Bullish: Are You Thinking Too Small?


Ever since I first figured out how a screwdriver works (you don’t necessarily need to drill holes first — you can screw stuff straight into drywall!), it has occurred to me that there are plenty of really easy things that men are “better” at for absolutely no good reason.

While it’s possible that men and women have cognitive differences at least in part caused by biology, I’m talking about really basic skills, here; however much either gender lags behind in such skills is clearly cultural. And I’d like to talk about a specific part of that cultural divide: the power of embarrassment.

Why are most American men pretty good at parallel parking, map reading, and catching things? Because if you are a man, it’s humiliating to be bad at these things. However, it is not terribly embarrassing to be bad at these things if you are a woman. Since the natural human condition is laziness, men have more motivation to gain these skills.

I think there is a very similar “embarrassment gap” between men and women about money and business. I think many women think too small because they’re not embarrassed by it, whereas men are forced to think bigger — in part for the obvious reasons (money, glory), but in part just to avoid shame.

In 1998, during the dotcom boom, I started an internet marketing company. I was 19. By the time I graduated, I had eight part-time employees. Senior year, I made $40,000! I felt pretty accomplished. After all, just two years before, I had been financially shamed out of a weightlifting class I had signed up for at the gym. There was a $19 fee, and I wasn’t getting paid from my part-time job until the Friday after the class started. I showed up to the first session hoping it would be cool: “My parents don’t give me spending money. I have to earn it. I don’t have any money right now.” I was asked to leave the gym. (See Bullish: Social Class in the Office).

So, two years later, it felt pretty good to buy some fancy groceries, and to bill my clients for a few thousand here and a few thousand there.

I had this vague idea that I would graduate, and then keep doing what I was doing until I was a millionaire. So, I would become a millionaire a few thousand dollars at a time, somehow? I started to be plagued with the nagging realization that this was not the point of the dotcom era (whatever the point was, it wasn’t billing services by the hour) and that I was a stupid (now 21-year-old) girl who only does small, cute girl things. And $40,000 a year is pretty good … for a girl. Like I just parked a car without putting the wheels on the curb.

This realization was greatly magnified by the interactions I had with a major client, a company I’ll call WebBoats.com, a site that allowed users to create animated models of boats and sail them on a virtual ocean, while betting on wind speed and whether it will rain. It was not clear how this business would ever make money. I was feeling pretty smooth for constantly supplying WebBoats with the web design, programming, and animation services they required, and I often marveled that I was perhaps the only person making a profit from WebBoats. But then I sat in on a meeting of the executive team, during which these guys (all guys) discussed other, similarly quixotic startups — started by people they knew — that had received large rounds of venture capital funding, and one of them said, angrily, “Where’s our million dollars?”

Seriously. Imagine someone saying that in the most repulsive way possible, as you would imagine someone saying, “Where’s the bitch I gotta give two black eyes to?”

I was stunned that anyone could think himself entitled to a million dollars just for having a pretty middling idea and hiring someone else to make a website about it. I started to realize how stupid I was for not trying to make more money off being smarter than (at least some of) those guys. I had been thinking too small. My company was … adorable.

Now, I realize that many people have posited that women want different things from entrepreneurship, or their careers. I have also been told a million times that, for women, life and work are integrated. I mean, of course they are. You work to have a good life, while also desiring that the work itself be satisfying. I don’t really think that that’s different from what men want. There are tons of “life hacking” and internet business websites with overwhelmingly male writers and commenters, who frequently talk about wanting to start businesses so they can spend more time with their kids, or more time surfing, or any of a variety of other lifestyle choices. Some people want businesses to simply feed a rich personal life. Some people want to build empires. Either way, you want to avoid thinking too small, getting taken advantage of, and stopping before your plans really come to fruition.

Here are some ideas:

Don’t settle for anything that would embarrass a stereotypical man.

(Note: If it’s the thing you really want, it’s not “settling.” We’re talking about settling.)

I think a lot of fighting sexism is just working out which code of conduct (the men’s one or the women’s one) should be the one we adopt for everyone — is boxing something women should be encouraged to take up as well, or is it an imprudent idea for everyone? Can we all just agree that everyone should open doors for people who have their arms full?

So — while it’s certainly not a moral mandate — it’s not a bad motivational technique to imagine whether what you’re planning, or what you’re settling for, is something that would embarrass a stereotypical man. Here are the kinds of things I’m thinking of:

“I did the first job for them for free hoping they’d pay me when they needed me again, but then they asked if I would do more work and they’d pay me when the company started making money, so I’ve been helping them out for six months now.”

“I didn’t ask for a raise because of the economy … I think we all have to wait it out. After all, we’ve even cut back on office supplies.”

I’m certainly not saying that anyone ought to eschew traditionally female careers or businesses. I don’t care if you’re welding patio furniture or designing a better diaper bag. Etsy, of course, was founded by men. A college friend of mine was once an intern sitting in on a meeting of male executives who debated among themselves the very important question of how many tampons should come in a box. We need not be prejudiced against any particular industry; we just need to be very demanding about our role within it.

Of course, there is a tremendous amount of financial pressure put on men — they must make a “good living” in order to be dateable, they are made to feel more ashamed of being unemployed, and they are quite likely to stifle their creative dreams in order to pursue stable, traditional employment. I’m not saying that all this pressure is good for all men, or for everyone. I’m saying that high financial and entrepreneurial standards can be good for the Bullishly-minded, regardless of gender. At the point that you call yourself a “CEO,” you should probably have some employees besides yourself. If you want to have kids, assume that you’ll need to support both them and your partner — after all, you never know, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a safe margin of income even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case? If you’re in a job or running a business that can’t provide you with the growth rate you need, ruthlessly cast it aside and move on to the next thing.

When praised for something so trivial a man would not receive praise for it, say “thank you”, ignore it, and keep going.

If you are a young woman, especially an especially pretty one, you are likely to be praised for doing just about anything. (See Bullish: What To Do About Being (Temporarily) Pretty.) Win the big job? Create a blog? Sing on YouTube? You’re done! You’re pretty and you did something! Gold star!

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone — maybe your parents were very demanding, or maybe you have soberly realist friends. But it happens a lot. I find that women are often praised for a simple state of being (“She lives in New York and works in marketing!”) where men would only be praised for that if they were going somewhere from there. Don’t take praise for “having your own business” (gold star!); you want praise for profitability and growth.

Pursue growth for its own sake

In Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business, I talked about growth for its own sake. Growth is good for several reasons — any company you work for considers growth for its own sake to be good, so why should you have a less of a standard for yourself? And if you plan to have children, or to slow down at some point in life, it’s important now to earn more than you need. You don’t need an excuse to want to double your income; you don’t need to tell anyone why you “need” all that money. You just want a “healthy rate of growth.” It’s a great phrase.

The idea that a healthy rate of growth is a necessity is very helpful in negotiating and pursuing new opportunities. If you have decided that your career and/or business will grow by 20% per year, you will simply not be able to meet that target through cost-of-living raises: you will have to develop multiple streams of income, job hunt even when you’re happy at your current position, network even when you don’t need anything from anybody, and ask for more money and then work your ass off to make so much money for your company that passing some of it along to you to keep you working just makes sense.

I started this column by talking about embarrassment, so allow me to return to that topic.

Don’t you often hear women say, “Oh, I’m terrible at math” with no embarrassment at all? Men rarely say this. I have also never heard a woman brag, “Oh, I’m terrible at reading!” Why? Because that would be embarrassing. Why do men score better on math tests, win most math awards, and obtain most math degrees in this country? For a conflated mess of reasons, I’m sure, but I think the phenomenon probably starts with the fact that it’s embarrassing for boys to be bad at math, so most of them work it out.

Interestingly, the gender gap in math that Larry Summers so famously posited doesn’t actually exist in Asia. Because no one told the girls there that they were supposed to be worse at it, and also because, in some cultures, math is viewed as something that is learned as the product of hard work, rather than as something one does or does not have an innate talent for. If you believe that math skill is simply the result of effort (and certainly no one thinks that girls are inferior to boys in applying effort to schoolwork), then not being good at math would be embarrassing.

I also think that making money and advancing in a career are the result of effort. Don’t accept that you or anyone is “bad at making money.” Rather, such people generally have some kind of core skill, but have not developed the promotional, networking, or social skills needed to capitalize on that skill. All of those things are learnable as a result of effort.

I hope no one’s been offended here — some people truly like to think small. They are content and feel no special sense of urgency. Some of them are even pursuing spiritual ideas that glorify a lack of desire and striving! I have no desire to tell such people to live differently (and I can’t imagine why any such person would have read this far anyway!) I totally accept that people have wildly diverse personalities and goals.

But if you’ve felt in your career as though maybe you’re being made a fool of by big-thinking hotshots and that you are capable of more, and would thrive on more, then it’s time to ruthlessly cast aside anything taking up your time that is merely okay, merely of the “good for you!” variety, merely good enough for now. To think small would be an embarrassment. It’s time to work more and work towards more, than those around you.

originally published on The Grindstone

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