The Ministry of Questionable Advice, First Dispatch

I read a lot of parenting books (and business books, and dog training books — but I’ll get to that in a second).  The parenting books thing is a weird one since I am a childless divorcee.  BUT, I am of the mind that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and since most of my friends are parents, and I can’t really…join ’em or beat ’em…I might as well at least be able to have some understanding of the contours of their experience.

Of course, one cannot glean that from a book.  But at least by reading, I can understand what the hell a “bumbo” is.

My life, on the surface, sounds very exciting: Manhattan, finance, and travel to exotic locations.  But in reality, it’s a lot of exhaustion, and a lot of (hard, interesting) work, and, sometimes, that weird, airporty smell of jet fuel and other people’s flatulence.  And to me, my friends’ lives sound very exciting: watching children grow and develop; teaching essential parts of the human experience; using unfathomably exotic equipment by which I would obviously be maimed.

However, I know that my friends’ lives also consist of a lot of exhaustion; a lot of hard work; and sometimes, that weird, householdy smell of old food and other people’s bodily emissions.

In sum, I sometimes don’t know how to impart to my friends that I think that our experiences, at their core, are not all that different.  Save for passport control part, and the having other people insist upon joining you in the bathroom bit.

(But travel does make for some equally unenviable toilet stories…)

This gets me to the point about the books, which is that I have discovered that parenting books, business books, and dog training books all say exactly the same thing.  They tell you that you must reward good behaviour.  They tell you that you must be gentle with yourself.  Above all, I think they can be distilled into three core principles:  You must be firm.  You must be fair.  You must be consistent.

And an unspoken, overarching bit of advice I would add there — not merely in parenting, business, or dogs, but in all of life — is that you must act like you know what you are doing.

For instance: Recently, I told my mother about an entry I found in an old journal — something I’d written when I was 12 or 13.  I’d said something to the effect of:  I wish that my parents would understand that I get it.  This is their first time being parents.  Well, this is my first time being their daughter!  It’s not like we all should know what we’re doing.  I just wish they’d act a little more like they did.

Time out.

My mother is going to kill me for sharing that.  But I mean to say it as something she did very RIGHT, and not use it in any way as an example of shoddy parenting (THOSE examples typically involved Cool Ranch Doritos.)

What I AM saying is that, even as a kid, I knew that my parents were human beings.  Seeing my parents as three-dimensional, falliable people made it a lot easier for me to accept the choices they made for what they needed, especially when that was in conflict with what I wanted, and it was not fair, or they were not firm in their convictions, or it did not seem consistent with what they had done before.

What I AM NOT saying, however, is that Doritos are ever a sound parenting decision.

But this underscores the point of how difficult it is to be firm, fair, and consistent — because, by nature, none of us is all of those things.  On a good day, perhaps we can muster one, maybe two.  One is good; and in the words of my man, Meat Loaf, two outta three ain’t bad.

My professional life is built around being firm, fair, and consistent (it is, in fact, the very nature of my job.)  But my personal life is not.  And I’ve been reflecting lately on 2008-2009 and the ways in which I systematically dismantled my life/marriage/career and moved on.   I bought a lot of Harvard Business Review books back then; I read them on planes.  I mostly did the opposite of what they suggested.

Until they said that failure was a key component in success — which, by the way, the parenting books and the dog books said too.  Business would go bad.  The kid was going to bite.  The dog was going to pee on the floor.  Reward the good; ignore the bad; carry on.

There was a time in my life when I thought I could somehow operate outside of these fundamental principles of success.  I thought I had to know exactly what to do

There is no knowing, which I continue to struggle to accept.  The most you can do is be firm about who you are, where you are; be fair about where the boundaries are set; be consistent in enforcing them.  And still, we’re going to screw up in business; we’re going to instill a bad habit or two in our dogs; we (by which I mean…you) are going to drop the ball as parents.  There’s no way around it.  The best you’re going to get is a Meat Loaf earworm. 

So, having done all this reading, and collected all this evidence, I can tell you: Be firm.  Be fair.  Be consistent.  Act confident — mostly, you do know what you’re doing (and by that I mean, having the hopeful willingness to occasionally look stupid).  Be gentle with yourself.  Avoid the Doritos at all cost.

And don’t judge me for not always taking my own advice.

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