Whiplash, Monuments Men, Great Art, and Happiness

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A few nights ago I saw the movie Whiplash. As many people have said, the acting was superb and overall it was a quality made movie. But what pulled me in was not the plotline, but rather the assumptions of the characters and the varied interpretations of the people with whom I saw the movie regarding what makes a life worth living.

Andrew, the main character of Whiplash, wants to be the best. In one conversation with his family, when they ask him why he doesn’t have any friends, he says that they would just get in the way. He wants to be remembered, like Charlie Parker was remembered. He wants to be great. His dad looks at him and says that Charlie Parker died at 35, that’s not success.

But Andrew is unswayed, and continues to engage with his abusive band teacher in order to force himself to be better, to win, to prove that he is the great person he could be. He refuses to be broken by the abuse that the teacher doles out, even if that means trying to play while his hand is broken and he’s bleeding.

The end of the movie is ambiguous. Andrew plays an amazing solo. He plays to his own tempo instead of listening to the conductor. But he does it all because he was abused. He becomes great through the horrific methods that left another student dead from suicide.

Underneath the success, the amazing performance, the smile that Andrew finally gets from Mr. Fletcher, there’s the dark knowledge that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he as well will probably end up dead. If nothing else, he will be alone, anxious, depressed, and constantly feeling that he isn’t living up to his own potential. He requires greatness of himself, because he sees how much the greatness of one person can affect others.

As Mr. Fletcher says, it’s unacceptable to deprive the world of the next Charlie Parker.

But is it really? Is great art more important than actual human lives? Or even one single human life that gets extinguished after short years that are filled with unhappiness?

Let’s talk about another movie for a moment. Monuments Men is for the most part a rompy kind of action movie, but somewhere in it is a question. The Monuments Men take resources that the army could have been using to save human lives and direct those resources towards saving art instead. Great, amazing art, but art nonetheless. Is it ethical for the army to do that?

I tend to think no. Art is beautiful and enriching, but there is always new art being made. People continue to create meaning, beauty, connection, and discussion through art in almost every circumstance they are placed in. Art is not a finite resource that we will run out of. There is no perfect painting or drum solo or play that is out there waiting to be created. We create what we need, what is meaningful to us, and we get the meaning that we need out of the art available to us.

I’m not one to value an empty or unhappy life simply for the sake of life, but I’m also not one to value art without any end. Art is valuable insofar as it enriches human lives, and when it takes away from the human ability to be fulfilled and content, or when it takes away resources from keeping people alive, art starts to lose value. I think that’s true of any human endeavor. No goal is more important than its consequences.

So back to Andrew and Charlie Parker. Why does Andrew think that being great is a better goal than any immediate happiness? Clearly he wants to be remembered, but he also seems to think that he’s doing something good and enriching for the world (just as Mr. Fletcher does) by creating something great.

I am so afraid of that rhetoric.

While talking with friends after the movie, I found that I was the only one who really resonated with that intense drive and need to always be better, the all-consuming, obsessive perfectionism. I can vouch that in my life it has been an extremely damaging influence. But those around me didn’t feel like the movie was in danger of portraying that obsession in a positive light because they had never felt it, never been in a place where they thought that it was the best way to be.

Of course in the movie, Andrew is supposed to be sort of screwed up but only develop clear mental illness symptoms after Mr. Fletcher starts pushing him. But I don’t think that obsession of this level is something that one can just learn. It’s something that you have to spend your whole life fighting if it’s in you to begin with. And while the movie clearly criticizes Fletcher’s methods, it does not clearly criticize the art that comes out of it. It does seem to imply that the art that comes from the abusive, obsessive methods is better than what would have come about if Andrew had a sane teacher, made some friends, stayed with his girlfriend, and tried to temper his obsession with drums by being a healthy person mentally.

So the movie seems to imply that there is some sort of trade off here, that we could get some amazing art, something important or meaningful out of this kind of drive, and that while it’s unhealthy, it is amazing.

And sure there are real life examples of these types. Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain, people who used their mental illness to fuel their art and whose dark art touched and was important to thousands upon thousands of people.

And there is never any guarantee that the depression makes your art better. More often than not it makes it worse because you can’t think clearly, your mind is trailing in circles, you have no energy. More often than not you create work that is indulgent rather than transcendent. Of course some people who recover choose never to truly engage with the dark emotions again, and that hardly creates good art, but it is possible to continue to think deeply while in a healthy place. Some of the best art is art that comes from a place of self-respect rather than depression, fear, and uncertainty.

And there’s more than one life that gets hurt when someone wallows in their mental illness. Everyone they interact with gets hurt. Despite the fact that they aren’t trying, most people who are incredibly depressed, anxious, obsessive, and perfectionistic, are not very nice and are certainly not able to have healthy relationships because they themselves aren’t healthy.

But of course the people that I was watching Whiplash with didn’t see it as glorifying this kind of obsession. I’m not sure what it is that made me think it was condoning at least part of the obsession, but perhaps it’s that I expect discussions of (what clearly seems to me to be) mental illness to not simply portray the behaviors because just showing the behaviors can feel like condoning when you’re in a bad place. If I had watched this movie 5 years ago I would have seen it as validation of my choices. I would have watched it and seen a young person overcome everything to pursue perfection and then achieve perfection. I would have seen that it was possible.

And so I wouldn’t have stopped.

I do wonder about our portrayals of obsession and whether we treat those behaviors in a way that says “this is not healthy” or whether we do some glossing over of the truth. How did the film actually treat questions of obsession? Did it say that there were benefits? Of course no one would see it as condoning the behavior of Andrew, but it did seem to make him into a hero, or possibly an anti-hero, something even more attractive to many (especially young) people.

I can’t predict how other people might react to this film, and the people that I watched it with didn’t seem to see it as any kind of validation, but it did focus on a young person overcoming obstacles to reach his goal, even if there were huge sacrifices along the way. Many people would see that as a positive. Continuing the stereotype of disturbed genius isn’t really helpful to anyone, and while the movie criticized the choice to embrace that life, it didn’t do anything to dismantle the stereotype that exists in the first place, leading to many people seeing artistry and greatness as something that necessarily comes with insanity.

This might lead many people to frame questions of dedication to art as whether they want to be happy or whether they want to be great, when in fact they can be both.

So let’s hop back to Monuments Men. Is any piece of art worth ruining your life over? Probably not, especially when we can create art without the intense depression that the movie portrays. Of course every individual has the right to make the choice in their own life, but it’s important to create messages that say it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be amazing without being pushed in cruel and awful ways. Oftentimes greatness comes with support, love, and self-empathy. Especially in today’s world where the cruel actions of famous people get broadcast to the world immediately over the internet, people are becoming less and less tolerant of brilliant assholes, and instead expect their geniuses to give back in some way.

There are many other facets to the reactions to this movie. I see more women feeling driven to prove that they deserve to be on this earth by being great, leading me to worry about the effects of portrayals of greatness on young women. How do we portray negative things in a responsible fashion is a concern that has never been properly answered (no Plato, we don’t just not portray them). And how healthy can obsession ever be?

But I do think it’s important to pull apart the association between greatness and depression. It’s not necessary.

Intellovert and Other Variations

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Personality typing and tests are super popular at the moment, particularly in regards to the introvert/extrovert question. How do we need to treat introverts and extroverts differently, how can introverts and extroverts get along even though they’re completely different, and what do you need to do to care for your introvert/extrovert self? I’m all for opening up discussions of the different ways that people function and thrive, but I’m certainly not the first person to point out that the introvert/extrovert dichotomy misses a lot of nuance in how people interact socially.

For the last five years or so, I’ve firmly identified as an introvert. I have a lot of social anxiety and so spending time in large groups is draining for me. I need alone time and personal space, I love to read and write (alone), and I recharge by taking long naps and watching Netflix. But in my current relationship, I’m finding that I want to spend more time together than my partner does, as he needs more recharging time than I do. I’m finding that when I’m out of work, I want to be with people nearly every day. So am I an introvert or an extrovert?

In my last therapy appointment, my therapist mentioned that one of my needs as a human being is intellectual stimulation. I get bored easily, and when I don’t have something to keep my mind occupied I start to lose it a little bit. Interestingly, I find that intellectual stimulation is an incredibly difficult need to fulfill without the help of other people, particularly in the form of conversation.

When I’m having engaging, deep conversations with other people, I feel my batteries recharge. When I have to make small talk, be around a large group of people, talk to someone I don’t know very well, or interact with other people for simply practical needs (setting up an appointment for example), I feel drained. Where does this put me on the introvert/extrovert scale if there are some social activities that I find rejuvenating and some that I find horrible?

Well it probably just makes me human, since I’m fairly certain that this is true of everyone. But it might make more sense to talk about introversion and extroversion in relation to specific activities or types of interactions instead of overall personality traits. I’m extroverted when it comes to intellect, puzzles, very close friends and family, and public speaking (yeah, I’m a weirdo). I’m incredibly introverted when it comes to big groups, loud atmospheres, strangers, casual acquaintances, or overstimulating situations.

It’s pretty easy to see some patterns here. There are some things which will make me feel rejuvenated whether or not they happen with other people: learning, validation, deep connection, feeling competent, or getting attention. There are other things that will wear me out whether or not they involve others: overwhelming environments, too many things to pay attention to at once, or repetition of basic information.

While introversion and extroversion are helpful concepts in some ways, it might be helpful to also start to think of how we recharge our emotional batteries with or without people. Almost everyone has some things that feel good and restful both with and without other people. These things might point towards what it is that we crave as individuals, what our emotional needs are. If we see what we want from our lives, it might be easier to set up social interactions to successfully cater to those needs.

Example: when I think of myself as an introvert, I try to schedule more downtime for myself. I inevitably end up bored and frustrated after a few hours of entertaining myself. If instead, I think about fulfilling my need for stimulation without an overwhelming number of things to pay attention to, I set up quiet coffee dates, game nights, movie nights, and other similar quiet activities that let me talk to other people and stay engaged.

Maybe I’m an intellovert: I get my rest and relaxation from exercising my brain. It’s quite possible that there are lots of other ways that people find rejuvenation. Perhaps someone is oriented towards physical exertion, human touch, sensory cues, or something else altogether. I don’t think it’s useful to get rid of the words introvert and extrovert altogether, but it might be time to rethink the ways we use them, or introduce some new concepts to think about when we’re explaining what fulfills our personalities.

#GamerGate, Non Gamers, and Bad Reputations

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If you have any connections whatsoever to video games or the gaming world, or even if you have none of those but have been on the internet at all in the last month or so, you’ve probably heard about GamerGate. The underlying sexism in the gaming world has been bubbling up and coming out in the form of a lot of disgruntled menfolks harassing women for being involved in gaming, all under the guise of “journalistic ethics”.

I have very little to say about the particulars of this situation that haven’t already been said, as I am not a gamer and I know almost nothing about the gaming industry. Miri has a great round up post of articles written about the incident, which are more thorough than I could ever be. So why am I writing a blog post about this? Because so far all of the voices I have heard have been from within the gaming community, and as someone on the outside it’s very clear to me that Gamergaters are doing themselves no favors right now. Here’s the truth gaming community: every time I hear about GamerGate I want less and less to do with you. Despite having many gamer friends, an active interest in nerd culture, and the beginnings of an interest in gaming, I am now 100% not interested in being actively involved in the gaming community and it is entirely because of the harassment that women have received.

There are lots and lots of people out there who are getting their first picture of gaming and the type of people who game (beyond the stereotypes of movies  and media) from GamerGate and the incidents surrounding Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu. There are lots and lots of people who don’t do much gaming, don’t follow the media around gaming, and really haven’t given it a whole lot of thought…until now, when they’re reading articles about it, seeing vitriol posted on their social media, and hearing these names pop up again and again. You can bet that many people who wouldn’t have given gaming a second thought before now are going to be forming opinions about gamers due to this controversy.

This might be what you were looking for. Maybe you wanted the attention. Maybe you are still mentally five year olds who are convinced that any attention is good attention. If that’s the case, I want you to know something: Gamergaters are not coming off like the heroes here.

Throughout the articles that I’ve read about GamerGate, one of the common threads has been that gamers feel like victims: no one likes them, they’re stereotyped as lazy, fat, losers who live in their parents basements and eat Doritos all day, and the only place that they can be safe is in the gaming community. They cry out again and again that they just want the safe haven of games to be free from developers who get good reviews by sleeping with reviewers, from journalists who take sides or push “social justice” agendas on them, from women who want to criticize their games into nonexistence. Society has rejected them, and they just want their community to be their own.

Somewhere, buried in the confusion about purpose, GamerGate appears to be about the desire to be respected as a community. Update from the rest of the world: if you want society to treat you better and respect your community as a legitimate space for art, self-expression, and decent relationships, the way to do that is not by making rape and death threats to anyone who criticizes you. That actually makes you look even worse than the previous stereotypes, and will probably end with you feeling even more victimized because you’ve managed to earn the derision of society at large through horrible, abusive behavior. If you do want the respect of the world at large, you might have to act like adults, engage critically with other people, and be willing to talk through differences of opinion. Until you do that, gaming will continue to be stigmatized as childish and silly.

So if Gamergaters think that they’re improving their community or making headway into society by using their current tactics, they are dead wrong. What they’re actually doing is gaining themselves a fairly horrible reputation with everyone who wasn’t already a part of the community.

It’s quite possible that GamerGate had to happen, that this is the growing pains of a space that previously had been the haven for those who were hurt and lonely. It’s quite possible that the gaming community will come out of this much better, and will draw in new voices and perspectives, and gain respect. It’s possible. But from the outside it looks like the temper tantrum of a bunch of overgrown children who don’t want to let other people play in their sandbox, and if this outsider is anything like other outsiders, it is not endearing you to society at large. You thought you had a bad reputation before? You have made it so much worse for yourselves. Sometimes bad reputations are deserved, and right now you are making it clear to the world that yours definitely is. If what you want is respect, then you better start earning it.

Yours truly,

Everyone else

The Common Language of Pop References

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Yesterday a friend of mine off-handedly mentioned the phenomenon in which someone will make a pop culture reference and use their audience’s reaction to judge the people who are listening. You got my obscure Firefly reference? You’re awesome and a good human being. You didn’t? Well…you might not be worth my time.
I suspect that we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes, and I know I’ve felt that burst of connection when someone else knows my favorite book, so I couldn’t stop thinking about whether this was pointless judging or whether it might serve some purpose. And then I read this absolutely lovely article about a pair of sisters who found a way to communicate through Supernatural. The show gave them templates and referents through which to talk about their relationship. It seemed that sometimes coming at the problem head on was too scary or direction, but the shared media gave them a common foundation on which to build their emotional understandings of each other.
Suddenly it all came into place: we all do this. When we reference things, we’re using a different language that holds much more content because it assumes the shared experiences of the media we love. Instead of trying to explain a complex, semi-abusive relationship, you can just say “it’s like Spike and Buffy”, and someone will have a full emotional picture of what’s going on.
So when we make references to some pop culture thing we love and someone responds positively, we suddenly have an entirely new shared language of referents and emotions and relationships to draw from. It can be incredibly liberating to find that you don’t have to explain yourself but can use a reference to immediately instill a certain emotion or understanding in your listener. There’s a certain safety in having those shared understandings of the world, in knowing that no matter how differently you perceive the world, you have this touchstone with which to communciate and connect. These kinds of shorthands aren’t simply an easy, quick way of communicating, but they’re also a way to signal that you understand and care about the person you’re interacting with. If I respond positively to a reference, it means I want to engage with the person who has made it. I am interested in understanding what is going on in their brain and I’m willing to search my memory for a reference in order to do so. If the reference comes easily, it means that we don’t have to struggle to understand each other as much as we might have otherwise.
Of course there are in-group elements to references, and of course the references we make and the ways we value references have a great deal to do with the way we assign value as consumers, but somewhere in the practice of making references we find that pop culture names, quotes, and places become symbols for feelings or plot arcs or ideas that are far more complex. Just as Biblical scholars have an entire lexicon of symbols that hold a different kind of meaning than they would to anyone else, so fangirls of Supernatural have a shared lexicon. Carry On My Wayward Son isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem of family, heartache, long journeys, impossible tasks, and endlessly broken hearts. Where you come down on the Spuffy/Bangel split will tell me immediately whether we’ll get along (protip: Bangel sucks). The reason I get excited when I see someone making a reference that I understand is that I suddenly have an entirely new window into this person, a new lens through which to view them, an entire set of experiences that we had together about which I can get their reaction. It’s not quite the same as the trust you gain from firsthand seeing how someone reacts to new situations, but it is a helpful simulation.
Especially for a reference that is uncommon or that few people would recognize, it’s like a special shared moment you get with another person. It’s as if you’ve found another kilt-wearing unicycle enthusiast: you thought you were the only one, but now you can find someone who resonates with those feelings and reactions you had. Now nothing about this implies that making judgments about others based on their pop culture references is a brilliant and ethically sound decision. In all likelihood you’ll be misjudging a fair number of people. But there are useful things about making references, and the better we understand those uses the more effective we can be in our communication.  It’s being able to say that you’re the Marshmallow to my Lilypad and not having to explain any further, and that’s a kind of connection that is kind of beautiful.

Get Off Your Phone!

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It’s a common sight at events, concerts, or attractions to see someone (or many someones) with their camera or phone firmly planted in front of their face, recording or snapping pictures for the entire experience. It is also a common sight to find blog posts, rants, and other forms of judgment telling everyone that this is the wrong way to enjoy your life. “Get off your phone! No one wants to see those pictures! You’re not experiencing the event, you’re just taking pictures!” There is a common sentiment that an unmediated version of reality is the best version of reality, and that if you’re taking pictures or video your mind is on how to capture the experience rather than on the experience itself. If you’re not 100% mentally and emotionally present, then you’re ruining your own experience!

The odd thing about this is that more often than not, those taking these pictures aren’t distracting anyone else. Their behavior is entirely irrelevant to the people who are upset with it. It simply has to do with how that individual is experiencing someone, a personal choice that is entirely their own. This need to police other people’s happiness is an impulse which is both incredibly self centered (other people need to do things the same way I do or they won’t be happy) and incredibly unhelpful.

Here’s the thing: everyone has different ways of experiencing the world, and everyone appreciates different things. We get happy in different ways. We engage with things in different ways. We are present in different ways. These individualities are why not all of us like to go to bars and not all of us like to play Dungeons and Dragons, but for some reason when technology is involved it’s no longer ok to have preferences but instead there must be a Right and a Wrong way to exist because otherwise technology will infiltrate our lives and destroy our human connections (or something).

For some people, taking pictures allows them to experience things in a more active way. They prefer not to simply be passive recipients of their experience, but want to think about how best to capture it, about the angles of light and the image of what’s going on. For some people, thinking about how they will capture the experience makes them think about what they want to remember in the future, and helps them focus on the things they like most about their experience. Some people just like taking pictures or videos and that is an additional enjoyable experience beyond whatever primary experience they may be happening.

And guess what? Even if you personally don’t want technology to be a part of your day to day experience because you find it makes you less present, that doesn’t mean that technology inherently pulls people out of their lives and pushes them into the “unreality” of the internet. Some people find that having their phone on and around is a distraction from the people they want to be with, where others (especially the introverted and socially anxious among us) find it a useful way to take a quick break from socializing when they need a mini recharge. The point is that people experience technology (as well as social situations) differently. In the past, if someone had a hard time being fully present in a situation with lots of people for a long time, all they could do was leave or just try to stick it out or maybe dissociate. Now there are more strategies they can employ through technology. They may be more visible, since someone taking out their phone is more obvious than someone simply zoning out and ignoring what’s happening around them, but people have always had ways to take a break from a current experience. All of us do it, and that is 100% ok. We don’t owe any place or person or experience all of ourself for the entire time we are there.

So please friends, take out your phones if you want, take those pictures, hide behind your camera or take that video because you want to watch it tomorrow. Let yourself disappear for a bit into technology or find new ways to love the concert you’re at by finding the perfect image to capture it. I want you to know what makes you smile, and that’s no one’s business but your own.

 

Grenades

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“I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”

-Hazel Grace, The Fault In Our Stars

In The Fault In Our Stars, the main character Hazel Grace is dying of cancer. When asked about why she won’t have a relationship with Augustus Waters, her response is the above quote.

There are some things that I want to tell Hazel.

Hazel Grace, we are all grenades. Every human being in this world is a series of small explosions. Some of us go out in one oversized burst that levels those around us, some of us putter through life throwing shrapnel and leaving those in our wake bleeding. But no matter who we are, one of the essential facts of being human is the fact that you will hurt people. You will most likely hurt everyone you have any kind of serious interaction with.

This is not a fact to feel guilty about. It simply is, and it happens because communication is imperfect and we all die and we all hurt and when someone cares about us all of these things are pain. Augustus Waters told you that we don’t get to choose whether or not we get hurt in this world, but we get to choose who does the hurting. There is a flip side to this statement and it goes like this: we don’t get to choose whether or not we hurt others in this world, but we have to trust them to know who they want to do the hurting.

The problem, Hazel, is not whether or not we are grenades. It is not whether or not we can minimize the damage (because let’s be honest, there is only so much minimizing that we can do). The question is how do we live with ourselves knowing that life is a long series of shitty incidents that hurt the people we love? The question is how do we imagine ourselves to be good people who deserve to be alive, who might have a positive impact on the world, how do we not burn out on even trying, when no matter how hard we try to be decent, our very existence means pain for someone?

The question, Hazel, is how do we keep going?

As you so eloquently put it, we could just ignore it, which is what most people do. We could close our eyes to oblivion and pointless pain. We could just keep muddling along in the best way we know how.

Or we can be acutely, exquisitely aware and hope that the awareness motivates us to better behavior, that our guilt over the past might keep someone, somewhere from getting hurt. We can play the martyr and try to take all the pain onto ourselves (guess what, that doesn’t work).

Or we can try to escape, never form relationships, convince ourselves that this means we are avoiding the problem of the hurting others. Except of course that rejection hurts and every time we close a door in someone’s face we hurt them.

Of course it seems like there must be another option, an option that doesn’t suck, an option that isn’t full of douche. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover that option. Perhaps it’s there, but I don’t believe that the universe exists to please us, so no matter how badly we want another option to exist, that is not evidence for its existence.

And so Hazel Grace, you are a grenade and there is no way to minimize casualties and in the explosive process of living you will find yourself injured by many other grenades along the way. I hope that you survive.

I hope that we all survive, at least for a little while. I hope the pins remain unpulled.

 

Overt and Covert Power

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This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.

It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.

And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.

Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.

So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.

Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.

I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?

I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.

Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?

There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?