Updated: Aug 12, 2019
There was a television show in the early 2000s called Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed. I was so pumped for this show to debut because I would finally get to see how all the illusions were done. But much to my surprise, I hated the show. Not because it wasn't well done, but because I came to see that the "how" is irrelevant.
My demand for the "how" was simply an attempt to validate my disbelief.
The "how" did nothing to further me--learning how the tricks were done didn't skyrocket my career as a world-famous magician. And it certainly did nothing to further the magician--now this guy was fully exposed and hoping that people would still believe in, and support, magic.
But the constant quest for the "how" is why women still struggle to advance in the workplace, or to balance motherhood, or sometimes just to feel good on a mundane Tuesday. Women are constantly asked to expose and explain our every move. We are pushed to reveal the "how."
And "how" is such a loaded word. It comes from a place of doubt.
My husband and I both have high-pressure jobs, two kids to raise, a house to pay for and maintain, social lives to nurture, and hobbies to pursue. No one stops my husband in the grocery store and says, "How do you do it all, Jim?"
Because there's never a doubt he could. And there's no criticism of how he does.
But I am frequently asked to give talks to Women's Networking Events, or to write an article for a women's magazine, and the topic I'm inevitability given is: how to find work/life balance. I've never quite understood why the "how" is so important. Is it so that other women can use my tricks? Mmm...maybe. But if that were the case, it would mean this is merely a trick and I've got clear ways to help others emulate it. Which suggests that women, and their lives, are formulaic.
So then I wonder if they are asking me "how" because they are trying to validate their own disbelief. Having it all isn't possible. It's an illusion.
My fear is that addressing the "how" drives me to deconstruct the way I live my life, something we never ask men to do. We really only question men about their results; women are asked to justify their process.
Addressing the how shifts the focus away from the what and the why, which are far more interesting and worthwhile questions. When I address how I balance it all, it implies there's something to reveal. That I'll confess I'm ruining my home life with all this career nonsense. Or admit that my career is failing because of all this parenting bullshit. If I admit I shampoo my hair every day, does that suggest my time isn't well spent?
We take our deconstruction of women so far that we constantly demand they categorize their lifestyles. When I had my first daughter, more than seven years ago, there was a clear message that mothers should be perfect. Pinterest told us how beautiful our nursery should look, how over-the-top birthday parties should be, and how effortless breastfeeding should go.
Three years later, when my second daughter was born, I felt the narrative shift. Now there was an expectation of imperfection. Mommy bloggers told us how to use dry shampoo and yoga pants, how to give up cleaning your house, and how to give your kids gummy bears and screen time if it meant you got ten minutes to yourself.
The Perfect Mother was replaced by the Coffee-Until-Wine Mother. And both are illusions.
Both are restrictive images to help us quickly categorize (and justify) our very nuanced lives. Team Pinterest or Team Dry Shampoo. Defend your choices! Defend your priorities! Defend your spotless house! Defend your greasy hair! Do you have your shit together or not!?!
The "how" demands an explanation of our choices.
I know I am both part of the problem and part of the solution. I need to let Janet put on the best damn kids' birthday party around and not ask her how she was able to pull off those delicate cupcake toppers and find such a great balloon artist. All I should do is compliment her work. When she's in her element, and delivering a solid product, the best reaction from me is to marvel at it. If I want to ask Janet a "how" it should be: "How can I help you?" And when Janet starts taking on a big project at work, but has three kids at home who are each in after school activities, her boss need only ask one "how" of Janet: "How can we support you?"
Life, and all the chaos within it, is a lot like magic. There are no solid rules about how it all comes together. The more effortless it looks, the more effort it takes. Everything is part smoke, part mirrors, part dry shampoo. But if you start to question all the pieces and how they are being handled, you are working to dissolve its existence. When we are so hellbent on uncovering the "how," we've admitted we are more interested in dispelling the illusion than supporting the magic.
Yet when people appreciate magic, they invest in the endeavor and provide resources to it. After all, you pay big bucks to see David Copperfield in Vegas and it's a given that he'd have an assistant.
Women need to have the space, creativity, and support to mesmerize others with their magic.
Just don't insult her by asking how the trick is done.
Everything Is Negotiable: The 5 Tactics to Get What You Want in Life, Love & Work comes out December 4th from Seal Press. Pre-order now!