Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The 'I'm Awesome' Problem: Why Men Should Behave More Like Women and Not Vice Versa

"If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say, 'I'm awesome.' If you ask women why they did a good job, what they'll say is: someone helped them; they got lucky; they worked really hard." -Sheryl Sandberg



If you're familiar with Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org project, or have seen her talks, maybe that quote sounds familiar. 

Sandberg does not go on to say that women should say, "I'm awesome," more, but she does say that "no one gets to the corner office by underestimating their own success or not understanding their own success."

In my view, there's a big problem with the "I'm awesome" answer. It's cocky and very likely unrepresentative of the truth. People who attribute their success at least in part to luck, help, and hard work are being honest with themselves, their peers, and their bosses. 

Rarely does someone succeed without help and hard word, and certainly an ounce luck always plays into it. My partner likes to remind me that we're "lucky" to have been born U.S. citizens. We both reap a lot of privileges for being in the just 5 percent of the global population who are in North America. 

Sandberg often talks about what women as individuals can do to change the gender disparity in leadership and C-level jobs. She doesn't spend as much time on what men should do. 

In the "I'm awesome" case, I think men need to act more like women, and not vice versa. I believe more men should attribute their success to hard work, luck, and help, especially when that help comes from women. In politics, I think men need to act more like women, too. In fact, in many cases, I think the presence of more women alone helps men act with less extreme versions of their "maleness." By "maleness" I mean what research in behavioral studies has found to be how men do act and how men do think about themselves differently from women, the kind of research findings Sandberg alludes to in her talk. (You can view her book's notes, which contain references, on Amazon.)

Monday, February 17, 2014

I Never Called Her Back: My Horrendous and Painful Social Life Before Technology

The true story I am going to share here was so embarrassing to me when it happened that I've since blocked from memory the main character's name.

She's Jennifer, or Meghan, or Sarah. Was it Sarah? It may have been Sarah, some common female name anyway.

Making Friends
Sarah and I were acquaintances in college. We were both English literature students, the kind who were sharp and bright and spoke up in class, but introverted in social situations. We had a few classes together and were friendly, but never became friends.

She was blonde, had the slightest lisp, and was thick like a volleyball player. I thought she was confident, smart, pretty. I may have had a little crush on her.

Sarah's boyfriend, she told me one day, was from Long Island like I was, and they were headed down to visit his parents that summer. I liked Sarah. I needed more friends. And I managed to put on my big girl balls when I gave her my mother's phone number and suggested we hang out while they were on Long Island. It was fairly hard for me to be so forward in person like that.

Crucially to the story: It was 1999 or 2000. Neither of us had a mobile phone. Hardly anyone in the U.S. did at that time.

At school, I had email, but my mother didn't have a computer at her house. Phone was the only way we could get in touch with one another.

She Called!
In late June or early July, Sarah called while I was out. She left a message on the machine saying she was in town and left the phone number at her boyfriend's parents house where they were staying.

But I couldn't call her back.

My mother hadn't paid her phone bill in months. If you didn't pay your phone bill in the 1990s, the phone company didn't cut you off completely, because having a phone was considered a necessary utility. I don't know if that's still the case today. So when you didn't pay your bill, the phone company wouldn't cut you off completely. First, they would only cut your ability to make outbound calls. You could still receive inbound calls and dial emergency numbers. At some point, they would cut off inbound calls, too, but you could always dial 911.

I was quite versed in the ins and outs of not paying the phone bill. It happened all the time in my family's house when I was in high school. I'd have to tell my friends, "Call me, and if I'm not home, call me again in a little bit because I can't call you."

In high school, it was embarrassing, but all my friends knew my family was poor. Sarah, on the other hand, didn't know we were poor. Sarah didn't know that I literally could not call her back. (It never crossed my mind to tell her as much when I gave her the phone number because I thought the bill had been paid. Going home to visit was always full of unpredictable moments. Sometimes things went smoothly, and other times it was the same old shit.)

In theory, I could have called Sarah back two days later during my next shift working at a nearby deli, but I never used the deli phone for personal calls, as a matter of pride. Plus, I was afraid that if I didn't call Sarah back for two days, and then did from an unknown number with this zany excuse that the home phone was cut off from making outbound calls only... well, I thought for sure she'd think I was crazy and a liar.

She never called back. I never called her. I regretted it. I felt ashamed. We never saw each other again.

Phone Hatred
To this day, I hate the telephone. It's by far the least used function on my "phone."

All the other ways I have to get in touch with people—text-messaging, email, Twitter, Facebook, Skype—are a complete relief. They've changed my social life dramatically. They've empowered me to be me because of the nature of how they work.

I've talked before about the love-hate relationship people have with email, and shared my personal "love" side of email. When email came into my life, it gave me a way to interact with people in a way that was a hundred times more comfortable for me than phone or face-to-face conversations. I'm a writer, and I need time to think about my words. I'm so much more confident when I can pause and think through what I want to say. On the receiving end, I like that I have time to read and re-read someone's words, figure out what they meant, consider my emotional response before putting down an actual response.

Through all these other means of communication, I am more fearless in how I connect with people. I write what I have to say without embarrassment. It has backfired, sure, when I put too much of myself out there on the page and scare people off (it's happened only a handful of times, but it's happened). On the whole, though, it's transformed my ability to have a social life.

Technology changes our lives in ways we often don't expect. For me, the ability to "talk" to people, asynchronously, when I have time to think about what I want to say or how I will respond, has 100 percent enabled a social life that I might not have otherwise had.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

3 Reasons I Don't Do 'Inbox Zero'


"Inbox Zero" is a theory of email management that aims to leave your inbox empty at all times. Actually, that's not really what it's all about, but that's what people believe it is, and that's certainly what the name suggests.

I've never been a fan of "inbox zero," even though I agree with some of its basic principles. My email goal, which I call the One Page Rule, is to have no more than one page of message in my inbox at any given time. If I have to scroll to see messages or jump to a new page, that's too many.

Here are three reasons I prefer the One Page Rule to Inbox Zero.

1. Seeing nothing feels worse than seeing something
When I look at my inbox, I want to be reminded of what's happening, the projects I'm creating, the people I'm meeting, the conversations I'm having with friends. Seeing something feels better than seeing nothing.

2. 'Zero' is too specific for an ongoing goal.
Reaching zero email messages in the inbox only feels like an accomplishment for as long as it lasts. The next email that rolls in ruins it. And you have no control over when the next email will arrive and whether you have time at that moment to process it. In short, "zero" is too specific for this ongoing goal. Imagine if you tried to keep your weight at exactly 135.5 pounds. It doesn't work. You need a range for an ongoing goal of that nature. "One page" is a more attainable goal at all times, whereas "zero" is ever fleeting.

3. Even Merlin Mann Calls It 'Monkeyballs.'
I wrote to Merlin Mann and asked him whether he created a monster that got out of hand with "inbox zero." He wrote back:
"In my view, the titular 'zero' in Inbox Zero is absolutely not about the number of messages that are sitting in your inbox at a given time. And, contrary to popular opinion, it’s absolutely not about spending hours of your precious day trying to achieve that empty inbox at any cost. That’s just monkeyballs."
Even his Inbox Zero information page says:
"That 'zero?' It’s not how many messages are in your inbox–it's how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don't want it to be. That's it."
I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why We Eat Curry on Valentine's Day

In 2004, I worked for a daily newspaper in San Francisco.

I hated that job.

I worked nights, Sunday through Thursday, from 2 p.m. until around midnight. I think we officially started the shift at 3 p.m., but if you showed up at 3, there was no way you could possibly get your job done.

Valentine's Day was on a Saturday that year, and miracle of miracles, I didn't work Saturdays. It was the first year I really had a plan for Valentine's Day. I had a then-newly serious boyfriend to boot.

We were going to share a calm evening at a restaurant that served amazing clay pot fish and caramel chicken, and in a neighborhood that had plenty of parking (San Francisco is notoriously stressful for its lousy parking). Calm. Easy. Simple. I made a dinner reservation about a month ahead of time. No stress. I was on top of it.

Then one evening at work, February 10, 2004 to be precise, an unforgettable piece of copy came across my desk. It read something like this:
"A popular Vietnamese restaurant and several offices housed in a historic downtown San Mateo office building were damaged in a five-alarm kitchen fire the morning of Feb. 10, 2004. The fire started in the kitchen of Camranh Bay and was confined primarily to the hood of one of the restaurant’s ovens. It was first noticed a little after 5 a.m. by San Mateo fire Battalion Chief Mike Borean and other firefighters housed in a fire station just down the street." [Excerpt from The San Mateo Daily Journal, not the newspaper where I worked, because its online archives only go back to 2006. Maybe that helps you imagine why it was a frustrating place to work in 2004.]
You guessed it. Camranh Bay just happened to be the restaurant where I booked Valentine's Day dinner.

I actually didn't believe it was true. Maybe someone in the office was pulling a prank on me, although it seemed doubtful because I didn't have any friends at that place.

I picked up the phone and called the restaurant. The number had already been disconnected.

I hung up, picked up the receiver again, and called my boyfriend.

"You're never going to believe this," I said, "but tomorrow's news is reporting that our Valentine's Day restaurant burned to the ground last night."

It was way too late in the game to get another reservation anywhere decent. I threw in the towel, and I'm glad.

When Saturday finally rolled around, we ordered delivery food from a really good Indian restaurant around the corner from my apartment. It took ages to arrive, but it was warm and spicy and comforting. Circles of naan filled the table. Fresh green sprigs of cilantro wilted fragrantly into the saag paneer. Juice from the prawns in the prawns jalfrezi dribbled down my chin.

It turned out to be an easy, calm evening after all, even if we did have to worry about parking.

And so for practically Valentine's Day since, we order Indian take-out and just enjoy each other's company without any stress or fuss.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

10 Things the Voice of Self-Doubt Says





  1. "They'd like you more if you talked less."
  2. "No one's interested."
  3. "You blew it."
  4. "Don't you have anything valuable to contribute?"
  5. "You're coming off too strong."
  6. "Stop dominating the conversation."
  7. "It's the 'look-at-me' show!"
  8. "Can't you ask better questions?"
  9. "All you do is talk about yourself."
  10. "Everything you've just said/written is completely wrong, and no one cares anyhow."

—Voice of Self-Doubt

"When you're an artist, you're in this struggle, because you want to put yourself out there. You're doing this thing that's very self-centered and narcissistic. Right? 'Look at me! I'm good!'  Because you're an artist, you're also full of self-doubt, self-loathing, worrying, neurosis--all that stuff. So you're torn! You want to put your stuff out there because of the exuberance of being creative, and then you feel bad about yourself." 
—Matt Groening

"There's this part of you that's like 'Shame! Shame! Shame on you for getting up there and being the center of attention, you big showoff! Who the... Who the... Who's he think he is?'" 
—Wayne White

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

My Grandma Played Dumb Too Long

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern plays an elderly man named Woody who's losing his marbles. He thinks he's won a million dollars in a direct-mail marketing campaign, but (spoiler alert), he hasn't. But he's utterly determined to go to Nebraska and claim the prize, even if he has to walk from Montana. His son relents and takes him there, turning it into a road trip. I'll spare you the middle, and fast-forward to the part where he finally has to confront the reality that he hasn't won anything at all. The woman who breaks the news to him gives him a trucker cap that painfully reads, "PRIZE WINNER."

Throughout the movie, when his son David asks what he'll do with the money, Woody says he'll buy a new truck. So after the moment of defeat, the next scene puts Woody and David in a car dealer parking lot. David comes out to tell Woody that the slightly used pick-up he sees in the lot is now his own.

"You work somethin' out with the prize people?"

That's the best line in the whole movie.

The dialogue sounds like Hemmingway prose at times. Woody gets out a couple of great lines that are so stark and blunt, yet packed full of meaning in their brevity.

What I love about "You work somethin' out with the prize people?" is that it gives us insight into whether Woody really is as mentally set back as he's made out to be. The audience is meant to be assessing Woody throughout the whole film. There are moments when we believe David is still in denial about Woody's state, and other times when Woody lets on that he's still got some of his wits left.

The thing is, you can't tell how much of it is senility and how much of it is a much more commonplace delusion.

My grandmother used to play dumb. It was her only punchline. Sometimes it killed, and other times, especially as she got older, it was hard to tell whether her lack of intellect was in fact a joke.

I don't know if it's generational or an aspect of some people's personalities, but I honestly think my grandmother played dumb so long all her life that she started to buy into it.