Melinda Byerly and her team at “Stayin’ Alive in Tech” have put together a cool compendium from their various podcast interviews in honor of Women’s History Month and I’m thrilled to be included – you can see the post here
I was recently interviewed by Andrea Smith of CyberCoders on how to recruit and interview for startups. The war for talent here in the valley is fierce – I shared some of my approaches in this interview.
We often associate learning new skills with youth. In fact, it is commonly assumed that if you don’t learn certain skills such as playing a musical instrument, a sport, or to speak a foreign language as a child, it’s “too late.” As a culture we admire those who achieve excellence at a young age for instance a musical child prodigy or a business prodigy such as Mark Zuckerberg. While their accomplishments are admirable why don’t we equally celebrate accomplishments, particularly learning later in life? Unfortunately many cultural and psychological constructs confound to keep us from learning new things as adults
I believe that’s why I found the concept of “Beginner’s Mind” so important when I began my journey of learning about Mindfulness. Beginner’s Mind or “Shoshin” is a concept in Buddhism. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject or performing a task. The key point is to suspend judgment or assessment when taking on a new activity. Most children suspend this judgement naturally. Our society doesn’t expect them to be experts but more importantly, they don’t expect it of themselves. The inner critic’s loud voice, that so often holds adults back, has not kicked in for most children.
If you think back to all the things that you learned as a child that you do well now, you typically journeyed along a path where you went from absolute clumsiness to unthinking expertise. This applies to both mental and physical skills. We were able to do this in part because of our mindset of Shoshin. Nobody expects a new young violinist to play in tune and we tolerate that long, squeaky, out of tune period knowing, of course, that it is an unavoidable stage on the path to musicianship. Mis-conjugation of a verb is almost cute by a child but can be horribly embarrassing for an adult. Of course intellectually we know that adult learners go through that same awkward phases as do children and if we can only accept that phase in ourselves we could achieve and enjoy so much. But somehow we can’t. We often fear embarrassment but the reality is that most people are their own worst critics.
Holding ourselves to inappropriately high standards is an even greater risk when we are trying to relearn a skill. I experienced this recently with my violin playing. I studied the violin starting at three and a half and continued throughout high school and college. When I applied to and attended a liberal arts college I decided that I would not be pursuing music as my profession though I still studied and played in college. Once I became a parent and was juggling motherhood with graduate school and a career I could not find the time for my violin playing and the violin sat pretty much untouched for 28 years. It wasn’t that I never thought about playing. In fact I missed it – but knowing how rusty I was, the idea of playing at that level was intolerable to me. Interestingly I continued to play the piano occasionally but since I had never been a very good pianist, it didn’t bother me as much to hack around. I finally got over the hump through a combination of lucky circumstances and my mindfulness training. The two lucky circumstances were my friendship with George Whitehill – a colleague in my Vistage group and meeting Claudia Bloom. I witnessed George’s journey from pure beginner to accomplished pianist/composer and was seated at a wedding next to a wonderful and encouraging teacher Claudia Bloom. Timing was fortuitous, my youngest son Adam was about to go to college and after talking to Claudia I realized that this was the time. It was a painful first few months of lessons and practicing, especially when I realized that the piece I was working on was one I studied in 6th grade! On the other hand, I also realized that once I mastered the technique required for that piece, I could play it with greater expression and, frankly, enjoyment than I had 40 years earlier, a humbling yet rewarding experience.
Like many others in the corporate world I did many Myers-Briggs tests and the results were consistently INTJ (though I moved closer towards ENTJ over time). I always hated the “J” (judgement) label – I aspire to be an empathetic, accepting and tolerant person – I didn’t want to be judgmental and didn’t accept that I was until I realized during my first mindfulness class (and reading a wonderful book “How Good do We Have to Be”) that I was in fact judging. I just most frequently pointed the judgement lens at myself and not always kindly. It is hard indeed to find the right balance of setting high goals and standards, working and trying hard yet accepting our own imperfections, missed goals or awkwardness. It is very hard to suspend judgement while we learn as adults. The payoff, however, is limitless.
The Palo Alto Baroque Chamber Ensemble
Joyce Malick, Director
Laura Yecies and Marianne Cooper in Bach’s Concerto in C Minor
and Music of Mozart, Ferrabosco, Still
Sunday, June 7, 2015 7:30 p.m.
Lucy Stern Center Ballroom- Middlefield at Embarcadero, Palo Alto
Admission is free – all ages welcome, program is about 1 hour
Refreshments following the Concert
Last fall, Steve and I went back to Boston for our 25th HBS reunion. We had an incredible turnout and great fun reconnecting with old friends from literally around the world. In addition, I just happily celebrated a milestone (50th) birthday. Both of those events, I suppose, leads me to become more thoughtful on the topic of age and work stage.
It was interesting to see the broad range of stages people were at in their careers. A few of our friends that were in semi or complete retirement mode. At the same time many, particularly women, were just gearing up. Several of our female friends were going back to work after some time focused on children with a few starting brand new enterprises. For example it was great to reconnect with MaryAnne Gucciardi and discuss ecommerce strategies for her cool new startup DragonWingGirl. Others hadn’t left the working world to parent but were clearly putting the pedal to the metal now that they are becoming “free birds” (a.k.a. empty nesters). I could certainly resonate with that pattern. While I have been continually intense in my career focus, the jump to entrepreneurship was a better fit for me when my kids were past the baby stage.
I am seeing a similar pattern outside of my alumnae network. Since selling Catch.com as I have been exploring new startup ideas I have worked with, advised or met several 40’s and 50’s women embarking on an intense entrepreneurship journey. Examples include Sarah Frisken of MadeWithMischief to Trish Costello of Portfolia and my former employees Tanya Roberts starting SheByShe and Melinda Byerly, founding Vendorsi.
I am thrilled to see such accomplished women as Janet Yellen (67) and Christine LaGarde (58) in literally two of the most powerful positions in the world. While I cannot deny the uncanny abilities of Mark Zuckerberg in creating a multibillion dollar company in his 20’s, I must say that I’m glad that the leaders of the free-world’s financial system have a bit more experience under their belt!
Sadly, closer to home, another accomplished female economist, my cousin Pearl Kamer passed away at 74 during the height of her career. The obituaries and eulogies, noted her impressive accomplishments as the foremost economist for the Long Island region. They also remarked on what she was recently in the process of doing and what she could have still accomplished. She clearly had more to contribute. Her insights were astute – forecasting the real estate bubble and other key economic trends.
I get a thrill every time I see my former professor and thesis adviser Madeline Albright lecturing or on the talk show circuit making mincemeat of tricky questions or difficult presenters on the other side and I hope to have the opportunity to support Hillary Clinton running for and achieving the Presidency of the US. The supreme court of our country includes among its three women an impressive octogenarian. Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the toughest human beings on the planet. Not only has she survived two bouts with cancer she was back hearing oral arguments 12 days after pancreatic cancer surgery and didn’t miss a day of work when battling colon cancer. While in law school and right after the birth of her daughter, Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with cancer. She attended class and took notes for both of them; typed her husband’s papers from his dictation; and cared for their daughter and her sick husband – all while making the Harvard Law Review.
I am fortunate to have role models in my family for prioritizing continued work and contribution. My great-uncle Frank Kamer (father of Pearl) practiced as an attorney until age 98. Both of my parents, and my father-in-law, all in their 70’s, are actively practicing as physicians. In fact, just a few months ago, my mother who worked as medical director of the North Shore Hospital Drug Rehabilitation program for more than 30 years was offered a promotion to lead an even larger program at a neighboring hospital
I aspire to follow in their footsteps. While able to leverage my years of experience, I believe that I still have much to learn and contribute. With each new technology, market or situation I find myself on a steep learning curve which is what makes work so exciting. For this reason, I find biases such as the ones described here and here to be so distressing and damaging.
This article provides a more nuanced and explanatory view and explores solutions. As bad as the biases may be in real life, the fact that the media portrays them as completely pervasive makes their impact even worse. In fact, the reality of startup land is much, much more diverse than the media portrayal. This was clear to me even at the recent Launch festival here in San Francisco.
There are many great startups being founded and managed by 40 and 50 somethings. In February, I visited Paula Long, my former board member at SugarSync, cofounder of Equallogic and now cofounder of the hot startup DataGravity. DataGravity raised a $30million series B led by Andressen Horowitz – they are innovating at the intersection of storage and big data – exciting and critical fields today. I didn’t see a single hoodie or masseuse at their office in Nashua.
Of course, in addition to startups being founded and led by this demographic, there are impressive members leading some of the biggest and most important companies in tech – HP, IBM, Xerox and beyond – eg GM to name a few.
Lets be sure to get the story of these women as publicized as the male 20 something story. Half the battle towards ending these biases is awareness and information. I believe that seeing these role models frequently and in a fair and reasonable light would encourage young women to stick it out in their careers during the challenging baby stage or maintain their skills part time or even simply dive back in later. This pool of talent has so much potential and our society and they have so much to gain
According to Wikipedia a scientific control is an “experiment or observation designed to minimize the effects of variables other than the single independent variable. This increases the reliability of the results, often through a comparison between control measurements and the other measurements.”
I found myself engrossed in the individual stories – all of the women profiled were very clear about what they gave up and what the cost was – also what they gained and enjoyed. For a variety of reasons, however, the losses were looming large in their minds. There was a lot of implied “what iff’ing” going on – as if the alternate path was knowable.
I think it is human nature to compare ourselves and our decisions with others and that comparison often leads us to feel dissatisfied with our lot in life. That comparison can feel particularly acute if one made the explicit choice to be on their current path and is observing the benefits others are accruing from the alternate choice. We notice the benefits of their choice and the weaknesses of our own more readily than the inverse.
I am no exception to the tendency to “what iff.” Could I have maintained my career opportunities if I traveled less and missed fewer school events? How would that have affected my children – would they have noticed or remembered? Fortunately I don’t find myself “what-iff’ing” my children’s general well-being being bettered by my not working – seeing who they are and what they are doing I feel very blessed.
As many of my friends are approaching the freebird aka empty nest state, I see a big range in satisfaction among those who opted out. In some cases without regrets and looking forward to new activities professional and/or volunteer to occupy what used to be parenting time, in other cases with decidedly more ambivalent feelings. The decision to stay home when kids were little and their job had little flexibility v. now that kids are older and their peers are in high-level and perhaps more flexible roles than expected may put that decision in a different light.
But the truth is that it is impossible to truly know what the alternate course would have yielded. Life is not a science experiment where all variables but one can be held constant. With a decision such as working outside the home v. staying home full-time or even the possibilities in between, the variable is clearly not independent. It impacts all of our relationships in immeasurable ways. Even the financial impact cannot be known for certain.
The most interesting part of all this to me is that there is any element of surprise. I notice a sense of unreality filtering through the NYTimes interviews. Almost as if there was an expectation for a “storybook” outcome – actually for both the opt-in and opt-out path takers. Perhaps this contributes to the regrets and potential dissatisfaction.
More choices and more options for working parents are sorely needed but those options will still come with tradeoffs unless there is a built-in day-extender.
There is always a road not traveled. By definition that road is not known and it is natural to be curious what it would have been like. But the story does not (hopefully) need to end at midlife. I believe strongly that regardless of past choices and the inherent challenges there is the opportunity to set new goals and forward objectives and embark on a different road.