[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

Yahoo's New Female CEO Isn't a Feminist: Does it Matter?

Marissa Mayer is unquestionably a badass. But she’s wrong about feminism. (Photo credit: Giorgio Montersino)

This piece was also published on In Our Words.

Yahoo! has a new CEO. Her name is Marissa Mayer and she is 37 years old, making her the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Mayer’s accomplishments in her career are incredible and she deserves credit for them. However, to some extent, so does feminism.

Mayer was born in 1975, as the women’s movement was really starting to take off. But at the time, it was still controversial for a woman to wear pants rather than a skirt, let alone to cohabit with a boyfriend, work outside the home after marriage, and so on. However, Mayer was able to benefit from the gains of feminism: she attended college (and not just any college, but Stanford University) and became Google’s first female engineer.

On the same day that Yahoo! announced Mayer as its new CEO, Mayer and her husband announced that they are expecting a baby. In a time when pregnancy-related workplace discrimination is still very real, this is momentous. And don’t think for a moment that this happened in a vacuum.

So, does Mayer identify with feminism, given all of her achievements? Nope:

I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.

This viewpoint seems to be very common among successful women in the U.S. these days; I’ve heard it from many of my female peers at Northwestern. Yes, women can do anything men can do; yes, women should have equal rights, but do we really need to be all, like, negative about it?

First of all, there’s a certain amount of irony here. Feministing‘s Chloe writes, “Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”

Second, what Mayer said that she believes is exactly what feminism is. Feminism is the idea that women and men should have equal rights, and that women and men are essentially capable of the same things, despite the physical differences that may exist between them.

Beyond that, everything’s up for debate. Different feminists believe entirely different things. Some very radical, separatist feminists believe that women should choose to be lesbians and to associate only with other women. Most don’t believe that. Many feminists see feminism as a place to address related issues, like racism, homophobia, and class issues. Others don’t. Some feminists supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Others didn’t. Some feminists are angry and bitter (and, often, rightfully so). Others are cheerful and friendly. Some feminists hate men. Others love them, and still others could take ‘em or leave ‘em. Some feminists are lesbians. Others are straight, bisexual, or something else. Many feminists are women. Some are men. Others don’t identify as either men or women.

Despite this incredible diversity of opinions, lifestyles, and identities, many people, including those who support equal rights for women, insist on distilling feminism only into its most unpleasant stereotype. This is a classic strawman fallacy, and, the way I see it, it’s an attempt (if an unconscious one) to avoid discussing the real issues. It’s unfortunate that Mayer has chosen this path.

However, as Amanda Marcotte points out in her post at Slate, Mayer’s refusal to identify as a feminist might be the only option for a woman who wants to get ahead in the corporate world:

Women are correct to believe that direct confrontations with sexism result in people turning on the “complainer” instead of blaming the person who acted sexist in the first place….Taking that on just isn’t for everyone, even for a powerful woman who is unquestionably willing to suffer for the ultimate success of her corporation. Someone who would rather do what’s right than what’s profitable simply isn’t going to climb very high on that corporate ladder.

I would agree. Not everybody has to be Super Social Justice Warrior (although I’d like to see more people at least not hold the movement back). Given Mayer’s career goals, it makes sense that she chooses not to align herself with feminism, and I can’t blame her as an individual.

That said, I do wish she wouldn’t promote the same tired stereotypes about feminists having “a chip on the shoulder” and “negative energy.” Are there feminists like that? Yes. Is feminism itself like that? Depends on who you’d ask. I would say no, because I’m involved in countless feminist circles online and in real life, and our discussions there are fun, productive, and extremely connecting experiences. It’s certainly more “positive” than sitting around and pretending everything’s fine with the world when you don’t really feel like it is.

Of course, there’s a good chance that Mayer already knows all of this. It’s quite possible that her statement about feminism was entirely a political one, something she said to make sure that the men she’ll be leading don’t feel too threatened.

I can’t blame her for making that choice, but she shouldn’t have had to make it–because our culture should not be so militantly averse to serious (and, sometimes, uncomfortable) discussions.

More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I'm Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. :)

My opinion is not a personal insult to you.

[Snark Warning]

It never ceases to amaze me how the act of expressing an opinion opens you up to the most outlandish assumptions about your personality.

Good girls, I know, don’t blog. Or at least, they don’t blog about anything substantial, and they definitely don’t do it using their real names.

Blogging about your personal life is okay, although then you’ll get derided for making your diary public. Posting photos of your friends, family, pets, and outfits, posting recipes and craft projects, posting favorite song lyrics–all of that is okay, if irrelevant.

But when you start blogging about Issues–those things you aren’t supposed to discuss at a dinner party or with your boss–that’s when things get dicey.

A few weeks ago I interviewed for a position on the executive board of the sexual health peer education group I’m involved with on campus. I’ve been involved with it since my freshman year, and now I was interviewing for a position that would put me in charge of, among other things, doing outreach to sororities on campus.

At the interview, they asked me about my blog. Specifically, they mentioned that I’ve expressed the fact that I dislike the Greek system, and wanted to know, wouldn’t that affect my ability to do this job?

Honestly, I was completely flummoxed by this question. Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m incapable of interacting with sorority women? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m unwilling to present educational programs at sorority houses? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I don’t care about sexual assault in the Greek community and don’t want to start an initiative to help prevent it?

I must’ve produced an acceptable response because I got the position. But the experience made me realize how naive I’d been, in a way. I thought that people would take my writing for what it is–ideological positions for which I (usually) provide sound reasoning. I didn’t realize that they would take it and extrapolate from it beliefs and character traits that I do not have.

Disliking the Greek system doesn’t affect my ability to create an outreach program for sororities. It doesn’t affect my ability to empathize with individual women who happen to be sorority members. It doesn’t affect my ability to do anything. It’s just an opinion. Not a personal attack on anyone. An opinion.

The only thing it could possibly affect is other people’s opinions of me. Other people may read about my opinions and take them personally. They may assume that I don’t like them–personally. They may assume that I’m a callous person.

But these are their problems, not mine. If they’ve never learned not to make assumptions about others, I’m not taking responsibility for that. And I’m not going to stop writing, or “tone it down,” for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I love writing, and I specifically love writing about Issues. It’s my way of leaving my mark on the world, and, hopefully, of leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Other people find other ways of doing this. They volunteer, play music, do scientific research, start businesses, make art, get into politics, whatever. I write.

My greatest fear right now–aside from perhaps that I won’t get into graduate school and will end up living in a cardboard box, or that I’ll never get married and will end up living in that cardboard box alone–is that I’ll have to stop writing when I start my Career.

Why would I have to stop writing?

Because of other people’s unfounded assumptions about what my writing says about my character.

Because in the culture we’ve created, you can get fired from your day job for what you write on your blog, using your internet connection, in your home, on your time.

Because good girls are sweet and sensitive, and never express opinions that might offend someone.

Because people haven’t learned that others’ opinions are not personal attacks on them.

Obscenity and College Admissions: Don't Judge People by Their F-Bombs

I read an article on GOOD that provided statistics about how much college admissions officers stalk check applicants’ Facebooks. Apparently 24% of officers do it, and that number is on the rise.

Now, this is really nothing new. However, what did strike me about the article was this:

Twelve percent of admissions counselors told Kaplan that what they found on social networks hurt an applicant’s admissions prospects—particularly when it involved vulgarity, evidence of alcohol consumption or essay plagiarism, or proof of illegal activity.

 

See anything troubling there?

I do. Several of the things on that list involve activities that are illegal and/or violate most schools’ codes of conduct–underage drinking, plagiarism, and “illegal activity” in general. One, however, does not, and that is vulgarity.

It makes me a little queasy whenever some sort of higher authority attempts to determine what is “moral” and what isn’t. With regards to vulgarity, common courtesy generally prevails–don’t use inappropriate language with employers, interviewers, teachers and professors, other respected elders, and children. If you’re unhappy with someone in a public setting, don’t scream obscenities at them. Etcetera.

But is a person who uses vulgar language with his/her friends a bad person? Should they be denied college admission? Would they be a poor addition to their campus community?

I can see why a college admissions officer would not want to admit an applicant who clearly parties a lot, engages in plagiarism, or otherwise breaks the law. But can you really just assume that someone who uses obscenities is a bad person?

I don’t have any research on this, so I can only really use myself as a case study. I curse. A lot. I always have. I tell dirty jokes, I call politicians dicks, and I say “fuck” a lot.

I have also contributed to my university more than many, if not most, of its other students. I’ve led two student groups, started and led an initiative to bring a peer listening service to campus, served as an RA for a year, participated in a sexual health peer education group, assisted two research projects, written for campus publications, volunteered with campus groups, donated to fundraisers, and generally helped make this campus a better place. I have never received any sort of disciplinary action while I have been at Northwestern, nor have I broken any university policies, aside from keeping an electric kettle in my dorm room so I can drink tea. I have never bullied, harassed, or assaulted another student, and that’s more than I can say for some of my peers. I think that if they had to do it over, Northwestern’s admissions officers would absolutely accept me again.

But what if they’d seen the f-bombs on my Facebook profile?

Really, I think stalking applicants’ Facebooks and other profiles is a practice of dubious ethicality, anyway. Of course, everyone’s all like, “But you made it public! But it’s right there! If you didn’t want every single person in the world to know you shouldn’t have uploaded it!”

Perhaps. But there are certain boundaries that I think we should respect when it comes to others. Just because something is public doesn’t mean it’s intended for public viewing. For instance, if I’m walking on campus and I overhear a couple having a vicious argument, obviously, they could’ve been more discreet. But does that make it right for me to stand there and eavesdrop?

If I walk past a house with the lights on and the blinds up and see, say, a couple having sex, should they have been more careful? Probably. But does that mean I should stand there and stare at them doing it? No. That’s creepy as hell.

So suffice it to say that I oppose creeping on people’s lives electronically, too. And I should point out that aside from the vulgarity issue, which I’ve only recently found out about anyway, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t drink or party, so there are no Facebook photos of me drinking and partying. I don’t do anything illegal. I don’t brag about my sexual conquests. There’s nothing on my profile that I’d be ashamed of anyone else seeing.

But I do at times use obscenities when I feel the desire to express myself that way. And it doesn’t make me any less of a suitable candidate for a spot at a university, a job, or anything else.

Now, I’m also not stupid, so knowing what I now know, I’m definitely going to put my Facebook on super-duper private or just temporarily change the name on it when I’m applying for stuff. I’ve checked how my profile looks to someone who’s not friends with me and it doesn’t show any of my foul language.

But on the other hand, I also don’t want to work for an employer who’s moronic enough to overlook my strong resume and assume that I won’t know how to behave in the office–especially after interviewing me. My decorum and sense of morality are quite intact, thank you very much. But they’re not something you can judge by glancing over an online profile.

Got a Job? No Fun For You

[Snark Warning]

I read one of the advice columns in this month’s Cosmo. A woman was writing in and asking if it would be okay to wear a top that reveals her tan lines to work, provided the top was modest and work-appropriate. The response was, no, it wouldn’t. Why? Because you wouldn’t want your boss to think that you spend your free time lying around at the beach:

Even though the best of us can fall victim to zebra skin by accident, exposing your sun stripes at work would be flaunting your bad judgement (baking does lead to skin cancer, after all). Perhaps worse, as far as your boss is concerned, it suggests you spend lots of your free time being at one with your beach towel–not exactly impressive.

“Not exactly impressive?” What does that even mean? Apparently, you shouldn’t let your boss know that you actually have fun on your days off. Oh, heavens no! You ought to be at home, catching up on emails.

(As for the skin cancer thing, I’d just like to point out that even if you wear sunscreen, you’re eventually going to get a tan if you spent a lot of time outside. Trust me, my mom slathers my little brother and sister with sunscreen obsessively, yet at the end of the summer they still have those cute little freckles and tan lines.)

Naturally, I immediately thought back to an earlier post I wrote about why adults are always so miserable and try to make me as miserable as they are. Now I’m not surprised. Apparently, once you’re all grown up and have a job, you’re not even allowed to have a good time when you’re off work. No wonder adults are always in such a crappy mood, and no wonder they want to warn me that in a few years I’ll be in a crappy mood too.

What shocks me is that Cosmo isn’t exactly a serious, business-y magazine. It’s mostly read by people who like to enjoy themselves every now and then (or every day/night, as the case may be). If even Cosmo is saying that you can’t have fun once you’re a grown-up (or, at the very least, that you have to do it in secret), what’s the world coming to?

This doesn’t even make sense to me, because I would hope that my boss would want me to come to work refreshed and in a good mood. I would want him/her to know that I’m not going to be asking for time off to go see a therapist about how miserable I am because I never have fun.

(I’m hoping, perhaps in vain, that since I’m going into the mental healthcare field, things will be different for me. After all, if there’s anyone who knows that relaxing and having fun is absolutely necessary, it’s a therapist. In my opinion, therapists should be able to model healthy behavior for their clients. If a client casually asks me what I did over the weekend and I’m forced to either lie or confess that I spent the entire time huddling over my laptop in a corner, crying, and biting my nails off while my husband played with the kids, that’s not good.)

Where did we go wrong? Why is it that in other countries and cultures, it’s perfectly normal to take a nap after lunch before coming back to work? Why is it that the United States is the only country I could find that does not mandate a minimum amount of paid vacation time for all employees? Why is the United States one of the only developed countries that does not offer paid maternity leave (to say nothing of paternity leave)?

One thing that never fails to surprise me about American culture is how fixated it is on work.  Russians, for instance, seem to view work mostly as a means to an end (money, security, providing for one’s family), whereas for Americans, it’s an end in itself. I rarely hear my parents talking about work when they’re home, and the only time I’ve seen them doing work-related things at home is when my dad starts maniacally writing some sort of equations on a napkin. My parents don’t have smartphones or tablets. If you send an email to their work address on Friday evening, you won’t receive a response till Monday. And yes, they go to the pool on weekends, and evenings, and any other time they fucking feel like it. That, in my opinion, is how it should be.

Why Are Adults So Negative?

[Snark Warning, TMI Warning]

No, really, that’s a legitimate question. Why are people older than me–even by just a few years–so eager to put down all of my hopes and dreams?

Let me give a few nonspecific examples of Things Older People Have Said recently to me:

  • “You know, guys really don’t go for complex women.” (Women like me, that is, in the context of that conversation.)
  • “Oh, trust me, by the time you have a job, you’re not going to care about making a difference. It’ll just be about how you hate your boss and can’t wait to go home by the end of the day.”
  • “You’re never going to be successful if you don’t learn how to be pushy.”
  • “It’s going to be even harder to make friends after college, you know.”
  • “You’re gonna go for a PhD? You do realize how much work that is, right?”
  • “Psychologists don’t make that much money. You should try to get an MD instead.”

Perhaps you Well-Meaning Adults are all under the impression that I have excessively high expectations and need a Dose of Healthy Realism to prevent myself from getting disappointed later on. Perhaps you just don’t realize what weight your words can carry for someone who is younger and looking for someone to help them find their way.

Well, this might be news to you, but I have a mental disorder that basically means that my expectations are already unhealthily low. That’s what depression does. It robs you of all the hope and optimism you used to have. Every bit of genuine excitement that I have for the future is something I’ve worked very, very hard to muster up. And guess what you’re doing. You’re taking it away from me.

People. My disorder does a perfectly fine job of putting me down all on its own. It really doesn’t need any help from you. I don’t need to be reminded of how hard it’s going to be to make friends, get a job, find a partner. Trust me, I’ve been over this in my mind over and over and over again Many, many sleepless nights. I’ve been over it until I’ve cried my head off and wanted to kill myself. Really. I do not need your help.

You know what, I appreciate that maybe your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted. And that sucks. I’m sorry you have a shit job, I’m sorry  you have an awful time meeting people and dating. If you’d like, feel free to tell me about that. Or go tell a therapist. Or whatever. But your experiences do not give you the right to take my hope away from me. Especially when you’re some measly three or four years older! Jesus Christ! You’re still finding your own way. You’re not dead yet. At least wait till you get your own kids before you start dispensing your Divine Wisdom to someone else.

I’m seriously considering kicking these people out of my life, because as much as I’ve always believed that friendship with people older than me is important and extremely valuable, I can’t have these people making me feel crappy all the time.

Why does this happen? I think we have a cultural stereotype of young adults as exceedingly cocky, optimistic, and entitled. Well, guys, you know what they say about people who assume. First of all, as I’m pretty sure everyone I’m acquainted with knows, I’m not even from this country. Take everything you know about “American Young Adults” and toss it the fuck out, because I grew up with a different cultural background, one in which humbleness and realism are prized qualities.

Second, even supposing I were the most typical American girl you can imagine, you should still quit it with the damn stereotypes already. Everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some people come from broken families. Some people grew up poor. Some people have a disability, maybe one you can’t see. Some people read a ton of books when they were kids. Some people grew up being bullied in school. Some people have depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, a substance abuse disorder, autism or Asperger’s, or some other condition. Some people are just plain different!

So throw out those silly magazine articles about “Today’s Entitled Bratty Self-righteous Cocky Inept Stupid Young Adults” and see what’s right in front of you. Some of us are just trying to get by. Some of us are just trying to scrounge up every last shred of hope we have and keep on living. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I think it’s all rainbows and butterflies ahead. I work hard to keep my chin up. Don’t you dare take that away from me.

The Art of Looking Good

When I’m applying for jobs or scholarships, I’m often reminded to twist the wording on my resumes, cover letters, and applications (not even to mention interviews) to make myself and my experiences look better than they actually are.

I’ve never really stopped to think about how this makes me feel, but I’ll do so now.

Lying is unethical, in my opinion. So is intentionally misrepresenting the truth, which is what you do when you “word things differently,” as they say. I’ve just realized how shameful it is in my mind that being employable and successful in our society is based on our ability to paint ourselves in brighter hues than we really deserve to be painted in.

This summer, I’ll be volunteering at a summer camp for kids in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, where I’ll probably be doing stuff like arts and crafts with them. The idea of the camp is to promote health and mental wellness, though I don’t see how that’s really what I’m doing. I’ll basically be playing games with some kids from the city. But how will it go on my resume? “Volunteered at a day camp for underprivileged children of recent immigrants in north Manhattan, teaching them about health and mental wellness.”

Yeah, something like that.

And I’ll probably mention something about how I turned down a job that would’ve paid me $2,600 for this opportunity.

And here’s the kicker—nobody’s going to ask me what I actually did with these kids. Nobody’s going to go check five or ten years down the line to see if any of my interventions actually did any good in preventing them from developing illnesses like diabetes and depression. Nobody’s going to ask these kids if they enjoyed their time with me. Chances are, nobody’s even going to ask for a recommendation from my supervisor.

But I still get to put this crap on my resume like it’s such an amazing thing that I did. Me, privileged white girl from Ohio, helping these poor little immigrant children learn how to stay healthy, all for no pay. Commuting an hour there and back each day from Queens! In the summer heat! Oh, and working for my parents for a whole month after that to pay them back for sending me there.

This is what I call the art of looking good. It’s how we get into schools like Northwestern and get the sort of jobs that we’ll all be getting afterwards. Playing this game makes me sick. The thought that I, a person who loves to write and understands the power of words, am twisting them around so casually to get ahead in life, disgusts me.

I’m not naive enough to opt out of this game, because I do want to be successful in life, and clearly that’s what it takes these days. But I play this game halfheartedly, and I protest against it and buckle under its weight every agonizing step of the way.

I wish I could’ve written on my college application that, you know what, the prestigious internship I did in Israel the summer before senior year of high school was awful. I learned nothing except that I hate doing scientific research and I hate religion. I also learned that the sacrifices I made to be able to go there were all for nothing. I didn’t make any friends there. I did learn a bit about my native country, but not much, and nothing I couldn’t have learned by touring the country with my dad, which would’ve been significantly more fun.

But that’s not at all what I wrote on my college application, or else I very well might not be sitting in this Northwestern dorm right now.

Nobody wants to hear about my failures, no matter how much they taught me. Like when they ask you about your weaknesses in a job interview, they don’t really want to know that sometimes the amount of work you have makes you cry, or that sometimes you check Facebook at work, or that several times you accidentally made a comment to a coworker that might be interpreted as racist. They want to know that you have some minuscule barely-significant flaw, but don’t worry, you’re working on it!

Likewise, if I end this summer feeling like I accomplished nothing with these kids, nobody wants to know that, so that’s not what’ll go on my resume. My resume will say that I taught. I helped. I volunteered. Never, ever will it say that I failed. Even if I do.

Love vs. Work

“Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”

— Lady Gaga

As much as I respect and admire Lady Gaga, this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because it’s incredibly misleading.

First of all, it’s probably just as easy to lose your career as it is to lose your partner. Here are a few examples:

  • a pro football player permanently injures his leg
  • a writer gets depressed and loses her creativity
  • a doctor loses a malpractice suit and is no longer allowed to practice medicine
  • a politician becomes disenchanted with the system in which she works
  • an artist starts losing his vision
  • a lawyer at a prestigious firm gets burned out

And so on.

Furthermore, if it were the case that everyone who puts aside relationships for the sake of their careers ends up doing what they love most and getting paid millions for it like Lady Gaga, perhaps her advice would hold up. But for most of today’s young people, who sacrifice love and dating for the sake of working 60-hour weeks and making comparatively little money, the choice isn’t really such an obvious one.

Second, it’s exactly this mentality that prevents people from making the sort of commitment that prevents relationships from breaking down. I’m not saying all relationships (and marriages) are made to last, but putting your career first every time is one way to make sure they don’t. I know students here who will break off perfectly good relationships because 1) they can’t deal with spending one summer apart, and 2) they’re so obsessed with getting the perfect summer internship that they don’t even try to end up in the same city together. Of course, one could argue that college relationships don’t matter much (though I’d never argue that, personally), but people keep acting like this long after graduation. For instance, by doing as Lady Gaga recommends and choosing careers over relationships.

I feel like sentiments like this one are an overblown response to the old-fashioned way of looking things, which was that a woman should sacrifice all of her ambitions for the sake of a marriage. Obviously, I disagree with that completely, but I feel like asking women to sacrifice all of their relationships for the sake of their ambitions is just as one-sided and faulty way of looking at things. Statements like this one construct these two aspects of adult life as diametrically opposed when they really aren’t. Plenty of women manage to have fulfilling careers and loving marriages. It just takes a bit of work, that’s all.

The truth is that nothing in your life is ever going to be perfect, all the time. When your relationships aren’t going well, an interesting and meaningful career can help you get through it. But what about when your career isn’t going well?

In short, yes, balancing love and work is difficult. That doesn’t mean we should just opt out of that balance altogether and pick one over the other. It’s unfortunate that people like Lady Gaga, whom many young women consider a role model, has made it sound like we need to abandon one of these important things for the sake of the other.

On Ambition

I used to be what most people would call an ambitious person. That is to say, I knew exactly where I wanted to go in life, and it was a place that everyone respected. I was also willing to do everything necessary to get there–the perfect grades, prestigious college, and on and on.

What my actual ambition was doesn’t matter, because I had several phases that I went through. I remember at one point I wanted to be a psychologist. Then an architect, then a physicist, then a lawyer, then a statistician, then an economist, then a sociologist, and then, finally, a journalist. That was the dream that ultimately led to the breakdown of all the other dreams.

My parents were always very proud of me for being so ambitious, even if what I actually wanted to do was always changing. That, after all, was only natural, and it was clear to everyone that I had what it takes to get to the top of any field I chose. My parents were certain that once I started college, I’d immediately settle down with whatever major happened to be conveniently available to me and begin the process of climbing up the totem pole like a good little girl.

Well, what they forgot to tell me was that it’s pretty damn hard to be ambitious when you no longer know what the hell you want to do with your life. Journalism sucked, sociology might as well have been Political Correctness 101, and I’m terrible at science, so I picked psychology. But then I started having doubts. What if I’d make the most amazing computer programmer in the world? Or photographer, or novelist, or graphic designer, or architect, or engineer?

But all of these paths were closed off to me, because most of them don’t even have departments at my school, and those that do are special programs that one needs to apply for (much like my nemesis, journalism). Furthermore, I could no longer afford to take any more random classes if I wanted to graduate on time (which I must, given the cost of attending college). The uncomfortable truth was that you really can’t be whatever you want to be. If I wanted to study architecture or engineering, I should’ve thought of that earlier. But I didn’t, and besides, there was still no guarantee I’d like any of those, either. I was now, I realized, completely and inexorably stuck. And that’s when I lost my ambition–and my faith in myself.

I don’t know how, at 18 years old, I was supposed to just magically know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I certainly didn’t get any room for experimentation. I spent freshman year slaving away in the name of journalism and ended up choosing psychology because it seems to be the only subject I’m good at. But as for architecture and other subjects not even offered at my school, who knows? Maybe in a parallel universe, I could’ve designed a revolutionary green skyscraper or the next crazy-popular Apple gadget, or coded a new Google project or a better version of Windows. Not in this universe, though.

Life without ambition is a new experience for me. These days I couldn’t care less about my future. I don’t really try that hard in my classes, and I avoid internships like the plague. All I want to do is read books and lie by the pool. After all, if I’m going to get trapped into a life I never wanted anyway, why bother working hard for it? Might as well enjoy whatever freedom I have left.

If that seems nihilistic, well, most people hate their jobs. This is nothing unusual. I’ve just realized earlier than most people that all that bullshit they tell you about how any dream is achievable is really just bullshit. It’s really all just a matter of luck. Some people get lucky and happen upon the right calling, and others don’t.