Monday, August 10, 2015

Beware the Narrative

I'm still catching up after my vacation/staycation. I never finished the posts about the trip to France,
A picture from the LA trip, representing both balancing acts
and the enduring power of a good story!
and now I have a short trip to LA I'd like to write about, too. I may not get to it. I had the best intentions to write about my last trip to Arizona- I even took pictures to use in a post!- and then I never wrote a post. It is a shame. I don't think my trip story posts are the most popular with readers, but I like to have them to refer back to.

Anyway, I read an article I'd saved by Lisa Miller about why we need older women in the workforce, and I realized that by Miller's definition, I've left. She is looking for women to show the way forward in what I'll call a "regular job"- i.e., one where you go into an office and do your part in a larger organization. I can understand why she wants this. It is hard to navigate your way through office politics and career decisions without role models, and although men can be helpful to a certain extent, they are playing by different rules. I couldn't emulate a former boss' direct and confrontational style, for instance. That would have been career suicide for me, although it worked well for him.

There's been a lot written about why women leave the workforce. People argue about whether it is motherhood, or overwork, or sexism, or something else. I've been thinking a lot about this given my own recent exit from the corporate world. I still consider myself very much in the workforce (and so far at least, still have a paycheck to prove it), but I'll grant that I've left the corporate world. I left at the stereotypical time: mid-career, partway up the ladder but still definitely on a middle rung. I have more than one kid, too, which studies have indicated correlates with a greater likelihood of leaving.

So what made me leave? Here are the possible reasons:

  • The company moved and the new commute was making it hard to get a full work week in.
  • The culture in which I was working evolved into something I didn't enjoy that much.
  • I'd reached my limit on the low key sexist BS that was constant background noise in my career. I have a few jaw-dropping "you have GOT to be kidding me" sexism in the workforce stories, but I honestly think it was the constant low level stuff that did more harm. As I explained to a friend recently, it was like that stuff was just silently accruing, and all of the sudden I'd hit some sort of pre-set BS limit that even I didn't know existed. The men I was working with at the time weren't particularly sexist. They were just the guys in the vicinity when I hit the limit.
  • I had other interests I wanted to explore.
  • The job I was in had policies that made it very hard to have any sort of side gig- including writing. That was annoying and made me feel overly constrained.
  • I wanted to try being completely in charge.

There are probably more reasons that aren't obvious to me right now, but those are the big ones. So which was "the reason" I quit? None of them. All of them. It was a combination of things. Depending on what larger point someone wanted to make, my story could be spun to emphasize some of the factors more than others, but I honestly can't say that any one factor was more important than any other in my thought process the day I quit.

People want there to be a clean answer for why so many women decide to opt out of corporate life, but in my case, there isn't a clean answer. I suspect this is true of most people who decide to leave. Would decreasing the background sexism convince more to stay? I have no doubt that it would. But it would be easy to take a story like mine and argue that women like me leave the corporate world for more positive reasons. It would also probably be easy to go through my work history and find things I'd done wrong, or suboptimal decisions I'd made that led to some of my other frustrations.

In the end, I left because I wanted to explore different things, and my exhaustion with the environment in which I was working made it appealing to go do that.

Or did I leave because I was exhausted by a hostile culture and realized I had other options?

Even I don't really know.

We love narratives and personal stories. On the surface, they make it easier to understand complex issues. By personalizing them, we make the issues more accessible and harder to ignore. But there is a downside, too, because narratives are rarely clean. People's lives are messy. Decisions are made for a confusing mix of reasons. People do less than ideal things, making it easy for people who are looking for reasons not to see a particular problem to dismiss their stories.

We see this playing out in a far more horrifying context in the reaction of some people to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black men and women who have lost their lives were "no angels." They'd "made mistakes." No one will ever be perfect enough. The protesters will never use the exact "right" tactics. For people who don't want to see the issue, there will always be a reason to dismiss the most recent story.

As much as I love stories, individual stories alone will never allow us to understand what is really happening in our society. Luckily, we have social scientists who have studied how to aggregate our stories and better understand the whole picture. We have historians who can help us see the broader meaning of our individual stories, by placing them in a historical context. Unfortunately, these viewpoints aren't always well represented in our discussions. It is hard to find people who can take an individual story and weave it into the wider context and help us understand what that story really means, but those are the voices I'm seeking out these days. After all, if I can't even understand the narrative my own story in isolation, how can I hope to understand anyone else's?


  1. Kristin12:01 AM

    I think you hit on one aspect - exhaustion. There's so much to be tired of and from, and you can do it for a while and push through, but then it just gets to be too much, and you can see what it's made you become, and it's not you anymore. For me I got tired of me and my work not being valued. It's one thing to work hard, it's another to have to work hard to be allowed to work hard.

  2. Is that a real person or a wax model of Patrick Swayze?

    1. Wax model! Pumpkin wanted to go to Madame Tussauds.

  3. I find the whole issue of narrative fascinating. I think there's some evidence that our brains are primed to remember information best when it's presented in the form of a story. The problem is that life isn't lived in stories, where we get three data points or experiences leading to an epiphany and then resolution. Would that life resolved so neatly! When we give too much power to the narrative, we wind up seeing things as false choices, or assuming that we must change things when in reality life goes through periods of comfort and discomfort, and things will change regardless of what we do.

  4. I just want to see this captcha, am looking for a stronger one


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.