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Gift of experience: advice to a younger self

Recently I was asked to participate in a series of online profiles. The interviewer was from the Rhodes Project, an independently funded research initiative established in 2004 to study the lives and career trajectories of women who have received Rhodes Scholarships.

Women first became eligible for Rhodes Scholarships in 1977. At this point there are more than 1,100 Rhodes women around the world, representing a kaleidoscopic array of life and work choices. The Rhodes Project seeks to chronicle and trace the collective experience of our group of women and to discern what, if anything, that experience can tell us about broader social trends.

One question the interviewer likes to ask is some variation of: What advice would you give your younger self?

I have two daughters now, one of whom, Bridget, is a 19-year-old biochemistry major actively trying to sift through the strands of possibility before her. So as I look back on my own experiences I also naturally think about what Bridget’s life might look like.

The first thing I would tell both my younger self and my daughter is: Don’t stress about coming up with or following a predetermined plan for your future, because winds will blow and your course will change. If you steer by the big lights of what you love and value, you’ll end up with a life you feel good about, even if it isn’t exactly what you might have anticipated.

My college thesis adviser taught me something similar about writing. In the fall of my senior year I brought him the first 40 pages of what was to be a 100- to 150-page essay on the poetry of Yeats. My adviser told me that that first draft was hopelessly confused and suggested I toss it. Then he gave me three assignments for the following three days. I was to come up with a 350-word, then a 175-word and finally a 50-word synopsis of my thesis.

When I protested, arguing that I couldn’t possibly reduce my ideas to such simple formulations, he gave me an index card on which he had written KISS (for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”). If I couldn’t explain in just a few sentences what my central idea was, my adviser counseled, then no one else was going to understand it either, no matter how many pages I wrote.

He helped me see that an effective piece of writing always has at its heart a few clear themes or notions, which both writer and reader trace and around which everything else is built. The same, I have come to realize, is true of finding one’s way to a productive and fulfilling life.

The second bit of advice I would offer is: Don’t underestimate the extent to which the people you love, and opt to spend your life with, will affect your view of the world. When I was a college student I thought that my choice of career was the most important decision I would make. Now I would say that one’s choice of spouse or partner, and one’s closest friends, is as critical or even more so, because loving someone deeply involves borrowing their eyes.

The French have a colorful expression — “deformation professionnelle” (literally, professional warping) — to describe the tendency of surgeons, for example, to see things that need cutting, and of carpenters to see things that need hammering. Every perspective that we firmly commit to excludes our embracing alternative pathways, whether of thought or action. This is as true in our personal lives as it is in the realm of work. The way I look at it now, one can almost always find another job. It is often a lot more difficult to find someone who simultaneously brings out one’s best qualities and enlarges one’s vision.

The final piece of advice I would offer both my daughter and my younger self is: Be mindful of the social, cultural and political assumptions in which you are marinating, whether or not you are consciously aware of it. I offer two examples.

The first concerns my choice of a job when I came back from Oxford University and the Rhodes. I had always been interested in schools, but lacked the courage at that point to follow my own heart. Quite a number of influential people had suggested to me that teaching elementary-age kids would be a poor use of my education.

Many ambitious women in the mid-1980s were being recruited to jobs in finance, and that’s where I went, too. I worked for a Fortune 1000 company in New York City for four years, during which time I got some excellent training but also figured out that the prevailing social norms were a poor fit with my own dreams.

I left to work for the deputy head of the New York City public schools, and a few years later became a second-grade teacher.

The second example concerns an intersection of the public and the private domains. Five years ago, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a newspaper I read regularly ran a series on some of the choices that various women had made with respect to abortion. The profiles featured women who had had back-alley abortions, safe abortions, abortions they had been happy about or not happy about, etc. Completely missing from the multi-issue series was any mention of the option I had exercised while pregnant with our daughter with Down syndrome, which was to consider abortion and decide against it. Apparently in the view of the editors, the decision I made was not even on the menu of possible intelligent choices.

The extent of the newspaper’s blind spot shocked me. It reminded once again that dominant paradigms don’t represent only possibilities.

As I would tell my daughter and as I have learned myself, in life and in work humility is key. We need constantly to search our minds and hearts to make sure we are not passively absorbing and /or propagating the biases of the culture that surrounds us.

Mary Cleary Kiely’s column appears on the first Tuesday of the month. She may be reached at parenttoparent@gazettenet.com.

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