Bullish: Are You Thinking Too Small?

Welcome to the first ever Bullish column on The Grindstone! Bullish previously appeared weekly on our sister site The Gloss (here’s an archive). The column will focus on helping women get and make the most of their careers.

Ever since I first figured out how a screwdriver works (you don’t necessarily need to drill holes first — you can screw stuff straight into drywall!), it has occurred to me that there are plenty of really easy things that men are “better” at for absolutely no good reason. Aside from basic tool use, these may include parallel parking, map reading, and catching a gently tossed baseball or football. While it’s possible that men and women have cognitive differences at least in part caused by biology, I’m talking about really basic skills, here; however much either gender lags behind in such skills is clearly cultural. And I’d like to talk about a specific part of that cultural divide: the power of embarrassment.

Why are most American men pretty good at parallel parking, map reading, and catching things? Because if you are a man, it’s humiliating to be bad at these things. However, it is not terribly embarrassing to be bad at these things if you are a woman. Since the natural human condition is laziness, men have more motivation to gain these skills.

I think there is a very similar “embarrassment gap” between men and women about money and business. I think many women think too small because they’re not embarrassed by it, whereas men are forced to think bigger — in part for the obvious reasons (money, glory), but in part just to avoid shame.

In 1998, during the dotcom boom, I started an internet marketing company. I was 19. By the time I graduated, I had eight part-time employees. Senior year, I made $40,000! I felt pretty accomplished. After all, just two years before, I had been financially shamed out of a weightlifting class I had signed up for at the gym. There was a $19 fee, and I wasn’t getting paid from my part-time job until the Friday after the class started. I showed up to the first session hoping it would be cool: “My parents don’t give me spending money. I have to earn it. I don’t have any money right now.” I was asked to leave the gym. (See “Bullish: Social Class in the Office“). So, two years later, it felt pretty good to buy some fancy groceries, and to bill my clients for a few thousand here and a few thousand there.

I had this vague idea that I would graduate, and then keep doing what I was doing until I was a millionaire. So, I would become a millionaire a few thousand dollars at a time, somehow? I started to be plagued with the nagging realization that this was not the point of the dotcom era (whatever the point was, it wasn’t billing services by the hour) and that I was a stupid (now 21-year-old) girl who only does small, cute girl things. And $40,000 a year is pretty good … for a girl. Like I just parked a car without putting the wheels on the curb.

This realization was greatly magnified by the interactions I had with a major client, a company I’ll call WebBoats.com, a site that allowed users to create animated models of boats and sail them on a virtual ocean, while betting on wind speed and whether it will rain. It was not clear how this business would ever make money. I was feeling pretty smooth for constantly supplying WebBoats with the web design, programming, and animation services they required, and I often marveled that I was perhaps the only person making a profit from WebBoats. But then I sat in on a meeting of the executive team, during which these guys (all guys) discussed other, similarly quixotic startups — started by people they knew — that had received large rounds of venture capital funding, and one of them said, angrily, “Where’s our million dollars?”

Seriously. Imagine someone saying that in the most repulsive way possible, as you would imagine someone saying, “Where’s the bitch I gotta give two black eyes to?”

I was stunned that anyone could think himself entitled to a million dollars just for having a pretty middling idea and hiring someone else to make a website about it. I started to realize how stupid I was for not trying to make more money off being smarter than (at least some of) those guys. I had been thinking too small. My company was … adorable.

Now, I realize that many people have posited that women want different things from entrepreneurship, or their careers. I have also been told a million times that, for women, life and work are integrated. I mean, of course they are. You work to have a good life, while also desiring that the work itself be satisfying. I don’t really think that that’s different from what men want. There are tons of “life hacking” and internet business websites with overwhelmingly male writers and commenters, who frequently talk about wanting to start businesses so they can spend more time with their kids, or more time surfing, or any of a variety of other lifestyle choices. Some people want businesses to simply feed a rich personal life. Some people want to build empires. Either way, you want to avoid thinking too small, getting taken advantage of, and stopping before your plans really come to fruition.

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    • maddy

      Only one. You make a lot of good points, but please stop prefacing your point, when you finally get to it, by saying what you’re “not saying”. it’s a waste of time. If the reader has jumped ahead to the wrong conclusion, that’s tough. In the words of Strunk and White, “Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words.” Did I just ignore my own advice?
      Don’t count on me for anything on Facebook or Twitter; I don’t like or use them.

      • Amita

        People get wicked offended on The Internets. If it were me, I’d cover my ass too.

      • Bob V

        Sorry, Jen. I’m with Maddy here. I think you tried to draw a line so thin that you ended up erasing it altogether.

        I see “don’t accept that you or anyone is ‘bad at making money”” as incompatible with the idea that some people truly like to think small and they should be left to do so.

        You say that men are good at some things because we are made to feel uncomfortable about being bad at them. If you want gaps to decrease, then it would seem you need to make women just as uncomfortable. That means thinking small needs to incur some social cost. Being bad at things needs to be an unacceptable position.

        I teach a subject that relies on some rudimentary math (calculator) skills. I still get a little startled when someone tells me they aren’t good at math or that they don’t like it. I don’t think anyone bothers to tell them that you don’t get good at something without working on it, and you don’t get to like something without getting a little good at it. I don’t feel most of these students have worked hard enough at it yet to earn the right to say they don’t like it.

      • Maribel

        I kept trying to post a response to Bob and it keeps ending up at the top :(

        Anyway, glad to see an article that cautions against thinking small instead of giving more advice about just getting along and saving money.

    • Amita

      Great article! I need some bigger goals … and to start acting like my inner “dude” sometimes.

    • George Elliot

      I’ve read your article on The Gloss since they first began publishing it and have always enjoyed reading it. Now that you’re here at The Grindstone, I’m looking forward to more of the same.

      I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a pretty girl praised for completing some trivial task that would have gone unnoticed if performed by a less attractive woman or by a man and I commend you for suggesting that it’s demeaning. If women are to be regarded as men’s equals, then we must call out this patronizing nonsense when we see it.

    • Eve

      Great article. The point about women being praised for a state of being is interesting– I think there’s an idea foisted on women (often by other women) that there is a perfect state we can attain, whether it be “single career girl living glamorously in the city” or “married with five kids on a blissful family ranch,” and that once we maintain that state, everything will be peachy. But any life at all will grow stagnant if the person living it doesn’t keep moving forward.

      • Eve

        meant to say “attain that state”

    • Maribel

      I think there’s a big difference between “not good at something” and “choosing not to.” Lots of people don’t care about career advancement or making money – they just choose to relax.

      You want to make women feel bad about being bad at stuff? All of them? Jenn was saying that YOU can set higher, gender neutral standards for YOURSELF if you choose (and some don’t, which is also OK).

      • Maribel

        I think there’s a big difference between “not good at something” and “choosing not to.” Lots of people don’t care about career advancement or making money – they just choose to relax.

        You want to make women feel bad about being bad at stuff? All of them? Jenn was saying that YOU can set higher, gender neutral standards for YOURSELF if you choose (and some don’t, which is also OK).

      • Bob V

        Hi Maribel,

        >”You want to make women feel bad about being bad at stuff? All of them?”

        Sort of, I guess, but I think that misrepresents the spirit of my views.

        I’m a feminist, so I don’t single out *women* to feel bad about being bad at stuff. I have men in my classes who tell me the same thing. I don’t keep track so I don’t even know for sure which group tells me it more. It certainly isn’t legions of women for every token male though.

        Further, I don’t want to make everyone feel bad for being bad at stuff; I care when someone is bad at a prerequisite for my class and happens to be taking it. I don’t want to shame them into being good at it. I’d just like them to accept a growth mindset that being good at it is an accessible thing. (Just as anyone can parallel park if they know they should try backing into the spot rather than driving straight in.) These things aren’t magic, inborn traits.

        So again:
        1. If there is shaming, it’s fairly gender neutral shaming, both in design as well as in practice. (I’m not running a Walmart.)
        2. I don’t personally apply my standards against everyone. I apply them to my students, which I think is a reasonable imposition and part of what I’m paid to do.

        >Jenn was saying that YOU can set higher, gender neutral standards for
        >YOURSELF if you choose (and some don’t, which is also OK).

        I’m actually not entirely clear on whether that’s what she meant. Was she really just giving her audience permission to have high, gender-neutral standards for themselves? As maddy noted, it deflates the claim quite a bit. And then I would wonder if this point wouldn’t be better directed at men terrified of being unable to learn to read maps.

        Then again, I’m probably wrong about that. Most of the other comments are from people who seem to have been inspired to adopt more ambitious goals, so regardless of my reading it was effective for them, which is the important thing!

    • Charley

      OMG. I finally found Bullish! I was wondering where it went! Yay!

      The Grindstone looks great! but now I have 2 sites to read… there goes my afternoon.

    • B

      I have definitely been thinking this, I look around at my peers and all the guys are starting businesses and the females are just spending all of their money on clothes. I think the reasons go beyond embarrassment and into a more basic instinctive breeding mentality. It’s about what makes us attractive sexually. Women can be attractive sexually whilst being kind of endearing and useless financially, but men can’t, so they grow up with a more urgent sense of needing to be financially successful. I guess this ties into the shame thing, shame likely has basic links with not being able to get somebody to procreate with you.

      I hate hate hate constantly being praised for ridiculous things at work, it is so patronizing as an assistant to be told “you’re a STAR”, “you are SO AWESOME!!!”, “GENIUS” when making a coffee or finding a phone number for execs. As if that is the upper limit of my capabilities. I feel like a guy would never get that kind of praise, but then again I feel like a guy would never bother starting life out as a P.A either.

      grumble grumble

      Jen’s articles are so darn inspiring, just need a good idea to launch…maybe the next article could be, how to create the skills to then market as a successful business? Or how to raise finance for one? Reading this is like watching a movie where the character is initially struggling and then they get to success through a swift montage of blurred clips, when all you want the movie to do is slow down to show e x a c t l y how they got from a to b.

      I am so ready to think big but how do I go from graduate to successful business woman! What is the first step??

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    • lolly

      there’s also another reason why some people are successful and others aren’t. sometimes a psychopath brutally deforms a person for no reason or similar happens if they are struck by a bus or UFO. at that point the amount of success they enjoy, after years upon years of recovery, really has nothing to do with their skills and abilities. as obviously they would have been much more successful if they hadn’t been targeted by a psychopath or hit by a drunk extra-terrestrial. I guess this all falls under the rubric of luck.

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