Summer Book Review #32: Composing A Life

“I want to do a portfolio of things after graduation,” stated Nelson, a classmate of mine at the Harvard Business School.  We were road tripping to New York City where we each had interviews set up in hopes of post-graduation jobs.  Or so I thought.   Through the conversation I learned he wasn’t interviewing.  He was holding a series of meetings about projects.  Interests.  I remember being fascinated by his unbridled approach.   I loved the concept.  But I quickly dismissed it.  I turned instead to mentally prepping for my interviews.  A singular focus.

I thought of my conversation with Nelson this week as I read our Summer Book Review  #32, “Composing a Life” by Mary Catherine Bateson (Penguin 1989).  The book is Bateson’s study about five women whom she refers to as ‘artists.’   A physician. A college professor.  An engineer.  A dancer.  And herself a professor, researcher and college administrator.

by Amy Jacobs, 2007

by Amy Jacobs, 2007

I’ve struggled all week with how to describe this book to you.  I loved it although I felt as though it was the proxy for the women’s study course I never took in college.

At one level Bateson offers observations on how each ‘artist’ improvisationally creates her life.  Each weaves work, home, love and commitment in unique ways towards an indeterminate outcome.  Continually re-imaging.

At another level the book is Bateson’s personal journey.  She went through several transitions including a painful departure from Amherst College where she had served as Dean.  “I started this project with a sharp awareness of discontinuities…draining interruptions of women’s lives.”  She goes on to note that prior to completing the book she pivoted her thinking to value discontinuities because they lead to transition.  Imagine my delight!!!!  Full disclosure.  No wonder I liked the book.

“None of us follows a single vision; instead our very visions are products of growth and adaptability, not fixed but emergent.” (Composing, pg 236+)

The book is worth a read if only to convince you of the power of integrating every facet of your life.  Bateson beautifully describes four women who find that the “struggle to combine commitments is really a search for ways to make combinations mutually enhancing.”  (Composing, pg 184)

There were a few perspectives that I found beneficial in thinking about my transition:

  • A necessary skill: “Composing a life involves continual re-imagining,” stated Bateson. (Composing, pg 29)  “No one can expect to go through life without meeting discouragement and criticism, but every failure is more costly if it is accompanied by the implied message from the outside, and the hidden belief within, that little more could have been expected.”  (Composing, pg 37)  Women who managed through the discontinuities “creatively reassembled the pieces again and again.”  I recall Summer Book Review #15: Clay Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life” noted that “93% of original strategies fail.”  He goes on to say that companies that win do so not because they had a brilliant initial strategy but because they can “iterate.”  Re-imagine.
  • Equality’s Fake:  Bateson makes a decent case for criticizing the equality models we adopted early in our efforts towards women’s access and progression.  Would you agree that women received messages like “abandon different styles and different contributions,” instead pressing women towards similarity? (Composing, pg 115)  This harkens to Novofemina’s 1st post which featured a facilitation I did at UMass Boston.  At the event I asked participants to introduce themselves two times: 1st thru their desired future roles; and 2nd thru their dream selves.   Would it surprise you that the two hardly intersected….
  • Responding to Loss:  “American men learn to project their disappointments outward; women tend to internalize their losses.  When a proposal is turned down or a job not offered, women tend to say, I wasn’t worthy. Men often contend that the process was crooked.”   (Composing, 206)  Have you ever lived this trap?
  • Celebrated Models?  Bateson questions society’s willingness to celebrate women who succeed in adopting traditional male models.  (Composing, pg 233)  She seems to ask over and over….are women who compose lives outside society’s achievement expectations more difficult to see or easier to ignore?

I hope that you take the time to re-imagine in an unbridled way.   When doing so please suspend the voice in your head that asks if it ‘makes sense.’   Both Steven Jobs and Mary Catherine Bateson agree upon one thing….’continuity is only visible in retrospect.’

Remember…..composition is unfettered, inelegant and energizing.

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One response to “Summer Book Review #32: Composing A Life

  1. Pingback: Summer Book Review Denouement | NovoFemina

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