One of the most dangerous things you can do in your career is to think you are different from everyone else. The biggest validation of that idea comes in AA meetings — it is widely understood by this group that thinking you’re different is just an excuse not to get help, an excuse to think you live outside what we already know to be true. It’s a dangerous way to live because you are reinventing the wheel for yourself and you risk just spinning in place.
Yet we jump through hoops to convince ourselves that we are different from everyone else and the experience of others does not apply to us. Daniel Gilbert found, for example, that most of us think we are worse jugglers than average, and most football players think they are better than average, but most people really are — surprise — just average. Gilbert has also shown that we are terrible at making decisions for ourselves, in part, because we think we’re special.
If you stop thinking you are so special, then you can learn from watching others, you can take advice from people who have been there before, and you can make decisions based on tried and true methods.
So finally, here's an example of this problem in action: a blogger gets on the cover of the New York Times magazine, Emily Gould. She talks about how her boyfriend hates that she blogs about him. Of course this hits close to home. But, it’s old news. I’ve already spent 20 years only dating/marrying/then dating people who will put up with me chronicling their every move.
So here’s another way for Emily to think: Instead of thinking that she’s so special because she’s blogging about her own life and everyone is knowing her through that, she could look at what has come before her. Women have been writing about their relationships forever, in transparent ways. It’s what women write about. And sometimes, it destroys relationships. But for forever, some women have been absolutely driven to put their life in words. They can’t stop. Emily is part of that history.
And so am I, so I know the history pretty well. Anne Frank did it, too — in the face of war. And Edith Wharton did it — risking the wrath of her high-end social circles. And Colette did it — with any guy who would put up with it, including her editor.
When I was a child, Anne Frank spoke to me not because she was documenting war, but because she understood that in some people, the drive to write down what is happening is stronger than anything else.
I told this to my divorce lawyer last week when he told me would not represent me if I didn’t stop writing about my divorce. He told me that he can’t represent me if I am undermining my case in my blog. I told him there is nothing worth saving more than my ability to document my life. I told him that somewhere, my husband understood this, because I published weekly documentation of our courtship — which focused on him never going down on me and me being pissed off–and we still got married. At that point, there is nothing left to hide. I told my lawyer it’s how I run my life, and I don’t know how else to do a life.
In the history of documenting one’s life–I hate to be snippy–but Emily Gould is no great example. The stakes are not very high for her. And relative to what other women have gone through, the stakes are not high for me, either. After all, I married someone who had already signed up for this life. Heather Armstrong is maybe a good example of the stakes being very high, because her blog, Dooce, includes her daughter so often.
But the poster-child for a woman going through hell in order to document her life is the photographer, Sally Mann. When I bought her monograph, Immediate Family, I had no idea it was controversial. I only knew that I was mesmerized by how the photos of her children captured the pain of adolescence, the edgy gross innocence of childhood and the closeness of a family’s bond: All at once. Every photo.
But stores wouldn’t sell it. They called it pornography. And people accused Sally Mann of child abuse for making pornography from her kids.
In Sally Mann’s eyes, she was just documenting her family life, and her love for her kids, and the fun of childhood. And with an open mind, you can see that in the photos. Wait. I’ll link to some (probably not safe for work).
Herman Melville is another great example of the stakes being much higher than Emily, or me. Melville had many children, whom he did not really support. He found his family depressing, and he thought his writing was too important to be distracted with the task of family life.
The history of obsessive writers destroying lives around them is not new. The history of writers feeling an insanely huge need to tell something to the world at all costs is not new.
So back to careers. In the New York Times, Emily portrays her career as anomalous, eccentric, and so difficult to manage that she needs to quote magazine articles to her therapist in order to describe her life. But if you put Emily in historical context—which I would have expected the NYT magazine to do—there are a lot of people who have paved the way for her. She can learn from lots of people who came before blogging, how to manage one’s career as a blogger.
And this is true for most of us.Very few of us ever have a totally unique career problem. Most problems come down to five or ten situations that happen all the time. I think we get clouded by the specifics of our own story, and that makes us unable to see why we are just like everyone else. Each person’s details are different, but the problems we have repeat themselves over and over again—especially in careers. That’s why a community of people helping each other with their careers works so well. That’s why I love my blog.
So take time to figure out why you are the same, instead of focusing on why you’re different. There is a community out there who can help you. This is true for everyone. Anyway, it’s not that interesting to operate as if we are the only person like us. None of us should reinvent the wheel by ourselves. Ever. It’s too lonely.