This week, I found the yin to all the Lean In yang – in the story of Bill Watterson.
Remember Calvin and Hobbes, the iconic cartoon strip? Bill Watterson is the artist who had a blazing 10-year run from 1985-1995, abruptly closing shop at the height of his mega-success and quietly retiring back to his hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He was 37 years old.
In 1990, midway through his Calvin and Hobbes decade, Watterson gave a brilliant commencement address at his alma mater in Ohio, Kenyon College, urging graduates to find their own way in life. Last week the speech was resurrected by Gavin Aung Than, an Australian freelance cartoonist who illustrates an inspirational quote each week at Zen Pencils. Than’s excerpt of Watterson’s speech in a Calvin-and-Hobbes-inspired strip is a great tribute to the man and his message:
Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential – as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
We love to celebrate achievement in America; it’s in our DNA. We are descended from people with the courage to leave their home countries and brave the unknown. The Italians may toast la dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing – but here we relish the American success story.
Sandberg is the superwoman ideal – giant brain, influential career, CEO husband, two kids, home-for-dinner-by-six schedule – and on top of it all she is pretty, put-together and seems like someone you’d love to have dinner with. I love her story – her remarkable career, the earnestness of her message and her genuine desire to help others. I give her huge credit for wanting other women to join her. Not everyone with power has such a generous spirit.
But to me Sandberg’s lean-in message is based on that have-it-all illusion that is at the root of women’s feelings of inadequacy. I used to believe in it, for years when I was in the rat race, and even for some years after. But memoirs of wildly successful people almost invariably include personal regrets – failed marriages, estranged children, neglected family lives. Life is ultimately about choices and tradeoffs, ebbs and flows, sacrifices and compensations. Anyone at the top has required sacrifice from a pyramid of people below. Not everyone wants that.
Bill Watterson had the courage to get off the rocket ship he’d created, even when people – not to mention the money and the glory – beckoned for him to stay.
There was no courage in my stopping out – I took one for the team to have the large family my husband and I wanted – but once I fought off the voices of guilt, envy and resentment, I learned what Watterson already knew: that success in life is very different from success in a career. Sometimes the two overlap a great deal; other times not at all. And in any case success in life is entirely individual.
As Watterson said to the Kenyon graduates:
You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few…
Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.
By his matter-of-fact bowing out five years later, Bill Watterson told himself, his family, and the rest of us exactly who he is.
Watterson chose his personal life over his career. And in the eighteen years of silence since, I hear resounding satisfaction in that choice.
It is laudable that Sandberg is giving encouragement to women in a country that still undervalues its female workforce. We need more of those voices. But as Watterson says, the ultimate voice to focus on is one’s own.
On this point, it’s hard to beat Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self Reliance:
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Head smack for Faith Durand’s genius tip for keeping guacamole green: cover it with water! So smart. Exposure to the air turns avocado brown. Water seals out air completely, and guacamole is so dense the water doesn’t penetrate at all – just pour the water off and you’re good to go again. Apparently newer plastic wraps let some air through (that method of plastering a sheet to the guacamole surface is messy anyway). And the avocado-pit-in-the-guacamole method won’t cut it for multi-day storage.
I need to try Food 52’s How to Make Sangria Without a Recipe. Summer’s not over yet, and fruit is still abundant. Bonus that sangria keeps for a few days in the refrigerator, which is good because I’m a total lightweight.
I like this tip on using a bundt pan when cutting corn off the cob, to catch those flyaway kernels. I might use that trick to try this fresh corn polenta. I finally started making polenta this summer, and as with kettle corn, I’m kicking myself that it took me so long to make something so good and easy. But more on that this fall.
Fall kicks off a busy birthday stretch in our family, and where has this simple trace-with-a-toothpick cake decorating trick been all my life? It would have saved me from many an awkward birthday cake lettering these last dozen years. I’ll be using it from now on.
If you have kids and an Apple device (these days it’s hard to have kids without one), the Video Star app for making music videos is amazing, free, and will provide hours of amusement in both the making and the watching (just make sure the kids don’t post on YouTube). It’s sophisticated enough to allow older kids to produce a video with cool effects, but simple enough that my four year old can make her own.
Creating a video is a fantastic creative process for kids – planning, collaborating, testing, filming, editing. And it’s truly mindblowing that technology which not long ago was only available to professional videographers is now free and usable by preschoolers on a telephone.
This spoof search engine that translates ordinary English into gangsta slang is pretty hilarious. You can use it as a reagular search engine, or it can give you a translated version of any website.
My friend Lisa sent me the gizoozled version of chinese grandma, and a sentence of mine, “It’s summer, but sweet potatoes are a dream pairing for a quinoa salad.” turns into “It’s summer yo, but dope potatoes is a thugged-out trip pairin fo’ a quinoa salad.” So goofy.
Without getting into the gory details, I moved this site recently (and, despite my very limited FTP/PHP skills, managed to transfer it over without crashing it en route). I hope you’ll find both speed and reliability improved – this place is my recipe box, and I’m as frustrated as you are when a page doesn’t load as it should.
Thanks to my big brother for letting me freeload on his hosting service for the last 3+ years, and for his tutelage in helping me move off. I’m leaving the nest.
Happy Friday, everyone! Hope your weekend is the shiznit.
Thank you for writing this…it really spoke to me.
jamie @ arugulaholic
Loved reading about Bill Watterson. Great commencement speeches make such motivating reads. One of my client’s sons just went off to college at Kenyon too.
Lean in has been on my list. You’ve convinced me to get it. Thanks for the wonderful post!
Great post! Very interesting and thought provoking. High schools and colleges should offer a course dedicated exclusively to Emerson – a true American genius. And from this point forward, I think it would be useful if you would complete all of your posts in gangsta slang and save Gizoogle the work. I think Emerson would approve. 😉