That time of year

I have a batch of student graduating and with that comes the existential dread of what adulting will be like. I usually ask my Ethics class to come up with questions for me to answer the last week of school. I’m going to post some of my better responses here for posterity.

Question: What is up with not being motivated? Can I make myself more motivated? (paraphrased)

Answer: Motivation is a big issue, and there’s no easy fix. I’ve been highly motivated to do lots of stuff in my life, and some of it worked out and some of it didn’t. I’ve also had motivation issues with really important things that I eventually trudged my way through.

I believe we have an inner voice (or a bunch of them) that guides us, but sometimes that voice gets drowned out by other stuff like an obligation, financial reality, the need to be accepted or admired, etc. Also, what makes life meaningful changes as we age.

If one topic keeps you really in the zone (interested, time passes quickly, challenges are exciting instead of daunting) and another makes you exhausted and miserable, you might explore the former. That said, I’ve endured some stuff I mostly hated (dissertation review, for example) to get where I wanted to be, but my overall goal got me through. I’ve also had the same activity be amazing in one context (school) and totally and utterly awful in another (running a business).

We are creatures of impulse, and sometimes too many impulses pull on us at once. Sometimes it helps to write down or visualize what we want and what the barriers are (and what we are spending time on instead). Try to do this with curiosity, rather than self-judgment or guilt. I’ve used mind maps, spreadsheets, and journaling to concretize my ideas – whatever worked at the time. I’ve also worked with coaches a few times and therapists a lot.

Finally,  I think the best decisions are when your heart, brain, and body are all on the same page (and this includes friends, partners, jobs, pretty much anything that has a big impact on your life)

Body – Do you feel energized and have stamina when you’re engaged with the activity (person, etc)? Do you feel balanced? Or do you feel wiped out? Do you end up relieving stress in ways that wear you out more? (staying up too late, drinking alcohol, or my personal favorite, too much coffee)

Mind – Does it make rational sense to pursue this avenue? What are the long and short term pros and cons?

Heart – Do you feel fulfilled, safe, joyful, peaceful, excited? Or fearful, angry, competitive, or insecure?

No career/person/etc is 100% perfect. I’ve had 4ish careers, and all of them had great things about them and suck things about them. It’s really about the balance. As a teacher, I have to fight really hard to carve out time for my family and physical/mental health (because of that 24-hour semester thing), and academic politics are just stupid. But in return, I get a lot of control, the opportunity to be creative and to continually learn and improve. For me, teaching is a career that’s max on fulfilling and min on the suck parts.

That’s especially important for me because the combination of being a recovering perfectionist and a highly competitive person can really mess me up. Teaching, ultimately, is not about me so I can let go of the need to compare myself to others.  Someone will always think I’m amazing (even my first semester 8 years ago when I sucked) and someone will always think I’m totally lame (no matter how much other students like my classes). I find this strangely freeing. In some ways, it can be helpful to work against type. Make of that what you will. And watch Hannah Gadsby’s Ted Talk – she talks about this too.

Disowned Competition

Here’s another story that pushed me towards my current interest in disowned aggression in women.

I have spoken for several years at an annual conference for entrepreneurs here in Austin. For the last few years, there’s been a track for female entrepreneurs, and a luncheon. I went to the luncheon last year to network and just see what was going on for women in Austin. There was a panel of successful women, and a moderator who asked them questions about how they succeeded, how they work with other women, how they differ from male entrepreneurs, blah blah. It was interesting, but not ground-breaking. The moment of weird happened during the audience Q&A. A woman stood up, and asked the panel how they dealt with being collaborative, nurturing women in a competitive patriarchal business environment (I am very paraphrasing, but this was the gist). Lots of collective nodding and oohing and aahing followed. My first thought was, “huh?” Who isn’t competitive, let alone a woman with the chutzpah to start her own business? Then the fun part – only one woman on the panel of five openly said, “I’m a competitive person.” Mind: blown.

Competitiveness is a feminine trait, because it’s a human trait. It’s a human trait, because it’s a trait of all living things. We compete to survive. But somewhere along the line, it got taken out of the definition of femininity as a normal impulse. Any trait can be dangerous if taken too far – nurturing can be smothering, protectiveness can become possessiveness. I’m not saying that there isn’t lots of natural variation in competitive traits between people. But how can a room full of independent, motivated, empowered women act as if competitiveness is an exclusively masculine trait? Seriously, what is with that? If you accept the premise that competition is a natural impulse among humans, what happens when women either disown or repress their own competitive impulses? That, my friends, is the big hairy question. In high school, you get bullying. But guess what? It doesn’t stop after high school, it just becomes undiscussable.

When Women Bully Women – Psychology Today
Why Women are the Worst Kind of Bullies – Forbes

If you are not aware of impulses that might be harmful to others, you won’t make rational decisions about how to express them. I wrote about this a bit in an article on political power. The interesting part is all three of the examples I used were former female managers of mine. One was aware of her own motivations and desires and acted directly and ethically; the other two–not so much.

Since my first career was in music, I couldn’t ignore my competitive nature. I had to audition against other singers, and the more I wanted to beat them, the better I did. This also meant that to some extent, I could watch for negative competitive behaviors in my interpersonal relationships, although I did not always succeed. There have been many instances where I have looked back at a past decision and thought, “Yikes! That was a bit much. Not cool, Michelann.” But the fact alone that I can openly say that I’m competitive makes me a bit of a weirdo. Whereas I tend to think it makes me maybe a little more trustworthy, since I can guard against letting my competitiveness unnecessarily hurt a relationship.

What do you think? Are women competitive? Is indirect competition healthier than direct competition? Should we be able to talk about things like envy and jealousy more openly?