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Destructive myths, at work and away from it

A friend of mine on Twitter shared a link recently to an article by Tony Schwartz called Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By. It’s a really interesting read; go check it out when you get a chance.

The myths Schwartz lists are:

  • Multitasking is critical in a world of infinite demand.
  • A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.
  • Creativity is genetically inherited, and it’s impossible to teach.
  • The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.

These sound vaguely familiar.


I have this habit where I’ll be working on one task, and another task catches my attention briefly, and in that moment it seems like the second task more important than what I’m doing, or that it’s something that will take “only a minute” to complete. I drop my first task to work on the second, which inevitably ends up taking longer than I thought it would, and then when I return to my first task I spend too many minutes trying to remember where I left off and what I’d been planning to do.


Anxiety? Yeah, I spent the first quarter of this year getting up close and personal with anxiety. Guess how that affected my performance? (Hint: Poorly.) In contrast, I’ve found that I perform best when I’m riding a wave of success. The morale boost I get from doing a project well feeds my confidence, confirming that I really do have the skills to succeed in this area, and carries me into whatever I’m doing next. But when panic and pressure start looming, I fumble and fall into what my friend Michael calls analysis paralysis: when you spend so much time trying to research, analyze and choose the “right” approach to solving a problem that you end up with no time to actually solve the problem.


Oh, and those longer hours? HA. Ask my family members, ask my friends (if you can find any; they’re probably still at work), ask anyone who works in an engineering field. Schwartz describes it succintly:

No single myth is more destructive to employers and employees than this one. The reason is that we’re not designed to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

Not designed to operate like computers! No wonder this crops up so frequently in fields that spend a lot of time working with computers and software. The root of the issue is that there’s always more work to be done than there are time and resources to do it. But rather than acknowledging that people need downtime to rest and refresh* themselves, employees work late and take work home, because the expectations from above are that this project (and the three other ones you’ve been assigned) must be completed by the end of the month, come hell or high water. “Work smarter, not harder!” Uh-huh.

I fall victim to the longer-hours myth at home more than at work. I’ve been known to stay up until 2 a.m. working on a task that I feel has to be done before I go to bed or else it won’t get done before deadline. My husband urges me to go off and get some sleep. I resist, pointing out that he is still up doing work. I ignore the fact that I get up in the morning a good two hours before he does.

*Both figuratively and literally. Taking regular showers can do a lot for relations with your co-workers.


Obviously, these aren’t universal truths that apply to all companies. When I started at my current job, I was amazed that even though we were in crunch mode, most people actually went home at night. I tend to stick around in the office until 6:30 or 7 most nights. I’m often one of the last handful to head out. (I have an awesome job, and I can’t say enough about how happy I am that I got up the nerve to leave that last soul-sucking job and strike out on my own. But that could fill its own post; I’ll save that for a little later in the month.)

If these myths are destructive to companies, they’re also destructive to individuals who live by them. It’s often a difficult, slow process to change a company-wide attitude. But it might not be as difficult for an individual to change them in herself.



Gotta get my fix

It’s been a stressful day. I’m feeling run down, and I need a little sumthin-sumthin to pick me up. Fortunately, I’ve got a regular source in my back pocket, and I’m on my way there now. I park the car and rush in, skitter down to the basement, slip in to the room. As soon as I lay eyes on my prize, I can feel myself calming down already. A blissful smile breaks across my face.

Perhaps it’s true.  Perhaps I actually am addicted to my kid.

After reading the Time article linked above, I felt concerned for my own well-being, and pulled up an online list of addiction symptoms, just to put my mind at ease.  Unfortunately, several of the items ring all too true:

Extreme mood changes – happy, sad, excited, anxious, etc
Life is so wonderful! I’ve never been happier! Except when I manage to make myself feel like the worst mom on the planet.  And I start thinking of all the things I’ll miss because I’m not around my son 24/7.  And then I think about all the terrible things that could befall him while he sleeps and tiptoe furtively into his room, hoping not to be spotted.  I watch him sleeping, and… life is so wonderful!!

Sleeping a lot more or less than usual, or at different times of day or night
I’ve had this one in spades for the past 16 months. We’ve only just started getting consistent through-the-night sleeping, and in fact I’m hesitant to even mention it for fear of jinxing it.

Changes in energy – unexpectedly and extremely tired or energetic
All of a sudden, I’m actually awake at 7 a.m. and clear-minded enough to assemble all the things we’ll need for an entire day out.   We go and go and go!   Then we come home, Kiddo goes to bed, I wander downstairs, and collapse in a heap.

Weight loss or weight gain
Granted, I did drop about forty pounds since Kiddo’s birth. But I’m sure you’ll be reassured to know that it’s making its way back to me, slowly.

Changes in social groups, new and unusual friends, odd cell-phone conversations
So I’ve started running with a new crowd, what’s wrong with making new friends?  And they’re all really nice people, you’d like them in an instant.  “Latching on”?  “Blowouts”?  “Handling smacks”?   Totally not odd, not in the least.   Right?

Whatever.   I’m sure I’m not an addict.  After all, I–hold on, Kiddo is crawling into my lap.  I need to give him a big hug and sniff his just-washed hair. MMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmm. Sorry, what was I saying?

Right, the article.  Am I addicted to my kid?  I prefer Time’s take on it:

Why else would behavioral studies find that the most addictive pattern of reinforcement is not consistent bliss, but inconsistent and unpredictable rewards? Loving each other is hard and not always pleasant; taking care of children certainly includes as much pain as it does pleasure.  In other words, humans evolved “addiction regions” in the brain not so we could become junkies, but more likely so we would persevere in love and parenthood.

Suddenly it makes sense why, after struggling through the newborn and toddler years, we’re willing to go out and do it again, and again and again.


Good Job: bad parenting?

I’ve seen a handful of articles recently on the perils of praise addiction.  Most of them have been around for a while, but really, before I became a mom I was unaware of all the potential pitfalls of parenting.  But the other day someone tossed out a couple links in an online discussion and it got me thinking about the concept.

If you’re unfamilair with the topic of praise addiction, the idea is that too much praise can have a negative impact on a child’s emotional development, just as too much punishment can.  Over-praising allegedly teaches children to do things primarily because it pleases their parents, rather than because it’s enjoyable for the child.  Heaping praise on a child for simply picking up his blocks grooms him to expect over-the-top accolades, and leads to depression later when he no longer gets mad props for doing everyday tasks.  It may have long-term effects on his self-esteem, the activities he chooses or avoids, and his relationships.  It denies him the chance to evaluate himself and determine his own worthiness.  There’s even a school of thought called Unconditional Parenting that would like us to expunge the phrase “Good job!” from all interactions with our children.

While I’m no praise junkie, I did identify with some of the articles’ descriptions of adult behaviors of over-praised kids.  I frequently mentally measure myself against my friends and co-workers, and feel inadequate when their performance is objectively or subjectively better than mine.  Trying new things is really tough for me–what if I don’t do well?  What if I don’t like it?  Why can’t I just stay right here in my happy safe comfort zone?

These traits and others I know all too well were called out in The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.  The article describes what happened when psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia compared praising fifth-graders for their intelligence to praising them for their efforts.  Turns out, telling a child that she’s “really smart!” sends the message that it’s her IQ that is valued most.  If she’s asked to do a task at which she’s less skilled, she might balk at it, because by not doing well, she reveals a lack of the intelligence that she was lauded for before.

In contrast, praising her for trying hard or putting in good effort sends the message that it’s less important whether she’s good at something; what matters is that she took on the challenge.   The students in Dweck’s study who got props for their efforts took on harder tasks and enjoyed them more, even when they didn’t do well.

Clearly, I’d like to send my own children a better message.  But though it sounds straightforward when presented as a study of hundreds of children, it’s murkier when it’s your own child whom you’re trying not to emotionally mangle.  Right around the time I first read about the Dweck study, my then-infant son learned how to operate a light switch.   He would turn to me with a look of delight and pride–isn’t this great? I do this and the room gets dark!–and seriously, how could I not respond to that?  I was proud of him!  Why shouldn’t I tell him so?   He wasn’t merely learning how to flip a switch, he was learning that he could control elements of his environment, and he was inviting me to share the joy of this discovery.  It just felt right to respond the way I did.

Fortunately, there are parenting experts out there to fit everyone, and the last article I found gave me some hope that I wasn’t completely beyond redemption.   Ruth Peters’ take on it is, Make Praise Appropriate, Not Addictive.  In a nutshell, exercise moderation in doling out praise, and be sure to compliment their efforts as well as their results.  I do wonder, though, whether we might be in danger of swinging too far the other way–of raising a generation where kids feel they should be merited solely for making an effort, even if it doesn’t pan out.  Because in the real world, that’s not what happens. Jobs, raises, and promotions aren’t handed out just because you showed up and took a swipe at it.  The real world rewards Results.  “I tried” may score some points, but “I tried and succeeded” scores more.  Perhaps the key is to teach our children that it’s not just the trying, but rather the trying to do better, that ultimately reaps the benefits.

By now, turning off the lights in the hallway and bedroom is just part of our going-to-bed routine, and flipping a light switch is old hat for my Kiddo.   Now our response is more of an acknowledgement than an accolade.  Now, I’ve got a 15-month-old who just this past weekend got the confidence to let go of the couch and walk across the room on his own.   The look on his face as he free-toddles over to me is almost beyond words.  He’s beaming like this walking business is one of the best things he’s ever stumbled across, and he laughs and throws himself into my lap for a hug.  I can’t help it; the words just tumble out.  “Look at you, walking all the way across the room!” I exclaim, squeezing him tightly.   “You did that without holding on to anything!  GOOD JOB!”