As I prepare to send my son, John, off to the military, I will begin a new chapter. This is an unweaving of the tightly knitted fabric of my life. And so it is with many female founders–starting our own patch in the world is the result of great changes. Here’s my reflections on life collapse, change, and engaging the new.
The Fabric of Being
Back in the Olden Days, when I was a field anthropologist, I got the opportunity to spend time with silk weavers in Thailand. Weaving is a complicated art, something people learn as children, when the eyes are sharp and the fingers are nimble. Old weavers weave by experience, with hands and eyes trained for the loom. They are problem solvers. Young weavers tend to create problems–and, in an effort to make sure that Mom doesn’t come round, clucking her tongue — they have to learn to solve those problems.
So it is with offspring. They make choices in response to the yearnings in their hearts, the threads of enterprise and opportunity that they see are available to them, often under the calculating eye of parents, teachers, and friends. For them the loom is new and difficult. We old weavers can be impatient. We can see solutions and choices they are not prepared to tackle—so they do it their own way.
When life-weavers encounter big changes in the ways we’ve always known, it sends us right back to our younger, perplexed and worried selves. No matter where you are in terms of experience, big shifts are a wake-up call. We have to fix things we thought would “wait.” We have to consider things that we thought were fixed –or at least for the foreseeable future.
The pattern of life becomes jumbled, like a length of cloth in the loom that begins to jam everything.
We can spend a lot of time figuring out what went wrong — but we have to get to work in unweaving it, the sooner, the better.
My Personal Experience with “Life Collapse”
Did you know that programming began with the Jacquard loom? The power loom was a huge challenge to the cottage weaving industry, back in the REAL Olden Days. Power looms devastated the home industry of weaving, displacing skilled craftsmen with machines that could create fabric rapidly, by the yard. It used a system of punch cards to control the machine so that intricate woven patterns could result.
Weaving the traditional way is enormously labor intensive. It also requires a great deal of experience and understanding of the mechanics of weaving to produce solid, intricate designs in the cloth. The punch cards in the Jacquard loom would displace thousands of home weavers and develop the first truly industrial societies–with all of their problems and advantages.
Some things collapse. Other things build up on top of the rubble.
For change to occur, there must an unweaving. We have to rethink everything. My generation of the fifty-somethings were caught up in huge forces of change. The job market became enormously intense.
Knowledge and information fields (like being a college professor) –which had previously been secure–changed dramatically after the introduction of the “home” computer. In my time, anthropology departments stopped hiring young, new professors –because they could easily get older, experienced professors. The generation above mine (now in their sixties) were looking for better pay, more perks — and there were no mid-level or upper positions available.
They (the older, experienced professors) took our jobs (the young, newly graduated, entry level professors) just like they say on South Park. We were not alone, not at all. Many, many people — a whole generation — of forty and fifty-somethings–have seen their planned “first choice” careers and life plans — become totally unhinged by social and economic forces over which we have no power.
The Information Age Changes Relationships
We are facing the same kinds of pivotal, disruptive change in today’s society that the home weavers and small hold farmers faced back in the Real Olden Days. If, like me, a person trained for a particular occupation or career, if you’re over forty–chances are you have had to retrain for that job and develop whole new skills sets to keep it.
And, as it happens, there are many times even retraining doesn’t work. Women (and men!) over forty are often faced with the “move up or move out” ultimatum, as employers seek to get the younger, cheaper workers to reduce costs. They often erroneously think that on-the-job experience can be replaced by technological “gift.” Women, classed as “helpers” in most of the jobs they have, are displaced more often, and more easily (because we tend to go quiet, we tend to blame ourselves).
Taking Control of Our Futures
In writing, we can unweave the fabric of our lives, reframe our personal narratives–find a new way of telling our stories. I could write the story of my husband’s untimely death as a horrible tragedy where my kids and I were victims of terrible situations. Or I can write it as an awful event that shaped us, challenged us, and made us stronger, more resilient, and more energized to meet the world anew. I choose to not just survive, but to flourish. And so do my kids. We have spent a few years unweaving our old dreams. Now it is time to go forth and create new ones. It shows courage, and courage is something that is developed, over time and through overcoming obstacles. Sometimes those obstacles are ones we create ourselves — and that means serious work has to be done.
Starting one’s own business, even a side-business, is this huge step for women over forty. Younger women are part of the “information age” generation where they’ve learned that innovation is their birthright — and building your own business is a possible way ahead. Of course, in many parts of the country, including the rural South where I was raised, this building a business thing is still a bit new. Women find it hard to going. First, we have to think of ourselves as business owners–and beyond that business leaders.
For the young weavers, there is something very comforting about the old weavers. Young weavers always knew that if they couldn’t figure it out, Mom, the old weaver, would throw up her hands, scold like a fishwife, and help us set it all to right. Today, in a job world that is fundamentally different, Mom’s experience cannot help us. Even our college professors have no real idea what to do to get a job and develop a career. And that is a serious problem. It makes changing ourselves, our careers and our lives that much harder — the older understanding of making a life doesn’t apply to this new social and economic environment.
Where can we find the courage? How can we make our way?
Discovering — and Evolving — in a New Environment
The business world is not a desert, though. It’s simply unknown terrain.
The new emphasis on the side hustle, on “lean startup” processes where we create something small, try it out with real customers, and learn continually, is the new life pattern for a new socio-economic environment. It’s alot like the Galapagos Islands. It seems like a remote, forbidding, desert sort of a place. And yet, it is flowing with life and curious, novel ways of living it. We have to learn the terrain and what it has to offer. We have to forget about the Olden Days, to the extent that they no longer serve us. We have no time for figuring out who moved the cheese. We have to move past fear, despair, and put our sneakers on and get out there. It’s okay, you’re going to find there is a lot of us on the move, learning and growing.
For me, the unweaving has been happening for a period of years, beginning with the death of my husband not so many years ago. This new unweaving, with John leaving home, means I have to change everything I do, think, and believe about myself. But I’ve been here before, changing careers and life direction. The calamities I’ve faced have made me stronger and more capable. I’ve got this. So do you.
The best advice I can give is to find yourself and then find other people.
This is seriously hard to do in the beginning, when things are most devastated. The unweaving part of finding myself has been a matter of discarding things that no longer serve my future–and developing new capabilities, knowledge and passion to carry me forward. I have taken classes, read countless books, created partnerships (some of which failed) and learned to fail forward. This book, Failing Forward, was the first book I read back when I lost my job and didn’t know where to begin (again). It helped me to refocus and reframe my experience so that I was no longer a “failed” anthropologist, but an experienced teacher and researcher in a whole new field of developing innovations. That was all part of finding myself and facing new challenges.
The next step, finding other people, is scary and difficult at first, but I did have to get over myself and put myself out there. Today, as I look at developing yet another new career for when I retire, I have to jump into a new skin yet again. I’m awkward as hell. But still, I go to meetups. I write this blog and read other people’s blogs about career change, growth, blogging, and side-gig development. It’s all a process. Sometimes that process is really painful. I promise to be good to myself and take care of myself — we all need to do this. We also need to take care of one another.
I hope you will promise the ones that you love that you, too, will take care of yourself during these challenging times of great change.
~ Much love, Lola
Footnote: Charles Babbage’s association with Ada Lovelace helped to develop the first programming language concepts that drive modern computing today. They worked together SPECIFICALLY to develop programs to drive Jacquard looms. There’s a great book that describes this collaboration — and other genius teams that created the current wave of innovation we see going on. It’s called The Innovators.
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