Four people sent me this essay by Clay Shirkey, “A Rant About Women.” It’s from January 2010, but in one of the peculiar patterns of internet popularity, it made its way to my desk last week. Shirkey is a professor at NYU, and his rant begins with a student’s request for a rec letter. Shirkey’s concern, one that I share, is that “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”
There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks….
And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.
I spent the weekend, as you know, in LA. I was visiting an old friend who’s making a go of it as a film composer in Hollywood. “I’m betting on my own talent,” he said, when we discussed his career path a few months ago, and he means it. He’s 24 and getting jobs left and right. Some of them he is eminently qualified for, some of them he isn’t.
He is doing exactly what Shirkey describes, stretching the truth of his abilities only as far as he is confident they will eventually stretch. He’s not making decisions based on what he’s capable of right now, but of what he’s confident he will be able to do. He’s doubling down on his ability to adapt, learn, and improve. I need to figure out how to do this.
I’m trying to figure out how to ask for a raise, and this attitude expressed by Shirkey and my friend does not come naturally to me. I would say, “I’ve earned this incremental increase because I work hard and do a good job”. They would say, “Give me more because I am really awesome and you want to keep me around”.
I would say, “I’m really good at this skill, but I plan on working on that skill”. They would say, “I’m really good at everything, I will only get better, and you better invest in me now before I take my superstar potential elsewhere”.
We started with the Shirkey essay, so let’s finish there: What I do know is this: it would be good if more women see interesting opportunities that they might not be qualified for, opportunities which they might in fact fuck up if they try to take them on, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more women got in the habit of raising their hands and saying “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,” no matter how many people that behavior upsets.
Related Post: Speak up, or else. Advice from Whitney Johnson.