Monday, July 13, 2015

Only Superheroes Need Apply

I was talking with a friend over the weekend about her anniversary plans. "You doing anything nice?"
Really I was just making conversation. What with jobs, kids and errands, not to mention watching the money, most couples don't do the splurge.
"No, not really," she said, as expected. 
My friend has younger kids and we're heading into the empty-nester phase. I remembered how very badly I had wanted help as a young mother. It was hard to be responsible all the time. I longed to go out with my husband to the movies, just the two of us. But there was nobody we trusted to watch the kids, and even if we had, the cost of dinner and a movie and a babysitter was a barrier.
"Let me take the kids for a few hours," I impulsively offered, as I had no idea what I would do with her kids. "I'm not doing anything tomorrow."
Just then, one of her kids ran up to her. "Mommy, Mommy, look at this!"
He had a storybook in his hands with "Minions" characters all over it. Then he started talking, blah, blah, blah.
It wasn't very interesting to me, but I could see she was trying to follow. "That's great, honey! Yeah..." 
To me it looked like she was drowning, drowning in a pool.
She turned toward me. I could see her assembling her smile like a mask.
"That's okay, but thank you. It's sweet of you to offer."
Running, her son was running all around the room and she darted off.
I wonder when it was that we became so goddamn perfect. When did we decide to set that bar for performance so high, so impossibly high? We have to be the impossibly perfect parents, the impossibly perfect lovers, the impossibly perfect ones at work. 
Lots of resumes have come across my desk over the years. In roughly the past five, there's been a noticeable shift away from listing responsibilities and accomplishments. Instead, many communicators have a column on the right that simply shows all the skills and software packages they've mastered. 
And there is more. They also have personal websites, and portfolios online. They have freelance jobs, their own companies. They have bachelor's degrees, and master's degrees, and certifications. 
They're overqualified, they have pushed and pushed and made themselves into the Barbie dolls of communications excellence, even though the #1 qualification of all is someone I can trust, who can stop and critically think.
Relationships, too, have become so unforgiving.
My grandparents, on both sides (may they rest in peace), stuck together for many decades, through war and trauma and poverty. They didn't always get along. But they didn't make such a big deal about everything.
If they competed at times, it was usually over who the grandchildren loved more. My father's parents would ask if I preferred my mother's parents and vice-versa.
I remember that Grandma, my mother's mother, always tried to reduce the pressure on me. When we visited them, and I left the Sabbath table after an hour and laid down to rest on the couch, my father would follow me and get me up.
"Come back to the table," he used to say. "Your seat is waiting."
And before I could say "please stop anthropomorphizing," Grandma would appear.
"Alex," she wagged a finger in his face. "G-d is everywhere. Would you please not make such an ISSUE!"
I have to laugh. I loved her so much. Grandma, wherever you are, I love you.
The modern religious Jewish community has far, far exceeded any kind of discipline my father tried to impose. The rules have exploded, they are enormous, it is impossible for me to keep any sort of track.
And then there is dating. Which I observe from a distance, watching my kids and their peers growing up and trying to mate. I don't remember anything like this kind of pressure in my life - to be thin, and beautifully made up, and an academic super-achiever, with an internship, who has independently invented a mobile app with which to save the world.
And all of this pressure hitting before you even hit puberty!
No wonder our children are becoming anxious, depressed, and increasingly resistant to the over-prescribed path we call "progression" up the educational ladder. 
About one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning in the last 12 months due to depression, and almost half said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year, according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, which examined data from 125,000 students from more than 150 colleges and universities. - 2013 National College Health Assessment via the American Psychological Association
I have to wonder, is the increasing willingness to medicate school-age children solely reflective of better medical care? Or is it little more than a socially sanctioned method of blocking their normal responses to abnormal social expectations?
Meaning, what if we simply cut the number of hours they have to sit in a chair, ended standardized testing and replaced it with narrative annual evaluations, eliminated homework and simply let them go out to the backyard and play?
Business leaders are under a similarly mounting pressure. In the past - and believe me this was not a perfect system, but it was clear and reliable - it was enough to run a business and make a profit. Over time, the expectations grew to include a certain amount of corporate social responsibility, and then grew again to cover employee engagement. These expectations make sense and to a certain extent are, of course, reasonable - from a return-on-investment perspective, and frankly also ethically.
But it is not reasonable to expect any human being to assume the qualities of an omnipotent being. And this, I think, is where business has gone off the rails.
It is not possible for any human being to be endlessly inspiring, perfectly humane, super-fantastically creative, innovating constantly, disruptively, and in a revolutionary manner, infinitely, all the time, in a never-ending explosion of perfect leadership skills.
It is not possible.
In the world of branding we speak of this term "positioning," meaning that the brand occupies a very distinct, very relevant, very compelling and consistent place in the customer's mind.
A very distinct and singular place.
Not all places, for to do so would be not only impossible but would eliminate from the customer's mind that space within which the brand itself, in all its equity, has lodged itself like a rock, hopefully.
No - you want the brand to be simple, to be limited, to be singular and to be good at whatever that particular brand can do.
The same principle applies to ourselves, to our roles as parents, to our work, to our relationships, to our religious practice, to whatever extent we want to have one, and to the leaders who shape our world.
We've got to stop expecting ourselves, and everyone we deal with, to live up to some kind of superpower mold. It doesn't exist. It is impossible. It's unrealistic and it hurts us as long as we can't let it go.
We've got to let it go.
If we could allow ourselves to be human, if we could stop punishing people for the inescapable fact that human beings are born to learn through making mistakes, that would really, really be a good thing.
If we could stop expecting perfection of ourselves, maybe we would be a little less defensive about the mistakes we invariably do make.
Opening up a space for really good dialogue about what kind of people we are, who we want to be.
Making it okay to put your feet up on the couch and do nothing for a few hours while a friend takes the kids and similarly, does nothing very special in particular.
Bringing the joy of living back to this increasingly frantic setting on an imaginary treadmill, that we have come to experience as "life" in the default.
Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez via Flickr (Creative Commons). All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.