Define “successful”

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I’ll be back for 2020 as well…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

So there I was last Sunday, wearing my black dress and chartreuse silk scarf, all dressed up to attend an annual holiday party in Manhattan at the home of a man I’d met a few times at conferences. He’s had a career studded with highly visible and well-paid success, including becoming the first digital director of the Metropolitan Museum.

The room was packed with people, some of whom have Big Jobs at places like CNN and The New York Times and many teach at local journalism schools.

At one point, when it was a bit quieter, we were all asked to briefly introduce ourselves — like many, when I said “freelance writer” I heard some laughter, (kind? unkind? sympathetic?) as this is where so many talents now work — nowhere.

 

 

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A legendary writer and war correspondent — much of her life was spent frustrated by overwhelming, unfulfilled ambition. Makes me feel better!

 

Thanks to social media, other people’s BIG and quantifiable successes are in my face every hour: a book deal, a TV series created from their book deal, an award, a grant, a fellowship. It can feel completely overwhelming as I work, alone, more slowly and quietly.

I do have a major piece of work that will appear nationally in late January — that I worked on between August and October.

But for now…crickets.

People are fired daily now in my industry, with even well-funded and highly regarded places like the magazine Pacific Standard disappearing overnight.

So when you’re surrounded by people with visible, credible “success”, it can feel stupidly intimidating.

So I mostly, I’m embarrassed to admit, sat in the corner of that party, eavesdropping. I really enjoyed the great Indian food, but didn’t engage in much conversation. I’ve never been a fan of chitchat — and a NYC journalism party can present a heinous pecking order.

I don’t have children or grand-children, the traditional default place to park your pride when work fails.

I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, when I was laid off from a well-paid job at the New York Daily News. I’ve applied for staff jobs since, rarely even getting an interview. I’ve stopped applying for fellowships and had two grant applications refused this fall.

 

So “success” is a moving target for me, and maybe for some of you as well.

 

By necessity, if not desire, I look beyond work, visible accolades and high payment to my thriving marriage (20 years together, nine married); deep friendships across oceans and generations, a lovely home, generally decent health instead.

 

 

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This was my most recent New York Times story, about a sailing program for New York students

 

I’m already booked to speak in 2020 at two major conferences (unpaid, but smart, interesting audiences, one in the U.S. and one in Canada, where I do hope to find paying clients) and we’re planning (let’s do it this year, dammit!) a three to four week holiday in England.

Thanks to a link on the blog Small Dog Syndrome, I found this powerful insight, from American comedian Jenny Slate — who was hired into the cast of Saturday Night Live (never one of my favorite TV shows but considered the pinnacle of comedy success)then later fired.

Her take:

First, I just felt really, really embarrassed and terrible. … Hardly anyone gets kicked out of a cult, because I guess they want you to stay…But suddenly I just couldn’t imagine anything worse than getting fired. And then I just thought: I have to keep going. And no one can ever take away the dream.

And nothing will ever dim the lights of that experience, which was like: getting the job, leaving 30 Rock, calling my parents and saying “I am going to be on Saturday Night Live“? That is what it is. It’s such a beautiful achievement. And it’s real and I did it…

But what had also happened at the time, and what always happens, is that: Until I eventually croak, I will not die. I truly will not lie down. And you can be kicked out of a place; I definitely believe that. But I also believe the opportunity to find self-love and creative fulfillment is not a hallway with one door guarded by a super-old man. Actually, it’s spherical, and you just have to hold it between your legs. Just look down, find your opportunity.

 

 

Is it better to lose (and lose some more) than always “win”?

By Caitlin Kelly

Sport in childhood. Association football, show...
Sport in childhood. Association football, shown above, is a team sport which also provides opportunities to nurture social interaction skills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From The New York Times:

Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewelry stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches,
and sold in sporting-goods stores.

Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. In
Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — each player gets one, while around a third get two. Nationally, A.Y.S.O. local
branches typically spend as much as 12 percent of their yearly budgets
on trophies.

It adds up: trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada. Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.

The story had attracted 282 comments within a few hours of its publication…here’s part of one, from a male reader in New York City:

We want fame. We want adoration. We never want to break the from adolescence, no, from infancy, when we were center of the universe and a whimper could get our diaper changed.

And this admission, from a young woman in Chicago:

I’m 24 and a college graduate, and my peers and I were constantly praised from kindergarten through college. Like in the article, we all got trophies and certificates of achievement in grade and middle school, high grades in high school (partially so we could get into good colleges) and good grades for just showing up to class in college.

Competitive skills are not inherently developed; they are learned. What we have now is a group of young people coming out of college and high school who are just discovering that it takes more than showing up to succeed in life, and it is in no small part due to the “everybody is special” culture that we were steeped in as adolescents.

I think there’s a fine line between wanting non-stop attention and false adulation — “Great job!” I hear parents coo when some small child does…anything…these days — and genuine encouragement to persist in the face of disappointment and rejection.

PCHS NJROTC Awards
PCHS NJROTC Awards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had an interesting moment about four or five years ago, after a board meeting of fellow journalists for a national group. Three of us were walking to dinner, chatting — we had each applied that year for the same ultra-competitive fellowship, worth $20,000 to $40,000.

None of us won.

We all went back to our busy lives and personal challenges, and we’re all still here, all still in the game. We didn’t curl up in the fetal position, sucking our thumbs and whining to one another about it.

Ever. At all. You lose, pick yourself up and get on with it.

I applied last year again, as one of 278 applicants, and became one of 14 finalists.

I lost again.

I’d planned to re-apply this year but I decided to take a break.  Will I apply yet again? Probably.

Losing is dis-spiriting, indeed, but I think “winning” every time you compete for something is crazy.

English: English Premier League trophy, inscri...
English: English Premier League trophy, inscribed with “The Barclays Premiership” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life is too difficult!

You’ll never win every date/job/fellowship/grant/award/book contract/raise/promotion you want. No one does. (And if you do, I wonder how far you’re stretching and growing…)

But in a culture that usually only cheers and celebrates heroes and the wealthy, those whose visible proof of success wins them lots of attention and praise and high-fives, (all pleasant, certainly), it’s a challenge to remember — and to teach children — that failure is normal, to be expected and builds tenacity and resilience.

And those are the true building blocks of solid, lasting self-confidence.

In his book about children’s resilience, fellow Canadian Paul Tough argues strongly for the idea of grit.

Here’s an interesting post from the fab Maria Popova, she of BrainPickings fame, on how to hop off the hamster wheel of self-esteem addiction.

What say you?

Have you won awards or accolades you knew were bogus?

How are you teaching your own children to handle disappointment and loss?

How sports preps women for leadership and power

By Caitlin Kelly

I don’t normally look to the sober-sided Financial Times for career advice, especially on the value of sport(s) for women who aim high professionally. But here’s Gillian Tett:

English: Dilma Rousseff with her running mate ...
English: Dilma Rousseff with her running mate for the 2010 Brazilian presidential election, Michel Temer. Português do Brasil: Dilma Rousseff, candidata a Presidência da República, com o companheiro de chapa Michel Temer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In recent months Ernst & Young, the American consultancy, has been analysing sporting activity among senior female executives and leaders. And it has discovered that the higher the executive level, the more
likely it is that a woman played sport at high school or college. Most notably, some 19 out of 20 women who sit in the “C-suite” – holding the title “chief something” – were sporty as a teenager; indeed, seven out of 10 still play sport as a working adult, while six out of 10 played sport at university. One in eight C-suite executives played sport professionally. However, among the middle levels of working women, athletic skill was lower: just a third of mid-level women, for example, played sport at university..

A few examples:

IMF head Christine Lagarde (a former member of France’s synchronised swimming team), Condoleezza Rice (a keen figure skater in her youth) and Hillary Clinton (school baseball). Or Dilma Rousseff (the Brazilian president, who played volleyball to a high level), Indra Nooyi (the CEO of PepsiCo was a keen cricket player), Ellen Kullman (CEO at Dupont, who played basketball to a high level at college)…

Secretary Rice meets with newly appointed Afgh...
Secretary Rice meets with newly appointed Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta. State Department photo by Hamid Hamidi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Girls who play sport at school learn at a young age that it is acceptable to compete aggressively. They also discover that success does not depend on looking good and that it can be acceptable to take pleasure in winning. ..Being an athlete is one of the few socially accepted ways for teenage girls to compete, without peer criticism.

I’m such a huge fan of girls and women being athletic!

I’ve been sporty since childhood — when I had no choice in the matter, because we did sports after school every day at boarding school and all day long at summer camp.

Some of the sports I’ve played, and some I continue to play:

softball, hiking, cycling, downhill and cross-country skiing, kayaking, canoeing, ice skating, fencing, golf, tennis, squash, badminton, volleyball, basketball, swimming (competitive), diving, snorkel, horseback riding, sailing, solo and in a racing team (12 f00t to 60 foot boats).

I also studied ballet from the age of 12 to my late 20s, jazz dance in my 20s, and I still do a jazz dance class every Monday morning.

I include yoga and any form of dance in the same  category of “sports” — requiring discipline, flexibility, training, practice, strength and determination to master them.

For all the endless paranoia/obsession about the size and shape of our bodies, what we really need is to be strong and limber, at 5, 15, 45 or 65.

If it weren’t for my athletic activities, I wouldn’t be able to control my weight, manage my stress, tap into my creativity or relate nearly as easily to the many men and women I meet who are sporty. I can always find someone to go for a hike with or play golf with my husband or take a jazz, modern or ballet class. For many years, I crewed every summer on more than a dozen racing sailboats on Long Island Sound, often trimming jib, a job requiring lightning reflexes and strong arms, shoulders and hands.

I moved to New York when I was 30, knowing no one, with no formal American education, no friends, relatives or a job. To stay busy while re-making my life, I took up saber fencing, coached by a two-time Olympian, and was nationally ranked for four years.

I learned a tremendous amount in  the salle and on that narrow strip, all of which has helped me in life, work and relationships:

How to control my temper (at least during a bout!)

How to stay focused for 20 minutes, crouched in en garde, on a minute object to the exclusion of all distractions

How to compete with confidence against opponents far bigger, stronger, taller and more experienced

How to lose (and not freak out)

How to win (and not gloat)

How to buy a bit of time, even at nationals in the direct elimination round (tie your shoe)

How to control an opponent

How to stay focused and compete effectively even when injured and in pain

How to accept criticism and feedback from my coach

How to initiate an attack quickly and decisively

There is no doubt that my strength, stamina and flexibility still help me stay fit and strong in a crazy business in a difficult economy.

On the crummiest day I know I can still shoot hoops or swing a driver with the young ‘uns. I can hit to the outfield and pop a golf ball 150 yards.

Do you play sports? Do your daughters?

How do you think it has affected them or changed their lives?

Is being generous a smart move? (Is being a tight-fisted (^$@#*#?)

Is this really a question?

Apparently so…

From the cover story in this weekend’s New York Times Magzine, (for you non-journos’s, a spot so visible and prestigious some writers would {and possibly have} kill for).

It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:

Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”

Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.

Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.

I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.

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Grants (Photo credit: Steve deBurque)

Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.

The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.

The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.

Trick is — which one is which?

The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”

So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!

I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.

But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.

In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.

It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.

I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.

Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.

Do you help others professionally?

Which one of the three are you?

I’m Fabulous, Dammit!

Chelsea Clinton in Philadelphia
Yeah, I'll take an extra $300,000 a year, thanks! Image via Wikipedia

Women have a terrible time self-promoting. It’s considered unseemly, pushy, rude, entitled.

Who — they hiss, chicken-necking and hand-flapping in the corner — does she think she is anyway?

Great recent column by a New York Times editor (I’m biased; she ran this column of mine, which turned into my new book, “Malled”). But still:

Last year, women held about 14 percent of senior executive positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to the nonprofit group Catalyst, which focuses on women in the workplace. That number has barely budged since 2005, after 10 years of slow but steady increases.

So what’s the holdup? Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst, says one factor can be traced to an “entrenched sexism” that is no less harmful for being largely unconscious.

“I don’t want to blame this on men,” Ms. Lang said. Rather she cites “social norms that are so gendered and so stereotyped that even though we think we’ve gone past them, we really haven’t.”

She describes a corporate environment that offers much more latitude to men and where the bar is much higher for women. In her view, men tend to be promoted based on their promise, whereas women need to prove themselves multiple times.

She maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

Other factors apply, like the dearth of women and men willing to use their accumulated social capital to help smart and talented women get ahead, seriously ahead — joining the same corporate boards, for example, as Chelsea Clinton just did, which will pay her a staggering $300,000 a year.

This year I had a terrific opportunity, precisely because a man I had never before met, living in another country, felt I was doing a good job describing retail work from its lowest levels, the front line associates. Thanks to his enthusiasm, I was asked to be the closing keynote at a major retail conference, paid to address senior executives from companies like Target, Best Buy and Macy’s.

We all need people with power and influence to step up and out on our behalf, no matter how much talent, hard work, experience or credentials we bring on our own. (Which — dammit! — should be enough.)

Has anyone helped you professionally in a significant way?

Have you helped a woman in this manner?

How did it turn out?