that’s not so interesting. People respond more when I’m less nice, less perfection-geared, and less careful, as you can see from the amazing comment threads on all three of the Backbone Project essays.

Also, when people disagree with me or even dislike me, I don’t spontaneously combust into flames. Instead, I have a feeling of strength. There’s something bracingly exciting about saying: This is who I am, and this is where I stand. You don’t have to agree with me, but here I am, like it or not.

In a small, private-ish corner of the internet, I even stirred up a tiny hornet’s nest. Yes, indeed, there were all sorts of strangers saying, among other things, how judgmental and smug I am, how if I’ve had problems with not drinking, it must be because of my attitude (otherwise known as victim blaming, but whatever), and that it is completely not a big deal to not drink. At first, I felt terrible. I should have chosen my words more carefully. I was an awful person, both to write such an essay and to not want to drink in the first place. That second assertion snapped me out of it and instead I felt defensive. They hadn’t read my essay! They definitely hadn’t read the comments following it. They didn’t understand. For awhile, I yo-yoed between the two states.

And then I realized it wasn’t a big deal. The conversation wasn’t even about me. Anybody who no longer liked me or no longer wanted to read my blog probably wasn’t my friend or ideal reader in the first place. “Congratulations,” my husband said. “Having people tear you apart on the internet means you’ve leveled up. You have more influence now.” Oh. Who knew?

Meanwhile, I was busy being educated, and the remaining small rough patch of alienation caused by not drinking alcohol was being healed as I found solidarity in a completely unexpected way. As all of you shared the ways in which you are different, told your stories about being child free or hating to be photographed, not wearing shoes and being vegetarian/vegan, not driving and being polyamorous, I began to feel not so much held apart by my differences as brought closer to all of you who have had similar struggles. Indeed, our differences became something we have in common. I learned so much from all three conversations, and I’m looking forward to many more.

Of course, while my goal for the Backbone Project was to write three essays, in reality the project is ongoing, which is great, because it supports what I’m doing in the rest of my life as well. I’m going to keep trying to avoid the wishy-washy and to write strongly and bravely. I know I won’t always succeed, but my guess is that the more I do it, the better I will become.

And remember, you have until tonight to send me links to your own Backbone Project essays. There have been some really awesome posts going up this last week, and I can’t wait to share them with everybody!

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