About amy gutman

A card-carrying member of Plan B Nation, I'm a lawyer and writer with eclectic interests and a resume to match. In previous lives, I worked as a newspaper reporter, designed and co-founded the Mississippi Teacher Corps, practiced law in Manhattan, wrote two suspense novels, and served as primary speechwriter for Harvard Law School Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan. In 2009, after my boss decamped for Washington, D.C., I found myself job hunting at the peak of the the Great Recession, along with millions of other abruptly unemployed workers. Over the following months, I grew increasingly fascinated by how we were coping--and failing to cope--with our new lives. The result: This blog and a book proposal-in-progress. An honors graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, my writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and the Hufffington Post, among other publications. My two novels, Equivocal Death and The Anniversary were both published by Little, Brown. I live in western Massachusetts and work everywhere.

Making it home

My neighborhood, on lockdown

My Coolidge Corner neighborhood, on lockdown

On Monday, the bombs exploded. On Friday, the city was put on lockdown, and on Sunday I boarded a plane to fly across the country to a place I’d never been.

It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Portland, Oregon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I finished up my packing and managed a last few errands, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. What I wanted was normality – a return to the usual routines of writing, work, and friends.  It was then that I realized, with some surprise, that this place I’ve been living since September has come to feel like home.

For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very beginning, like where she was meant to be. “Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzying days after law enforcement staked out the Cambridge residence of the alleged marathon bombers.

My own relationship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Harvard campus at the age of 18, a serious, shy Midwesterner abruptly catapulted into a foreign land. In the 20th-century intellectual history class I took freshman year, our professor lectured on the 1897 novel Les Déracinés, about seven young provincials who lose their way after arriving in Paris, the price of having been torn away from their native traditions. That word stayed with me— déraciné, unrooted. I certainly wasn’t living in France at the turn of the century.  Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.

I did not cope especially well. I went to a lot of parties, and I began a drinking career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a couple of half-hearted visits to Harvard University health services with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chronicle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s undergraduate houses. An Ethiopian student, lonely and unstable, stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death then hung herself. Reading Thernstrom’s account of the systemic failings of Harvard’s psychological services, I would nod my head thinking, yes, this is what it was like.

Being young, confused, and far from home, bereft of support structures—it’s never been a recipe for happiness. Yet why do some triumph against all odds, while others self-destruct, while still others lash out violently with tragically horrific results?

By all accounts, the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were considered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seemingly assimilated immigrants to murderous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a history of uncertainty and dislocation is unlikely to have helped.

Wherever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat aphorism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many different reasons, home is not a place to which we return, it is something we create, and that act of creation takes energy, resources, and support, along with that undefinable and elusive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.

Perhaps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bombings is the image of a man in a cowboy hat leaping to the aid of a critically injured victim, having beaten down flames and tied a tourniquet to one of his partially severed legs. We now know that the rescuer is Carlos Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of personal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learning that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Two years, ago a second son committed suicide, having never recovered from his brother’s death and father’s resulting meltdown.

How do we account for this sort of gorgeous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a terrorist, we would have no shortage of ready explanations. But instead his anguish fueled a passion to save and rescue. “Cities are not resilient, people are. And, sometimes, they are not,” wrote Boston journalist Elaine McNamara. The journey from despair and loss is both profoundly personal and unpredictable. Wrong turns happen. Not everyone makes it back.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Trojan Horse

Sheryl SandbergHaving already read the book and heard the interviews, only two things caught me by surprise last Thursday when Sheryl Sanderg brought her Lean In roadshow to a theater in my neighborhood.

First was The Dress, a form-fitting little black number, at first glance unremarkable in this era of Corporate Alpha Female 2.0, where sexuality is proudly featured rather than downplayed—unremarkable, that is, until she turned her back and disclosed a gold-toned zipper running from top to bottom. (And before you get all “You-Wouldn’t-Be-Talking-About-What-She-Was-Wearing-If-She-Were-A-Man” on me, let me be clear: If Barack Obama showed up in a traditional suit with a contrasting zipper running down its back, I would remark upon it.) For me, this took the outfit from Seen This Before, to WTF. It seemed to be demanding some sort of response, though I’ve yet to figure out just what.

Second, and far more significant, was Sandberg’s pointed reference to how companies are quickly moving to adopt the Lean In model—which, depending on your perspective, could be either a great thing or a very ominous sign.

I’m of the second view. Let me explain why.

Women’s workplace initiatives of the sort that began to take root during the booming 90s—the period during which I practiced law in a large New York firm—focused on helping women balance motherhood and career. Being single with no kids, I always had my issues with this exclusive focus (I want to write a novel! What about flex-time for that?), but all in all, it was a big step in the right direction. There is more to life than work. We need to recognize that.

Enter Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon.

While purportedly respecting – even celebrating – the diverse choices women make as they balance family and career, Lean In’s core message is something very different. “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster,” writes former Facebook employee Kate Losse in her terrifically trenchant and insightful piece in Dissent “The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”

You may think this is a great way to live or a terrible way to live (and research suggests that most women with young kids will go with the latter), but that’s not what primarily concerns me here.  Rather, my concern is that Sandberg’s prescription purports to be something that it is not – and in this guise is drawing support from women whose lives it’s just going to make harder.

The following exchange is instructive on this point.

Responding to an audience question about navigating both motherhood and overwhelming work demands, Sandberg essentially said that women need to do a better job setting expectations and boundaries, noting that she herself manages to make it home for dinner with her kids.

What she didn’t mention was this (from page 133):

“Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone. And unlike my job at Google, which was based almost exclusively in California, my Facebook role requires a lot of travel.”

The Lean In website currently lists dozens of business partners including financial institutions (American Express, Bank of America), big law firms (Skadden, Sidley Austin), consultants (McKinsey & Company), and other large businesses (Pfizer, AT&T). These institutions doubtless already have women’s and other diversity initiatives. What will the Lean In movement contribute – and what will it take away?

Women with full-time jobs and outside lives have very limited bandwidth. Here’s my, admittedly pessimistic, prognostication: The conversation about leaning in will slowly but surely supplant talk about on-site child care, work/life balance, and other “family friendly” policies. (As for the would-be novelists among us: As you were.)

I can’t help but think that Lean In offers a feminism tailor-made for our New Economy—one where the primary beneficiaries are companies, not women. Through the magic of Lean In, women’s initiative costs – poof! – transform into corporate profits. The Greeks left their model horse outside the gates of Troy and pretended to sail away. As for us, we have more clues than the Trojans did. We know who’s still hanging around.

Replica of the Trojan Horse at Troy, Turkey

 

When walking is working (plus an invitation)

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

My friend Marci Alboher – vice president of Encore.org and author of the terrific new Encore Career Handbook – recalls the moment she realized she’d landed in the right workplace: It was when she discovered that business meetings routinely took place over long walks.

“Walking is a great way to be creative,” she observed. “That’s how I knew I was in the right office culture.”

These reflections came as we finalized plans for this Tuesday’s Encore Town Hall in Newton, Massachusetts, the latest leg of Marci’s national book tour. The topic: The growing wave of people moving into public service in the second half of their careers—and how you can join them. (More about the book here.) I’m excited to be interviewing Marci and also moderating a fascinating panel of people who have made—or are making—the shift into encore careers of their own. If you’re in the area, do try to join us! While the focus will be encore careers, the advice will be valuable to anyone in a career transition or contemplating one.

Finding satisfaction at work can be a complicated undertaking. It’s not just what we do but also where we do it and why. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in the context of my still-pretty-new job at Harvard School of Public Health. Why am I so much happier here than I’ve been in other jobs where the substance of my work wasn’t all that different? As I wrote here, I think the answer lies in workplace culture.

But what is workplace culture?

For starters, it’s far more than office perks—and if we start confusing the two, we’re likely to get into trouble.

“Free sodas are not workplace culture,” Vicki Brown quipped on LinkedIn, in response to my previous post.

“A ping pong table, laundry service, or free coffee is not company culture; not linked to core values and guiding principles,” tweeted Vala Afshar, author of The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence.

Core values and guiding principles, yes: I think he’s on to something. Sometimes perks and policies reflect these. Other times, they are simply an overlay, a calculated distraction.

Shortly after I got off the phone with Marci, my boss appeared in my office doorway for our weekly check-in. He was hoping to do it quickly since he wanted to head out to the Clover food truck to pick up lunch.

“What if I walk over with you, and we can meet that way?” I asked.

This sounded like a great idea to him, so that is what we did. For me, it was another sign that I too have landed in the right place.

Join us in Newton: The Encore Town Hall is just days away—on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, from 7-9pm at Lasell College’s deWitt Hall. Space is limited. For more information or to register, please click here.  We hope to see you there!

What is Sheryl Sandberg trying to say?

Sheryl SandbergSome of the earliest critiques of the critiques of Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial feminist manifesto-cum-rallying cry, complained that few of its hostile critics had actually read the book.

Well, reader, I have now read it.  And here’s my bottom line:  It’s a book that is fundamentally confused about what it wants to say.

Let’s start with the title. When we say “lean in,” what do we mean? As best I can decipher it, the answer is: It depends.

On the one hand, Lean In is a clarion call to a very specific set of barricades, urging women to aspire to the highest pinnacles of corporate and political life. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg writes in the introduction.

On the other, the book purports to be addressing Everywoman. “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously,” Sandberg writes in that same introduction. “This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just starting out to those who are taking a break and may want to jump back in . . . . This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious, in any pursuit.”

I’m not buying it.

One big hint as to the highly targeted agenda that lurks beneath this talk of inclusion is Sandberg’s statistical backdrop. Her claim that women “have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry”—an assertion that essentially frames everything that follows—draws its supporting data from only two realms: Fortune 500 companies and national politics. Among the roles ignored in this data capture: University presidents, law firm partners, investment bankers, federal judges, journalists and authors, film producers, medical doctors, technological innovators, entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the statistical frame is the fact that most of the female leaders about whom Sandberg writes so admiringly themselves fail to register on this screen. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem is invisible. So are White House Project founder Marie Wilson, Barnard President Debora Spar, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. (And beyond the book, to name just a few, we have the three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices—Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor; Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (in fact, half of the eight Ivy League schools now have women presidents); WHO Director General Margaret Chan; and Hillary Clinton—who would have made the cut during her time in the U.S. Senate but been dropped from Sandberg’s leadership stats during her years as Secretary of State.)

By none of this do I mean to suggest that women don’t face enormous obstacles on myriad professional fronts—or that the world would not be well served by having far more women in influential, high-profile positions. Rather, I’m balking at what strikes me as a constricted and restrictive notion of leadership. I’m uncomfortable with the word “leadership” being invoked as proxy for “leadership of a Fortune 500 company” or “leading a nation,” with the implicit assumption that this is “real” leadership, leadership in its purest, most significant incarnation. And, as I’ve written before, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that the most lucrative and powerful positions are necessarily the most valuable uses for 21st-century talent and passion.

That said, for all my issues with the book, there was much about it I liked. I often found myself writing “Yes!” in the margins or underlining a point to refer back to later.  Sandberg is engaging and likeable, and in the course of reading, I came up with a theory: In the beginning, she envisioned writing a book for younger versions of herself, “high potential” aspirants on the business fast track. But from her publisher’s perspective, the book needed to be far larger—bestsellers aren’t written to niche markets, and this needed to be a bestseller. This would go far towards explaining the book’s schizophrenic nature—its bouncing back and forth between the notion that leadership means looking like Sheryl Sandberg, and the idea that it could equally well mean looking like Sheryl Sandberg’s mother—a schoolteacher who turned down the opportunity to become a school administrator because she wanted to stay in the classroom. (“My mother has leaned in her entire life . . .  . She has always contributed to her community and the world. She is my inspiration,” Sandberg writes in what was for me a whiplash-inducing conclusion.)

In a graduation speech at Barnard that contained the seeds of Lean In, Sandberg exhorted young women to “Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top”—“to lean into your career and run the world.” Recalling this speech, she rhetorically asks: “If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we?”

When can we? Well, if you’re asking me, I’d say the answer is Never.

The goal shouldn’t be to impose our own choices or strategies—to decide what success and happiness look like—but rather to foster the capacity to look within, to identify a uniquely personal vision of what it means to lead. For some, it will look like being COO of Facebook. For many—probably most—I suspect it will look quite different indeed.

How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

ZERO take 2There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon where a guy is standing in his high-rise office talking on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

I was reminded of this last week when veteran journalist Nate Thayer used his blog to publish an email exchange with an Atlantic editor interested in “repurposing” a piece Thayer had previously written if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of . . . nothing.  (By these standards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky,with his offers “in the high two figures”–was positively profligate.) Thayer lost no time in registering his outrage.

“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children,” wrote Thayer, later noting the irony of having once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.

The post quickly went viral, with both supporters and detractors flocking to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally saying “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive journalistic overlords. To his critics, Thayer seemed both entitled and unrealistic, foolish in his alienation of the very people who might hire him.

A follow-up piece on Gawker.com—itself an acknowledged user of writers who work for free—used the flap as an object lesson in the ongoing devolution of journalism into a profession largely populated by those with ample resources. “Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money,” Cord Jefferson trenchantly observed.

Not much disagreement on that score. However, there was plenty about what the ultimate takeaway should be.

“When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat American lawyer, now living in England. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the reality is much different.”

A Gawker.com commenter had this to say:

Maybe they expect people to write for free, because plenty of people are ready and willing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an investment banker or start a business or whatever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re getting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.

My friend spends hours upon hours working on his model trains which he displays and are enjoyed by many people who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your calling is so much more noble and worthy than his.”

Law—one of my several previous professions (and another that, incidentally, is fast heading towards meltdown)—works by analogy:  Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself musing over whether a freelance writer is, in fact, similar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analogies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro column: Thayer enjoys writing. He, like the fanatic hobbyist, is doing it because he chooses.  In the con:  Writing is also Thayer’s profession, one he settled on with an eye to making a living at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than . . . zero.

My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a matter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Simply put, if you induce me to “change my position” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For example, if you sell me a product to wash my car, I’m entitled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and without stripping the paint.

Law school exams are called issue spotters. They consist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first identify then analyze. The world after the Great Recession is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with people whose lives have been upended by new technologies and seismic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told.  If life were an issue spotter exam, it might pose the following questions: Was this reliance justified? Is there a remedy?

Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker cartoon from the recesses of memory.

Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Sheryl SandbergThe official publication date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall, its historic scope and impact are readily apparent.

Like any self-respecting treatise in the Internet age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impassioned commentary, crashing ashore in predictable stages. First comes the announcement, then the critique, then the backlash against the critique, then the meta conversation about the conversation. (For the record—and likely due to time constraints and a problematic Facebook habit–my own contributions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My initial plan to track Superstorm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was simply too much coming in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a decision to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been paying attention and reading quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a single question: Why aren’t we just taking what we can use and forgetting about the rest?

A somewhat baffled Paul Krugman seemed to say as much this morning on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s prescription is not for everyone. It seems to be quite helpful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some of the debate’s ferocity stems from an atavistic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambition often found its outlet in efforts to be the Good Girl, to fulfill goals set by others, not to define our own. The successful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cultivated excellent listening skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put differently, perhaps one of the reasons we care so desperately about what Sandberg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think ourselves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alternately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t comfortable with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be surprising. We live in an age when the competing voices are loud and many—and often far outstrip our capacity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intriguingly, even Sandberg herself sounds familiar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Minutes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this theory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a problem not just for women but for pretty much everyone.  Another place it’s especially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the aftermath of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another reason that it’s a big deal, and it’s an important one: The danger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppressive cudgel. The danger that women already struggling–and they are infinitely more numerous than Sandberg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, problems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sandberg intended. But these things have a way of seeping in. The process is gradual. That Sandberg and other uber achievers have become the most visible faces of women’s workplace issues is, as Carolyn Edgar compellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Walton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me personally, a book that would resonate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Horror, and Run the Other Way,'” she quipped. At the same time, she took the opportunity to take the conversation deeper—to ask friends and readers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in yourself, and in society) need to happen to make that possible?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of leaning in that I think we could use more of—a leaning into our own lives, to our own values and needs. How do we decide whose advice to follow? Where do we look for guidance? Here, Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

Porridge and Clouds #2

Bowl of clouds

Porridge & Clouds is an occa­sional series on things I’m think­ing about + things that make me think.

Those Crimson Women Circa 1978  and the Flavors O’ Success

My musings on the obstacles that may have kept women on the Harvard Crimson in my era from evolving into uber successful journalistic superstars has sparked some lively conversation—especially timely as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall on this International Women’s Day.

Among the comments: My writer friend Cathi Hanauer (Gone, The Bitch in the House) made a compelling case for the myriad ways motherhood may figure into this equation, while college classmate Arthur Kyriazis pointed out that a number of women of my Crimson era had, in fact, been phenomenally successful. Both of these are excellent points, and I revised the post slightly this morning to clarify what I meant.

To quickly recap: I didn’t mean to say that Crimson women of my era didn’t go on to amazing careers, just that—with one salient exception, not in my college class—none became the superstar journalistic brands that an astounding four of the men from my freshman comp did. Similarly, while I don’t have kids myself, it’s obvious to me that moms face unique challenges—but at the same time, I don’t really see that accounting for what I described. It wasn’t that the women of my era didn’t triumph in careers known for their over-the-top non-family-friendly demands—investment banking and corporate law being two examples—it’s that the paths they followed didn’t involve the public act of claiming their voices.

Also, a coda: A college friend who read the piece emailed me, wondering if I remembered a few Crimson women she’d known: Susan Chira, Suzy Spring, and “Nancy” someone. For Susan Chira my answer was a resounding Yes: She was president of the Crimson a couple years ahead of me and went on to a career at the New York Times. (If she’d been in my Crimson comp, she’d have seriously undercut my lede.) “Nancy” didn’t ring a bell. Suzy Spring sounded familiar. “Did she go on to the Herald?” I emailed back. The answer: “SHE MARRIED JACK WELCH.”

Follow Your Heart 2.0: Notes from the Field

A few weeks back, I wrote about how economic pressures are paving the way for a new understanding of what it means to “follow your heart”—one informed by an awareness that bliss is generally easier to come by when you can pay your bills.

In this context, I was intrigued by popular travel blogger Mariellen Ward’s post about her decision to trade the peripatetic life that informs the BreatheDreamGo blog inspired by her passion for India for life in her native Canada. What I love about this piece is its insight into the realities of finding stable footing on the road less traveled–and how this is always a work in progress. In particular, this:

“On my first night in Goa, when I couldn’t sleep because of fear and hunger, I suddenly realized: I’m done. I’m homesick, I’m tired of trying to make a living as a travel writer and blogger, I’m tired of traveling with limited funds, I’m tired of the struggle, of TRYING so hard for so little in return, and I want to go back to Canada. Just like that. I don’t know if it was the house I was staying in, or the planetary alignment, or maybe just the timing. But that night in Goa everything changed.”

Another wonderful post about the highly personal process of forging a meaningful life comes from my friend Lisa Maguire, now contemplating a career change from investment banking to horse care as the still-contracting finance industry continues to bleed jobs.

“It occurred to me that this was the first meaningful work I had done in years,” she writes with characteristic wry humor, describing the experience of volunteering to muck out stalls. “Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies solely on volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to see how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.”

Jobless Rate Falls to 7.7%!  Big News—Or Not?

Plenty of excitement about this today—here’s the New York Times piece—but how excited should we really be? I, for one, am putting off judgment until I know more about the quality of the jobs created—specifically, how salaries and benefits stack up against the pre-Recession jobs they replace.

Also: In case you haven’t noticed, jobs are still disappearing. Don’t believe me? Check out the new (and apparently ongoing) series about being laid off after the age of 50 from business journalist Jon Friedman, who is sharing his evolving story in a series of lively posts. Here’s the first.

Managing Stress in Stressful Times

It’s one thing to apply stress-management techniques to the ordinary annoyances of daily life—traffic, noisy neighbors, being put on hold by Comcast—but what if you’re facing far more serious issues shaped by larger economic trends? Think job loss, foreclosure, major investment losses. Last week, Plan B Nation had a chance to put this question to a panel of experts at Harvard School of Public Health, part of a fascinating panel discussion livestreamed from HSPH’s Leadership Studio. Well worth watching (which you can do here).

Recipe: Quinoa Black Bean Burgers     

A recipe! There’s always a recipe here on Porridge and Clouds. Last time it was for red velvet cake. This time, it’s quinoa black bean burgers. They come highly recommended by me (assuming you like such things).

Where the girls weren’t

Writing

A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.

I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson‘s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.

So what happened?

Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?

My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.

As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.

That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.)  A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.

Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.

So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.

None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.

I should also be clear that I’m not saying Crimson women of my era did not go on to be highly successful in highly demanding jobs–investment banking and corporate law being two examples. And a handful of women of my college era did go on to successful writing careers–though with once exception, more on this below, none achieved the brand-name presence of those guys I comped with in the fall of 1978.

If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:

“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation . . . . Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”

That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A.  There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.

Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist.  Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.

“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.

One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”

Note: This piece was revised on March 8, 2013 with the addition of paragraph 12, intended as clarification. 

What makes work work?

Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage mugOn the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cabinet to take out a coffee mug and, to my surprise and delight, emerged with one that carried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage.

As regular readers know, I’d just left my beloved Northampton – a western Massachusetts college town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d participated in the Hot Chocolate Run several times myself, and picking up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendipitous, you might even say, a sign.

Over time, however, I’ve come to see it as something else: A reflection of the fact that I’d landed in a simpatico workplace culture.

The coffee mug incident wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I interviewed, the two future colleagues with whom I had lunch were both Buddhist meditators. The fact that my department head took time off from work to campaign for her (and my) candidate before November’s election. The fact that I love my colleagues’ distinctive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.

Much advice about career transitions focuses on the what—on figuring out what you want to do and then finding a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to counsel women in crisis? Do you want to teach kids?

Yes, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) important to consider the where and the how.

I love to write. Whether I’m working on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorption famously described as flow.

But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speaking from experience, I can tell you that I would not. My current job isn’t the most prestigious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, however, overall, one of the more satisfying.

So what accounts for job satisfaction? Over time, I’ve come to identify the qualities that matter most to me, which incidentally, can all be traced directly to workplace culture.  Here are three examples:

1. Autonomy

I’m far from alone here—lots of research suggests that autonomy is critical to on-the-job satisfaction. (One interesting recent study found that high-level leaders have less stress than those lower on the corporate food chain, with researchers hypothesizing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more control over their lives.)

That said, I suspect autonomy is more important to some of us than others. For me, it’s really important, and my most difficult professional experiences have been in workplace cultures where this creates tension. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year trying to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year trying to get out,” one supervisor ruefully remarked many years ago.) I could be writing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.

2. Balance

I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that reason alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.

It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has gotten more demanding, as layoffs and increased “efficiencies” create more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at suggestions that employees simply need to do a better job setting limits, the issue of balance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to dedicate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.

3.  Mission

A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Harvard School of Public Health—is a through-line, enriching good days and giving meaning to the inevitable minor slumps. In my experience, it’s also more likely to lead to warm workplace friendships—which themselves have been found to correlate with job satisfaction and success.

Even Cal Newport—an outspoken critic of the “follow your passion” school of decision-making—discourages people from taking a job they think is useless or actively bad for the world. His reasoning is partly pragmatic: If you feel this way, you’re probably going to have a hard time sticking around long enough to build up the sort of career capital that you’ll need to move forward long-term.

* * *

In 2011, as the Great Recession ground onward, I found myself scratching my head over a New York Times article with the headline “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.”  The piece recounted the stories of several people who traded steady jobs for entrepreneurial opportunities, launching businesses that included a Greek food stall, a wedding planning business, and an online ceramics store. As Newport might have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were overwhelmed. “I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a marketing professional turned Pilates instructor.

But here’s the curious thing: Only one of the people interviewed regretted their decisions. While the piece didn’t offer any explanation, I have an idea. Even harder than working for yourself is working in an alien culture. If that was their alternative, these choices make total sense.

What workplace culture qualities are important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last summer, I came across another of those darkly hilarious post-recession job search stories. In this particular installment, one Taylor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales manager from the San Diego Padres, an organization to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the standard radio silence response to her applications, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “opportunity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bargain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose previous experience reportedly included an internship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, firing off an email described by the sports website Deadspin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

“After careful review, I must decline. I realize I may be burning bridges here, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charging to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trouble borrowing one.”

Not surprisingly, her response proceeded to go viral, and—as Deadspin wrote—“perhaps, on balance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, asking her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me thinking about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Normal – and how the best strategies sometimes emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the standard pieces of advice to anyone who’s gone through a layoff is to downplay the layoff part and up-play what you’ve accomplished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the beginning. I kept busy! Volunteered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defiant. Which explains my decision to write publicly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unemployment was published with the provocative headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my educational pedigree—though my real point was something quite different: That navigating unemployment requires tremendous inner resources, far more, in my experience, than what’s needed to navigate success.

Like Grey’s, my writing elicited a range of responses—from withering accusations of self-indulgence to heartfelt words of support.  (I still cherish one defense: “Does Salon have no standards at all?” my supporter rhetorically asks, quoting an especially virulent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obviously not. If they did — most of the first few letters in response to a Gutman piece would be moderated into oblivion. The fact that they allow their excellent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) . . . .”)

While my Salon essays on unemployment didn’t lead to a job right away, in retrospect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me visible to people in a position to hire me. One of these was a former Harvard colleague who reached out last summer when an opening came up in her department. (A side benefit: When I interviewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the workforce. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last September. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the benefits of hopelessness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever helpful. What I’m talking about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The danger of hope is that it can tie us to a very specific iteration of a very specific story at a time when we’re far better served by staying alert to opportunities in whatever form they take. The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.

I don’t know what’s happened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morning but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Public Figure” Facebook page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the following tagline: “Taylor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the baseball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apologies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a personal brand.