Hidden Figures, Shine Theory, and Being Friends with Women

I saw Hidden Figures this week, and I happy-cried at least three times during it. It is a blatantly heroic story about very feminine expressions of power. There is a trickster, a paladin, and a wizard, and although they each have their own missions and their own tribulations, they do it all in immaculate lipstick, lovely pencil skirts, and a deep sense of community.

I realized as I walked out that this movie reminded me of Shine Theory: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/05/shine-theory-how-to-stop-female-competition.html
Briefly stated, Shine Theory is about rejecting the idea that there are a limited number of high-acheiving positions available to women, and lifting each other up instead of competing. There is also some evidence [PDF of academic paper] that smart kids are more likely to hang out with each other.

Essentially, this gif:

An animated gif of women offering each other a boost in turn.
Libby Vanderploeg’s “Lift Each Other Up”

I posted this on Twitter, and my friend Tiberius says that she worries about “burdening” the women she admires, and drew a connection between that feeling and Imposter Syndrome. “Oh, she’s so cool, and she must be super busy and I shouldn’t take her time with my trivial stuff”.

I said that I had learned a lot about overcoming this because I have some amazing friends who have taught me disability/feminist theory. (yay intersectionality)

“Instead of picturing one another as rough equals making a bargain, we may be better off thinking of one another as people with varying degrees of capacity and disability, in a variety of different relationships of interdependency with one another”

— Martha Nussbaum


Notes on being a woman trying to make friends with amazing women

This is an expansion of the thoughts I tried to condense into tweets. If you want the shorter version, the Storify is at the bottom.

1) You have the capacity to be amazing

I think few of us understand our full potential, because even if we are working to our maximum while we are in isolation, we get some amazing synergies when we are together. This is part of why it’s so important to me to attend and mentor at conferences. I learn so much from just interacting with other people.

2) Amazing women have just as much potential to screw up as anyone else

The tendency to idolize people we admire is terrible, because it means when they inevitably have a moment of awkward humanity or even cruelty or stupidity, we have to question our whole belief system in them as admirable, instead of acknowledging that they made a mistake and are still amazing.

This does not apply to people who are deliberately hurtful or cruel, or even accidentally but repeatedly hurtful in the same way. Don’t be around someone who hurts you regularly.

3) No one knows what they bring to a friendship, nor does it stay constant. We are all too rich to have only one channel of value

Have you ever had a friend who makes amazing talk slides AND can get her eyeliner to do perfect wings? Do you want to learn only one of those things from her, or can you broaden the ways you share with each other? I don’t always know what people get from friendships with me, but I trust them to allocate their own time according to their own priorities. Maybe I’m just that good at baking cookies, who knows? I don’t have to know. It is enough that we are all astonishing in our own ways, and those ways sometimes help other people.

4) Toxic culture makes us think friendship is transactional. It’s not, it’s about interdependence, the state of graceful giving and receiving

Giving and receiving sounds transactional, but if you get deep into the sociology weeds, it’s not the same. Transactions are always conducted with one’s own benefit in mind. Giving is an act of centering the other, and receiving graciously is something between other-centered and lovingkindness to yourself.

Have you ever had a friend bring you anti-emetic when you are really, vilely sick? Even if they push it through your mailbox, you still feel loved and cherished, because they have taken the time to do something for you that does not require reciprocation. It’s just something they do, because they’re your friend, and they are not thinking about the cost of the medicine or the time spent getting to your place, they are thinking about how much they love you and hope you feel better soon. Someday, you may do something similar for them, but not because you owe them for that one act. You do it because she’s your friend and she needs help.

5) Most people, and especially women, are more limited by time and resources than we are by capacity to love and care. We can still be friends with someone we only talk to once a year

I’m not going to go into the whole feminist theory about why it is women have less spare time and spend more of it in emotional labor. It’s a thing and you’ll have to trust me. Because I have these obligations, I cannot always spend the time I would like nurturing my friendship. Luckily for me, I have several friendships where we see each other once a year, and are happy to see each other, and have a high degree of relational intimacy (in the communication studies sense), but I just don’t make time for them in the course of my ordinary life, because I don’t have that kind of time. That’s ok, as long as everyone is consenting to what I call “episodic friendship”.

6) To make a friend, start by being genuinely friendly. Mutual disclosure and trust will come in their own time, or not. That’s ok.

You can’t make someone be your friend, any more than you can make a romantic interest want to date you. But you can signal that you want to spend time with them, and you can think of very low-level nice things to do for them that don’t seem excessive or grandiose.

Good: Handing a speaker a sealed water bottle. Asking for a business card. Offering to share a seat at a table.

Excessive: Flowers. Skywriting. Attending every presentation they attend.

Mutual disclosure is an escalating set of self-data that people match until they reach their intimacy level. Usually in professional settings, this includes: name, job, career, neutral affiliations, and possibly family status.

If someone doesn’t feel like telling you about themselves, that’s ok. They don’t have to, but they probably don’t want to be your friend then, either, and you should leave them alone.

7) Almost everyone you are talking to is thinking much more about how they are screwing up this conversation than how you are. Our inner voice is our harshest critic. Remember that when you are talking to someone poised and brilliant, odds are she is still being human and a little worried.

We’re trained to be self-aware when we’re talking, so that we’re not rude. Sadly, many many times this spills over into people spending fully half their brain cycles trying to determine if they are sounding like an ass right this second. A quarter is going to what they are saying to you, and a quarter is going to what you are saying to them.  If they DO notice you seem awkward, they may wish they could help you, rather than judging you, because they realize that they could be the awkward ones at any moment.

Sadly for all of us, the people who are actually jerks are almost never spending their processor power in self-critique and anxiety.

8) Friends are like radio stations you find as you drive across the country. Sometimes they fade out. This is normal and not bad.

You can tell I grew up in the American West, where driving through an FM station is an event, but not a remarkable one. We don’t need to keep all of our friends with us for all of our lives. If we keep growing and changing, our friend needs will, too. We’ll make new friends, and the old ones will mostly drift out of our lives, with a few exceptions. I see so many people agonized by the loss of these relationships, but it seems like they are actually worried about being a bad friend, not about growing up and moving on.

9)  If someone consistently makes you feel worse about yourself – grubby, coarse, ugly, dumb, a charity case? They are not your friend.

All of us need a friend or two who will tell us we’re being jerks. But if you know someone who doesn’t seem to believe you’re amazing, and in fact treats you like you are not as good as they are? They are not a friend.

Friends love you and lift you up and want you to be your best. It’s not punitive, and you don’t get punished for being a loser. You just get loving help and faith. If you are trying to be friends with someone who punishes you, or makes you feel shitty, leave them when you can, because they will not make you shine.

10)  I have amazing friends. They are brilliant, kind, witty, quiet, steadfast, handy, anxious, snarky, nurturing, curious. Thank you all.

I am so fortunate in the women I’ve added to my life. (and also the guys) They encourage me, give me courage, copy-edit my work, help me brainstorm, bring me medicine when I need it and babysit the kids so I can go on a date with my spouse. I just hope they also feel as loved and seen as I do, so that we can all shine on.