the art of redefining success ( + why we need to)
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.
— T.S. Eliot
When I was a teenager I thought about getting a yin-yang tattoo. You know, the kind that looks like this:
(Twenty years on, and I’m still thinking about a tattoo, although maybe an infinity symbol on the inside of my wrist.)
I knew in a vague kind of way that the symbol stood for opposites: the masculine and the feminine, the dark and the light, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, that kind of thing. One side defining the other, balance, “you complete me” and let’s burn some incense while we’re at it.
I began to understand how it’s more complicated than that.
We live in a culture that has its own warped version of opposites: the private sphere versus the public. The former is domestic and feminine, the latter is worldly and masculine.
But unlike night and day, this division is manmade (in the true sense of the word). Although it reaches as far back as the ancient Greeks, separate spheres didn’t emerge as an ideology in our culture until the Industrial Revolution moved the official workplace from in and around the home to the factories.
Women stayed put and men went off into the world. Both genders worked, but only one was paid.
French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed:
“In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different….[The] independence of woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony…[In] the United States the inexorable opinion of the public carefully circumscribes woman within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties and forbids her to step beyond it.”
Fast forward a couple of centuries and a revolution or two, and we are still dealing with the legacy: a work world shaped by men, for men, with the assumption of a fulltime homemaker in the wings who could keep the domestic front running smoothly.
(Behind a great man was a faithful wife, picking up his socks, hosting dinner parties and making sure the kids he rarely saw weren’t killing themselves or each other.)
We also have a domestic world that – until relatively recently — undervalued the importance of fatherhood. It still likes to depict men as astonishingly incompetent, unable to load the dishwasher, remembering to bring home the milk but maybe not the kid.
We’ve got a world that rules with, and is ruled by, the yang, and keeps the yin for the most part at home.
And we are paying a high price.
In her new book THRIVE, Arianna Huffington takes a long hard look at how we define success and what it costs us: our health, our relationships, our peace of mind. We measure ourselves by action and production, competition and power: the more, the more, the more, the better. Sleep? Overrated. Stress? A fact of life. Besides, that’s what vices are for: addiction, like depression, is on the rise, as we fight constant burnout and struggle to cope. It’s go, go, go and do, do, do –
“Every conversation I had,” writes Arianna
seemed to eventually come around to the same dilemmas we are all facing – the stress of overbusyness, overworking, overconnecting on social media, and underconnecting with ourselves and each other. The space, the gaps, the pauses, the silence – those things that allow us to regenerate and recharge – had all but disappeared in my own life and in the lives of so many I knew.”
We’re not cut out for this.
We weren’t made for this.
We were made to pulse. As high-performance and energy expert Tony Schwartz points out, our bodies were made to expend energy, and then renew. Expend, and then renew. Advance, and then retreat. Do, and then just be. The masculine, and then the feminine, and then the masculine, and then the feminine…
Throughout history, the symbol of healing, renewal and regeneration – the snake – was a feminine totem, the regular shedding of its skin linked to a woman’s monthly menses. (As the times and culture changed, the snake was demonized and menstruation made taboo.) Such a culture perceives a withdrawal into inactivity – the feminine attributes of being instead of doing, contemplating instead of acting— as a waste of time.
This is the culture Jung said to be suffering from “soul loss”, which he called the “great wound” of modern life. (Soul, by the way, is the feminine counterpart to the masculine spirit.)
The irony is, what seems like stagnation is often a period of creative incubation (and if there’s a value that the business world holds more sacred than creativity and innovation, at least these days, then I don’t know what it is). And incubation, as Gertrud Mueller Nelson points out, is “unhurried, an unseen growth prefatory to…a new and conscious way of living life – fully and passionately.”
This is how success should be defined, says Arianna: by living fully and passionately, engaging the “third metric” of wisdom, wonder, wellbeing and giving. She calls on women not just to lean in, but reshape the world of work into a world that cultivates the third metric instead of killing it dead.
(“And men,” she said in a talk at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, “you’re going to love it.”)
Since rest, health, connectedness, and the expansive, energized attitudes of joy actually increase creativity and productivity, work probably won’t suffer as a result.
What I think she’s calling for isn’t women per se, but the power of the feminine — its values, attributes and associations — to be brought forth and allowed to flourish in a world that, up until now, has disdained and disowned them. She’s calling for men to get in touch with their feminine sides, so to speak, and for women to no longer “act like men” in order to get ahead. She’s saying that the choice between achievement and relationship (with others, with ourselves) is a false one. Self-actualization and accomplishment must include the relationships so essential to our health. Doing and being become interbeing.
What I didn’t truly ‘get’ when I was a teenager, contemplating those cool ying-yang symbols, was the circle of yang inside the yin, and the yin inside the yang. The two qualities don’t nestle against each other; they live within one another.
This reminds me of something I read once: how some of the most sexually charismatic individuals have an androgynous quality, a notable streak of the other gender running through them, making that gender more comfortable around them. Think of the pretty-boy looks of movie stars like Rudolph Valentino, or Keanu Reeves or Leonardo DiCaprio when he was younger; think of sex goddess Angelina Jolie flying planes and starring in action films.
(In THE ART OF SEDUCTION, Robert Greene dedicates entire chapters to the power of contradiction and androgyny.)
(As a woman who always loved being feminine but also felt – and enjoyed – a healthy dash of the masculine, I was pleased to read this.)
Work-life balance is not enough — and not what we’re truly after. What we want is integration, integrity, harmony, the separate spheres interconnecting, falling into natural rhythm, so that the sum is always greater than the whole.
What a beautiful world that would be.
Not to mention an awesome tattoo.