This week, we’ve decided to do something a bit different: post an email conversation we recently had, which spring-boarded off one of our phone conversations. A mentioned that she felt that her current job “exposed her flaws”, an experience that she had also had in a previous relationship. B had some thoughts about that, and the following chain ensued. Enjoy!
I've been thinking about what you said about how relationships and jobs can clarify your flaws. My boyfriend through college was a huge fan of that perspective. His idea was that one of the most loving things you could do for someone was be in love with their potential, see the best in them and help push them to be that best version of themselves. I found that outlook exhausting at the time... I still kind of do... but I don't know, I guess there is something important about leading someone to fulfilling their own highest goals for themselves. I guess really I'm struggling with it because I have so little ambition, and so I resist being told that I'm not fulfilling my potential. Even if reaching a little bit higher would be good for me. Anyway, just some thoughts.
Aw, thank you for your thoughts. Your perspective makes a lot of sense. Even though I said on the phone that being with my ex exposed my flaws and made me want to push to make myself better, I don't know if that second part is really true. It’s true in the sense that I tried to reach outside my own limited perspective and see the ways other people see the world. As in, not everyone has the same needs, wants, desires, and preferences I do, though mine obviously feel the most natural to me and it's easy to project them onto everyone else. Although almost everyone wants to be loved, feel useful, etc., we have differences too. An example with my ex is that when my feelings are hurt, I withdraw for a short while but then want to talk it out and have human nurturing. But he just withdraws, period.
BUT the sense in which the second part is not true is that I didn't feel like I had to change to be a better fit for my ex; I didn't have to constantly strive to be better in order earn his love, or earn a greater quantity or quality of it. I get what your college boyfriend believed, and his perspective is similar to the one that Eli Finkel takes in the book I just read, The All-or-Nothing Marriage. This perspective is that when we seek self-actualization through marriage - which many people now do, consciously or not, in the modern Western world - what we want is a spouse who supports us in many aspects of our growth: growth through our hobbies, our jobs, our interactions with loved ones, etc.
Ambition is a tricky word to bring into this, but useful for clarifying what we think of when we think of personal growth. From what I know of you, you strive to be a good person, meaning a person who pursues what you define as meaning and value in many aspects of life. You left a job you didn't like to take one where you feel like you're filling a need in your community that no one else can. You strive to treat everyone in your life with kindness, empathy, and consideration. You and your husband (C) got a dog, which is challenging and beautiful and exciting. You pursue hobbies that bring you joy because that has more meaning to you than sitting around at home all the time - but of course a balance between the two is good. :) Maybe you don't define that as ambition, but it sounds to me like you are not static in your personal growth. The things that bring you meaning and reflect your values naturally contribute to your personal growth, no matter what it looks like to outside folks. Now perhaps you don't define all that even as personal growth (let alone ambition), which is perfectly valid. But whether it is personal growth, ambition, both, or neither, it seems that C supports you in all of this. You are not pursuing these things to win his love, but they integrate naturally into your life partly because of C's support. I'm pretty sure you would be doing all this even if you weren't married to him. But maybe just being with C brings more perspective into your life and helps you understand how we all have similarities and differences that we navigate in our relationships. So maybe that is what I meant when I chose the (perhaps inaccurate) phrase "exposing flaws."
In terms of jobs exposing flaws in oneself, I think that for me, that was just another way of saying that OBVIOUSLY each of us is more suited to certain jobs than others. And I actually don't think anyone should change themselves or strive to be "better" to fit a job that isn't really a good fit. Maybe in small ways - for example, my current job shows me how I sometimes lose motivation when I'm not stimulated by a task, but I should push a little harder to work through that because we all can't be intellectually stimulated all the time. But in the big picture, no, I don’t think we should work to “improve” ourselves enough to learn to be happy (if that’s even possible) in a job that’s not suited to us. (Of course this assumes we have the privilege of choosing from multiple jobs, which is a huge assumption and an issue for another post.) While we’re making that assumption, though - I read Meghan Daum's essay collection The Unspeakables a while ago, and if I remember correctly, there was an entire essay where she argued against the concept of going outside your comfort zone. She said she’s succeeded in life by doing the one thing she was good at, loved to do, and felt comfortable doing: writing. That's not to say that being a good writer is always easy and comfortable; like all art, and all work in general, it requires blood, sweat, and tears. But she never tried to branch out, and I kind of agree with that approach. Though we may have more than one comfort zone, and we may try new hobbies and visit new places, maybe sticking in our comfort zone(s), especially when it comes to our careers, isn’t so bad after all.
I like the rewording of "exposing flaws". Maybe it's because I'm working in ~such~ a strengths-based workplace, but it seems to me that what you're really talking about is that a job/relationship can help clarify potential growth areas for a person - we aren’t really discussing flaws at all. I totally agree with what you said about personal growth being a value for me - I definitely think it is. But I also think I separate those things from my official career. I want to be a well-informed, well-rounded, and capable person, but I don't care at all about advancing career-wise or achieving other markers of success (such as buying a house, pursuing higher education, making 6 figures, etc.) Part of this is probably a function of my privilege - I don't have to worry about my personal growth in anything other than personally pleasing ways because I am already successful enough in the ways that society cares about. I have a job, I have a degree, I live in a pretty great place.
I'm wondering how Dr. Finkel feels about applying Maslow's hierarchy of needs to his theory that we reach actualization through our marriages. I know in a magazine I read recently, he talked about how marriages in the modern day can fulfill that actualization function precisely because they no longer have to serve basic survival functions. Tying that back to ambition/personal growth, maybe I am pursuing these things outside of my career because my career, such as it is, is stable enough that I don't feel like I have to.
Do you feel you have to reach a level of stability within the relationship/job before the thoughts of personal growth creep in? For example, is this "exposing potential areas of growth" something that you think happens in every relationship no matter length/depth, or is it something that requires a certain base criteria of "survival" needs to be met?
I guess what this is really all boiling down to is that the more I think about this idea of utilizing the different perspectives in a relationship or job as a springboard for one's own personal growth, the more I feel super lucky for being able to do it. And the more inspired I am to use my situations to keep that going. I hate it when I get on board with things like Personal Development Plans, but I guess they're ok if I co-opt them for my own purposes.
Haha, I agree with what you said about hating getting on board with things like Personal Development Plans (though we ironically run this advice blog). You well know that I have ranted several times about the modern-day cult of efficiency/productivity, and about how the separate but related cult of personal growth/wellness/spirituality, on top of being geared toward middle- and upper-class white people (white women especially), CAN be seen as a way that capitalism, in this crazy world that grinds us down so much, is telling us we should fix ourselves, NOT the system. But this is not a political blog, haha. So to answer your question - I honestly don’t know if I would or wouldn’t have thoughts of personal growth at a low level of stability because I’ve always been privileged enough to have my basic stability/security needs met. My best guess is that, in cases where a relationship or job is barely keeping those needs met, I would still have thoughts of personal growth. I would just be so grateful for having my basic needs met - i.e., I would hopefully not take it at all for granted - that I wouldn’t HOPE or EXPECT anything more, even though my thoughts might still stray that way. In sum, like you, I feel super lucky to be able to use my jobs and relationships as springboards for personal growth. :))