One and Only by Lauren Sandler

One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being OneOne of my newly-pregnant coworkers recently confided in me that her husband and her were trying to decide whether they should have an only. My surprisingly strong knee-jerk reaction was “NO!” – I’m an only child and sometimes I love it, but many times I hate it. Not that I could’ve changed anything, but I imagine I’d at least like one sibling if I could, and occasionally fantasize about being in a family as overwhelmingly large as the Duggars.

This conversation got me curious about onlies and their maligned reputation, leading me to Lauren Sandler’s One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. Journalist and author Sandler is an only child herself and has only one child of her own. She thus begins an examination of onliness partially as a way to prove that she and her daughter aren’t screwed up as a result of not having siblings.

According to Sandler, the majority of myths surrounding only children are scientifically-proven to be untrue. Onlies score higher in generosity and sociability tests, proving that we’re not all selfish and lonely, and tend towards high self-esteem and intelligence. I don’t think I’m selfish and I do think I’m intelligent, but I definitely did feel lonely and somewhat blame my onliness for my social awkwardness; however, I recognize Sandler’s point that it’s more about the individual’s other life experiences than being an only. Additional evidence that reaffirms the wisdom of onliness is the environmental and economic benefits to having an only child – it’s the single-best decision that can be made to reduce human contributions to climate change and jump-start developing economies. Particularly for women with high career aspirations, stopping at one child can be a logical work-life balance, which is why I guess there’s so many in my generation.

Oddly, throughout the course of my life, probably half of my best friends have been only children and that becomes closer to 2/3rds if we include children with huge age gaps between them and their only other sibling. Interestingly though, I also tend to befriend eldest siblings, whom I assume are more like only’s in temperament, despite the myths that onlies are more similar to spoiled and coddled youngest siblings. Sandler, following in the theoretical footsteps of Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, supports this claim and draws numerous parallels between onlies and eldests, though she says that onlies tend to be more creative and innovative than eldests.

In the end, Sandler concludes it’s a very personal decision, and she made the right choice for her, which really all anyone should do regardless of societal expectations and pressures. It was interesting to read about her journey to reach an informed conclusion, but ultimately I think this book will be of greater help to expectant mothers than to someone like me. But for onlies seeking inspiration and comfort, I recommend Alexandra Schwartz’s article “Onliness” in the New Yorker, which discusses Sandler’s books and ties its research into literature.

3 Stars




The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should KnowThe Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know was highly recommended to me by a feminist friend, who called it the Lean In of 2014. Successful journalists and bestselling authors of Womenomics Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explore the concept of confidence from neuroscientists’ research into its genetic coding  to psychologists’ studies on nurturing confidence in ourselves. Alongside interviews with women leaders from the worlds of politics, sports, the arts and the military, they dissect how a lack of confidence hurts our performance in all areas of our lives and how everyone can tap into this essential resource within themselves.

The most fascinating thing this book revealed for me is the balance between natural confidence and developed confidence. While some amount of confidence is pre-determined (which I was surprised to learn that geneticists can test you for), you can also boost your confidence levels, training your brain to work differently. It doesn’t happen just by positive thinking and feel-good mantras – it’s about taking risks and failing, and then picking yourself up again in the face of repeated rejection. This is a behavior men are better at, and one that is reportedly more predictive of success than competence.

Unsurprisingly, Kay and Shipman confirm that men are usually more confident than women, and suggest that generally women can improve their self-confidence by behaving more like men, though you should still being true to your authentic self – so easy! But what is interesting is that women still perceive other women (and men) as confident when those individuals don’t see themselves as confident (ex. Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, the authors themselves). That suggests the main obstacle to a woman owning her achievements is overcoming her negative self-delusion and replacing it with a more positive image of herself.

However, like most self-help books, this one doesn’t give much specifically applicable advice in practicing that beyond the usual spiel of meditation and self-compassion. Instead, they filled pages with endless personal anecdotes of their lives and their children’s experiences and the aunt’s second cousin’s exploits –  you get the point, which is that at points it was heavy of the fluff and light on the science. Most egregious though was the limited point-of-view it covered, that of elite, privileged women.

In sum, I don’t think it was quite as good as Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which touches on similar concepts and the authors themselves recommend, but I did prefer it to Lean In and would suggest it for women out there whose self-confidence is battered and whose self-doubt is rearing its ugly head. Maybe like me, they’ll be comforted by the knowledge that everyone struggles with low self-esteem occasionally, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent situation – you can fix it. Just act.

3 Stars

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesForgive me, y’all. I’ve been struggling through Robert M. Pirsig’s seminal philosophical “inquiry into values” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but this is going to be a crappy review because it was quite the endeavor.

One of my managers has been commending this book to me for the two years we’ve worked together so I thought it might be time to give it a shot. The basic premise is that a man is taking a cross-country road trip with his adolescent son and a married couple that he is friends with. Along the way, he philosophizes about life, often through analogies about motorcycles as he rides one and argues with his friend about its upkeep, seeing attitudes about self- versus external hired maintenance as parallels to personal mindsets.

This is a looooong trip in someone else’s brain. Think of the most painfully boring and meandering car ride you’ve taken, say on your way to a dreaded family occasion, when you have a pounding headache and need to pee but are trapped in traffic – this book is arguably more difficult. Hands down one of the hardest things I’ve had to plow through, maybe in my entire life.

It’s not that the philosophy doesn’t make some intelligent points. Pirsig discusses the disconnect between artistry and technology in relevant and meaningful ways for today’s societal experience. And I can see how Quality is a key concern for both that may bind them together from their current positions at opposite ends of the spectrum. But the conceit of an unreliable, questionably insane narrator almost drove me nuts myself, even before I realized that it’s semi-autobiographical and Pirsig wrote it after enduring electroshock therapy and being released from an asylum himself.

Um what?! Now I’m definitely toeing the line between genius (not to go that far) and insanity and it only proves my point that philosophy is the reserve of raving lunatics and rambling self-aggrandizers (I may be somewhat biased here based on Saturdays of my unfortunate youth wasted in philosophy classes and the jerks I knew who were philosophy majors in college).

There were a few quotes I liked (apologies for lack of page number citations but I forgot to bookmark them as I read):

“Is it hard?’
‘Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes thats hard.”

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

Nevertheless, in spite of these grains among the chaff, I barely got through this one. I freely admit to skimming parts just to finish this century. Those readers who enjoy philosophical discussions or spiritual examinations may enjoy this, but it was even less for me than I anticipated.

2 Stars

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessStanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success defines the concept of “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets. A fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities are set while a growth mindset believes that you can learn and improve. Apply this to intelligence, athletics, the arts (not to mention relationships and careers) and it creates a framework for which people can develop success.

Dweck’s key point is that if you develop a growth mindset, you’re more capable of dealing with and bouncing back from failures. You’re also more likely to take risks and accept constructive criticism, not just compliments. For example, in a study that gave children puzzles, the fixed mindset children chose not to try increasingly challenging puzzles because they were afraid of doing poorly. This decision was reinforced as the researcher praised the fixed-mindset group for doing well initially because their fears of being less successful at future puzzles grew. Both their motivation and their confidence declined. “If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.” Life in the growth mindset conversely would be less about the wins, though those are nice, then about the challenge, about trying to do your best at everything, and about learning from your mistakes.

This relates in some ways to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. What Dweck discusses as “mindset,” Tough might classify as character traits, specifically grit or perseverance. Both agree that mental resilience should be developed for success, and that it can be developed. Neither really posits effective solutions for developing it nor do they admit that just because you have the right mindset and work hard consistently, you’ll be successful at everything you do.

Moreover, I believe that Dweck overemphasizes the necessity of a growth mindset without acknowledging some innate level of talent or interest. If I was a good gardener, I may be discouraged when my trees die. That’s not totally within my control, but I can choose whether I give up or not (growth vs. fixed mindset). But that doesn’t even account for whether I want to garden or not – I know folks that have taken to gardening like ducks to water, but I am personally disinterested. Similarly, a naturally good singing voice would definitely encourage someone more than a bad voice would. Maybe they would get to the same level if the bad vocalist practiced more than the good vocalist, but talent gets you in the game. Additionally, I certainly wasn’t born with a good singing voice or a green thumb, but I don’t necessarily feel like those skills are critical to my success in life (except maybe when my boss was mad that I killed his plants) so I don’t think it matters that I have a fixed mindset in those areas.

I think I also just dislike the way self-help books are written. Dweck makes some valid points, then proceeds to bash you on the head with them every other page. I did appreciate the copious examples, but it gets awfully repetitive. The sections I cared most about related to education and career; however, she also focused several chapters on relationships familial, friendly, and romantic. So if you have the same interests in reading this as I do, I would read the first half then stop. Not that the latter half isn’t valid, it’s just less informative for where I am in my life now.

But if you like this genre, it certainly expresses a new concept in the way we conceptualize success and how to achieve it. Most excitingly, to some extent it’s adaptive so you can develop this quality in yourself, rather than just lamenting that you’re born without it, though most people are a mix. Even the ordinary people can become extraordinary…with the right mindset.

3 Stars

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterPaul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character aims to redefine how we look at and classify “success” for children. Beyond good grades and high standardized test scores, what character traits are we teaching kids that will help them be successful through college and into adulthood? He argues that success has less to do with IQ and more to do with inner skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism, which can be taught within educational institutions.

Tough draws on extensive psychology, neuroscience, and economic research as well as his own investigations into the KIPP programs, prep or charter schools, and other educational projects. He does a good job of synthesizing the science with the anecdotes from individual experiences. The gist of the book centers around the cognitive versus non-cognitive skills debate, specifically as it applies to the concept of failure – how children relate to it, how they overcome it, how it challenges them. Tough surmises that privileged children are so sheltered that they haven’t learned how to recover from failure so it demoralizes them when it happens while impoverished children have dealt with so much failure in their lives without being equipped to handle it that they often give up on themselves. However, children from any socio-economic background who are persistent, self-disciplined, and focused can learn from their failure and move forward. These lessons are useful as children encounter increasingly difficult academic environments and adult responsibilities, and without learning them early they cannot be successful throughout their lives.

Then the problem becomes, how do we teach these skills? Again, scientists and educators have all sorts of opinions about it. Even the character traits considered vital for success differ across the board, with synonyms (i.e. “grit” being replaced by “resilience”) or arguments about whether “kindness” should be one. This is not to mention the varying definitions of success, as exemplified by the chess champion who fails academically or KIPP graduates who drop out of college. KIPP has now committed to focusing on character development, even issuing a character report card, but it’s unclear if this new model can create lasting success in a child’s life. Certainly standardized tests aren’t the best predictor of success, but we do need some way to measure process and it’s hard to measure the impact of character development initiatives.

Also at question is whether schools should even be teaching character, or if they should just be focused on content. Character development was previously the responsibility of parents, the primary influences on a child’s life (aside from their friends as they grow older). If education shifts its focused to non-cognitive skill training over cognitive, we’re looking at a learning landscape very different from the traditional historical model.

Tough doesn’t ignore the importance of parenting, negatively or positively, since what’s going in on in a child’s family can’t be isolated from their life at school. One strategy for at-risk youth is providing them with nurturing environments, which helps them overcome traumatic experiences. Meanwhile, wealthy parents tend to “helicopter” and this excessive attachment puts too much pressure on their kids to succeed. A healthy medium between the two is needed, though he isn’t exactly clear on how to find that.

This book doesn’t posit a ton of effective solutions, mainly because we don’t yet know what’s an effective solution. From Tough’s examinations, there’s a wide variety of methods that are being used to varying degrees of success – most of what is implemented is done on a trial and error basis. Still, he offers much to think about on the links between education and character development, factors that I hadn’t considered in play while I was growing up, but seem more obvious in retrospect.

An informational, though not necessarily ground-breaking, read for teachers and parents, especially those who place a high value on education or have strong opinions as to the current state of America’s educational system.

3.5 Stars

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadSo I’m a little late to the game on this one. For an ardent feminist and self-described bookworm, I should have read this as soon as it came out. But I’ve read so many articles about it, for it, and against it, that by the time I finally got around to it, it felt like I already had read it.

I think that did disfavor to the book too. When it first came out, it probably seemed new and innovative, but when you attend meetings and your colleagues say “sit at the table” or you’ve heard numerous graduate school panels encourage you to speak up and take risks, it’s advice seems very overused. Same with the repetitious discussion about balancing children/family life with a career – a discussion that seems less pertinent to me as a fresh-out-of-college employee than perhaps older women, but something that the US in particular does much less well than other countries who are very supportive of maternal and paternal leave.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has thrust Sheryl Sandberg into the spotlight. As a C-suiter and as a mother, all her actions are now criticized under the lens of feminist advocate. She herself throughout the book mentions that this made her hesitant to write it, though I don’t understand her misguided view of feminism and her belief that it had accomplished gender equality. Her career trajectory, and the anecdotes she mention, certainly suggest that she has a wealth of experience and knowledge about ascending up the business ladder as a women, to her current position as COO of Facebook.

Sandberg talks extensively about her own past, though she also intersperses examples from other women she knows as well as hard data. I’m glad that she acknowledged that she had privileged opportunities, including her schooling at Harvard and sponsorship by Larry Summers. (Side note: How do you get into Harvard without knowing about The Illiad and The Odyssey? In addition to her initial view on feminism, this lapse made me think that she’s a product of a different era and out-of-touch with millennials who are being educated and joining the workforce in a very different climate than when she grew up.) She also is white and wealthy, which affords her additional privileges that I’d imagine would be out of reach for many American women.

I certainly agree that there are not enough women in leadership in business or government. Take the recent Supreme Court decision about birth control – no matter what side of the issue you’re on, it’s telling if all the women consistently vote one way on these issues and the majority of men take the opposite view. Men have to be taught that it’s okay not to be the bread-winner, that it’s valid to be a stay-at-home dad, that current restrictions on women’s rights by government and companies effect them negatively too.

This is where I have a problem. I think women have proven to be very effective in leadership positions, and if women want to lead, then they should be able to. But not all women want to lead like not all men do. And that’s an equally valid choice. If women are hanging back from leadership roles because they don’t have the self-confidence to go for them, that’s an issue we need to resolve by educating girls from a young age that they have the potential to do whatever they will; however, I know plenty of people who are content with their positions – they can be heard when they want but they’re also happy to sit back and get work done quietly and efficiently. In sum, it’s a bit of an all-encompassing human issue when not all people are aggressively determined to rise to the top but society expects that drive from them and looks down at those who choose differently.

As I mentioned, I had heard this all before as have many other women I know. Now I need the tools to build that confidence, to push and challenge myself, to determine my goals and accomplish them instead of sabotaging myself. Maybe this is why Sandberg is so big on mentorship, but most of this development needs to come from within and I haven’t yet read any persuasive and effective material on how to self-improve in that way – definitely not from her self-promoting, pseudo-empowering website. That’s just personally – we also need more quality solutions as a community to incite structural and cultural reform.

Perhaps that can be Sandberg’s next book. She may have made Facebook work around her as did Melissa Mayer at Yahoo, but overall offered no comprehensive solutions to better women’s labor conditions at large. I applaud her for launching this conversation, but don’t think she has made substantive contributions to change.

3 Stars

Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingUgh, it’s that dreaded time of the year again – was my thought every day I trudged into work last month. June marks my employer’s, and many other organizations’, employee review period. In addition to the stress of closing the fiscal year, we get the added bonus of battling with a archaic website to write up our self-appraisals, before struggling through a seemingly-endless series of interviews and other additional hoops to get our year-end ratings.

If you’re like me, a shy introvert with mild social anxiety, this process is the worst. I hate talking about myself and I warned my manager in advance that I may break into tears (to his consternation). Luckily I have a good enough relationship with him that my awkwardness didn’t totally wreck our meeting, but he and several other mentors suggested that I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking  in order to build self confidence and utilize my personality strengths to overcome my flaws.

Well, I can’t say that this book is helping me do that. Susan Cain, a self-confessed introvert herself, clearly has done a lot of research into the differences between introverts and extroverts, from speaking to scientists about their research to attending motivational conferences to sharing anecdotes from individuals all over the spectrum. Unfortunately her main conclusion seems to be that America today is a place where extroversion is valued and introverts just have to learn how to deal with it. Alternatively, the option is to seek those friend groups, companies, and/or countries where introversion is more valued.

While she does point to some positive traits that introverts can utilize, such as sensitivity/empathy and level-headedness/caution, her principal advice was to be pseudo-extroverted. She speaks to many introverts who pretend on some level to be extroverted in order to get ahead in their careers and relationships, and who are sad and frustrated that they have to fake it in order to make it. To some extent, many introverts do this already – I know several friends and colleagues who have said that they imagine me to be more extroverted than I think I am. Which is probably the plus side of this book – Cain accurately points out that a lot can be overcome if we ignore our self-perception. For example, in a public speaking class, you feel your legs quivering and your cheeks heating up as you get flustered in front of the audience, but most of the audience won’t even notice the tells that you’re nervous.

I would recommend this book to introverts because it is a fascinating read, but I honestly think it will have more power if extroverts, especially at the managerial level, read it so they know how to relate better to their introverted employees. Cain is absolutely correct that introverts have positive contributions to make to society but that we often get lost in the hubbub.

This text is only valuable as a self-help book for parents trying to guide introverted kids. As an adult without children, I couldn’t utilize many of the tips she gave, but I sure did wish my parents and teachers had read this earlier.

3.5 Stars

Note: It could have been 4 stars if my expectations of guidance and wisdom didn’t conflict with the actuality of the text. I came to it to learn, and failed to learn what I desired – not necessarily a fault of the author perhaps, but of the marketing and recommendations I’d received.