Category Archives: Identity

The cat that walked by himself

Last weekend I was having a “deep and meaningful” with a buddy. You can’t really put the two of us together without this happening. Though there’s something about both of us that means a D&M rarely gets too heavy (unless copious amounts of red wine are involved and then nothing’s sacred and no-one’s safe.)

At some point I mentioned how confusing I find it to know who my people are … what sort of ‘milieu’ I belong to.

Who cares?

Well, if you’re dating this gets VERY confusing. But if ever I blog about dating please shoot me, so let’s leave it at that.

In reply to my identify confusion, my good friend replied,

“But, it’s obvious! You’re the cat that walked by himself”

“I am?”

“You are.”

At which point I lost her for a bit as she frenetically googled on her iPhone looking for the source of her reference … the story that led her
to say this …while I sat there sipping my latte pleased that there appeared to be a well-documented report on my condition, involving a cat no
less.

The point of her point was to congratulate me on my independence even if it does cost me a sense of belonging. Had she simply used these words
there’s no doubt I’d have felt far less consoled than I did when I learnt that I am a cat. A cat written of in legends!

So if ever you want to cheer someone up that they’re not just a stray or a freak or an outcast, I highly recommend sending them The Cat That Walked By Himself.

Thanks to my friend for giving me this story.
***
“The Cat That Walked By Himself” is from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Here are the lines my friend had in mind, a 5 minute video of extracts from the story and the full Kipling text.

… and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Relationships, States of mind, Words

Heroes and other strangers

Last night I went to bed way too late. Not because I was out partying. It’s true I did go out for a drink. But the way-too-late bit is thanks to the fact that when I came home I made myself a cup of tea, got into bed with my laptop and stayed up till 3 am watching a documentary about Steve Jobs.

I’m not even interested in Jobs (sorry). But I couldn’t find any episodes of Pan Am on the BBC iplayer (what? has it ended already?!) and I’m all caught up with Death in Paradise. So while I wasn’t all that interested in Jobs, I was already committed to the idea that I was going to unwind by watching TV in bed on my laptop … that I was going to stay up late just because I could!

The only bit of Jobs’ story that I was curious about was the reference to him as The Hippy Billionaire in the strapline of the show. Ever since I went to see my friend Zac’s play at The Fringe Festival in New York this summer (Heroes and Other Strangers*), I’ve been wondering about something:

How come a whole generation of people went counter-culture in the 60’s and they still turned out wealthy and bourgeois? Or if not wealthy, then certainly not poor. How is it possible to drop-out in your early twenties and then come back in your 30’s with a house and a car and not even a job but an actual career?

Zac Jaffee, writer and performer, in Heroes...

Jobs may be an exceptional case, but from the anecdotal stockpile in  my head, he’s not the only hippy drop-out made good.
 

After Zac’s show (which has been described as a hippy-fueled coming-of-age detective story), I asked his partner about this. His partner also happens to be my high school buddy. I thought she might know because along with most of my other high school friends, her parents were around for the 60’s (while mine were in Ireland — a country that skipped that decade).

The difference between my parents and the parents of my high school friends seemed stark to me at the time. Other parents had done drugs. Other parents had had some pretty intense “experiences”.

Other parents had different attitudes towards parenting than my own.

It was also clear that by the time I met these Other Parents they wore suits (with padded shoulders) and did things like commute to an office. At the time I didn’t think this was weird — but now I do.

 
My high school friend’s reply to my question had been that I was over-estimating the number of people that participated in the counter-culture movement and while many of these parents might have been at college at the time and up for the odd protest here and there, my friend explained to me that they were not necessarily fully-fledged members of the moving images I had in my mind. (Think Forrest Gump). They never really dropped out, she said. It was just fashionable at the time to be a bit of a hippy … but not necessarily to embrace the full Yoko Ono.

While I do trust my friend on this matter, I remain curious and let’s face it – clearly envious, that lots of people did opt for a life of love-in’s and parties and questioning the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights …. So how did these people re-enter the commercial world and begin to command the sort of paychecks and lifestyles that their more conservative peers had been sweating over and working more steadily towards …

How did they have their cake and eat it too? The answer in Jobs case seems to be that he was amazingly visionary and utterly ruthless. But what about the average hippy? Or were none of them all that average — were all of them special sorts of people to begin with.

I still wonder about this.

The Jobs documentary shed no light on these matters for me. So if anyone out there can either shut down or verify any of the sweeping generalizations I make in this post — or even better, recommend a good book about what happened to all those hippies … please share!

* * *

*I loved Heroes and Other Strangers – and for anyone who knows me well, live performances are not really my thing — normally I get too stressed out for the people on stage to lose myself in the show and can never quite forget I am watching make-believe. But Heroes really grabbed me. Here’s a bit more about it straight from the show’s writer/performer, my friend Zac.

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Filed under Current affairs, History, Identity, Money

Mini-masterpieces — editing your life (1)

If the stories we tell ourselves — particularly in hard times — make all the difference to our well-being and can save us from languishing in the trenches of life, then learning how to edit our personal narratives is a skill that I could certainly use.

We all know people who seem to believe in the PR version of themselves. I am not one.

By life stories I’m talking about the explanations we have developed for how things have turned out as they have.

My life stories include everything from how I came to live in London, why I’ve worked for the same company for the last 15 years, how my last relationship ended, why it is that I’ve been single since and the reasons I write non-fiction rather than the bodice-ripping tales of adventure that some people keep telling me would prove a smarter move.

Life stories are all about the why … the who, what, where & how are incidental, which means life stories are less about the details and more about the meaning.

We create them or borrow them from what people have told us in order to explain who we are — to others and to ourselves.

The trouble with most life stories is that we don’t notice them. They unfold and carry on inside of us influencing how we feel about ourselves and what decisions we make without our conscious permission to do so.

Let’s try a thought experiment — let’s just say that you get a call tomorrow from a headhunter who has you in mind for the best ever possible job you could wish to get. [I appreciate that a staggering amount of us have no idea what the job would be, but let’s pretend we do.]

The trick is this — in the interview you’re about to have with that headhunter only “the absolute truth” will do. Only the truth will get you the dream job. And by the truth, the headhunter means what you really deep-down believe about yourself and the life you’ve lived to date. He’ll want to know what sort of person you were at school, what you would consider the 3 most significant life choices you’ve made, why you made them and most importantly, what you fear about the future and why.

Odds are you’re going to feel a small bit of pressure in the hours between now and the life-changing interview. So it’s well worth giving some thought to what your answers might be to those questions … what life narratives start to crop up?

Mine are those I’ve mentioned above. What are yours?

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Abraham Lincoln meets Oprah

The story I told yesterday about my friend who lost her dad got me wondering about the connection between grief and gratitude … which through the magic of following Google leads down warrens brought me to the work of Dan McAdams.

A psychologist by trade, McAdams has compiled a social history of the sorts of stories that Americans tell themselves. These reflect the deep–down optimism that, as far as I’m concerned, marks the American attitude to life more than any other quality.

According to Publishers Weekly, McAdams analyzed hundreds of American stories — the Horatio Alger success stories, the early, middle and latter-day self-help classics, the writing of Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln and good old Oprah. He looked at confessions from the Puritans and he read the narratives of slaves. He checked out all the back copies he could find of People magazine.

And what he found was this — that Americans tell redemptive stories.

Stories of deliverance from suffering. And that these stories help us on multiple levels. In one piece of research patients healed faster if they had a redemptive story to tell themselves. The kind of people who say things like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” have a much higher chance of surviving than the rest of us.

The interesting thing is this — redemptive stories are not happy tales. They are not glossed over, upbeat, superficial approaches to dark times. The deeper the trouble, the harder the toil, the longer the suffering, the more power a redemptive story has in equipping us with the perseverance to make it through such hardship.

All we have to believe is that Good can come from Bad.

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Not in London, States of mind

The problem with our parents

It’s hard for me to take one of the most interesting theories I’ve ever come across and present it in a blog. Quickly. After my shower, but before I need to get going today on the laundry, the shopping, the packing of my suitcase, and before I go out tonight, and get back to work tomorrow and fly to Boston tomorrow night to visit my mom.

So I won’t try too hard. I only have about 40 minutes.

Instead I will tell you about the person behind the theory which involves a story even more interesting to me. Here goes …

Back in 1998 Judith Harris wrote a book called The Nuture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. Here’s some of the praise on the back of the book

  • ‘Harris’s assault on the assumption that screwed-up-adults should blame their families is a refreshing corrective.’ The Observer
  • ‘[This book] is brilliant – it has the unusual combination of being completely original, high interesting, and almost certainly correct.” Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works

But the most interesting thing about the book is how Harris came up with her theory that other children, not adults, have much more to do with how we turn out.

Before she wrote the book, Harris published an article  in the distinguished academic journal Psychological Review. Which triggered a good deal of questions — where was her university affiliation? where were her credentials — Harris was Judith, not Professor Harris, not Dr. Harris. She received an outpouring of replies from the academics who read this journal. Her favourite came from a Professor at Cornell:

Your article constitutes a major contribution to personality and developmental psychology — which only makes me even more curious about you. Are you an academic? A clinician? An unemployed steel worker who has an interesting hobby of writing seminal scientific articles?

Harris was the steel worker. Here’s how she replied to the professor

I said I was an unemployed writer of college textbooks. I explained that I had no Ph.D — I’d been kicked out of Harvard’s Department of Psychology with only a master’s degree. I had been stuck at home for many years due to chronic health problems; I had no mentors, no students. I became a writer of textbooks because that is something one can do at home. I was an unemployed writer of textbooks because I’d quit that job.

She never heard from the professor again.

In one of life’s classic twists of fate she received the George A. Miller prize for her article. Miller was the former president of the American Psychological Society. And by chance Miller was the professor who had kicked Judith Harris out of the Ph.D program at Harvard 37 years earlier.

She’d done nothing wrong, her grades were fine, but it was his conclusion that she didn’t have it in her to come up with anything worthy enough of the Harvard badge. He’d written something to this effect in a letter to her that explained they didn’t want her to pursue her Ph.D.

In the intervening years Harris went on to be a mother. And a textbook writer. And she noticed that the theories and experiments she had to fashion into interesting textbook language didn’t add up. They didn’t explain to her why her two daughters were so different. She struggled with the idea that beyond genetic explanations (which she believes, but only account for half of who we are), her parental style would account for the rest. This was an idea with tremendous explanatory popularity throughout the 1980’s ad 1990’s when therapy took off like a tsunami. We might forget that now because genetics is back in vogue (after decades of their study being too taboo, too politically sensitive after all the effort of the civil rights movement to create a standard of equality that said all people, from all sorts of genetic variations, are just as smart and capable and worthy of the same treatment as the next person.)

Anyway, what Harris noticed is that this classic debate neglects a huge influence in our lives on what’s been called the “nuture side” but would be better known as environmental factors. She examines everything from why some children are more aggressive than others to how it is that immigrant children learn the language of their peers and not their parents and points to group socialization as the overlooked alternative explanation.

She argues against birth order theories, and twin studies and says “children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents, modify their behavior to fit with the peer group, and this ultimately helps to form the character of the individual.”

I didn’t come across Harris until 2005 but her arguments backed up my own belief that school forms us for life. So of course I liked it.

But like all major theories hoping to explain humans, it’s not that Judith Harris has nailed it — it’s that, as an outsider, she saw what insiders could not see. And she stood up and said something about it. What she said was the exact sort of thing that gets you fired from teaching Ph.D programs never mind wanting to complete one. It’s that she devoted years of her life building the case to convince the people that research our lives, that shape government and healthcare and educational policy and that medicate and “treat” us with therapy or bookshelves of self-help — that there’s more they should understand about what influences our personality and life-chances than our parents (the genes they give us and the way they treat us).

What she actually said is that parents don’t matter. But she was just trying to get published. What she goes on to explain is that this over-emphasis on parenting is a huge waste of time when what really makes all the difference is going on in the playground or at after-school sports.

Parents matter, but a whole lot less than Philip Larkin and our culture insists.

[Not that this means that I personally ever forget all that you’ve done and still do for us, if you’re reading this Mom] See, I told you that 40 minutes was a very tall order to sum up Harris’ life work and get in all the nuances, never mind give my own personal thoughts on the matter … but really I have to go.

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Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Therapy

The roles people play

I’m not sure when I first developed my pet theory that the roles we played at school can last a lifetime, but it was before I studied psychology or came across social theories that might back me up.

What I thought was this: school is where we have to learn to be ourselves in a group within many groups; it’s our first major test where we find out what our “role of least resistance” might be. That is, the performance that comes most naturally to us when faced with lots of peers — when faced with an overwhelming amount of opportunities to be rejected.

And school, just like the work place many of us are headed to afterwards, is where we spend a disproportionately huge chunk of our time on the planet.

I suspect my theory developed around 1995.

At the time I worked for Dell Computers. Each day I went to work in what I thought of as the George Jetson of offices. George was the father character from The Jetsons — a cartoon or “animated sitcom” from the early 60’s. And while I was not alive in the 60’s, The Jetsons made a brief come-back in the 80’s. In a nutshell, they were the sci-fi version of The Flintstones .  Given that I suffer from an intensely vague memory, it’s unusual that any TV programme, never mind The Jetsons, became so memorable to me. I guess it was because I loved the technology of their everyday lives. To this day I think of Jane Jetson in the morning as I ask myself Do I really have to take a shower, blow dry my hair, find something to wear, put on make-up? Why can’t life be like Jane’s where I could just walk over to the car-wash-like conveyor belt and come out the other side moments later all perfectly groomed by friendly robots, ready to go?

Anyway, I worked for Dell at their office outside Dublin which felt very much like a large hangar which made me think that just like George Jetson’s briefcase, the company could decide to fold up the whole building with the flip of a switch and move it to a different country. Who knew I was so forward-thinking and this is exactly what more and more companies would start to do.

But back to the point — inside this George Jetson briefcase of a building, I sat at my computer alongside two hundred other 20 something’s. So I’m pretty sure that’s when my “school theory” formed.

As for the role I played at school, over the years people have told me that I was some sort of outsider who managed to be cool, aloof and for some of the time … above being freaky. The other half of the time — or that is, to another group of people, I was just your average weirdo.

Which is odd, because I wasn’t particularly weird. I was just separate. And a bit of a loner, but a loner with “leadership energy” which drew other weirdos towards me — which I wasn’t always happy about because some of these kids were different for the sake of being different. And I’ve always thought that was stupid.*

So I was superior too.

Not that this role matched the me on the inside much at all (and this is another theory that I shall explore in a later post — that people with only a little gap between who they are on the inside compared with their outside role, suffer a lot less than those of us with a very large gap between who we really are and how we are perceived.)

I’m sensitive to the fact that we should be able to take a look at The Breakfast Club to find the character that I was. But we can’t. I was absolutely not what’s-her-face the posh snobby one (except possibly for one year of my life when I moved from a rich town where we poor to a poor town where we were, if not rich, then definitely wearing the wrong clothes). And if anyone says I was Ally Sheedy I won’t talk to them again. But it seems as if some version of who I was is probably captured in that movie. It was certainly the basic milieu of my teenage life. And it had the right soundtrack. But I guess I’m over thinking this because it was a movie about a cast of high school stereotypes from the American 80’s, so it’s no mystery I related to it … and if I’m not sure which stereotype I was — well, isn’t that the entire point of the identity crisis that’s otherwise known as being a teenager.

And so it was only when I got to Dell — a company on the outskirts of Dublin with cliques of its own and noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to an All-American, Catholic, Ice-hockey champion high school on the outskirts of Boston — that I realized that if you don’t belong in one place, then running off to try new places will backfire if you fail to notice that it is in your nature to be a non-belonger? And that non-belonging is born at school.

More on peer groups and social identity to follow soon …

*If you are a friend of mine from high school who was also a weirdo, I am not referring to you. You are a “keeper” and I did not regard you as weird for the sake of weird. I promise. I lost track of those people as soon I left America.

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Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Work

Kids can be mean

But that’s terrible!’

By yesterday evening I realized I’d said these words 4 times this week in response to completely different stories about bad things happening to other people.

Each was a workplace war story.

In one case a friend’s husband lost his job in the first wave of the recession. He’d worked for a US transport company for 15 years. Everyone at the company knew that people would lose their jobs. But one senior person, instead of accepting he’d have to let people go and give those that were entitled some sort of compensation package, worked out how many of his staff he might be able to force into quitting. By making their life hell.

The friend confessed that she tried to convince her husband to quit several months into this regime …because she lay awake at night wondering if he was going to have a heart attack.

But he stood his ground, hit his impossible targets, eventually got made redundant and used the money to pursue his dream of running his own business.

The endings to the 3 other stories I heard were far less satisfying and involved everything from deeply immature managers to heads of HR with personal vendettas.

“But that’s terrible!” I’d say.

And then the following thought would enter my head: I am going to find out who these people are that ruin other people’s lives and I am going to write to them!!

Yes, well — it was a fleeting thought each time. A more lingering thought involved something my mother used to say about school playground crimes  “Well, kids can be mean.” And that’s the subject of this weekend’s blog — how it is that experiences we had in school can follow us around for the rests of our lives — and most especially into the workplace.

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Filed under Identity, Work