When the Berlin Wall fell, I was a 29-year-old graduate student in international politics at the London School of Economics. As the news hit, many of my younger classmates jumped on flights to Germany to witness history being made. I stayed in the library, unwilling to risk tarnishing my last chance at schooling with a poor grade. I was a dutiful girl. It was a decision I’ve long regretted.
This was the story I told my 16-year-old daughter the week before the inauguration, after our family unexpectedly was given tickets to the ceremony. The windfall caused an immediate dilemma: the inauguration fell in the midst of Emma’s crucial junior-year mid-term exams.
To be in Washington, she’d have to miss one exam, lose two days of precious study time, and endure crowds, cold and who-knows how many hours of travel time, all in a year when grades count heavily for college. Staying home, of course, meant missing one of the most rare political milestones of our time. Emma paused, torn between playing it safe and taking a risk, between sticking to the script and writing herself into the fairy tale.
Some might find her hesitation astonishing, but believe me, it resonates immediately with many smart, achieving women who still struggle with the dutiful girl within them. They are the women who do all the required reading, shoulder the bulk of the work for the slackers on the team, and who keep silent while their bosses take credit for their ideas. “Good girls” are groomed to play it safe, to do their best, to color inside the lines, to defer to the rules. Doesn’t Cyndi Lauper plaintively sing, “girls just wanna have fun” – because they don’t have enough?
We all face these moments of inner conflict, times when we hesitate to bend or even break a rule for a higher good – or just for own sweet, selfish moment of enjoyment. Such dilemmas raise age-old, messy questions of self vs. group, conformity vs. rebellion, predictability vs. painful unknowns. Women don’t have the monopoly on experiencing life’s ever-present small, pass-fail tests. But studies do show that women tend to be more risk-averse in many areas of life, from financial decisions to choices of medical treatments. Historically, we’ve kept a fairly tight hold on the market for risk-avoidance. Maybe that’s why we’ve come so far, yet never done more held the Bible for a spouse on inauguration day.
I’m not knocking duty, conscientiousness, or self-discipline. To slog through the reading, go the extra mile at work, and pass up the party to knuckle down on the project due Monday – that’s a key to achievement at all levels of life, as the brilliant work of Walter Mischel shows us.
Mischel is a Columbia University professor best known for creating one of the most famous experiments in modern psychology. For decades, he asked 4-year-olds to sit in a room with a bell and a marshmallow, telling them that if they could wait until he returned, they would get two marshmallows. Those who held out became more socially competent, resilient, articulate, attentive teens who scored higher on their SATs and earned more degrees. Self-control may be more important than smarts or ambition in predicting success in life.
Still, too much or too little self-control is toxic. If nurtured too assiduously, willpower becomes rigidity. Excessively postponing gratification can be a “joyless choice,” warns Mischel. At the same time, if we have too little self-control, “the choice is lost.” Without discipline, we become prey to our whims and impulses, creatures of distraction and greed. To buckle down and tenaciously fulfill your duty, yet know when to change course and take the risky leap: that’s embracing life, with all its inherent chance and serendipity.
What happened to Emma? She burrowed into her books through the pre-inaugural weekend, her little sister picked up the slack on chores, her homeroom advisors unhesitatingly urged her to go, and she got to make up the exam she had missed –- in American history. For that one day, she lived – not just studied – history.