Hard Truths about Hard Work

We all tread on thin ground when discussing the lives of others, especially lives that have been as politicized as that of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. He was a good friend to some of my good friends. I cannot lay claim to knowing him, though as a former diplomat, I allow myself to feel that I understand some things about his sacrifice.

SOFREP today published excerpts of the late Ambassador’s diary. The portrait it paints is of a committed public servant who willingly faces high stress and threats to his own security. I think it’s important to know that many of the diplomats who are serving now in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places feel the same way–just substitute “Kandahar” for “Benghazi” and you’ve got a line from my own diary of fourteen months ago.

Diplomacy is a career in which the whole concept of “work/life balance” can feel absurd. It’s hard to keep anything stable when you’re moving every year or so. I think of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who died of a heart failure on December 13, 2010, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat who was killed on August 19, 2003 in Iraq, among others. Their struggles were different, but there is no question that their family lives suffered from their commitment to global service.

While many things are still much harder for women–a love life like de Mello’s would have been the entire story had he been a she–everyone who answers the call of duty makes enormous personal sacrifices. My former colleagues in the Foreign Service do their best to stay grounded within an increasingly chaotic lifestyle. I know that I could not have survived without spontaneous, supportive communities at post and the unyielding support of my family in the States. We all need a place to come home to.

I was hesitant to link to Ambassador Stevens’ story, only because I know that some will feel this publication is a posthumous invasion of his privacy. But if I had been him, I would want the world to know what it really meant to lead a diplomatic mission to a dangerous place. Sometimes, living your call means giving up everything. Not one of us can have it all.

Jennifer Lawrence: No Consideration of Failure

Jennifer Lawrence is not in my actual binder, but she is in my virtual one. When I first saw Lynn Hirschberg’s screen test of Lawrence, which she made in 2011 for W, I was blown away. The actress in this video has weird hair and uneven eyebrows, but you can tell that she just doesn’t care what the person behind the camera thinks. She is just being herself, telling us that she thinks she’s beautiful, no matter our criticisms. But mostly, I was struck by what she said at 1:46:

I’ve always had this really gross, dangerous mentality of no consideration of failure. Just never even considering the thought of failing. Like, if I want something, I just go until I get it.

I remember thinking, wow. That’s the only way to get things done. Otherwise, every little setback – every rejection from a role, every humiliating job we have to take to pay the bills while we nurture our passions, every time someone doesn’t love how we look or what we have to say – has the power to throw us off course. We run this risk of misinterpreting every obstacle as a “sign” that we should not be on this path, even if it is the only path that leads in the direction of our dreams.

So here’s to Jennifer Lawrence. Here’s to embracing the gross and the dangerous. And here’s to going, and going, and going until we reach our goals.

Coming Out

For professional women, writing about any aspect of one’s personal life is pretty much verboten. That is part of why I embarked on my binder project in the first place: Until more of us share our stories, the stigma will remain.

My own fears of being judged, combined with the fact that my previous employer forbade me from speaking up without the U.S. government’s permission, explain why the author of this blog has remained anonymous. But the time has now come to take the project to the next level, and that means I need to come out of hiding.

I can think of no better way to do that than with this video from new friend and social change-maker Michael B. Maine, who kindly featured me in his latest Inspiration project video. Michael is a photographer/filmmaker/media strategist with a head for smart communications and a heart for social impact. He’s the kind of person who inspired me to give up my steady, high-income job and join Seattle’s vibrant hub for social change. I can think of no better way to spend my life than by working with people like him, who have likewise decided to devote their time, talents, and treasure solely to causes they believe in.

Please forgive the shameless promotion of my book project and my friends. I mean it: I am inspired by everyone, male or female, who has chosen to live with purpose. It’s just that the women in my binder do it in such defiance of expectations that I cannot help but ask you to be inspired by them, too. Thanks, dear readers, for your support.

Positive Thoughts for the Weekend

This isn’t breaking news, but there was a lovely post on the Harvard Business Review blog network last month by the Blackstone Group’s Joan Solatar, titled “Truths for Our Daughters.”

She calls for a change to the way we talk to young women about career success, moving away from criticisms of what women have not yet achieved to narratives about those who have. As I read it, I thought, Yes — that’s exactly what In My Binder is about. 

As Solatar writes, “There is no Secret Formula X for success.” All of us have to adapt to different circumstances, and all of us bring different talents to the world. But there are some universal truths that emerge from all our narratives, including some surprising ones – like the truth that women make great warriors, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, and political leaders, not just at-home nurturers. 

That alone is powerful. Combined with the advice and shared knowledge of women across professions and generations, our stories can change the world. Especially if hearing the stories of others gives us the courage to continue living out our own. 

Have a beautiful, empowered weekend. 


The Big Picture

Three core beliefs motivate this blog and my work on women’s issues:

  1. By making the world better for women, we make it a better place for everyone. 
  2. There is no better way to make change than to make it yourself.
  3. Change only happens when people take action.

For the past several months, while continuing to work on the In My Binder book project (if less so on the blog), I have also been involving myself in the startup community and global projects such as Escape The City. I am inspired by the positive approach these people have taken to the workplace. Instead of just criticizing the status quo, they are challenging it with compelling alternative models. 

By now, “the new freelance economy” is no longer new. Forward-thinking policies such as the Affordable Care Act, even though they fall short of perfection, enable more Americans to strike out on their own. For years, I have watched with envy as my federal contractor colleagues exercised their flexibility, navigating through uncertainty without panicking, taking advantage of whatever opportunity seemed best. I was so immersed in my institutional bubble that I was slow to recognize that my experience was not unique: In the private sector, thousands of dynamos throw in the towel every year and strike out on their own.

Yes, the start-up community, like everything else professional, is still dominated by men. There are plenty of good reasons why men might be more willing to take the big risk of jumping ship: their choice is more likely to be perceived as brave, rather than manic; their skills tend to be more highly valued in the marketplace; they know that they will always be perceived as the breadwinner and therefore entitled to fair compensation. But there are also a number of incredibly inspiring women who’ve made the leap. They’re not leaning out; they’re just leaning in another direction.

I am now following in their footsteps. Leaving a tenured, well-compensated FTE position without independent wealth seems crazy to a lot of people, but I know that I can do more professionally and have a happier personal life outside of an institution that undervalues my work. It’s a little bit forceful – I am basically asking the economy to work around my priorities instead of accepting things as they are. But isn’t that precisely how change is made? 

Henceforth, you’ll see some changes to this site as well. Stay tuned.