Monthly Archives: March 2012

Jennifer Lawrence too fat to play Katniss? Really?

The other weekend I happily plunked myself down in the near-front row of a packed theater to watch The Hunger Games. The movie was fine. Good. Maybe even great. But I was captivated by Jennifer Lawrence. What a strong actor – strong in every sense of the word. She commanded her body, the screen, the character with confidence. If I were a tribute, I’d find some way to form an alliance with her – maybe even pull a Peeta and fall in love with her.

I left the theater feeling so proud of Lawrence and so grateful to her as a role model. Finally Hollywood decided to put a “normal sized” girl on the screen in a role that didn’t involve her being saved – but her actually doing the saving. I guarantee you that her leading presence in that film validated thousands if not millions of girls around the world. Whether we like it or not, we want stars to be just like us – and even more, for us to be just like stars. Seeing a woman with a real person’s body on screen was such a relief!

It also doesn’t hurt that Lawrence has been so vocal about her distaste for her industry’s obsession with skinny. I love hearing her matter-of-factly state that she doesn’t diet. Seemingly, issues of weight and calories are beneath her. As they should be (and I hope they really are). She’s focused on better, more important things – like actually being able to act.

Yet, much to my disappointment (though not surprise) the media has attacked Lawrence, not for her performance (which critics largely agree was excellent), but for her body. Check out The New York Times, Hollywood Reporter, Hollywood Elsewhere, to whet your palate. “Big boned,” “her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit,” “didn’t look hungry enough,” “lingering baby fat” – yep, they’re all in there. What makes this all even worse is that her actual ability to act is completely disregarded. The focus is on her physique.

I want to cry. What the crap, people!?

Female bloggers and journalists have come to her defense, such as these pieces from Slate and Salon. But it just deeply concerns me that the world cannot move past this – or maybe it’s a few voices that are louder than the rest. We had the “one sugar plum too many” ballerina debacle, we just watched singer Demi Lovato’s brave documentary of her career-stopping struggle with eating disorders, and there are countless other women who have been pressured to shrink in the spotlight (not to mention the millions of others outside the spotlight).

I can’t help but feel that the media is taking the legs out from under every strong woman out there. And in doing so, is setting the example/sustaining the language of weight abuse. So much attention is being paid to the bullying documentary, which I have yet to see. But this treatment is nothing short of bullying – in public.

I sincerely hope that Lawrence is able to continue to stand up against the critics — to maintain ownership of her body. How she feeds herself after all this will make a huge difference to millions. We need role models. Girls and women who are confident, strong and unapologetic about their bodies, no matter what the size.

Now that’s a role I’d love to see Lawrence volunteer for with the spirit of Katniss. There are so many Prims out there needing to be saved.

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Why I Quit Facebook

I know Mark Zuckerberg as well as I used to know most of my Facebook friends. Which is to say – not very well.

We wandered the same campus as undergrads, attending that small school just outside Boston. I had friends who shared dining-hall meals with him and bumped into him in the halls. I was actually studying abroad when the whole Facemash debacle occurred. And by the time I returned to school, everyone asked me to Facebook them. I had no idea what they were talking about.

Obviously in the years since, the world and I have changed.

Like millions of others, I created a Facebook account that I obsessively checked and maintained. When the service was opened up to high schoolers and then to the general public, I was appalled. When the user interface morphed every 1.5 years, I was annoyed. But more importantly, when Annie broke up with her boyfriend, John moved across the country for a new job, Tom and his new wife had a baby before they were married, or Mary got a bad haircut – I noticed. And I cared.

Addiction

On good days I would check Facebook once a day (and those were very good days). On bad days, I’d check it after showering; on the bus to work; waiting in line for coffee; every 10 minutes at work; while watching TV in the evenings; until the very last second before a plane took off. Let’s just say that I was like 90 percent of you. Addicted.

I’ll admit I have an addictive personality. I can spot the deep green of a Starbucks a mile away and instinctively find the fastest route to get there. I could eat hummus for days. I went through a bizarre phase of having foamed milk with every meal. Exercise routines are rarely broken.

When the rich blue of Facebook was on the screen, it welcomed me with open arms to the party I was never previously cool enough to attend. I loved dropping witty comments on friends’ walls. I loved sharing articles of interest and seeing how many likes I could rack up. I loved clicking through hundreds of photos to see the evolution of Jessica from high school kid to housewife. I loved obsessing over what someone’s status update really meant.

In the real world, driving by someone’s house three times would be considered stalking. There is no such law in Facebook land. Nope. You can creep on Deb’s profile to your heart’s content. And plenty of people do.

I defended my habits. I embraced the Australian study that claimed access to Facebook made better employees. I told everyone how nice it was to be able to stay connected and reconnect with friends from long ago. I credited Facebook with keeping many of my friendships alive as I jumped from continent to continent, state to state.

But then the tide started to shift.

More and more articles on the negative emotional impact of using Facebook started to catch my eye. I noticed that seeing the professional success of someone left me feeling inadequate. I found myself checking the newsfeed more frequently than there were updates (that’s a sad moment; you know what I’m talking about). It felt a little odd – even wrong – to know the color scheme of a wedding I wasn’t invited to and the sex of an unborn baby I would probably never meet. I would randomly bump into people and have to decide whether to play dumb and, for example, ask if they were still dating so-and-so or just go right ahead and tell them how sorry I was about the breakup. I actually thought about how many “likes” I’d get when I updated my relationship status to “engaged.”

Quitting

At the time, I was living in tech-loving San Francisco, three time zones away from “home.” Staying in touch, however superficially, still seemed worth it.

But then I moved to Manhattan. Where Facebook friends live. I could I could grab drinks with Tom, Dick and Harry; meet up with Mollie and see how a career in law is treating her; have dinner with Sally, who I hadn’t seen since freshman year.

And I did.

And it was deeply disappointing.

The amazing, successful, interesting profiles I had so diligently befriended online did not show up. Instead, their creators did. And we had nothing to talk about.

These meetings were probably the most compelling “you gotta quit” experiences until a few months later at 12:40 am on a random Tuesday. I had just finished doing some work in bed while my husband slept next to me. Instead of shutting down, curling up, and joining him in dream land – I logged onto Facebook. Just 5 minutes, I thought.

Something was so very wrong with this picture. In a moment of divine clarity, I deactivated my account on the spot.

Well, it took a few minutes. Facebook, like a good friend, doesn’t let you go easy. You have to go on a serious scavenger hunt for the “deactivate my account” link, explain why your relationship with Facebook just didn’t work out, and decide whether you ever want to speak again (yes, you could continue to receive Facebook email updates even after deactivating). Then you’re subjected to photos of your friends with Facebook telling you how much David, Jen and Ryan are going to miss you — their profile pictures staring at you like adorable puppies in a pound. How could you leave us!?

But, a heartless bitch, I persevered. I deactivated my account, dammit – which really just meant my Facebook life was on hold until I signed in again. But somehow it felt more permanent.

Withdrawal

The next few weeks were something akin to caffeine or alcohol withdrawal.

In the moment of deactivation I was exhilarated, proud, a little nervous — but alone. I went into work the next day and actually felt lonely without this “nest” of friends I had carefully curated. I felt like I was missing out on the discussions, events and news of a whole community.

As a replacement drug, I started surfing celebrity gossip sites – something I honestly never did before. Celebrities would become my new friends.

I received an email notice that @IHateFacebook decided to follow me on Twitter. Phew.

The following days and weeks were a mix of loneliness and heightened awareness:

  • I itched to log on and, without thinking, found myself typing “Facebook” into my browser.
  • I felt like I didn’t have as many friends as I used to.
  • I wanted to know what was going on in other people’s lives, but didn’t want to call them.
  • When something happened in my life, good or bad, I wanted to share it. Not in a long phone conversation, but in a short, ambiguous status update.
  • I’d come across articles that I would’ve loved to share with my Facebook friends, but couldn’t. Directly emailing them to a select few felt too invasive. And on the few occasions that I did, they rarely responded.
  • My eyes were opened to the social layer built into everything online. That insidious blue bubble ‘F’ was everywhere. I couldn’t even donate to some causes because I wasn’t on Facebook.

When I told friends and colleagues that I had quit, they were all amazed. And envious. Wow, good for you. I hate Facebook. I wish I could quit too! I’ve actually had a few friends contact me by email to ask, tentatively, if I had quit Facebook – and were so relieved when I said yes. Oh good! I thought you had de-friended me!

Clarity

After about a month, the symptoms of withdrawal seemed to finally disappear. I didn’t want to log on. I was so relieved not to have to worry about what unflattering photo was going to be tagged next, whether John got that job, Tim had a shotgun wedding or Mary got an ugly haircut. I paid more attention to conversations. I read more real news. I was more productive, more present. I felt liberated.

I could just live and be me in the only place that it truly matters: real life.

In fact, now if I glance at a stranger’s computer and see Facebook, it gives me chills. Like going back to coffee after quitting caffeine – it is way too much. It seems crazy to post huge pictures of yourself for everyone to stare at; to voluntarily update the world on your latest romantic escapades and exotic vacations; to list, carefully, your interests, favorite books, movies, and quotes.

Are we insane?

And not only that. It deeply disturbs me to know that people (not to mention corporations) are fastidiously poring over the intimate details of your life. And I know they are. Because I did. Or at least I used to.

Maybe someday I’ll go back to “the ‘book.” Maybe it will become impossible for people to exist in the world without an account. I hope not. I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from quitting Facebook that have made me very skeptical of the dominant social network – and concerned about the future it’s creating for us all. Lessons that will also make me a much healthier “Facebooker” should I ever reactivate my account.

I’d encourage you all to try your own experiment with Facebook abstinence to learn these lessons yourselves – because it’s the only way you’ll every really believe them. In the meantime, though, here they are – a living list.

What I’ve Learned from Quitting Facebook (so far)

  • There are reasons we lose touch with people – and that process is also an important part of growing up. We are not who we were at 13. Neither are our friends or our friendships.
  • Don’t forget to distinguish between the profile and the person. “Selective Facebooking” creates an incomplete and often carefully painted picture. Don’t be fooled. Nobody’s life is all beaches and bonuses.
  • Facebook is an excellent way to get lots of people to look at something – for better or worse.
  • For older generations, Facebook is a wonderful thing. A nice perk. Because they’ve grown up without it. For the rest of us, it’s another place in which we need to figure out who we are and who we want to be.
  • People really are paying attention to what we do on Facebook. What we do online echoes in eternity.
  • Facebook can be a great way to feel cooler than we are.
  • Facebook can be a great way to feel more incompetent than we are.
  • Imperfection is reality. Perfection is for cyberspace.
  • I’m fine without it.
Some great articles I highly recommend checking out:

The Facebook Resisters” by Jenna Wortham, The New York Times

Facebook is Using You” by Lori Andrews, The New York Times

Facebook is Making us Miserable” by Daniel Gulati, Harvard Business Review

Social Media’s Envy Effect” by Don Peppers, Fast Company

The Facebook Eye” by Nathan Jurgenson, The Atlantic

Man Who Temporarily Disables Facebook Account Deems Self ‘Off The Grid,’The Onion

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Women in a Girl’s World

“One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

In my few years in the corporate world, I’ve learned many things – the difference between looking busy and being busy, the fact that how a PPT looks is often more important than what it says, the value of a well-written, short email, the importance of knowing where the other bathroom is.

One thing I still haven’t learned is how to be a woman in the office. And I have a sneaky suspicion it may be because I’m unclear how to be a woman in the world – particularly this American world.

At the risk of tossing out gross generalizations, I’m going to toss a few out there anyway. We live in a world where grown mothers shop at Forever 21, where a jeans company called “Not Your Daughter’s Jeansexists, where youth is embraced and age is shamed, where plastic surgery spending is considered an economic indicator, where Sandra Fluke is called a slut for using birth control, where women should be sexy but not sexual. And don’t even get me started on the prevalence of eating disorders and the quest to stop growing in any direction…

We live in a world built for girls. And yet here we are. Despite our best efforts. Women.

Growing up, we had girl power (yes it even has a website!). We had the Spice Girls. We had Britney Spears. We had Foudy, Lilly and Hamm of the front-page-news women’s national team. We had Kerri Strug. We had Buffy.

But what now? Woman power?

Of the people in my world, it’s the very rare few who are comfortable even describing themselves as a woman. Just the word itself carries some sort of stigma. Being a “woman” is dangerous. Threatening. Too commanding and forthright. Old. “I’m a woman” carries some sort of feminist statement. “I’m a girl” feels youthful and exciting. Even pretty. If I’m brutally honest about it.

This is all screwy and maybe it will pass. Maybe it’s just part of growing up. Maybe it’s a Britney “not a girl, not yet a woman” moment (Britney, you slay me with your words!) and I just need to shave my head once as some rite of passage into womanhood.

One of my heroes, Tina Fey, has a particularly poignant passage in her book Bossypants (read it! you’ll laugh). While writing Mean Girls, she attended a workshop led by Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabes). Fey describes what happened when Wiseman asked the group to explain when they felt “like a grown woman and not a girl:”

The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.

Is it really true that a woman’s sense of self – as a woman – is contingent upon the actions of a man? Do boys not feel like men until a woman says so? For whatever reason, most of the guys in my life seem quite comfortable and adjusted to being men, as opposed to boys. While the theory goes that girls mature, emotionally, earlier than boys. Seems we become women much later than boys become men.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic and there’s no clear problem, let alone solution. So we’ll need to revisit it again. But my last, leading thought is that girls becoming women has a lot more to do with women than it does with guys. It’s us being uncomfortable with ourselves, competitive and critical of each other that holds us back.

A man loves a woman. Just not so sure girls do…

The problem that has no name – which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities – is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

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When Passions Retire: Life After Soccer

Soccer was my life, my love, my first career.

It all started when I was five and my parents signed me up for a local town team. We played the highly sophisticated swarming style; wherever the ball went, a swarm of ponytails followed. Except for me. I remember thinking I was particularly clever, standing a few steps away from the pestilent cluster, waiting for the ball to squirt out — as it inevitably would, to the group’s complete surprise — so I could quickly collect it and head to the goal.

From then on, my world revolved around a soccer ball – as if it actually had some sort of gravitational pull on my life.

In fifth grade, we were given the exciting privilege of decorating our wooden cubbies with a personalized index card that represented who we were. For most, that meant song lyrics, Pogs (yes, you remember them), deep philosophical quotes (in balloon lettering with hearts), random algebra equations, Boston sports teams or a favorite Magic: The Gathering character (yes, you remember them too).

For me, that meant soccer. Circling a checkered ball (oh how I struggled with those pentagons) I drew a few stick figures holding hands. Across the top, written in bold letters: “The world is our soccer ball.” (For the the fact-checkers in the group, I actually wrote “are” instead of “our.” Grammar skillz wld com l8er…)

Town teams turned into club, semi-pro and Olympic Development teams. Road trips turned into international flights. Plastic trophies turned into glass plaques. “Congrats, you survived the season!” medals turned into hard-fought national championships. High school tournament brackets in the local paper turned into D1 NCAA bracket assignments on ESPN.

Instead of internships, my summers were spent at a rotation of training facilities and camps (not of the YMCA variety). But the highlight was always “Graham Camp.” For the few final weeks before preseason, I would join other elite players, seven days a week, in grueling double-sessions filled with fitness tests, competitive drills, pick-up games and technical training – led by my British soccer father, Graham.

The field was my office. The coach was my boss. My teammates were my colleagues.

But it never felt like work.

When the final whistle blew on my college career, I wasn’t quite done. So I finagled my way onto a professional team in Germany and competed against the world’s best for a season. We traveled the country, trained daily, got paid (barely).

The season ended and I flew home.

The pro-league in the US was still in flux, so I rejoined the semi-pro league. We traveled the country, trained daily, got paid (not at all). But something odd started to happen.

It felt like work.

Don’t get me wrong. Soccer had always been hard work. It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. There were certainly times when I would have loved to throw the alarm clock across the room instead of stumbling out into the cold at 5 am. But it always felt worth it. And I always felt the joy in the process.

Growing up, one of the many quotes on my wall was from Mia Hamm: “It’s not sacrifice if you love what you’re doing.” And I think that summed up my life pretty nicely.

Except now I very much felt the sacrifice. I was relieved when practice ended. I was annoyed when we had to drive 3 hours in stop-and-go traffic to play a game in the 95-degree humidity of New England in August. I pulled myself out of drills – something I never did. I was barely 24 years old. And I was tired.

It’s hard to convey how monumental a shift this was for me. But what was equally bizarre was the fact that, once it happened, I wasn’t really sad about it – except for one moment, one breakdown.

It happened just as I started to come to terms with the fact that this might be the end of the soccer road for me. I was at the gym, running on the same treadmill that I’d used for sprint workouts in high school. In the row of machines in front of me, I saw the girl I used to be, running her ass off between weight-lifting circuits. My usual competitive urge kicked in and I upped my pace a few notches. I’m not done yet! I thought. I can still do this – this is what I want! 

My adrenaline was pumping from sprinting and my eyes were bat-shit-crazy wide. My childhood dream of playing professionally and joining the national team flickered in front of me.

And then it disappeared.

I stepped off the treadmill and cried.

I haven’t really played since. Not seriously. It’s hard to downshift from playing so competitively to playing “just for fun.” It’s hard to be content with playing “okay.” Hard to just play, and not train to play. Hard to know you used to be so much better than this. Hard to know that it used to mean so much more than this.

Soccer and I had broken up. And reconciliation would take time.

After a few years in the working world, I’m still searching for that next thing to so completely absorb my love and attention (other than my husband – high five!).

I used to think that soccer ruined any chance I ever had to find a job that could make me fully happy. Once you’ve tasted something so sweet, it’s hard to be satisfied with anything else. But as the years pass, I have trouble being anything but grateful. Some people go their whole lives without having that feeling. I know what can be. I know what “work” should feel like. I have something to strive for, a standard to reach. And it’s made me much less willing to settle for a working experience that doesn’t deeply inspire me and get my blood pumping.

The only thing that has come close is writing.

Occasionally, if I can find just the right sentence to tie up a piece, my heart pounds. It’s pretty funny actually. It’s the same feeling I used to get after sending a perfect leading pass through a crowd, stopping a breakaway with a clean tackle or solidly burying a ball in the back of the net. A deep, primal feeling of satisfaction. For a brief moment – everything is right in the world.

But I know I need to be patient on this quest for my next gravitational pull. I have to remind myself that when I was five and oh-so-cleverly standing outside the swarm, I didn’t have any of these deep emotions when the ball finally popped out of the melee. I was just glad my master plan paid off.

It takes time to love something – time to learn it, get good at it, build a sense of ownership of it, and master it. Time for it to become an essential part of who you are.

It takes time to fall in love again.

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Bethenny Frankel, Skinny Queen Bee-yotch

I’d like to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss… Bethenny Frankel.

Let me be completely honest: I loved Bethenny. I loved her no-bullshit attitude on Real Housewives. I loved her say-it-like-it-is demeanor. I loved that she told Jill to suck it. I loved that she built a Skinnygirl empire off a low-cal dream. I loved that she snagged a successful spin-off with Bethenny Ever After. I loved that she bares all and invites the public into her therapy sessions. I loved that she overcame a challenging childhood and “made it.” I loved that she’s a fragile butterfly and a raging pit bull at the same time. I loved that she shared her crazy with all of us.

But now I’m over it.

My rose-colored glasses fell off last night as I followed her self-promotional Twitter feed while watching the latest episode of Bethenny Ever After (Don’t judge. I told you I loved her…).

This woman isn’t a champion for strength. She’s a champion for the unyielding quest for fame and notoriety. She admits this about herself, which is a savvy way to undercut any criticism of her. But here’s the thing. She’s evil hiding in plain sight. She’s a crack addict selling drugs on the corner at noon on a Sunday. It’s so obvious that nobody notices. But the hypocrisy to which I was once blind – I now see!

She’s a skinny girl – a WAY TOO skinny girl – selling low-calorie alcohol, diet books, cleansing plans, “smoothing” undergarments and workout videos to a public terrified of fat. (Click here and you could be a skinny girl too!) She’s the beautiful queen bee in high school telling the wannabes they could lose 10 lbs and be cool – just like her! – if they copied her every move. And we’re all falling for it. Again!

Now, I know better than to accuse someone I don’t know of having an eating disorder. Obviously I don’t know Bethenny outside of the seemingly quite candid information she offers up at every turn. Some people are, to use the title of her book, Naturally Thin. But she’s also admitted to suffering from intense pressure to be skinny as a child, wanting nothing more than to be thin like her mom — to feeling, well, fat. It wouldn’t be outlandish to think that she could have a confused relationship with food.

If she were doing anything other than overtly offering herself up as a nutrition expert — Moses guiding women to the promised land of thin — it’d be irrelevant whether her shoulder blades cut through her dress, her collar bones interfered with her necklaces, or her head was severely out of proportion to her body. But she’s positioning herself as (a) a source of information on weight loss and (b) the result we should all aspire to achieve.

It’s a reckless use of celebrity.

I give her credit, in some ways, for identifying and taking advantage of our glaring idiocy and indiscriminate consumption of “she’s just like me, but famous” entertainment to make a buck. But she’s manipulating women – and many of us don’t even realize. The audacity to walk around in tank tops with “Skinny Girl” across her chest and put her tiny body on the cover of a book titled Naturally Thin just boggles my little mind. But we’re loving it! And we’ve got to stop.

In many ways I’m proud of you, Bethenny. You’re a smart, driven woman – not ashamed to speak your mind and confront your life head on. You “have it all” and you’re honest about how miserable that can be. But you have an adoring public at your boney fingertips and you’re dangling a forbidden fruit in front of us.

Please use your powers for good! Not skinny evil.

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What would you say ya do here?

I’m a card-carrying member of the 20-something club. You know us – we’re the ones that want to change the world but aren’t sure in what way. We’re the over-educated who can’t get jobs but can travel. We’re the trophy-obsessed trying to “be real.” We’re the Facebook generation, the one-uppers, the pay-me-more-ers… The incredibly f-ing frustrated group that just wants to figure it out!

Did I mention we’re 20-something?

Every time I discuss this common frame of mind with “real” adults, I’m inclined to describe it as a generational difference. They quickly remind me that this isn’t a generational issue. This is an age issue.

Being 20-something is incredibly complicated. There are many, many ways to be 20-something. You could live on your parents’ couch or you could run a company. You could be taking orders from your mom or the president of the United States. You could be overseas in Afghanistan or down the block in a Bronx elementary school. You could be assembling meeting prep binders or you could be publishing books. You could think you’re way ahead or far behind. Whatever your situation, you don’t think you’re where everyone else is.

That said, whether you retire to your childhood bedroom or a penthouse suite every night, the one thing that I think virtually all of us have in common is the quiet voice nagging us late at night after a long day: What do I really want to do?

I’ve found that for many of us 20-somethings, a job isn’t so much about employment as it is about figuring out who we are, what we’re about and what we want to do. Turns out most of us have no idea who we are, what we’re about and what we want to do.

Are we smart, motivated, hardworking individuals willing to put in long hours, do the dirty work, to rise up the ranks? Yes, absolutely. Will we do that for just anyone? Nope. The job market has forced us to be a little less picky, but the truth remains that we’re holding out for something that aligns with our fundamental passion – if only we knew what that was.

I remember when I was looking for my first job out of college, by far the most common sentiment I heard was not I want to do X; it was I just want to be around smart people and work for a company I believe in. 

A few years and jobs later, I think we’re all lying to ourselves.

I think what we really want is the right answer when the person next to us at a bar or across from us at Thanksgiving dinner asks: So what do you do?

I HATE answering this question. I hate the judgment that I can sense in how they do or don’t nod their head in approval. I hate the way I need to defend my response, build it up or tone it down. I hate the disappointment of a sympathetic head-tilt or the flicker of excitement I feel when they’re impressed by the answer. I hate the fact that – whether they admit it or not – they are pigeon-holing me based on my response: you are what you do.

I think more than anything, I hate that I don’t feel proud of my answer.

And, if I can get over myself, I think that may not be a bad thing. There’s actually a lesson to be learned in there. What response would I be thrilled to share? What answer would I love to give and then be more than happy to discuss with and defend – in depth – to the most obnoxious man in the room?

Negative emotions (jealousy, frustration, envy, hatred) can be great teachers – showing us what we really want/wish we had – if we take the time to assess, reframe and look for solutions. Kind of like a masseuse working on a knot in your back. You gotta focus and push on the pain to get rid of it.

I think I’m getting closer to figuring out what I’m meant to do. In my happier moments, I try to think of my working life as a process of whittling down a block of wood. Slowly I’m chipping away at something massive, undefined and daunting – figuring out what I don’t like as much as what I do – until, some day (or year) I’m left with a beautiful… something.

In my more frustrated states, I enjoy commiserating (aka drinking) with others. And finding out that I’m not the only one who’s suffering from all this damn whittling and is tempted to break out the axe. (Who whittles anyway? Seriously.)

Somewhere in the middle I find a calm knowing that I’m blessed in many ways, and swimming in the unknown can be a glorious adventure if you have the right people to swim with you.

There are millions of articles out there about figuring out what the heck you want to do – but here are a few I’ve recently found and that manage to keep my attention. Enjoy and good luck!

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Seeking Employ—- Validation

The other day I let the world (or my small blog readership) in on my issues with failure and success. Issues I’m hoping to lay to rest. A root cause of being obsessively achievement oriented can certainly be a fear of failure. I think another key component is a deep desire for validation. Knowing that someone, somewhere out there thinks I’m okay. Which makes me believe I’m okay.

The problem with growing up as an achiever is that you get used to receiving pretty consistent validation in the form of trophies, grades, awards, etc.

This can become addictive. And in this post-trophy-for-breathing “adult” life, it can leave you other-oriented.

I fancy myself somewhat of an independent person. If the crowd goes one way, I want to go the other. I avoid best-seller lists (what do the masses know about a good book?), group exercise classes, flash mobs (for many reasons); I always sought out the most esoteric, obscure lit courses in college and it drives me nuts when other people at the cafe are similarly working on a blog, essay, or some pet project. Cue 5-year-old Sara tantrum: I want to be the only one!

At the same time, I’m a total hypocrite.

When it come to life decisions, I’m frequently desperate for someone else’s example to assure me that what I’m doing – or about to do – will turn out okay.

For instance, one of the more agonizing decisions I’ve grappled with since college graduation is whether or not to go to business school. “Everyone’s doing it” – which should mean that I avoid it. And yet, I find the validation of an MBA to be a bit tantalizing.

Truth be told, I’d much prefer not to go to business school. I don’t think I need it and I don’t think I’d like it. But I can’t just make that decision and be done with it.

No.

I have to google “Why I didn’t go to business school,” “You don’t need an MBA,” and, my favorite, “successful CEOs without an MBA.” Obsessively. And then I have to scan my Facebook friends and see who else is surviving without an MBA. Which inevitably leads me to discover three more people who were just accepted to a top 10 B school. And then the googling starts again.

Why does it make all the difference to know that someone else made the same decision as me – and didn’t wake up 20 years from now at 3 am, drooling on some Manhattan sidewalk, sipping flat beer and thinking If only I’d gone to business school!

Always ahead of the game, US Weekly identified this emotional weakness long ago with “Stars… They’re just like us!” But I think this goes a little deeper than taking comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who pushes a shopping cart into the grocery store wearing sweatpants, uggs and a baseball hat (while body guards lurk in the health food aisle). Although – noted.

I think I’m scared of being wrong. I’m hoping that as I grow more comfortable in my skin and as this life I put on every morning molds even more closely to the curves of me, I’ll place increasing weight on my own, singular convictions. And learn to trust that it’s not the outcome that matters, but the way you live the choice.

To call on the greatest of cliches – life is a journey. What’s particularly nice is that it’s a journey without really any finish line and you can switch to a different path at any moment. And besides, to call on the greatest of graduation speeches – the race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself.

The decisions you or I make are our own. They are what make us different. Perfectly different. There is no right or wrong. They key is to dive in. Learn to swim in the decision. And be the example you are so desperately searching for.

An Open Letter to Greg Smith

Dear Greg Smith,

By now, your inbox has probably exploded (oh how I wish I could sift through those notes for you). You’ve probably received hundreds of Facebook friend requests (yes!) and LinkedIn page views (networking never takes a vacation). You’ve probably sent a few calls from your mom straight to voicemail. She, by the way, really wants you to call her back: Why didn’t you tell me over Shabbat dinner that you were so unhappy? I had no idea you hunted elephants! How exciting! Call me back please. I’m your mother. I love you. Your father and I are moving in.

Like your mom and thousands of people around the world, I read your letter. Some of us frequently write such things at 2 am over vodka after a long-ass week of work. Most of us remember to hit “delete” before pressing “send.” Most of us also remember to remove oped@nytimes.com from the TO line. But hey. Details.

I commend you for your honesty and willingness to stand up for what you feel (very Stanford of you). You made a few salient points that I’m sure made Mr. Blankfein and Mr. Cohn blink while they scanned the pre-crafted response email from their PR team. (Nice job PR team, by the way. Everyone is always put at ease by employee surveys, industry rankings, facts and figures. Clearly the major takeaway from Greg’s letter was that Goldman Sachs offers a poor work environment. Glad you nipped that recruiting shit-storm in the bud!) And I also want to say thank you on behalf of aspiring financiers around the world for so clearly outlining how to climb the ladder at Goldman. Axes, Elephants and Acronyms. Got it.

But back to those salient points. Those daggers to Sachs’ soul.

  1. You attend derivatives sales meetings and all everyone talks about is how to make money off of clients (aka “Muppets”). This is ludicrous! I attend sales meetings all the time and we NEVER talk about how to make money.
  2. You don’t actually know about any illegal behavior (phew! that’d be bad!), but you’re concerned about a lack of humility among employees at the most powerful institution in the world. Fair.
  3. Every day, the fine folks of Goldman push “lucrative and complicated” products to clients “even if they are not the simplest investments” or directly aligned with the client’s goals. Okay, so we’re dealing with two things: 1. A lack of communication skills (humanities majors need to start going into finance, dammit) and 2. confusion about what the goals of this whole operation are. Clearly the client’s goals are not the point. Unless they align with Goldman’s.
  4. You’re astounded by the idiocy of senior management who don’t seem to understand that trust is the only reason clients do business with Goldman Sachs. Ouch, way to stick it to the Boss Man! Decent logic, except for the fact that trust may come second to profit. Your clients will forever want to make money and Goldman might be the best of the worst.
  5. You desperately want the board of directors to stop the madness, push those spreadsheets to the side and focus on the client again. Not to worry. Clients are, and always will be, the only way financial firms can make money.
  6. You humbly request that HR weed out the “morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm.” It’s a witch hunt! Goldman loves games!
  7. You want your ex-firm to “get the culture right again, so people want to work there for the right reasons.” Whatever those elusive reasons might be…
  8. You firmly believe that “people who care only about making money will not sustain the firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.” (Americans: Carelessly making money for America since 1776.)

Anyways, I guess the point is – I’m sorry the firm you thought was a shining beacon of hope as you struggled through your sunny life at Stanford turned out to be just as evil as the rest of ’em. Thank goodness you have table tennis to carry you through the dark days of unemployment. Maccabiah Games 2013?? Not that you’d need it (being virtually independently wealthy by now) but I’m sure we can wrestle up a few corporate sponsors if it came to it. Screw bronze. Go for the gold, man!

Sincerely,

Sara

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A Zero-Sum Game

Zero-Sum Game n. A situation in which a participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of other participant(s); if one gains, another loses. A zero-sum game is also called a strictly competitive game. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Zero-Sum Game n. My life. Or at least it was. Until now. Hopefully.

Before jumping in, let me give a little background on me – which will probably help to explain where I’m coming from. I’m laying out these facts not to boast in the least, but really as proof of my dementia.

I grew up in an affluent suburb. Started playing soccer at the age of 5. Started playing the violin that same year. Started playing basketball at the age of 7. Started playing the piano at the age of 8. Never stopped.

By the time I entered high school I had accumulated enough certificates, trophies, medals, team jerseys, concert performances, student council votes to fill a closet — floor to ceiling.

By the time I exited high school, I’d added AP courses, SAT scores, straight A’s, varsity letters, captaincies, state championships, regional championships, national championships, concerto competitions, piano recitals, college recruitment letters, and a Harvard acceptance.

I’d walk down the hall with a sport bag on one shoulder, a violin on the other, and a heavy book bag on my back. I was that girl. I was Tracy Flick (though I hope a bit kinder). I was a poster-child for type-A overachiever. A soccer teammate wrote about me for her high school essay on 21st century Renaissance women. I’m not even making that up.

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME!?

Let’s start a list:

  • Competitive: I couldn’t go jogging with friends because I’d “have to” be first no matter what – which meant I’d need to run way too fast (the other runners weren’t a fan of this either).
  • Obsessive/Compulsive: Wrinkles in my socks, bumps in my ponytail or coloring outside the lines would send me off the deep end. Trust me. You can ask my mom.
  • Results-Oriented: In my defense, I fundamentally cared (though probably too much) about the outcome of things I touched – whether that was an essay, exam, soccer game, performance, etc.
  • Passionate: I was passionate about my life. I wanted to express that passion to its fullest. I actually loved the experience of doing everything I did (okay, well maybe not studying…).
  • Fear of Failure: On the darker side of things, I was terrified to fail.

Sophomore year of high school, our soccer coach used a quote from tennis star Chris Evert to amp us up for a big game: “The top players just hate to lose. I think that’s the difference. A champion hates to lose even more than she loves to win.” That sentiment has stayed with me ever since, though my interpretation of it has become a bit less positive through the years.

As of today, I think my achieving disorder wasn’t so much because I hated to lose, but because I didn’t know how to fail.

Let me explain.

I didn’t know how to fail without becoming a failure. I didn’t know I could mess up and still be okay. Shit, I thought I’d become an alcoholic, meth addict and high school drop-out if I took a sip of booze in high school. A sub-par grade would throw me into a tizzy. There were no gradations for me. Success was black or white. I was either the best or I was nobody. Being average was the kiss of death.

My high school American Studies teacher saw right through me. On graduation day, he stopped me in the hall: “You know, you don’t have to be perfect all the time. It’s okay to screw up.” If only it were that easy…

In the years since, I’ve screwed up in various arenas – academic, athletic, personal, professional. I’m working on the “it’s okay” part. But in the meantime I adopted a behavior that’s far worse than failure. I started to avoid situations in which I didn’t think I could “win.”

As we overachievers and success-fiends grow up and life happens, I think we can become paralyzed by success (survey of one, but an observation of many). What once opened doors out of high school can start to close them in real life. After all, how terrible would it be to spoil a perfect track record? What if you can’t measure up to your earlier self?

Conan O’Brien made light of this mentality in his commencement speech to Harvard’s class of 2000:

You see, kids, you’re in for a lifetime of “And you went to Harvard?” Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction, and it’s “And you went to Harvard?” Ask at the hardware store how the jumper cables work, and hear “And you went to Harvard?” Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants, and it’s “And you went to Harvard?” Get your head stuck in your niece’s doll house ‘cause you want to see what it’s like to be a giant, and it’s “Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard?”

It’s comedic. It’s also crippling. I coped by avoiding situations in which I could disappoint. But, like a disease, the core infection grew worse.

To finally connect to the title of the blog post – life turned into a zero-sum game.

I think the ingredients of my life produced a brain that functions, in its natural state, with a mentality of “me against the world.” It’s a competitive mindset run amuck. If I win, someone else loses (okay…). But if someone else wins, I LOSE (devastating). It fosters a pretty narcissistic attitude, a closed-mindedness, a deep bitterness and a sick feeling in my stomach every time I log on to Facebook and see someone who got a terrific job, was accepted to X business school, etc. etc. etc. (This is why I eventually chose to quit Facebook. Entry on that still to come.)

It makes me a horrible, horrible person.

I’ve been aware of this aspect of my personality and have done my best to keep it in check. But I deeply despise my knee-jerk reaction of intense jealousy whenever I hear of someone else’s success – no matter how small. This attitude has no place in a healthy, balanced life (which is something I’d love to have someday!).

Coincidentally, it was Mr. O’Brien who helped me see the light after (I think – or hope?) he found it himself.

In his speech to Dartmouth’s class of 2011, after walking us through his “failure” to take over Jay Leno’s seat atop the late-night talk show hierarchy, he struck Chicken Soup for the Soul gold:

It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.

Read it again.

It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.

It was an Oprah “a-ha!” moment. How right he was! He’d managed to summarize what I’d been grappling with for decades – and even frame it as a positive! Failure isn’t bad. Failure is good.  Failure helps us become the fullest, happiest, least-terrified, best version of ourselves. Someone that nobody else can be. Through failure there is freedom.

Which is why, as of today, I’m pledging to quit the zero-sum game and join the kids playing the game of life just for the sake of playing. Maybe jump into a non-zero-sum game where we win and lose together. Embrace my failures and be happy for others’ successes. Spread my wings and fly — into a window. Lose.

It’ll be tough. This mentality is deeply engrained in my DNA. But I have to try.

Worst case scenario?

I succeed.

Moment of Zen in Anti-ZeNYC

Learn To Be Quiet

Franz Kafka

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
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