Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stuck, unstuck, willingness and unwillingness--what the experts have to say about women and their goals

I listened to Sheryl Sandberg’s 15-minute TED talk from 2010 today and found it to be a good talk, albeit a superficial one, from the standpoint of lack of time and the inability to delve deeper into the subject matter. That is apparently why she wrote her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, to delve deeper into the problem of women lacking the will to lead. I haven’t yet read it, but plan on doing so. Women are not choosing to be leaders; they are undermining themselves by not ‘sitting at the table with the men and by leaving before they leave’ (thinking about having children long before the situation presents itself and adjusting their career goals accordingly), as Sheryl Sandberg says. Funny how not much has changed since the 1980s when I was starting out in the work world.

Thirty years ago, Susan Schenkel, PhD, a psychologist, published an excellent book called Giving Away Success—Why Women Get Stuck and What to do about it. You can find it on Amazon (Kindle edition) at I read it when it first came out, at a time in my life when I was really just starting out in the work world and when I devoured most of these kinds of books. Games Mother Never Taught You by Betty Lehan Harragan was another favorite: The kinds of books that told women to believe in themselves, to take themselves and their dreams and goals seriously, how to tackle the business world, how to get ‘unstuck’ when you were caught in a spiral of inaction and lack of ambition, how to deal with anger, assertiveness and aggressiveness, and how to identify negative thoughts and thought patterns—in order to be able to commit to a career or career path. Schenkel’s book was a cut above the rest; not only did it clearly identify the problems women faced, but it came with solutions for how to deal with them, helpful solutions that I use to this day when I get ‘stuck’. I recently re-read specific sections of her book and it is every bit as relevant today as it was when I first read it. Perhaps more so, because I finally understood that I have been stuck in my own negative thought patterns concerning my present job during the past four years, and that I needed to practice ‘thought stopping’ as suggested by Schenkel. Believe me, it works. But it took a long time for me to get around to ‘wanting’ to stop the negative thoughts. Why, is the operative question. Is it more comfortable to wallow in the negative feelings? Do they allow us to remain inert, to not make a decision, to not want to change your life? I could answer yes and I could answer no—because whatever I answer could not answer the question 100%. I think it is our subconscious thoughts about ourselves that keep us stuck. Every now and then they surface, become conscious thoughts, and give you a glimpse of your feet stuck in mud. Sometimes it feels like quicksand; if you attempt to move, you will only sink deeper into it. Sheryl Sandberg has a lot of good points that women in this generation need to hear, but Susan Schenkel dealt with the problems of women getting in their own way already thirty years ago. Women are still getting in their own way; but we don’t always know why. We give up when we should fight, we fight when we should give in, we don’t bounce back from failure very well, and we have a harder time visualizing ourselves being happy and an easier time visualizing that a lot of what happens to us is our fault. That doesn’t describe all women all the time, but it describes a lot of women I know, including myself, at least some of the time. That is why I want to dissect Sheryl Sandberg’s thoughts, to figure out how much of my own current situation is me and how much of it is externally-influenced. Because it’s important that her book not cause women more stress in the sense of not being able to live up to the author’s convictions. We don’t need a book to tell women the problems with them without giving them the answers, or at least attempting to. There are no perfect answers because the world we live in is not perfect.

When I was younger, I was the type to take the bull by the horns and to go after what I wanted. I did it as a student in grammar school, high school, and college—I wanted good grades and a degree in science. I got them. I did it each summer when I wanted a summer job, and got them as well. I was persistent and stubborn and didn’t give up in the face of defeat. I went after any and all opportunities that were thrown at me during the seven years I worked at a major research center in New York, and they were not few because it was a great place to work. I didn’t get everything I wanted there (to do a PhD and continue to work at the same time). So I understood after seven years there that it was time to move on. And I did. The problem was figuring out what to do with my life. As luck and fate would have it, I moved abroad and started a new life in a new country. I ended up doing a PhD, working in medical research, and doing what was necessary to advance in my profession (post-doc and junior scientist—all grant-funded from external sources based on grant applications that I had written). I came up with my own research ideas that funded my salary. My company didn’t have to pay my salary since I managed to drag in funds to pay myself. I didn’t doubt my abilities too much along the way. I reached the level of professor competency, and that’s where I am today. But the workplace as we know it has changed dramatically just within the past decade—there are budget cuts and high personnel turnover rates; people come and go and there is very little stability or continuity in the practice of research. You must reinvent yourself continually, and you're only as good as your last publication. And as everyone knows, it's a catch-22 situation; you must have grant money to get students in order to publish, but it's your publications that get you grant funding. I know it’s time to leave this organization; I knew that already four years ago. However, I’ve gotten stuck in negative thought patterns: too old to change jobs (reinforced by many well-meaning people I know); too specialized (also reinforced by well-meaning colleagues); won’t be able to compete with the younger crowd; too many responsibilities to others (a typical excuse if ever there was one—they still need me); can’t keep up with the pace of things and won’t have the energy to keep up (how do I know until I try?); and the list goes on. I’m scared and I find that strange. I left my birth country and moved myself across an ocean to another country, started a new life (personal and professional), made new friends, got adjusted to another culture, and---I’m afraid? Of finding a new job, of the unknown, of not being wanted, of making a mistake, of new expectations from others, of the devil I don’t know rather than the devil I do know, of not being good at something new. And I’m confused about whether to stay or to go, whether to give more chances to a situation I know won’t change or to take the leap into the unknown. I will re-read the two books that had such a profound influence on my early work life and give Sandberg's a chance too. But I also want to reconsider the definition of success at this point in my life, and to figure out whether I really want to be in the business world at all, or whether I want to pursue the creative dreams I have for myself. Because it has occurred to me that one of the reasons I might be dragging my feet about changing jobs is that I want to invest most of my waking energy in my creative endeavors. I don’t think that’s the excuse for staying put, but I’m willing to do what’s necessary to figure that out. I believe in my writing, but entering into the creative world is every bit as daunting as it was starting out in the research world. I want to be sure it’s the right thing, but I know deep down that I’ll never get that confirmation. Life doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to take the leap first. 

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