Here is my high school graduation photo. At 18, I was smart and, yes, pretty. But, really, quite a narcissistic little so-and-so.
Some interviewers ask you questions that teach you, via reflection, about yourself. That was my experience talking to Anne Ravanona, CEO and founder of GlobalInvesther.com, an online community that supports women entrepreneurs. Anne was interviewing me for a series that also includes Jeanne Sullivan, a fabulous leader who will appear at Power Shift this week.
Anne asked me what I would say to my younger self. Later, she told me most people answer this question with some inspirational words like “you can do it!” Not me. I said I would tell my younger self: “It’s not ‘all about you’!” And maybe give that silly goose a shake.
People are often surprised when I say that I was pretty worthless as a twenty-something. I was by no means politically apathetic: like so many of my generation, I was engaged with war protests and cared deeply about the Civil Rights movement. Like so many of my generation, I was an extreme party person, something that I do not regret (sorry, Mother, but life since then has been awfully serious). The way I swooned over boys was probably not very much different from other girls. I do think I was probably above average in my concern over my appearance. Indeed, I was so keen on following the latest trends in everything from fragrance to handbags that I find it really hard to relate to the memory as one of my own. Mostly I regret being really narcissistic and so full of myself that I was often haughty with others.
Think makeup conflicts with the “let it all hang out” ethic of the politically-active 1960s? Think again. We had “natural makeup.” Can you tell Olivia Hussey is wearing false eyelashes in this ad, even though Yardley claims “he” will see nothing but her real self?
In those days, I was part of a culture where women depended entirely on men (the American South of the mid-20th century). We spent much of our time trying to attract men, psyche them out, manipulate them, or recover from them. Though the effort was aimed at males, the effect was to focus our attention overly on ourselves, with the result that we thought trivial things about our own manners, looks, and words were more important than they were.
Our mothers encouraged us in this self-absorbed quest for male approval. I can see now that it was because our future security depended entirely on making a good marriage. I really don’t think young women today (at least in “the West”) face such narrow choices or such utter dependence. Though I held the odd summer job, I never even thought about having a career until I was well into my 20s. My mother had told me when I was very young that she felt sorry for “career women.” She meant that a woman only has a career because she can’t get a husband. My parents encouraged me to do well in school, but education was never meant to be preparation for work. That connection was not in the formula for the young women of that place, class, and time. We worried instead about whether our lip gloss was shiny enough.
As it turned out, my life was rockier than those of the girls I grew up with. A couple of mistaken marriages that entailed cross-country moves and, eventually, single motherhood, conspired to hold the leisurely lifestyle of a prosperous housewife far from my reach. I kept working because I had to, but I never was one of those people who can “just do the job” and go home. Looking back, that was probably my saving grace. As long as I was going to work, I was intent on making that work meaningful, doing it well, and getting ahead. So, one mythical morning, I woke up to find myself a “career woman” and proud of it.
The magazines of my era had “how to” pages on Twiggy’s false eyelash look. I perfected this technique and wore those awful things for about six years. Every day. Upper and lower lashes. I am not kidding.
Getting a man was never the problem. Choosing the right one certainly was. Had I not been brought up to think I needed a man more than a life’s work or, for that matter, anything else, I might have been more careful. There’s a long trail of debris in the wake of my life’s journey.
I do think that all the wear and tear, all the hard work and tears, eventually rubbed the hard edges of my youth down to a smooth surface. I like to think of my character as having a nice patina now, less of a brash tendency to show my own shine. There is some comfort, I must tell you, in feeling like I have come a long way since my 20s. For one thing, it saves me from wishing I was young again. I absolutely would not go back. I am happier now than I have ever been (admittedly, Jim is a big part of that) and I am grateful to have found work late in my career that can actually help others. This life I am leading, as stressed out as it may be, is so much better than spending my days drinking Scotch and water by the country club swimming pool (the endgame imagined for me when I was 20) that I feel thoroughly blessed for every single step that led me here.