Monday, May 12, 2008

Respect And Negativity

Here's what I feel kind of blindsided me about getting older: to get respect and admiration, you have to make other people feel bad.

When you're young, it's easier. If you do great on an exam, and your friend does poorly, it's sad for your friend, but it's not that big of a deal. Everyone tells themselves, well, he'll find something else he's better at; everyone's got their own talents; everyone takes time to come into his own.

But if you're in your forties, and you're doing great at something and your friend is doing poorly, it's much weirder. Because, really, what else are they going to do? This is kind of it. Even in a micro-way, when you've got a group of people who basically like one another, and one of them does something great, there's always that undercurrent of worry and jealousy. I mean, I know there's worry and jealousy when you're young, too, but somehow the stakes are weirder and higher as you get older.

Even more upsetting to me than these little negativities are the ways most interesting jobs actually require you to make other people feel bad -- or at least make them feel frustrated, or annoyed, or resentful.

I work as a professor. It's my job, in teaching, to do lots of things I know will make my students feel bad. Indeed, if they're completely satisfied, and unmotivated to try to do things differently, I've sort of failed, because I'm supposed to make them make an effort to improve. It's also my job, in research, to make arguments showing that other people's arguments are wrong.

I feel like the amount of the respect and admiration I get for a job well done is directly correlated with how much negativity I'm able to put out there.

When you're young, you can have respect and admiration on the basis of promise: oooh, this person's bright, she's going to go far! This kind of respect and admiration can co-exist with no one feeling bad, because, you know, the person hasn't really done anything yet. It's all still to come.

As you get older, though, you gotta deliver. And then, either you lose, or someone else loses.

Either way, you got yourself some bad feeling. Among the gazillion other reasons I think women find it harder and harder as they move up various work hierarchies, I think this is one. Whatever you think about the genetics, we are directly socialized not to want to make people feel bad. So we back off. We back off, and then we're not doing our jobs. And we all know what comes next.

The only job I could think of where making people feel bad isn't part of doing a good job is being a doctor. Or maybe a nurse. Maybe I should drop everything and go back to medical school?

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