Learning about men and what they have to live up to

When I set out to research men, I admittedly felt a little daunted by the task. I mean, would I as a woman be able to really understand what it means to be a man? Would I be able to give an accurate account of the opting out and in experiences of the men in my research project? This is something that gender scholars spend a lot of time thinking about. For example, how do I as a researcher affect the research and how does my position and perspective color the way I see the world? These are important things to reflect over. Although researchers strive to be as neutral as possible in the face of their task, we are all human and how we understand and interpret things are invariably affected by who we are.

Anyway, so when I embarked on my research project on men opting out, I set out with the intention of learning as much as I could about men and what it is like to be a man from as many sources as possible. I basically read everything about men that I could get my hands on, from research to fiction, hoping to become enlightened and better prepared for my task. I was expecting to learn a lot.

Well, the feeling of a new world opening up to me never really happened. It was almost a bit anticlimactic because I kept looking for that source that would provide me with some Earth-shattering insights, but it never came. I was starting to wonder whether I was missing something or just not seeing whatever must have been right in front of me all along. 

I mean as a sociologist and a person who has just always been interested in people and psychology in general, I already knew a lot about the societal expectations we place on men. I mean who hasn’t heard about what a ‘real’ man is and should or shouldn’t to. You know what I mean, things like men don’t cry, men shouldn’t show weakness, the strong silent type… But I thought there must be something more. 

Okay to be fair, I did learn a lot. For example, I did learn about social codes among men that I had no idea existed. That is, how men interact with each other. But on a whole, I have to say I was really struck by how stereotypical everything I was reading about really was. 

The social expectations on men are to this day really very one dimensional. Men are in a nutshell expected to be manly, strong, competitive, stoic, unafraid and definitely not show too much emotion or any weakness of any kind. The media depiction of men, whatever the genre, is also very stereotypical. It was actually quite disheartening to tell you the truth. The reason is that I know as a researcher who has interviewed men and as a person who knows men that these one-dimensional ideals of what a man should be don’t even nearly describe what real men in the real meaning of the word really are like. They are also difficult to live up to.

Men and women alike are multidimensional. We are all human, and part of being human is experiencing the whole range of emotions that are available to us. We are strong and we are weak, and we are all vulnerable at certain times in different ways. We all need love and closeness and we all have meaningful relationships we want to nurture. And we all cry. It’s part of being human.

The fact that men and boys are discouraged to partake in much of this saddens me. Researching men has taught me that social masculine ideals are very problematic in many ways as they foster violence on many levels in society (including in the home and at work) and have a negative and sometimes detrimental impact on men’s health. I put my hope in younger generations. Research has also taught me that, thankfully, there are a lot of young men who are breaking these unrealistic and unhealthy masculine norms.  

The truth is, that talking about the difference between men and women is actually not really very helpful at all. Even though there are biological differences, obviously, the actual differences in what we are like as people and what we need are really not that great. There are greater differences within the sexes than between the sexes. All men are certainly not alike, nor are all women, and thank goodness for that! So, the idea that all men should act in a certain way is simply ludicrous.

On that note, I have been going over the proofs for my book Men Do It Too: Opting Out and In this week. I don’t have an exact publication date yet, but it will be some time during the summer. In my book I write in-depth about all this, about men and the expectations placed on them; about how that plays out and the impact it has on their lives and life decisions; and what it is they want and need and how they go about creating meaningful lives. I will keep you posted!  

Introverts mostly among women? No, I don’t think so.

I participated in an online seminar last week about introversion and leadership. I’ve been interested in the topic of introversion and work ever since I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For me, reading Quiet was a huge eye-opening experience. There was so much in the book that I recognized and for the first time I realized that I myself am a bit of an introvert. I say a bit because I had never thought of myself as introverted before. I can be very talkative and I have always been told what a social person I am. But reading Cain’s book, I realized that it was not about sociability but more about how you interact with others, how you work, and where you get your energy from. Growing up, I liked spending time with friends, like most kids do, but I also found that after being with friends for a while I was often quite tired and just wanted to go home. To be honest, I thought there was something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want to continue hanging out and having fun like everyone else? Why did I want to be alone? This continued to be true as I grew up. As a student at university, I just didn’t have the same stamina as my other friends did when it came to parties and social activities. I just didn’t want to be together all the time and I was starting to wonder whether I was just not a very good friend.

Well, when I read Cain’s book I realized that no, there is nothing wrong with me, that up to 40% of the world’s population is, in fact, quite like me. The problem is that especially Western culture revolves around extraverted values and ways of being. The same goes for workplaces. Workplaces and work ideals are organized according to extraverted behavioral norms. The standard is already set in business schools where courses are structured so that extraverted behavior gives more points and better grades. 

It needs to be noted, however, that extraverted does not necessarily mean better, and being outspoken, social, and talkative does not guarantee good results. On the contrary, research has found that stopping, reflecting, and thinking before speaking and acting may actually be better for the bottom line. 

The reason I originally became interested in this professionally, is that through my opting out research I have met and interviewed many people who have not felt that they have been able to be themselves in the workplaces they opted out of. It has been one of the factors that has added to a difficulty to create a coherent narrative of work (which we need to be able to do for our well-being), which, in turn, is one of the main reasons why people opt out. This is true for both men and women. In fact, more of the men than the women I have interviewed have described themselves as introverts, and both the men and the women have talked about not wanting to work and pursue a career in the way that is expected.

So last week, when I was listening to the discussion in the seminar, I was surprised when it was suggested that more women than men are introverted. I don’t think that is true and nothing I have seen in my research suggests this. If you think about it, suggesting that women are more introverted is really quite a sweeping generalization and a bit of an essentialist view of what men and women are. It suggests that women essentially are a certain way and men, in turn, are another way, whereas in reality, research has shown that stereotypical generalizations like that just aren’t helpful. There are more differences within the sexes than between the sexes. What that means is, there are more difference among women and among men than there are between men and women. 

Women are socially conditioned to spend more time thinking about and being in touch with their feelings and the feelings of others. They are taught to talk about their feelings, whereas men are taught to pretty much ignore them and definitely not talk about them too much (although seriously, men have just as many feelings as women). As a result, women invariably tend to spend more time engaged in self-analysis, which is a reason they may be more likely to recognize themselves as introverts than men are.

And let’s not forget, girls are still in this day and age taught and expected to be more still and quiet, and less rowdy than boys.  

This does not mean that women have a greater tendency to be introverted than men. 

If you’re as interested in this as I am, here are the readings from the seminar last week. I, for one, am going to check these books out!

Creating Introvert Friendly Workplaces by Jennifer Kahnweiler

Quiet is a Superpower by Jill Chang

Introverted Leadership by Karolien Koolhof

So what is the difference between men and women then?

I have spent the last five years studying men and opting out. It was something I knew I wanted to do right from the start, when I started working on my research on women opting out. I was convinced that opting out was much more that the women’s issue it had been treated as, and now I can confirm this is indeed true. Opting out is a contemporary issue; it’s a societal and an organizational one. All kinds of people opt out, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, whether or not they have kids… They leave because the way they have been living and working just doesn’t work for them anymore and they can’t or won’t go on the way they have. 

I get asked a lot about the difference between men and women who opt out. Are there any differences? Do they opt out for different reasons? Do they experience it differently? The answer is yes and no. 

Their situations are a bit different. This is not because of biological differences or differences in character, traits or values. It is rather because of the different expectations we place on men and women in society.

Women are taught to be nurturers, men are taught to be fighters. Women are taught to be empathetic and emotional, men are taught to be strong and not to cry. Women are told that they can be anything they want to be (thank you feminism!), men are told they need to be able to support a family. 

This may sound archaic and stereotypical to you, by I assure you that today, year 2020, this remains to be true, even in my home country Finland, that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world. 

Opting out is harder for men because part of ‘being a man’ is making enough money to support a (real or hypothetical) family. It’s easier for women because being a good woman does not (according to societal norms) hinge on having a good career, but rather on how good a care taker (or mother) a woman is. 

So yes, there are differences, but my research has shown me that their reasons and experiences are still surprisingly similar.

Both the men and the women in my research have felt the environment and/or way of working that they opted out of was unsustainable. Many of them – both men and women – felt that they couldn’t really be themselves. Both felt they didn’t have enough time for loved ones and wanted lifestyles that allowed them to really be there for the people in their lives. Many of them started working in areas with more compassion, where they could work more closely with and help people. 

The men and women that I have interviewed all went through a similar process when they opted out and in, and they had similar hopes and dreams the futures.

So yes, although their experiences are somewhat different, they are also very much the same. The differences lie in social and societal expectations and norms; the similarity consists of their humanity.

At the end of the day men and women really are much more alike than we tend to think. After all, we’re all human.

Lost in Socklot

You’re probably wondering what that means, ‘lost in Socklot’. I’ll tell you, but I have to backtrack a little first.

There is a small town on the coast of Finland where my grandparents used to live. I spent all my childhood Christmases in this town. I also spent other holidays there but the Christmas magic is what will forever stand out in my mind, because my family was especially good at creating magic. It of course helped that there was always snow, but it also involved things like carol-singing, home-made wool socks, and imaginary elf sightings as they rushed between homes in a terrible hurry to get everything done in time for Christmas. I remember the sweet, juicy mandarins my grandmother always kept in a bowl on the coffee table. Even the dog loved them and would appear in a flash the instant you pressed your thumb into the fruit to break the peel.

My grandparents passed away many years ago, but I go back once in a while and drive past their house, although not very often. However, this fall I found myself visiting twice in the span of just a month. Not only that, I went in a professional capacity – which was a first for me – and in a strange way it felt like things kind of came full circle. You see, as a little a girl, I dreamed of working in this small town when I grew up, although my dream involved the cash register of the local grocery store. Pushing all those buttons just seemed like so much fun.

Alas, there were no cash registers involved when the opportunity to go there for work arose. I went to give two talks, and while I was there, my cousin came up with the idea of exhibiting my paintings in her daughter’s wonderful café. Said and done; we set a date for the vernissage, and that was how I ended up spending a whirlwind weekend not just hanging an exhibition and hosting a vernissage in the same day, but also driving about 1000 km (back and forth, but never-the-less) to do so.

I never planned on doing it alone, but in the last minute something came up and there I was. I set out on a Saturday morning, drove by my Art Place to pick up my paintings, and then set out North, belting duets with Billy Joel as I drove to make the time pass more quickly. Fast forward to the afternoon, and I arrive at the café somewhat stiff, with a huge craving for coffee, lugging a bunch of silk paintings. Well it was a café so the coffee thing was easily fixed… but it was a café so it was also filled with café guests nursing their own coffees, and blocking the walls onto which I wanted to hang my paintings.

Those of you who are artists know just how difficult and stressful hanging an exhibition can be. There I sat among the guests and every time someone got up to leave, I pounced before my access to that particular section of the wall got blocked again by the next set of guests. Standing on tables and chairs, I hung a couple of paintings as quickly as possible and prayed I got it right on the first try and wouldn’t have to do it all again.

Eventually the paintings were hung – not perfectly but well enough – and I rushed to my hotel to change for the vernissage. The event in itself was a success, although somewhat exhausting for an extroverted introvert like me, especially considering I was hosting it all alone away from home. Plus, exhibiting your art is soul-baringly personal, clichéd as it may sound. But guests came and it was wonderful to see everyone, it really was.

After the vernissage, a lot of flowers, and many warm congratulatory hugs, I happily made my way back to my hotel to get a good night’s sleep before my long drive back. But I didn’t really sleep, not after all that excitement, so the next day, I woke up quite tired, albeit to a sparkly white winter wonderland.

After breakfast, I got back into my car and started driving towards a small village called Socklot to visit the painting studio of an artist I had had the pleasure of meeting during one of my talks. I was really looking forward to this visit and I had a fantastic time. We hit it off and spent a couple of hours looking at his work, discussing techniques, and talking about my work… He gave me two sketches, which I treasure dearly, and I left with a full heart and a terrible itch to paint.

I got back in my car again and finally headed home. I was in the countryside and assumed I would find my way back to the main road without too much trouble. However, being a bit of a city person who navigates with the help of city blocks and sidewalks, the country roads soon led my astray and before long I realized I was lost. Well, not really lost, I mean I have a GPS on my phone so I wasn’t worried. But I realized I had driven in the wrong direction and was now even further away from the main road, and my drive home was getting longer by the minute.

Just as I had this realization, my phone rang and it was my husband. I hit the green receiver button and declared, “I’m lost in Socklot.”

It all felt a bit like a Kaurismäki movie, but ‘lost in Socklot’ also kind of said it all. It sort of summed up my life for the past few months. I was in a good place, doing amazing things. I was quite tired and a little lost, but not really because I knew the general direction I wanted to go in, plus I had a GPS to help me navigate. So I was lost but not really.

And I have been doing amazing things for the past few months. I have been setting up the Art Place of my dreams. I have met with interesting people, made new friends, experienced so many firsts. I have been doing exactly what I want to be doing, although at the same time it has been overwhelming and exhausting, not to mention scary. I have been out of my comfort zone in more ways than I can count, but I can also say that I have been living my dream. Sometimes I’ve felt a bit lost, but in a safe way because I have experience to fall back on and supportive people around me. I know the general direction I want to go in and I’ve always had a map or GPS of sorts at hand.

Sometime in October I started to realize that I can’t do it all. For my own sanity and wellbeing, I needed to focus on what was really important and what I simply had to get done. For the first time in five years, I didn’t have the energy nor the inspiration to update my blog. From being a weekly column, it became a monthly thing, although now two months have already passed since my last post. I started writing a new post at least twice before Christmas to wish you all a happy holiday season, but I just never managed to finish it.

But that is life, right? We can’t always do it all and we have to be kind to ourselves. I wanted to give you a life sign though and let you know that I’m still here and that I’m not done blogging. The Opting Out Blog has been such an important part of my own opting out and in process, and a place where I not only write about my research but can also air my thoughts on other related topics. I believe I still have a lot left to say, and I will, although at the moment it may not be weekly or even bimonthly.

But I’ll keep you posted and I’ll keep posting, and I hope you will continue reading. Your comments and reactions still inspire me more than I can explain and I wish you all the best for the new year!

It’s personal

One thing I often hear when interviewing people about opting out, is that they didn’t really feel like they could be themselves in their previous jobs. There were aspects of their personalities and their lives that they felt they had to keep hidden. Children, care responsibilities, health issues, personality traits… just to name a few. This is one of the reasons they generally feel so good about the work solutions they opt in to instead. Many of them choose or create workplaces where they don’t have to keep these things hidden, which is one of the reasons they finally feel like they are exactly where they are meant to be. Why they experience such a profound feeling of authenticity.

I mean, how many times have we not heard, ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business’?

That seems to be some sort of a mantra in the business world; that and the idea that that which is personal needs to be kept separate from work. Well, I beg to differ. Work – like all aspects of our lives – is highly personal.

The reason it is personal is that we are people. Businesses are made up of people and we a come to work carrying our selves and our lives with us. Granted, we are often encouraged to leave all that at the door, which I think is actually part of the problem.

It is problematic on many levels. First, whatever is going on in our lives affects us and our performance, even when are encouraged not to talk about it at work. Of course it does. If we can talk about whatever is going on, whether it is positive or negative, if we can share that with colleagues (who we, by the way, spend most of our waking hours with), then we can also support each other at work. Not surprisingly, research has shown that this has a positive impact on performance.

But not only that, if we share whatever is going on with us at work, people will also know where we are coming from when we react in certain ways, which just makes it easier to communicate, collaborate and be understood. Knowing where the other one is coming from is key.

However, there is yet another aspect. I often talk about how I time and time again hear about how organizations are reluctant to give their employees control over where and how they work, because if they can’t see them, how do they know they are working? (Yes, this is true, I hear this all the time.) The problem is trust. If people say that, they simply don’t trust their employees enough. However, the better you know someone, the easier it is to trust them. So if we really get to know an employee, we can also feel confident knowing that they are working when they say they are, even though they aren’t in our line of sight. Communicating about work issues and about how it’s going also becomes easier, which again, makes it even easier to work together and to trust each other.

We have to get to know each other better at work, and when we do, it will change working life as we know it.

We have to be allowed to be whole human beings, not just employees. We have to want to know more about each other. We have to really talk to each other without being worried about opening a can of worms. If really getting to know someone means also hearing about the hard stuff, then so be it. As compassionate human beings we will know how to react. Besides, often it doesn’t even involve reacting, just listening, and we can all do that.

Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, the authors of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, argue that compassion, which has always been considered a “soft” value, is anything but. It’s a strategic value, which organizations need to focus on to become truly successful:

”Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities…  Without compassion, workplaces can become powerful amplifiers of human suffering.”

All this is on my mind as I set up my Art Place. I want the place to be personal. I want it to look nothing like conference rooms business professionals are used to spending time in. I want it to look like me, and I want people to be struck by this when they walk through my door.

Since talking about work is highly personal, I want to invite people to talk about work in a space that is just that, personal. We are people, and people are personal, and once we can see that we can create more compassionate workplaces. We can create places where people don’t have to worry about not being able to be themselves, where personal isn’t considered the opposite of professional, and where people can thrive.

So let’s do it!

On being authentic and getting things done

When I opened Instagram the other day and started scrolling through my feed, the first thing that popped up was an inspirational quote: “Surround yourself with people who feel like sunshine.”

I scrolled on without giving the quote too much thought and, believe it or not, the very next post was another motivational quote: “Surround yourself with people who are on the same mission as you.”

Being an extraverted introvert, I shuddered at the mere thought of being surrounded, and quickly closed Instagram before I was told to surround myself with yet a third type of people. Don’t get me wrong, I like people, but to be surrounded? No thanks!

Okay, okay, I know these quotes aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. And I also know that they have a point, at least the one about people being on the same mission as you. Kenieshiear Czetty, the wise, talented, and absolutely charming person behind The Opting Out Podcast, talks about the importance of finding people who can walk with you on your opting out journey (because not everybody can) and I know that is what that second motivational quote is about. But the first one is a bit problematic I think.

It is as if we, today, feel that happiness is a human right and that anything that hampers our happiness can and should be cut out of our lives, even people. But there is more to life than happiness and only keeping people in it who make us happy (or who feel like sunshine) makes us miss out on having a real life. Because life is not only about happiness, and happiness is not the only important emotion. But not only that, it seems to me it also makes us lose part of our humanity…*

Which leads me to another thing that Kenieshiear said.

Okay, let me backtrack a bit. Kenieshiear found me and my research a few months ago through the internet and in many ways, we are kindred spirits; opting out sisters. We have similar approaches to opting out and last week we spoke for the very first time. During our conversation, she said one thing that I found particularly profound, and that has stayed with me all week.

We were talking about the importance of feeling like you can be yourself, of being authentic, and how many people don’t necessarily feel that they can be themselves at work.

We talked about how we have both reached a point where we just want to be ourselves and if we are “too nice” or “too colorful” for someone or for some organizations, so be it (although to be honest, I don’t think either of us think we are too much of anything).

She talked about how when you are authentic, you are real, and you wear your feelings on the outside. You are honest, you say what you mean, and (here it comes) you get things done.

Now, I didn’t think to ask her what exactly she bases that on, and I definitely want to continue discussing this with her soon, but it really resonated with me.

After my discussion with Kenieshiear, I continued the conversation with my husband. He and I were speculating about why that is, why is it that authenticity leads to getting things done? Is it because when you’re authentic you only say you’ll do things if you really mean to? Or is it because if you’re authentic you don’t have a hidden agenda and you only promise what you know you can and will deliver? Or is it because it’s just easier to know what you will and will not do and can therefore be forthright about it without giving it a second thought?

I’m not sure, but this is something to think about. What do you think?

 

*For more about this see my post ‘The Search for Happiness’ and Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die.

“At least for now” – nothing is forever and why that’s okay

One of the things people often wonder when I give talks on my opting out and in research is, what happens further down the line? What happens after a few years, maybe this new lifestyle or way of working proves to not be so wonderful after all and maybe my interviewees will opt out again?

They often say it in a way that suggests that they suspect that I may have missed something, or that I am romanticizing opting out and in and have an unrealistic image of what is really going on.

Well, I’m always glad when I get asked this, because the fact is that this is exactly the thing: the new lifestyle is not forever. It’s good for now, and the people I have interviewed are generally aware of that.

The reason is that things change. Situations change, we change, our needs change, and we invariably adapt our lives accordingly. Some people will opt on to the next thing, someone might even opt back into what they opted out from in the first place, and that’s fine because that is what they want or need to do at that particular time in their lives. The difference is that once you have embarked on an opting out and in journey, you become more attuned to your needs and keep revisiting your situation to check that things are still okay. You remind yourself of what your terms are, terms which change and evolve over time.

I was talking to a new friend of mine the other day. Although we live on different continents we share a similar story. She opted out of a corporate career to become an artist. We were talking about her new lifestyle and when I told her she seemed right in her element, she responded with “at least for now.” Don’t misunderstand, she has gone all in. She sells her creations, she is passionate about what she does and she is good at it. Still, she knows that this is “at least for now.”

Realizing that it is good for now is a strength. It is a strength to understand that things not only might but will change. That doesn’t mean we don’t value what we do now, nor does it mean that we don’t do it full heartedly. It just keeps us open to new opportunities when they present themselves, and it keeps us able to rethink our terms and our lifestyles when needed.

And it’s the same for me. I love where my life is going professionally at the moment. It’s great – at least for now.

 

Tell yourself you can and you will

One of the things that my own opting out and in journey has brought me is a whole bunch of firsts. When I opted out of my career in consulting to work on my PhD, I was flung out of my comfort zone as I navigated new worlds and ways of doing things, and it has continued ever since. One reason is of course that whenever you embark on a new profession or way of life, you are bound to do many things for the first time. But another reason is that once you get in the habit of doing new things, the threshold to saying yes to new ideas and opportunities becomes lower. You simply become more open to trying things you never dreamed you would do.

Let me tell you about one of my firsts. A couple of years ago, my son, who has been following my research and the attention it has received from the sidelines, asked me if I could write a book about my research that he could actually understand. My research was just kind of hard to grasp for a ten-year old.

At first, I was just mostly flattered that he was interested in what I do. But I come from a long line of readers and I’ve read more books to my kids than I can count, so the idea of writing something that a ten-year old could read actually felt quite intriguing. It tickled my imagination and I started getting ideas regarding characters and plots, and what I would want the message to be, that is what main thing about my research I would want to convey.

I didn’t get a chance to write any of this down because, of course, like many other things, there just wasn’t time for anything else than what I was already working on. But he kept asking. Every once in a while, he would ask me if I was working on it yet. He was very persistent, so finally I told him yes, I would do it. I mean how do you say no to something like that anyway?

But still I couldn’t seem to find the time and still he kept asking.

So finally, last summer, during my summer holiday on the island, I started working on it. For two weeks I sat at the kitchen table in the sweltering heat as my family went on about their lives around me, and I wrote. I experienced flow like I have never experienced before and I was having so much fun.

After two weeks, I had a story about a girl and a boy dealing with questions of gender, identity, diversity, and the need to do things on terms that work for them. That meant that when I returned to work, I had most of a first draft done. I put in some extra effort; I finished it and edited it with the help of my daughter (for which I am so grateful), and then I let it sit. As with all creative endeavors, this was also one filled with self-doubt, but I tried to ignore that and focus on how much I enjoyed writing it instead, and how attached I had become to these two characters I had created.

Now, during my Christmas break, I finally got it out again, reread it and did some final edits. Although it was scary to say the least, I decided to quickly send it to a publisher before I changed my mind because a fundamental truth is that a text that is never sent never gets published either. Besides, I needed an expert’s opinion. Was I any good?

So that’s what I did. I sent it last week and get this, I got a response after just a few days, which in itself felt like a major accomplishment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. By now you’re thinking it was accepted and that I will soon be the author of a children’s book. I mean I’ve been building the suspense for the last 700 words and why else would I share this with the world? But that isn’t what happened. It was rejected, but since I have made it my mission to share not only my ups but also my downs to give a more accurate picture of what success, or hard work rather, really looks like, I decided to write about it.

Yes, it was rejected and I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed. But it was also a very nice rejection. I got many positive comments, constructive criticism, and encouragement to keep writing. And I was also told I’m welcome to submit a new manuscript in the future.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the manuscript. I suspect I will keep working on it, although not right now. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have another book that needs to be written, so maybe next summer when I’m on the island again?

In the meantime, I’m going to read it to my son (who is older now but the story was originally for him so he will just have to deal with it). But also, by writing about this I’m taking this rejection (a nice rejection but nevertheless) and actively choosing how I make it a part of my narrative. Now it’s not just a rejection, it’s a part of the story of how I continue to develop as a writer.

Because we should never underestimate the power of what we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we failed, we will feel like failures; but if we tell ourselves that we can do it, we will. And I can do it, I just need a little bit of practice first.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!

Controlling the uncontrollable and the art of letting go

A feeling of not having control is difficult to deal with. In my research I have found that when people cannot control things they try to compensate for it and create a feeling of control by controlling other, smaller issues. For example, when people feel they have no control over their lives or their time, they tend to be control freaks (pardon the expression) regarding things like organized cupboards, clean homes and excel spreadsheets where they keep track of family members’ whereabouts every moment of the day. I have seen this in my research, and I have also seen how people let go of the small things when they gain a sense of control. People have laughingly told me that after having opted out they became so disorganized because they just didn’t feel the need to control the minutiae anymore.

I have experienced this too.

However, an interesting thing I realized when I started analyzing my passion for silk painting (yes, I know, I am capable of overanalyzing just about anything) was how, when I go between a feeling of control and feeling of not having control, I can actually see it in my painting.

One thing that I really love about silk painting is the way the paints interact with the fabric. It’s almost magical. The paints tend to spread like crazy along the threads of the fabric, and there are different ways of trying to control that, if that is what you want to do. Because there is something so satisfying about letting the colors spread and merge and in a way dance together on the silk and just see it happening before your eyes. You can drop water or alcohol on the colors or use salts to create different effects and the exciting thing is that you never really know what you will end up with. After the paint has dried, you see what you have and then you take it from there.

Sort of like in life. You never really know what you will end up with, but you invariably end up with something and then you have to accept that in order to be able to take it from there. It’s called working with what you have.

Well, during this past year, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of controlling the uncontrollable. I like painting without using gutta, a paste-like material that creates borders over which the colors won’t spread. I like it when the colors spread and I like being able to control this without the help of techniques like gutta.

This past year I have noticed a change in my style of painting. I’ve moved away from big sweeping brush strokes and abstract color schemes to create exact lines through colorful florals or black silhouettes. Only when I have been mad or frustrated have I deviated from this (that’s when I’ve taken my frustration out on the silk, and it works like a charm). But on the most part my painting has been very controlled.

Thinking back, this has coincided with a year of searching and wondering what I should do with my life, where I want to go next. I have been feeling unsure and I have lacked a sense of control, and it suddenly became so clear to me that I, in part, have been compensating for that in my art.

Now, however, I have a plan. I’ve figured things out and once again feel like I am on the track towards my future. I have gained a sense of control and, correspondingly, I see the result of this in my painting. This summer, when the pieces started falling into place, I started yearning for less control in my painting, for larger brushstrokes and more improvisation.

But ironically, even when I try to control my painting, it’s still just an illusion. You can never really have full control, just an illusion of control. With silk paints, as in life, you never really know what will happen and where you will end up. But you have to accept what comes at you because only then can you move on to the next thing, in an informed and sustainable way. It’s just easier to let go when you feel safe.