Summer Book Review #17: Basic Black

“Everybody thinks of it as a personal problem and that they have to solve that problem (alone),”  said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute and guest of Diane Rehm’s NPR show this past Monday, “The Ongoing Struggle To Balance Career And Family.”    I was multi-tasking when I happened upon the program.   It made me smile.  Over a year ago I started Novofemina for many reasons.  One of them was that, “no one is talking about transition issues.” Well, here it was on a npr station…next to godliness in my mind.

The catalyst of Rehm’s discussion was an article released last week in The Atlantic Monthly’s July/August 2012 issue, and days later reviewed on the front page of the New York Times, “Why women still can’t have it all,” by Anne Marie Slaughter.

Slaughter is a mid-50’s executive who served on Secretary Clinton‘s staff at the State Department, the crowning achievement of a career spanning both higher ed and international affairs.  She wrote the article after resigning from Clinton’s staff to rejoin her family in suburban New Jersey and resume her tenured faculty responsibilities at Princeton.  She laments, “the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence.”   (Why? Atlantic Monthly)   Welcome to the world…

The article and the media frenzy caught me during a week when I was reviewing a bland career management guide by Cathie Black, former President and Chairman of Hearst Magazines and author of, Basic Black.  Black’s career interested me mostly due to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s appointment of her as the Chancellor of New York City Schools in late 2010.  For those who didn’t follow it she was revoked from the position within 95 days of taking office.  I watched her appointment from a distance and was disappointed at the outcome.    After reading the book I’m not so sure it was a bad call.

Black’s book, which pales in comparison to the Slaughter piece, doesn’t offer much by means of demonstrative concepts.    There are a few thoughts worthy of transition

  • Risk:  Black introduces risk through personal vignettes of her career choices.  In assessing risk she notes that “the worst case scenario is rarely as bad as you think.” (Basic, pg 46)    Her most insightful comments came when she discussed failure.  She summarized it positively by saying, “easy as it would have been to berate myself for pursuing a venture that ultimately failed.”   (Basic, pg 48)   Black rebounded from this experience quickly.   What’s been your cycle post failure?  Ever run into blame?
  • Qualities for life:  Black shares a host of personal characteristics that she’s relied upon throughout her career.  None of these will surprise you.  Be the best listener.  (Basic, pg 240)  Practice generosity.  (Basic, pg 259)  Trust your instincts.   (Basic, pg 279)  Figure out what your ‘all’ is and have at it.   (Basic, pg 200)

Both Black and Slaughter touch upon a similar issue:  blame.  Personal blame.  Slaughter  shares the following self-reflections, “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”  (Atlantic Monthly, July/August ’12 Why?)   Slaughter goes on in a similar way to evaluate the ‘lean in’ message of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO.  “Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?” (Why? Atlantic Monthly)

While I didn’t have Anne Marie Slaughter’s great good fortune to work for Hilary Clinton, I have a good sense for what she went through in exiting her role.

I really wonder how Cathie Black dealt with her failure as Chancellor of the New York City Schools?  My hope is that she did what each of you would do in transition if faced with a dead-end.   Get up.  Brush it off.  Share a laugh with a friend.  Note a lesson or two learned…and continue unphased on the trajectory that is most meaningful for you.

BTW, the Slaughter article is free, a super read…but a huge time commitment. 

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5 responses to “Summer Book Review #17: Basic Black

  1. Thanks for the impetus to read this article. I heard about it from PBS/Newshour earlier this week but didn’t take the time to read the article. Here is the discussion with Anne Marie and others on PBS. It is really great to have women like this validate what many of us have gone through and bring it to a wider audience. It also serves as inter-generational information transfer. I never saw that women made trade offs for their careers because women didn’t really have big careers where I grew up. Now young women can be better informed about the potential trade offs of their family/work decisions. Maybe the next generation of women will be a bit less surprised and their transitions a bit easier than those of my generation.

    • Maria K,

      Thanks for the link to pbs newshour! Fingers crossed for the next generation. However, based upon a recent interview I did with a coach to young grads, I’m not yet optimistic. Happy 4th!

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