• Fri, May 20 2011

Bullish: Are You Thinking Too Small?

Here are some ideas:

Don’t settle for anything that would embarrass a stereotypical man.

I think a lot of fighting sexism is just working out which code of conduct (the men’s one or the women’s one) should be the one we adopt for everyone — is boxing something women should be encouraged to take up as well, or is it an imprudent idea for everyone? Can we all just agree that everyone should open doors for people who have their arms full?

So — while it’s certainly not a moral mandate — it’s not a bad motivational technique to imagine whether what you’re planning, or what you’re settling for, is something that would embarrass a stereotypical man. Here are the kinds of things I’m thinking of:

“I did the first job for them for free hoping they’d pay me when they needed me again, but then they asked if I would do more work and they’d pay me when the company started making money, so I’ve been helping them out for six months now.”

“I didn’t ask for a raise because of the economy … I think we all have to wait it out. After all, we’ve even cut back on office supplies.”

I’m certainly not saying that anyone ought to eschew traditionally female careers or businesses. I don’t care if you’re welding patio furniture or designing a better diaper bag. Etsy, of course, was founded by men. A college friend of mine was once an intern sitting in on a meeting of male executives who debated among themselves the very important question of how many tampons should come in a box. We need not be prejudiced against any particular industry; we just need to be very demanding about our role within it.

Of course, there is a tremendous amount of financial pressure put on men — they must make a “good living” in order to be dateable, they are made to feel more ashamed of being unemployed, and they are quite likely to stifle their creative dreams in order to pursue stable, traditional employment. I’m not saying that all this pressure is good for all men, or for everyone. I’m saying that high financial and entrepreneurial standards can be good for the Bullishly-minded, regardless of gender. At the point that you call yourself a “CEO,” you should probably have some employees besides yourself. If you want to have kids, assume that you’ll need to support both them and your partner — after all, you never know, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a safe margin of income even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case? If you’re in a job or running a business that can’t provide you with the growth rate you need, ruthlessly cast it aside and move on to the next thing.

When praised for something so trivial a man would not receive praise for it, say “thank you”, ignore it, and keep going.

If you are a young woman, especially an especially pretty one, you are likely to be praised for doing just about anything. (See Bullish: What To Do About Being (Temporarily) Pretty) Win the big job? Create a blog? Sing on YouTube? You’re done! You’re pretty and you did something! Gold star!

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone — maybe your parents were very demanding, or maybe you have soberly realist friends. But it happens a lot. I find that women are often praised for a simple state of being (“She lives in New York and works in marketing!”) where men would only be praised for that if they were going somewhere from there. Don’t take praise for “having your own business” (gold star!); you want praise for profitability and growth.

Pursue growth for its own sake

In Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business, I talked about growth for its own sake. Growth is good for several reasons — any company you work for considers growth for its own sake to be good, so why should you have a less of a standard for yourself? And if you plan to have children, or to slow down at some point in life, it’s important now to earn more than you need. You don’t need an excuse to want to double your income; you don’t need to tell anyone why you “need” all that money. You just want a “healthy rate of growth.” It’s a great phrase.

The idea that a healthy rate of growth is a necessity is very helpful in negotiating and pursuing new opportunities. If you have decided that your career and/or business will grow by 20% per year, you will simply not be able to meet that target through cost-of-living raises: you will have to develop multiple streams of income, job hunt even when you’re happy at your current position, network even when you don’t need anything from anybody, and ask for more money and then work your ass off to make so much money for your company that passing some of it along to you to keep you working just makes sense.

I started this column by talking about embarrassment, so allow me to return to that topic. Don’t you often hear women say, “Oh, I’m terrible at math” with no embarrassment at all? Men rarely say this. I have also never heard a woman brag, “Oh, I’m terrible at reading!” Why? Because that would be embarrassing. Why do men score better on math tests, win most math awards, and obtain most math degrees in this country? For a conflated mess of reasons, I’m sure, but I think the phenomenon probably starts with the fact that it’s embarrassing for boys to be bad at math, so most of them work it out.

Interestingly, the gender gap in math that Larry Summers so famously posited doesn’t actually exist in Asia. Because no one told the girls there that they were supposed to be worse at it, and also because, in some cultures, math is viewed as something that is learned as the product of hard work, rather than as something one does or does not have an innate talent for. If you believe that math skill is simply the result of effort (and certainly no one thinks that girls are inferior to boys in applying effort to schoolwork), then not being good at math would be embarrassing.

I also think that making money and advancing in a career are the result of effort. Don’t accept that you or anyone is “bad at making money.” Rather, such people generally have some kind of core skill, but have not developed the promotional, networking, or social skills needed to capitalize on that skill. All of those things are learnable as a result of effort.

I hope no one’s been offended here — some people truly like to think small. They are content and feel no special sense of urgency. Some of them are even pursuing spiritual ideas that glorify a lack of desire and striving! I have no desire to tell such people to live differently (and I can’t imagine why any such person would have read this far anyway!) I totally accept that people have wildly diverse personalities and goals.

But if you’ve felt in your career as though maybe you’re being made a fool of by big-thinking hotshots and that you are capable of more, and would thrive on more, then it’s time to ruthlessly cast aside anything taking up your time that is merely okay, merely “good enough for a girl,” merely good enough for now. To think small would be an embarrassment. It’s time to work more and work towards more, than those around you.

Bullish will appear here every Friday, while Jen Dziura‘s lifestyle column (Bullish Life) will appear Tuesdays on The Gloss.

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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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