I wrote a few weeks ago that “There is no substitute for hard work. Inspiration, fortuitous timing, good connections come and go, so you must learn to be disciplined. My career has been one long lesson in self-reliance.” Afterwards, I wondered about this Puritanism, poked at its contours, prodded its provenance. Sometimes I think I was born this way, or that these values were cultivated at a young age. I was always a diligent student and, later, a determined employee. Assiduity and discipline were modeled and outright praised by my parents, and by their parents, too. I was also the eldest of four sisters, and I think my birth position shuttled me into Mother Hen mode, which entailed a kind of no-nonsense orderliness. When I was eight, I would pack my youngest sister snacks, books, and toys for Church. This was never requested or directed by my mother. It was one of the many ways in which I courted responsibility as a child. In advance of an outing in Colorado one summer when I was maybe ten years old, I prepared a ham sandwich for myself, placed it in a baggy, and deposited it in my color blocked fanny pack. Halfway up the hike, I paused to eat it, and the rest of my family looked on with bewildered envy at my forethought. These are not examples of “hard work,” exactly, but I think they get at its underlying pre-requisite: self-sufficiency. Beyond that, I was recognized for my academic performance from a young age, and the cycle of hard work followed by praise became addictive and self-defining. I was not an athlete, or an artist, or a musician — I was a high performing student. I earned every academic award on the dais as an elementary and middle school student and graduated valedictorian of my high school class. I was convinced even as a teenager that these achievements had nothing to do with my intelligence, and everything to do with my study habits. I squirmed when actual intellects debated, dissected texts, questioned historical perspectives. Most of my “opinions” were borrowed from elsewhere. But, man, I tested well. I could memorize pages of notes, long historical chronologies, mathematic equations. I learned to write to the teacher, not the subject — meaning, I listened to what they cared about and how they communicated, and then parroted those emphases back to them. In instruction, there is the notion of “teaching to the test,” and I was engaged in the student equivalent: “testing to the teacher.”
What do I think of all of this now? What was I doing? Was it worth the effort? Would I want my children to behave the same way?
I’m not sure. Certainly my professional career has proven the value — the necessity — of self-reliance time and time again, and I have always felt well-equipped to meet that requirement. I am wistful writing that down, though. It feels so tough, so skeptical of the world, and in general I believe myself to be an optimistic kind of person. I continue to believe that people will surprise you in beautiful ways if you let them. Perhaps this is less true in matters of business, though? Oy. It is difficult to imagine sitting my children down and telling them: “No one is looking out for you. You have to look out for yourself.” But that, for me, is a hard-earned truth in matters of business.
As I was ruminating on this, I came across an interesting poem by Marge Piercey, in which she writes:
“The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.”
Even if I were not a writer, I think her message is worth contemplation. She is getting at the self-reliance I have been talking about, but from a different approach. She implores us to find meaning in the work, criticism and praise be-damned. Work towards a center. Work as a center.
How do we feel about this, Magpies?
I find myself landing nowhere new or material, but these are the helter-skelter thoughts of a woman who has elsewhere wondered about the dotted lines between personal and professional life, and how we define ourselves in relation to our work, and how those demarcations blur if we have pursued a career in a creative field.
Opening this up for early morning thought on this fine Thursday.
+On pursuing English.
+I am not a numbers person.
+Do you think a background in the humanities in vastly different from one in STEM?
+A cozy and inexpensive lounge set.
+These are just the cutest kitchen towels ever. Weezie generously sent me a set and they are such a cheery addition!
+Alice Walk just relaunched this shirt — one of my favorites! The fit is perfect. The “tail hem” (in the back) is a bit longer, and I like the extra coverage but the ease of tucking it in in the front!
+Great acrylic drinkware for pool / outdoors.
+I need this ladylike denim jacket!
+My key to organization. My entire life revolves around this book! I write down every reminder, event, to-do, objective, etc in it!
+LOVE THESE SANDALS.
+LOVE THIS COLORBLOCKED DRESS.
+Fun rainy day toy set for littles.