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As women, many of us are stuck in feedback loops about how to be successful and happy: striving to “have it all” at work and at home, letting ourselves be pressured into giving every part of our lives 100% until we’re completely burnt-out, imagining only a strictly linear life path (college, job, marriage, kids), and accepting limitations without question. Yet the truth is, this book argues, most of the conventional wisdom about driving our life choices is total baloney.
In Everything Is Negotiable, Meg Myers Morgan deconstructs preconceived notions about adulthood, parenthood, and career paths that have us limiting ourselves. Instead of following that linear plan, for example, she urges readers to take action now for what we want — limitations be damned. With wit and verve, Morgan also tells us to forget trying to “have it all,” as the clichÃ©hrase goes — it’ll never happen. And, Morgan argues, don’t bother trying to give 100% — we simply can’t give anything 100% attention, ever! Instead, this book teaches us to navigate life’s necessary trade-offs free of the baggage of our own expectations.
Chock full of strategies for where and when to give our limited energy, what to demand from our careers, and how to make better choices, Everything Is Negotiable is for women ready to seize the lives they really want.
The Initial Offer
My older daughter, Lowery, is six years old. When you meet her, you might be fooled by her white tendrils and angelic smile, but that girl is a shrewd negotiator, and I’ve learned a lot watching her craft. When she was younger, one of her many tactics was to convince my husband and me to let her reserve something for later if we wouldn’t let her have it in the moment. She’d ask for a cookie. The answer was usually no. She’d nod respectfully, but then ask for the same thing in a different way: Could she put a cookie on the table? When we inquired why she wanted to do this, she explained that perhaps later, maybe after dinner, it would be okay for her to have a cookie, and if it was, the cookie would be ready for her. This tactic was (and still is) surprisingly effective.
At any given moment in our house, our kitchen table is littered with toys and treats over which my child is in current negotiations. And yet, by bedtime, the table is always magically cleared of clutter. She’s an example for women everywhere.
As an assistant professor and the leader of a professional graduate program at a major university, I spend much of my time talking with and coaching students. Whether with prospective students interested in the degree program or current students seeking advice on which courses to take next semester, almost every talk turns into a deeper conversation about where their lives are headed. For years I have listened to people talk through their goals in life. Graduate school is often the compounding aspect of a student’s life. They have a home life, sometimes filled with a spouse and children, and they have a professional life, often one of great responsibility. Adding school on top of all that tends to make anxieties, concerns, and dreams bubble to the surface. I just happen to be there when they do. These are often vulnerable concepts to acknowledge and verbalize, and I work hard to listen and advise well. This, by the way, is the greatest part of my job. I’m always catching people in the middle of a journey (or contemplating a journey) to better themselves. Students, after all, are just people trying to curate a good life for themselves, and their struggles and experiences are a microcosm for what a lot of ambitious people—students or not—struggle with.
Of the many students I’ve advised over the years, my female students tend to visit my office most often. I once thought this was because women tend to seek out other women for advice. But the longer I’ve had the role, the more I’ve come to realize that women tend to analyze their opportunities and assess their own value differently than men. That is to say, in broad generalities, women are negotiating more.
I don’t mean to imply men don’t struggle, compromise, or negotiate. They do. But I find male students don’t negotiate with themselves in the way my female students do. Sure, much of this is societal conditioning and exposure to a generation of Adam Sandler movies. But men and women think about themselves, their lives, and achieving their goals in vastly different ways. This thought disparity often arises when I meet individually with people who are considering the graduate program I administer. In an average week, I talk with at least three people who have expressed interest in the program. Men tend to get straight to the point: They want this degree, they have confirmed with their peers it is a good idea, and they have a plan for what they will do with the degree when they graduate. Very rarely do men ask me about balancing the demands of graduate school with their professional and personal lives. Few, if any, ask about the rigor of the program or what the current student population is like, and never has a male prospective student said he was thinking of having kids, which might make going back to school complicated. In fact, their questions are almost always confined to the technical aspects of the program, beyond the decision—cost, schedule, and timeline.
Women, on the other hand, typically begin our meetings by enumerating all the reasons taking on a graduate program at this time probably won’t work—they want kids soon; they are busy at their jobs; they need to devote time to friends and loved ones. Though they are often more excited by the prospect of graduate school than are their male counterparts, they are also more convinced there are too many obstacles in their way—obstacles that, I often uncover, are mostly self-imposed. And very rarely are the obstacles keeping them from achieving their dreams.
These general differences between men and women are, well, just that, but I continually notice this pattern emerge after countless meetings with prospective students and years of mentoring current students. As a result, I find myself constantly listening to the thoughts of women. My female students have trusted me with their concerns, not just over course schedules and class assignments, but over marriage, motherhood, educational and professional goals, and the battles they fight with their own sense of self-worth. I’ve heard nearly everything imaginable in my office, from “I’m pregnant!” and “I got a job offer!” to “I think I want to leave my husband” and, harrowingly, “I’m suicidal.”
You see, the women I mentor are in the middle of a negotiation. I don’t mean a salary negotiation—though we do a lot of preparation for that, too. I mean they are in the middle of a life negotiation, negotiating for the lives they want. Often, these women are negotiating with themselves, and somehow they are losing. I feel equipped to help my students negotiate because, well, I gave birth to the expert. As I said, my daughter is a shrewd negotiator, and she’s taught me some powerful strategies that I pass on to my female students as they negotiate for the lives they want.
Given my experience with listening to women and coaching them to negotiate better with themselves, I was offered the chance to give a TEDx Talk for the university where I work. The university’s TEDx team wanted me to shed some light on the struggles my students—particularly my female students—face. In that talk I outlined three tactics for negotiating for the life you want.
In this book, I expand and expound on those ideas. I outline five negotiating tactics I’ve learned from my strong-willed daughter that might help you negotiate for your life. I’m not specifically talking about negotiating for a promotion or a better price on a new house (though do try both of those!). Instead, I’m urging you, when you start to take some of your own wants and dreams off the table, to change the terms. I’m suggesting that when you start to undervalue your worth, up your own ante. If you are not wholly satisfied with the offer—the one that either you have been given or have given yourself—counter back. To successfully negotiate anything, however, you must first understand how much is up for negotiation. When my sister bought her first house, she demanded that the patio furniture be included in the sale. Having never bought a house myself, I was surprised by her stipulation because I didn’t realize what all could be negotiated. But that’s what you must realize when you look at each aspect of your life—from your career, to your relationships, to the way you feel about yourself: Everything is negotiable. Even the patio furniture.
If you can get clear in your mind what it is you want and believe it is yours to get, you will be successful. My daughter’s understanding that everything is up for negotiation is why she’s nearly always successful at getting what she wants. And you can get everything you want, too. To help you do that, I’ve outlined five tactics to clarify your wants, tame your fears, overcome your own hang-ups, and successfully walk away with the life and career you want, having outmaneuvered your wiliest opponent: yourself.
Don’t Confuse Your Wants
I was cautioned that when my second daughter, London, was born, my older daughter would become jealous. Lowery would suddenly have to compete for resources that had always been solely hers. Everything I read, and every seasoned mother, warned me about how competitive siblings can be, especially two little girls. After London’s birth, I braced myself for sibling rivalry and female competition.
Don’t let my Instagram account—brimming with syrupy pictures of sisterly love—fool you. There certainly were (and still are) times my two daughters competed for my attention. But over time, I began to see they weren’t really competitors. Lowery couldn’t have cared less about this little red dinosaur we have until she saw London wanting to play with it. Then Lowery would immediately engage in a cutthroat battle over something she had not cared about five minutes earlier. She wasn’t competing for it, but she seemed to think she should.
One day I saw Lowery reconcile this as she watched her baby sister play with the red dinosaur. She looked around the playroom and realized all the other toys were up for grabs—toys that actually interested her. From that point forward—as best a young kid can—she stopped confusing her wants with her sister’s.
Women are expected to compete with one another. Darwin figured this out way back when while sitting idly by and watching female chimps claw at each other over that one male monkey throwing his feces. Or something like that. And since then there has been an entire field of study devoted to understanding the territorial competition among females. Social researchers T. J. Wade and S. McCrea conducted a study in 1999 trying to gauge the response women might have when looking at attractive women. Female participants looked at pictures of other women who varied in physical attributes, like breast and waist size. They concluded that women exhibited a physiological response, as if threatened, when looking at pictures of perceived attractiveness. Their responses were based on looks alone. It’s not like they had the IQ scores or cooking samples from the women in the pictures. After all, the most attractive female gets the best mate (although sitcoms in the 1990s and early 2000s—such as Married with Children, King of Queens, and According to Jim—seem to say otherwise). Anyway, this competition is so engrained in women—and primarily based on physical traits—that we are essentially trained to size one another up instantly as competitors.
But over the years of mentoring women and watching my two daughters get along better than anticipated, I’ve come to realize we women aren’t in competition with one another. A competition implies we are vying for the same goal, mutually and equally engaged in a struggle for the exact same thing.
I know a lot of women. I’m friends with women. I teach women. I’m raising two little women. I see women walking around. And I’ve never once seen two women trying to do the exact same thing. Not once. All of my female students are roughly the same age and are pursuing the same specific degree, yet they do not have the same personal goals or career aspirations. No two women are ever trying to achieve the exact same thing. I mean, rarely are there even two women running for president in the same election year. And even then, it’s never on the same side. So if we aren’t competing, what are we doing?
We are comparing. And that’s a much more dangerous thing because comparison sets arbitrary metrics for our life and often creates random deadlines for when life experiences should happen. Comparisons trick you into confusing your wants with someone else’s.
A few semesters ago, I had a student in my office who had just started the program, and she told me, in no uncertain terms, that she needed to complete graduate school as quickly as possible. When I asked why she wanted to speed the process up, she explained that she had to graduate quickly so that she could have kids by the time she’s thirty. Now, I didn’t have her full medical chart in front of me, so I couldn’t speak to the possible reasons for her timeline. But, in retrospect, I would guess she was looking around at her friends and placing an arbitrary deadline on her life. In other words, she was confusing her wants with someone else’s.
When I first became a mother, I was suddenly—overwhelmingly—out of my element. My parenting in that first year was based almost exclusively on what I saw other mothers doing. One mom made persuasive claims about the importance, benefits, and sheer joy of making her own organic baby food. My interpretation of that at the time was that if I wanted my child to have a shot at Harvard, I’d need a hand mixer.
So that first year—despite my being a full-time doctoral student and an adjunct professor—you could find me at home for hours on end, (ignoring my child) in the kitchen, elbow deep in farmer’s market squash—sautéing it, pureeing it, blending it, pouring it, and serving it up to my six-month-old, who would immediately spit it out in disgust. But I repeated that process over and over because this was important.
Then one day I was in the grocery store, and I don’t know if I just don’t ever look around, but can you imagine what I saw? Jars and jars and jars of organic baby food. Aisles of this stuff. I picked up a jar and studied the baby on the label, a very happy, well-adjusted looking, Harvard-bound baby. And I thought, Wait, what am I doing? What I was doing was spending an inordinate amount of time on something that was never a priority for me. I had looked around at another mother and immediately become entrenched in something I had never cared about before. There is not a distant version of myself that couldn’t wait to blend avocado and rhubarb in a BPA-free container. I don’t even like to cook.
But I was comparing myself to these other mothers, and it set me up for failure because I didn’t have the same goals as these women. Not in parenting, and not in life. But that feeling, that knee-jerk reaction of panic and pressure—I have to do more, be more—crops up in other aspects of my life, not just parenting. I feel it in my professional life, especially as a female in academia.
When I first took a faculty position at a major university, I was incredibly intimidated. I was new and young (and female!), and I had no idea what was going to constitute success in the job. So I looked to those around me: professors who were decades into their careers, with publications and awards that took up pages and pages of their CVs. For nearly a year I stressed about living up to their standards, completely ignoring that I had been hired to save and grow a dwindling graduate program—no one else around me was there to do that. All of us at the university had completely different goals, not just in our job descriptions, but in our own professional ambitions.
When I started to have some success with that specific program, something I didn’t expect happened: I became a threat to those who threatened me. It wasn’t too long into my time at the university that I began to hear some grumbling about the attention my program was getting, or—maybe more accurately—the attention I was getting. During the first few years, I felt like I was running to catch up to all the academic giants around me—to even be considered a peer—only to turn around one day and see those giants wanting a little of what I had earned.
The turning point came when I recognized that I didn’t want the career of a peer I admired just because she had great credentials. I wanted a career that I had built and that made sense for my personal and professional goals. But it is hard not to look at other scholars or mothers and not feel intimidated or immediately compare myself. So I must constantly keep in mind what my plans are for my career and for my life. I can’t get bogged down in comparison because I’ll confuse my wants with someone else’s.
So how do we keep from confusing our wants? After all, sometimes we want something because we actually want it. And though our wants may be governed by various things like our peers, society, and Gossip Girl reruns, there are a few checkpoints to keep in mind when you are trying to figure out your wants.
YOUR WANTS ARE ALL YOURS
Competition among women is the nastiest stereotype of all. Gendered conditioning to see one another as the enemy is a big barrier we all face. My mother once told me, “Women don’t dress for men; they dress for other women.” I laughed because I was, like, seven, and I wasn’t quite ready to absorb such wisdom. But I learned soon enough. When I was in junior high, I arrived at school one morning in my favorite outfit, a seersucker plaid jumper (I was hella cool). When I walked up to a large group of students standing outside the classroom, a girl named Alicia turned around, looked me over, and loudly said for all to hear, “Meg, you’ve already worn that this week.” Now, evolution would point to the fact that as a junior higher, Alicia was set up to see my twelve-year-old bod cloaked in breathable plaid as a threat to her ability to attract a mate. At the time it was a tall, swarthy boy named Mark. Six months later we had all moved on to a short, blond, athletic kid named Wes.
But for the rest of junior high, I was overly stressed about how often I should wear an outfit. Was twice a month too much? I didn’t have that many clothes. I fretted about this to varying degrees all the way up until I got married, and then I came to realize that men—particularly the man I married—were not that invested in what I wore. One evening, I was putting on makeup in our bedroom while my husband was struggling with his tie. We were preparing for a nice dinner out. A few minutes later I joined him downstairs. “Oh,” he said. “You changed. I really liked the dress you had on earlier.” I looked at him, befuddled, and said, “That was my bathrobe.” Throughout my entire life, I was conditioned to believe women were competing with one another’s physical attractiveness for a mate. But then, my actual mate didn’t even seem to notice my outfit. What the hell?
So we spend our time thinking we are in competition with women. And, although we aren’t really in competition, here’s the trouble with thinking we are. In 2016, a couple of economics professors at the University of Amsterdam conducted a study looking at what happens to women who compete in the Math Olympics. They drew two interesting conclusions from studying the women as they competed: 1) Women are less likely to keep competing if they aren’t getting positive feedback; and 2) They are more likely to stop competing after a setback. Yikes. This means that unless women are both being praised and winning, they are more likely to give up in the competition.
That’s problematic for a couple of reasons. First, this study implies—perhaps rightly so—that women need positive reinforcement. I know that if my children don’t “ooh” and “ahh” over a meal I cook, there’s a stronger likelihood I might never feed them again. But the second concern is that women are giving up when they face setbacks like a loss. Yet, as I said before, women aren’t competing in life. So you can’t technically lose! Now, if you perceive you are competing, at some point you’re probably going to perceive yourself as the loser. And then what? You. Will. Give. Up.
Studies like this might help explain why women don’t go as far as men in fields such as academia or corporate leadership. And we bring that weird competition into other parts of our lives, too—like parenting, or skin care. And when we feel we are not measuring up, we back down. This is some bullshit. We are not competing! Wear your plaid jumpers!
It’s been a long time since junior high, and I’ve made plenty of interesting fashion choices along the way. I’ve also had an abundance of female friendships that remind me we are not in competition. I find the women around me in my professional life to be incredibly supportive and encouraging. But I’m still susceptible to steering into the stereotype. Allow me to elaborate:
I first met Melissa at the open house for the preschool our children attended. At the time, the director of the school hosted a dinner for incoming parents to ease them through the tumultuous transition from maternity leave to full-time childcare. The event was arranged so parents could drop off their infants in one of the classrooms where three teachers eagerly awaited and then shuffle into the dining hall to meet other shell-shocked and sleep-deprived new parents.
Melissa and her husband showed up a little late. She had her newborn son, Jack, pressed tightly to her chest. All the other parents—especially me—were ecstatic at the thought of free childcare for an hour, and we had happily dropped our babies and run. But not Melissa. She had her son in her arms, looking lovingly down at him as he blinked up at her.
At the time, our babies were mere weeks old. I was in the darkest period of postpartum depression, having long given up the ability to nurse, and I was still struggling mightily to bond with my child. Watching Melissa effortlessly cuddle and nurse her baby—the only mother in the packed room to reject the available childcare—I decided definitively that I hated her.
I tried to avoid her after that night. When I saw her in the halls during morning drop-off, I cringed. She would so carefully and lovingly place her precious son in the teacher’s arms, hand over a bucket of breast milk, and float effortlessly out of the room accompanied by bluebirds and field mice.
I would awkwardly hand over my child, leave her portions of formula, and slink out of the room, wondering whether I should have held my kid longer or brought a warmer blanket. Six years and two children later, mothering is now natural, fun, and fulfilling. But in the beginning, every aspect of it felt monumental, and I struggled to adapt. Especially the part in which I fully realized the depth of female competition.
Yes, I had my fair share of this in junior high. But being a woman never registered as anything other than the annual pap smear and picking a brand of tampons. When I became a mother, however, my eyes were opened to the two greatest downfalls of our sex: intra-gender competition, and salads as a meal.
Oddly, these two aren’t unrelated.
In fact, most women suffer from both syndromes in a chicken-or-the-egg fashion. Although I assume competition came first because I think it is somehow hardwired into women. Eating rabbit food is a learned behavior.
Our perceived competition with one another is something society has thrust upon us (exhibit A: any cover of any fashion mag; exhibit B: all other aspects of life). We’ve been conditioned to believe there is an ideal image of us—how we look, live, mother, and marry. If we are presented the ideal image and we see another woman closer to that image than we are, we must assume she’s someone to beat. But this is silly, of course, and nothing more than perception. There is no ideal; it’s all fabricated. We are all going after different things but find ourselves sometimes steering into the false ideal that society (and Vogue!) has set before us.
When I first met Melissa, I didn’t stop to think that perhaps she just had a different way of coping with her struggles as a new mom (which I found out years later was true). Or that perhaps the only reason she was holding her son that night was because they came late and didn’t know childcare was available (I found out later this was also true). Or that maybe, just maybe, I intimidated her as well (also true).
Instead, I saw her as an opponent.
I looked at her and assumed I was witnessing a woman being better than I was. Handling motherhood better. Bonding to her child quicker. Balancing work more easily. Losing the pregnancy weight faster.
- On Sale
- Dec 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press