Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.




Work, Debt and Identity

There is an interview today on The Atlantic with Allison J. Pugh, author of The Tumbleweed Society.  Pugh has written about the toll job insecurity takes on a person’s relationships and sense of identity.

“The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society,” Pugh said. “What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income.. it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, ‘I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.'”

One of the main themes in the novel Identity Theft, and one that has not been commented on much in reviews, is the central character’s struggle with identity as she faces the loss of her career. Maybe it does not come up much because when a character is female we’re primed to think her central conflict is related to romantic love and the main question the novel will try to solve is whether or not she will find love or a sense of her own attractiveness by the end.

Candi’s main struggle, though, is her sense that she is not valuable. That her particular skills, being a good, reliable worker, do not mean anything. This is tied more to her financial problems than body image issues. When people experience poverty they usually feel ashamed, and a natural result of this is that they tend to retreat from friendships.

As Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, wrote in his book The Shame of Poverty:

With economic development and growing individualization, social status has increasingly come to be associated with achievement, rather than with ascribed characteristics such as age, birth right, and gender. Most recently, wealth, expenditure and consumption have emerged as the predominant measures of personal success…Psychologists demonstrate that people experiencing shame not only feel small and humiliated, they are likely to experience social isolation which is either forced up on them, a form of exile, or chosen by them so as to avoid the possibility of public shaming. They are also prone to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide.

…the sense of shame is likely also to be prolonged because most people in poverty will generally already be doing as much as they can to escape from poverty…People in poverty lack the resources necessary to reciprocate, to support wives and husbands, to bring up children or even, adopting the language of stigma, to be fully human. Moreover, should they fail to appreciate the degree of their inadequacy and the depth of their degradation, society takes it upon itself to shame them into changing their ways or, with similar intent, to stigmatize them, thereby reinforcing the social divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and often actively discriminating against them, ‘the poor.’

…Respondents in all seven national settings sought to avoid the possibilities of shaming by stopping going out with friends or inviting people home to eat…. The change was usually justified as a measure to reduce cost, but it also meant that they were less likely to be placed in a position in which they would subsequently need to reciprocate in ways that they could not afford…Avoiding social life meant avoiding shame, but also resulted in a decline in the number of people that would be available to assist in the event of a crisis, thereby adding to the vulnerability of life in poverty.

One of the fascinating things in the interview with Pugh is that she found that when people lose a job through downsizing or layoffs, they tend to blame themselves. Apparently we are so invested in the mythos that we live in a world where hard work and merit are rewarded, we would rather blame ourselves than give up on that notion.

“But it’s like they’ve given up on this other huge thing,” Pugh said, “which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That’s not a conversation that we have anymore.”

In Identity Theft, it is only at the end, when Candi has been laid low by the events of the story, that she thinks to pose this very question. (Albeit in different words.)

Is society entirely impersonal? Do we owe nothing to one another?

It is the constantly re-enforced shame that comes in the form of calls from creditors and her social isolation that makes Candi vulnerable to Ethan’s game. Because her social world has contracted to posts on Facebook, the only relationship she is going to find is one that comes right to her. And the one that happens to fall in her lap is so magical it has the power to soothe all of her feelings of being useless and not a full member of society. Being courted by a rock star is the only thing, really, with the power to overcome all of her vulnerability and insecurity. So it becomes central to her sense of self.

I recommend The Atlantic article. I think it is important for the narrative about insecure employment, debt and wage stagnation to be broadened to include all of its impacts on relationships, culture and society.

What if Money Didn’t Matter?

What would you do if money didn’t matter?

I’ve posted this video, based on a speech by Alan Watts, only my (much neglected) sister blog dedicated to my book Broke is Beautiful as well as here. (I’ve been trying for some time to decide whether to merge the two.)

I am fortunate in that I can honestly say I can’t imagine a thing I would change about my career if money didn’t matter. That is one thing I have generally been able to say because I chose my work much as Alan Watts suggests here. What do you want to do?

Watts makes a promise here, and it is one that shows up in most of our self-help literature, that when you are true to yourself financial success inevitably follows. “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow” was the title of a best-selling book. (So it presumably worked for that author, at least for a while.)

“Somebody is interested in everything,” Watts says, “And anything that you are interested in, you will find others who are.”

In Broke is Beautiful, I made the argument that you should do what you love whether the money follows or not, because it may not. It was Robert Benchley who said, “The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”

Of course, “doing what you love” does not necessarily mean making your money by doing what you love. “Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you,” wrote Oscar Wilde.

“You should do what you love because you love it” is a much harder argument to make in our culture, it is far too direct and simple.

Have We No Shame?

ImageIt is the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and there’s another “don’t say the killer’s name” story making the rounds.

One of the victims refused to appear on an anniversary edition of Meet the Press because they couldn’t guarantee the killer’s names would not be spoken by someone in the panel discussion.

It is not something I should have to say, but just for the record, let me make it clear that my sympathies lie with the victims not the perpetrators of the violence. I am sympathetic to the anger and bewilderment victims must feel when they read that the younger Boston bombing suspect has a following of young women who believe someone with such big, brown eyes cannot be guilty and must have been framed. Yeah, he’s cute. He’s also a cold-blooded killer who was able to suspend all human compassion and commit a horrifying act.

We are shocked by this kind of anti-social behavior. It doesn’t compute, so we come back for more information and more. We look at killers with confusion, horror, fascination. What makes someone like that? We need to know who the perpetrators are to try to make sense of what happened. So we talk about them.

What I am trying to understand is how fame came to be understood as a universally positive category regardless of what a person is known for.  Speaking someone’s name, in and of itself, is not praising a person. You can make someone known in order to damn him.

In colonial times, as an example, people who violated community sensibilities were placed in the stocks. While they were out in the public square, their humiliation served as a corrective and a kind of entertainment. The people in the stocks were the most known members of the community at that moment. To put it in modern terms, they were the most famous.  Being gawked at, having your name on everyone’s lips, was not an honor but its opposite.

When you think about the axis of honor and shame both poles imply being known and talked about.  Both the honored and the shamed are famous.

The particular axis of values at play now seems neither to be about being moral or immoral nor in step or out of step with the community.  It is an axis of known vs. anonymous with known being equivalent to the “honorable” pole and unknown being equivalent to “shameful.”

Old value: Honor= Good  Shame=Bad

Current value: Fame=Good Anonymity=Bad

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is a fan of the kind of reality TV shows where catty rich women cheat with each others’ husbands and say snarky things about one another to the camera while brazenly social climbing. I told my friend that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be on a show like that and air all their dirty laundry in public.

She started to talk about all of the benefits these women received– fashion design contracts and perfumes and opportunities to appear as a “celebrity guest.”

Being known for bad behavior seems to be socially preferable to being unknown for behaving well. (Thus the ending of House of Mirth had to change when it was made for modern audiences so the protagonist’s noble sacrifice is not left a secret.)

Is it possible that we are judging our fellow citizens not on their inherent qualities or their actions but on their entertainment value?


What is “Networking?”

“Seventy-nine percent of wealthy network five hours or more each month vs. 16 percent of poor.”

I’ve been doing some more thinking about Dave Ramsey’s list of habits of the rich. Sojourners recently ran its own critique of his article, which brought it back to my thoughts. Ramsey put together his list of “rich people habits” from a book called Rich Habits by Tom Corley. I have been trying to understand where the scientific-sounding stats from Ramsey’s list come from. According to Corley’s web page he derived these numbers from personal observation. “Tom spent five years studying the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 people living in poverty.”

I have not read Corely’s book, so I do not know if his analysis and percentage figures are as anecdotal and un-rigorous as this sounds to me on its face. Most of the terms in Ramsey’s article based on Corley’s book are woefully undefined. “74% of wealthy teach good daily success habits to their children vs. 1% of poor.” What is a “good daily success habit”? The problem of definition begins with what is meant by “rich” and “poor.” Is poor defined as below the federal poverty line? Or is poor simply “not rich.” I will give Corely the benefit of the doubt that these things may be better defined and sourced in his book than on his web site or the Ramsey article based on it.

In any case, the concept of “networking” jumped out at me. Rich people do it. Poor people don’t, Ramsey and Corley say.

“Networking” as I understand the term means building social relations in order to gain career advantage. That is to say, getting to know people who might help you down the line.

In other contexts getting to know people is known as building community. Do poor people not have this or do they not talk about it using the same terms as those who read lots of business self-help books?

When I have worked low-paying jobs, the guys I worked with were always on the lookout for something better and they were always saying things like, “I am thinking of moving to Kentucky because my friend knows someone at the such-and-such plant and they’re paying $X and he can get me in there.”  The typical narrative for an immigrant is that he works hard, gets established and paves the way for others from his community back home to immigrate and work here as well. In that way, working class people help other working class people by connecting them with opportunities and jobs.

My impression is, of course, entirely observational and anecdotal but it seems to me that people with low incomes are just as likely to learn about job openings through personal contacts as rich people. People don’t often speak of this as “networking.” “Networking” is a word used by a particular subculture– ambitious, career focused, white collar folks who dream of wealth and reaching the top of the ladder.

The difference between Dollar McRichman’s “networking” and Bob Elbowgrease’s “networking” is in the type of job he learns about and the social class of people in their circles.  If “networking” means consciously striving to know people in the right type of positions and the appropriate social class another common name for it is “social climbing.”

In fact, when it comes to relying on community connections, every study I have read says that it is the poor who are the champions, not the rich. The poor rely on social networks to help meet their needs, the rich pay people and buy stuff.

As Daniel Golman writing in The New York Times sums up some of the research done by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

I would like to suggest that the word “networking” is used to remind people whose primary focus is financial wealth to value social networks by framing them in terms of the career benefits that might come from it.

In this sense, Ramsey and Corely may be entirely right. What sets a rich person apart from a poor person is not his moral superiority, his far greater intelligence, his superior resourcefulness. (It takes a heck of a lot of resourcefulness to live on minimum wage.)  What differentiates a rich person from a poor one is that the rich one has demonstrated his ability to amass wealth. That’s it. There are many ways to do it– some laudable, some less so.  A rich person may be rich because he invented something we all value or because he discovered a barely-legal way to move numbers around on Wall-Street or because she is as loved as Oprah or because she has no qualms about ripping people off. What the rich have in common is their possession of big piles of money and the resources to hire people to help them keep hold of it.

The word “networking” symbolizes a mindset and a set of priorities, one that frames friendship in terms of career and sees career as the source of personal fulfillment. Another way of living is to see career as something that affords you enough money to live so you can have relationships that are the source of personal fulfillment. Ramsey and Corely give instructions on how to become rich, and the way to do that (putting luck and fate aside) is to make money your priority.  (I think everyone has to acknowledge that some people start the game on third base when it comes to building up a big pile of cash. I’m talking to you Affluenza boy!)

Networking may well be a “rich” person’s habit. The idea that therefore we should all do it assumes that we should all be striving to become rich.  (How rich isn’t specified.)  In much the same way that women are supposed to try to “achieve” the beauty of supermodels we are all supposed to be envious the wealth of Richard Branson. It is assumed that the existence of rich people is a commentary of sorts on our own relative net worth. There is an underlying tone of moral imperative not just to have enough but to aspire to riches.

Of course, no one wants to be poor, but there is a vast gulf between not having basic needs met and being “rich.” (This is why I have a problem with the vagueness of how “rich” and “poor” are used in the Ramsey article.)  Money has what sociologists call “declining marginal utility.” That is to say, it improves life considerably when it takes a person from living under a bridge to living in a house. But once a person has enough to meet basic needs, more money doesn’t make people much more content. Going from having no TV to having a TV makes you quite happy.  Going from having a TV to having a big screen HD TV with 3D doesn’t pack the same punch. Going from having a big screen HD TV with 3D to having six of them provides even less satisfaction.

I have no qualms with people valuing money and being driven to become rich. That is fine as an ambition. It shouldn’t have to be everyone’s ambition. In other words, a person who lives somewhere in the middle, having money worries from time to time, but drawing primary satisfaction from things other than financial wealth and career (family, arts, religion, friendships, volunteering, social work, what have you) should not be seen as a failed rich person. In our culture it seems that is what we are all assumed to be.


Yesterday, I wrote about Failure Lab, an event coming to the Detroit Opera House on November 21.  I discovered the event through a tweet by Focus: Hope, which I retweeted. Focus:Hope asked if I would be attending and I replied that I would love to, but don’t think I can afford it right now.

This morning a success coach tweeted me.  “…please don’t be offended but I cringe at ds ‘can’t afford’. Try it is not in my budget right nowBetter message 4U!”

So I have been thinking about the subtle difference between these two statements.

Imagine a scenario in which you go into a store and ask how much it is for a candy bar. The clerk says “$1.” You rifle through your pockets and come up with only 50c.  Doesn’t it seem woefully euphemistic to say “It’s not in my budget right now” rather than, “Sorry, I haven’t got that much.”?

The coach did not say why “it’s not in my budget” is better 4 me.  It was a tweet, after all.  So let me try to parse it.

My first reaction was that it implied that it would be shameful to admit you did not have enough money.  Instead, you imply that you have enough, you are just not making that a priority in your budget.

I won’t go into all of the reasons again why I think concealing poverty is unhelpful and leads to a cycle of shame.  (I wrote a whole book on the subject, after all.)  There is another aspect to this that I find more interesting.

Indeed, the success coach is right, studies have shown that a key to happiness is a sense of having control of your life and your environment.  Perhaps you can achieve that, at least temporarily, through thinking of yourself as being able to do things but not prioritizing them. “I could if I wanted to, but I chose not to.”

You can carry this further by saying, “I could be making more money, but I have prioritized living in the area where I grew up” or “spending more time with my children” or whatever it is. So everything is still your choice that you do not have a lot of money. You feel you have agency. You feel more content. So if you make it a habit of framing things in a way that gives you agency (even if it is something of an illusion) you feel better about yourself.  This was, in fact, a point I made in my book. Don’t think of yourself as a loser, think of yourself as an artist of life who has prioritized the non-financial.

If you think of my message to the organizers as being only about myself then it makes sense that it would be better for my self-esteem to word the message as the success coach suggests.  My tweet, however, was not primarily about conveying information about me, it was about a relationship between myself and the people who came up with this creative project.  Communicating with other people is not only about self-esteem, it is also about other-esteem.

If I want to express how much I love the idea of what Failure Lab is doing, is it better to say that I would love to go if I had enough money or to imply that I do have enough but that their show is not enough of a priority for me to budget for it?

“No Hugging, No Learning”: Saying No When Hungry and Things that Don’t Work Until They Do

It is hard to say no when you are hungry for work. Writers are always hungry for work and therefore we are prone to jumping into deals that might not be the best in the long run. We’re afraid that if we say no we may never get another offer again.  Once I had an editor act indignant when I said that a point on a book contract was a deal breaker for me.  “Most writers are grateful for the work,” he said.

Last week I was contacted by an enthusiastic agent who was interested in representing a new novel I am shopping.  He said he was a fan of my work, said lots of complimentary things about it and gave the impression that he saw it as a potential best seller.  We were not long into the conversation, though, before it became clear to me that the partnership wasn’t going to work well.

He felt that to have a shot at selling well a book had to give the audience what it wants which means to follow a particular narrative structure that American audiences have come to expect. It is the only narrative that is satisfying and the only one which has a shot of generating the word of mouth that leads to book sales.  He went on to suggest I rewrite the book so it more closely followed a particular path and he went on to describe the plot of every romantic comedy ever made. To be clear, I am open to notes and suggestions. I have nothing against a great new take on an old story.  The only problem was that my particular novel actually made fun of the very romantic comedy convention he was hoping I’d adopt.  I wasn’t sure how I could reconcile those two aspects in this one novel.  I would have to give a lot of thought to what kind of story I wanted to tell and what my goals were for it.

In the end, the reason I felt I had to say no to this partnership had less to do with the particular revisions he suggested, but that I didn’t feel there was enough give and take.  I always have felt listened to with the agent who has represented my most recent non-fiction projects. Anyone I worked with would have to be open to my point of view and willing to admit that there is a subjective element in publishing and a blind luck element as well. No one can guarantee they can turn your book into a Twilight or Davinci Code.  You can do everything that the experts say should be a smash hit but that doesn’t mean it will be. The flip side of that is that doing the so-called wrong thing sometimes works.

If there is one thing that I have learned in the years I have been writing and publishing books it is that the very thing that one editor is certain makes your book unmarketable is the very thing that will excite a different editor.  Sometimes the changes I made to satisfy a particular agent or editor are the very things that get criticized in reviews. The same is true with published books– every negative note I read in reviews is contrasted by a glowing review by someone else for the exact same writing choice.  This doesn’t mean feedback is useless or that you shouldn’t listen to what readers have to say.  What it means is that y0u have to learn how to listen to what they have to say and to have an internal compass that tells you whether a criticism is one you should take to heart and when it is simply not someone’s taste. The other thing I have come to understand about editorial notes, especially on fiction, is that the person’s objection may be based on a real shortcoming, but the way to fix it might be different from what the reader is suggesting. For example, they might say, “I don’t like what you did with this character in the third act.” When you think about what the problem is, it might not be the plot point at all but that you didn’t set up the situation in the right way or elaborate enough on a particular aspect of the character to make the actions make sense.

Of course, I have been thinking about this ever since it happened– wondering if I did the right thing, wondering how much of this agent’s point of view is worth exploring and how much I need to follow my own compass.

Today I got to thinking about Seinfeld. It was just about the most popular sitcom in history.  The writing staff’s motto was “no hugging, no learning.”  Most every other sitcom on the air had a predictable formula.  The (dead?) blog Dead Comedian’s Society put it this way: “One of the first rules of story-telling is character development. In every story the characters must change and be affected by the events of the story. If they do not change the story feels fake, and more importantly, it is boring. This principle applies to all forms of media from books to movies to television. Thankfully, nobody ever told that to Larry David.”

I’m sure people did tell that to Larry David. They must have said his idea could never work and if it did it would only attract a fringe audience of hipsters.  Writing a “no hugging, no learning” television comedy absolutely can’t work– until it does. A lot of things can’t possibly work– until they do.  Then people follow that path trying to write “Seinfeld-like” comedies because conventional wisdom has it that that is what sells.

I did not say any of this to the agent, of course, this is all Treppenwitz.  Here is some more: At one point the agent asked me, in a somewhat sarcastic tone, “Do you think you’re (name of famous literary artsy writer)?”  I mumbled something about what kind of writer I think I am. I wish I had sat up a big straighter and said, “No, I think I’m Laura Lee.”