The “already” of choice, the “not yet” of certainty: a review of “Undecided”

I’ve written often about the Martha Complex and young women’s perfectionism. And I’m not the only one: since Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters hit the shelves four years ago, many other books and articles have looked at this same phenomenon. In too many instances, however (and I plead partly guilty to this) our capacity to illustrate the problem exceeds our ability to propose a workable solution to the perfectionism crisis. We see the wrong more clearly than we see the right.

One new book does offer a more promising road map for women stuck on the ceaseless treadmill: Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career-and Life-That’s Right for You. Written by the mother-daughter team of Barbara and Shannon Kelley and published by the feminist Seal Press, Undecided is a helpful, funny, winsome guide to navigating through both perfectionism and its close cousin, “analysis paralysis.”

The Kelleys recognize that for the relatively privileged young women who are the target audience of their book, the sheer number of available choices (for careers, relationships, cities) can seem overwhelming. But they offer this helpful reminder:

The choices that paralyse us now were earned — not so long ago — by women who were dismayed (and often infuriated) by how few choices they and their sisters had. And a certain measure of our difficult in navigating these choices has to do with the fact that they’re just so new.

This generation of Millenials is caught between an “Already and a Not Yet” that fuels and exacerbates the perfectionism/choice surplus crisis. For at least a great many young American women (not enough, as poverty statistics continue to make clear) we’ve already created unprecedented opportunities for autonomy and agency. But we have not yet broken the powerful cultural stranglehold of older ways of thinking that condition young women not only to be people-pleasers, but to be terrified of failure. What we have not yet done is give young women sufficient permission to fuck-up; the “one mistake can ruin your life” narrative still holds sway.

Those expecting an easy how-to guide to gaining both certainty and confidence will be disappointed. Undecided makes the case that young women need to return to doing the vital, indispensable work of finding their own inner voice. That inward journey may sound like “self-involved psychobabble”, as Elizabeth, one of the Kelley’s interviewees puts it, but as she herself concedes, “unless you do that work (going inward) it’s not going to happen.”

“It” in this case means release from nagging self-doubt and uncertainty.

It’s easier, as the Kelleys remind us, for women to avoid this inner journey:

External circumstances just seem more real. So we move, we quit, we cut our bangs, we go on diets. But this dance is a little melancholy, if only for its familiarity. We know how it ends. We catch whatever we’re chasing — the proverbial carrot on the proverbial stick — only to find (as we suspected deep inside) that we weren’t hungry for carrots after all. It’s just so much easier to focus on the carrots, rather than working to discover what’s in need of nourishment.

I’ve watched many young women chase those carrots (I’ve run after some myself). And I’ve watched as some sought an end to the chase in the siren song of fundamentalism or cults with their promises of a living water that can quench thirst forever. I’ve watched others grow cynical and frustrated. But I’ve also seen, happily enough, a great many women do exactly the kind of work the Kelleys advocate. And sometimes accompanied by a break-up or a hairstyle change or a cross-country move (and sometimes by none of these), they get to the place where they can say, “my best right now is good enough.” It’s a fine thing to be able to witness. And Undecided offers us plenty to witness.

In reflecting on perfectionism, it does seem quite clearly to have gotten worse for women in recent decades. At the same time, after nearly 20 years teaching gender studies, I’ve noticed something else, something that gives me a lot of hope: women are getting that “click” moment earlier. My classes have always been filled with vibrant, passionate, confident women in their 30s, 40s,and 50s who finally “got it” and let go of the crushing expectations that defined them in their childhoods, teenage years, and twenties. They have always been able to offer my younger students the “it gets better” story we need to repeat.

But I’m seeing younger and younger women getting that “click”, not just of feminism but of self-acceptance. As perfectionism and physical puberty arrive earlier and earlier, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that confidence, certainty, and self-knowledge is also coming earlier, at least for some. In other words, if you do your work, not only does “it get better”… but it gets better sooner.

I enthusiastically recommend Undecided.

9 thoughts on “The “already” of choice, the “not yet” of certainty: a review of “Undecided”

  1. What I have always found interesting about the “click” moment that Hugo describes is that our ‘old ways of thinking’ also color our reactions to women who have that moment depending how old they are when they act on it. The popular book/movie genre of women in their 40′s and 50′s who cast off cultural expectations, go off to do something unexpected that they’ve always dreamed of, and become better human beings for it (see stories of the Eat, Pray, Love variety) lauds these women as feminist heroes. Do this in your 20′s and society starts screaming that you aren’t doing what you “need” to do, will never be happy, are being stupid, etc. While I have, admittedly, not delved into all the cultural possibilities for this, I have a nagging concern that our culture is happy for the former women because “their duty is done” and subtly pressures younger women not to make these different choices early on because they haven’t yet “paid their dues”.

  2. Yes, Holly, that’s right on. That sense of “dues-paying” is enormously important and oppressive. Got to scribble about that.

  3. I’m confused about the above quoted analogy about chasing carrots on sticks.

    While I understand the difference between pursuing what we want to pursue (presumably the nourishment that we need in the analogy) and pursuing what is offered to us (the carrot dangled on the stick), how can we truly know the one without the other?

    Isn’t “moving, quitting, cutting bangs, and dieting” all part of a necessary process to find out what the self truly wants in the first place? How can a realistic search for an “inner voice” take place if the searcher lacks enough experience to reach relevant conclusions?

  4. I think the point of the carrot analogy is that you can never actually obtain the carrot; it’s always the same distance away, out of reach.

  5. While I appreciate the sentiment this discussion ignores economic reality. The new normal of stagnant wages, a hollowing white collar sector and the college educated decreased bargaining power, have created a new economic landscape where one mistake WILL destroy you. The surplus of life choices that we millennials were sold 5 years ago when we were finishing up high school don’t exist. We’re all competing for a smaller and smaller portion of the white collar gravy train, one which get’s less glamorous by the hour. We’re about to see a huuuuuge culture shift about how we view work and fulfillment, mainly because work is about to get really miserable and poorly paid.

  6. Dobb,

    I’m often confused about the sentiments you are describing.

    The truth is (and has always been) that a college degree still leads to dramatically increased (and growing!) wages provided you work in a field that employers desire.

    Look at the wages of anyone with a degree in computer science, chemical engineering, biology, economics, or basically any other math/statistics heavy field and you’ll see steady gains in both employment and wages.

    Of course, that doesn’t stop people signing up in droves to major in art and social work, but last I checked the “white collar dream” wasn’t based on being a social worker, so it’s hard to assume that people aren’t reading things into the economy that were never really there.

  7. “The popular book/movie genre of women in their 40?s and 50?s who cast off cultural expectations, go off to do something unexpected that they’ve always dreamed of, and become better human beings for it (see stories of the Eat, Pray, Love variety) lauds these women as feminist heroes.”

    That isn’t the impression I came back with from reading negative and vitrolic reviews at Amazon about Eat, Pray, Love. She was severly criticized about her choices and apparently one of those choices was to not have children. Those attacks and criticism were quite vicious. If Hugo wrote about it here, I must have missed it. So I never read anywhere that the author was lauded as being some kind of feminist hero. Quite the opposite. Much of the criticism was directed towards her for being white and for not measuring up in the “do for others” category that women are supposed to excel in. Some people dismissed her book as “yuppie whining” and quite a few comments sounded angry because she was paid well for her book.

    If you go against the grain of what people think you ought to do you may be happier, but you probably may not get much emotional support from others and that can impact your happiness.

    “I have a nagging concern that our culture is happy for the former women because “their duty is done”.

    I don’t think our culture is necessarily happy for people trying to make and find their own way because their duty is done. The woman that you mention above chose not to have kids and many of those women are treated very poorly for making that choice, even if that choice was better for them.

    A good many people are big on trying to dictate to others what will make them happy, when their control and arrogance has absolutely nothing to do with your happiness at all, but is in fact, all about them.

  8. Mike you couldn’t be more wrong.

    I apologize to all for the following econ nerdage.

    Krugman puts it best.

    “The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out”: both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/opinion/07krugman.html?_r=1

    See I’m not talking about social work and the arts. Neoliberalism has already ravaged those jobs. Hugo no doubt can tell us about the corporatization of the academia too. I’m talking about chemical engineering, computer science, law etc. Those jobs you mention.

    The fact is, automation and telecommunications have made these easy to offshore or eliminate. As Krugman points out, computers are now at the stage where they can do most of the “brute force” calculation and design which used to employ scores of “knowledge workers.” Those you can’t automate out are now competing with college graduates in India and China who are just as smart but willing to work for a lot less. Furthermore, those that can get a job are not going to see wage growth, not the kind you fancifully describe. Not when there are new graduates or offshore workers willing to take their job for less. Fact is, white collar jobs are now seeing the same downward pressure that the service and manufacturing sector saw years ago. Advanced degrees have become just too commonplace.

    End of econ nerdage.

  9. Dobb,

    Respectfully, many in the economics community argue that Krugman has become too much of a journalist of late and has forgotten basic economics. The article you’re quoting is a basic example of this complaint.

    Gary Becker (among others) pointed out that Paul Krugman’s analysis is completely inconsistent with existing data.

    “However, if Krugman were correct that software was replacing college educated persons on a large scale, that high wage jobs have been more “offshorable” than jobs done by the low-paid, and that college education is becoming less helpful in finding good jobs, then surely during recent years the earnings gains of college graduates should already have begun to fall behind the gains of less educated persons.

    Yet since the early 1990s and even during the last decade, the facts are the opposite: the average earnings premiums of college graduates in the US, and especially the premiums of persons with a post-graduate education, have continued to increase, despite the growth in the numbers of educated persons in the labor force”
    From: http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2011/03/are-too-many-young-people-going-to-college-becker.html

    Krugman cannot explain the continued high wage premiums for those with college educations, nor can he explain the comparatively low unemployment rates for those with college educations even if you control for age!

    As for the skills I mentioned, they’re from Payscale.com’s 2010-2011 salary-by-college-major survey of employers. All of those fields (and others) have starting salaries ABOVE the median salary for the college educated work force. (source: http://www.payscale.com/best-colleges/degrees.asp ).

    Basic economics argues that above-average salaries indicate above average demand for those skill sets.

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