When I was in my twenties, nearing the end of my competitive years, Dr. James Wooley dropped by the club to visit. If you aren’t into judo, you probably don’t recognize his name as a two-time Olympian. By the time I was competing on the international scene, he had retired from competition, married and was in private practice in Orange County.
I asked whether he missed competition and he shook his head,
“Oh, lord, no!”
(Did I mention he was from Texas?)
“It was great but now I’m finally finished with school, seeing patients, I have a wife and we’re looking to start a family. It was great but I don’t miss it at all.”
From the wisdom of my twenty-something years, I did not believe him for one second. At the time, winning was the most important thing in my life. I thought about it the second my eyes opened in the morning, as I dropped to the floor and did 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups to start the day. I dreamed about winning. I thought Jimmy was just putting a good face on being old and depressed.
Fast forward a decade or so, the first time it was the end of April and I had not even realized the national championships were happening until they were over. That used to be part of the calendar of my life – start training in January for the Nationals, win those in April. Take a break. Win whatever was the summer event – U.S. Open, Panamerican Games. Take a break.
I retired from competition, married, had more kids, earned a Ph.D., started businesses. Jimmy was right – I didn’t miss it and life did not suck.
Now the kids are adults. I have to send the absentee ballot for the youngest express mail to Boston so she can vote. I’m on the fourth business. Life is good.
I’m closer to 60 than 50 now and if you had asked me to imagine that when I was in my thirties, I’m sure I would have thought it would be depressing.
I still teach judo but after several surgeries on my knees and one on my hand, I don’t do it nearly as well as I once did. I have wrinkles, grey hair and investors who don’t want to talk to me because we all know that innovative ideas are the monopoly of young people.
Let me tell you some of the things that DON’T suck about being old.
1. I don’t have to worry about whether I will have saved enough for retirement, gotten an education, been reasonably successful in my career, raised children who were decent people. The answer is, “All of the above”. Much of the anxiety I had as a younger person is gone because those questions have been answered.
2. I wear what’s comfortable and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. My feet don’t hurt from wearing high heels. I don’t walk around cold because wearing a sweater would cover up my girlish figure. Both of my daughters, when they got married, felt the need to tell me that jeans and a hoodie were not acceptable wedding attire.
4. I like my husband and he likes me. Yes, we’re both old and wrinkled and grey. He’s lost 50 pounds in the last year, which shows a pretty damn impressive display of will power. He’s brilliant, a great father and makes a good martini. He can help The Spoiled One with her calculus homework and our junior developers with their C# code. He’s not a jerk (women in tech realize having a brilliant guy who is not a jerk is worth something in a lot of ways).
5. Life is easier. One of the advantages of being around a long time is that people get to know you. When you are young, you need to submit proposals to speak at conferences, submit articles to journals, apply for jobs. As you get older, people ask you to work/ write/ speak for them because they know from your previous work that you probably aren’t going to suck. You don’t have to prove yourself because you already did. (Except in the Opposite World of Silicon Valley where education and experience aren’t valued – but that’s a post for another day.)
Sometimes, I look at my mom, or older friends of mine, and wonder what it is like to be retired, to not have your calendar filled six months, or even 6 days, in advance. I wonder whether it sucks to have nothing you have to do in the day, to have not only your kids but your grandkids safely launched .
I’m guessing that it’s probably just fine.
I’m not just sitting around getting older. I’m also making games. You can buy them here.
Gather around the fire, young and old. By my observations in social media, TV and just eavesdropping on some of you youngsters, hipsters and – I don’t know what the hell to call you people hollering over there on the corner – there are some facts and experiences with which you are unfamiliar.
Let’s start with ‘inner cities’ .
This week, I dropped someone off after a late meeting and ended up driving through Watts (known as south Los Angeles to some people – you know who you are) after 9 pm at night. It was dark, not because it is always dark in the ‘inner city’ but because it was night.
I stopped at a fast food place where there were a lot of men hanging around outside. All of the men were African-American or Latino. I ordered a burrito and gave the woman at the window ten bucks.
Here is what happened next ….
… She gave me the correct change and an enormous, delicious carne asada burrito. I drove away, eating my burrito, which was so gigantic my husband ate the other half when I got home.
What did you expect? I expected if there were that many people waiting for their order at that hour of night the food would be good, and I was correct.
Incidentally, on my way to dropping off my colleague at her house – yes, she has a degree, a professional job and lives in the city – we drove through downtown and were commenting on how much we both love the skyline and the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and wish we had time to go there more often. I mentioned that many of my co-workers when I worked at USC lived downtown and took the train in to work.
I’ve spent a whole lot of hours in my life in cities, mostly St. Louis, Tokyo, Minneapolis, Riverside (does that count as a city?), San Diego and Los Angeles. I’ve had a gun pulled on me three times in my life, two of those times by people I knew (yes, I should have a better choice of acquaintances ). Twice it happened when I was in a house in a rural area (different states, 20 years apart) and once when I was walking in the suburbs of St. Louis to visit a friend.
My point – and I do have one – is that the cities are not “hell holes” where African-American and Latino voters have it so bad that they have “nothing to lose” as a certain presidential candidate and his followers have characterized them. Yes, people do get shot in Los Angeles, including some people I have known, but people are not hunkering down in their houses, only leaving to replenish their supplies of food and bandages in some type of Mad Max scene as they barrel through the streets dodging bullets.
There are certainly problems, starting with inadequate funding for schools that desperately need maintenance, a lack of after school and recreational programs , not enough parks. There are also people sitting outside eating delicious burritos.
When I’m not eating burritos, I’m making games. You can buy them here.
Since I already called my mom on Mother’s Day, I thought that I’d talk about another woman who was important in my life, a mentor, who I probably haven’t talked to in 20 years. (I know, I’m such an ungrateful bitch. )
Dr. Jane Mercer was not even in the same department as me. My dissertation was an analysis of the psychometric properties of Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Revised , Mexicano, and she was a sociologist renowned for her expertise on the impact of social and cultural factors on intelligence test scores.
Shortly after I finished the first draft of my dissertation, my advisor received some distressing news (no, it wasn’t that he was my advisor, he already knew that). He and his wife had begun dating as very young teenagers. Other than his military service during World War II, they had been together ever since. When she was diagnosed with cancer, he walked into the dean’s office and just said, simply,
… And went on sabbatical with about a four-minute notice.
Everyone completely understood. His colleagues took over committee responsibilities. As his doctoral student that was furthest along, I taught his courses, like inferential statistics.
I was his only doctoral student writing a dissertation, and someone needed to step in to supervise my research. That was Dr. Jane Mercer.
Not only did she read every draft of my dissertation, recommend articles I read and journals to submit publications, introduce me to people at conferences (not a gesture to be underestimated when one is looking for a position) but, more importantly, she provided advice on life.
Here are a few of the things I learned from Dr. Mercer just by observing her.
1. NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU HAVE GONE DOWN THE WRONG ROAD, TURN BACK! Taped over her desk, Dr. Mercer had a piece of paper with this proverb typed on it. No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back. We’re told in America that quitters never win, bloom where you’re planted, you can’t fight city hall, you’re never going to win against big corporations. Making a change in anything from your employer to your gym to the crowd you hang around with can be treated as an act of disloyalty. People stay in situations long, long after they should have left because they are ‘committed’, ‘invested’, ‘cannot leave now’. The unwillingness to turn back after going a long way down the wrong road is the second biggest barrier most people’s happiness. The biggest is fear, which leads me to …
2. Have the courage to speak the truth as you see it. Being the most brilliant researcher in the world does no good to anyone if you are afraid to publish and publicize unpopular results. In the 1970s, many people thought intelligence tests were the answer to psychology’s long history of physics envy. At last, we were a real science with actual numbers, not this whacko dream interpretation stuff but measurement – hey, IQ even has a math word – quotient, in the name. Not to mention, companies like The Psychological Corporation and Educational Testing Service were big business (still are). Jane Mercer sincerely believed intelligence tests systematically underestimated the intelligence of low-income, minority children. In the case of Diana vs the State Board of Education, a lawsuit was filed on behalf a few Mexican-American children, including a little girl who spoke Spanish as her first language, was tested in English and determined to be mentally retarded. All of the big names (and big money) lined up on the side of the State Board of Education and Jane spoke up for the side of Diana. This may not seem like much now, but back then she had to stand up to a LOT of opposition, it was not happy times. She did it anyway.
3. Yes, you CAN have a job and a family. Men do it all the time. Jane was older than me and of that generation that was told women could either have a career or children but not both. By the time I met her, her four sons were all adults. She and her husband got along fine and seemed to agree that since they were both parents of these children they could both engage in parenting them. We couch things in daunting terms “Can women have it all?” Of course no one has it ALL. I’m finishing this blog post in the Denver airport. That empty spot you see at the end of jetway is where the plane I am taking back to Los Angeles should be.
I would like to have a non-eventful flight out of Denver airport, just once. You see, none of us can have it ALL but no one asks men whether they think they can manage a career and children.
4. Being the first or only woman in an area doesn’t mean you have to go along with that happy-to-be-here crap. Yes, she was a tenured professor at the University of California, which had damn few of them, but that didn’t mean she had to accommodate in any way because of her gender. Don’t take on female doctoral students because you don’t want to be type-cast as ‘only a good advisor for women’? Screw that! If they needed an advisor and she could help, she was on board. Don’t speak out about intelligence testing because people will think you are shrill or too emotional, not a real academic? Screw that twice! As you can see, I have taken that lesson deeply to heart but with less of her limits on profanity.
Woo-hoo – plane boarding now – only 90 minutes late – gotta go. Happy Mother’s Day.
Twice in the last week, I’ve had people say to me, expecting agreement,
Winners never quit. You know that, right? You’ve won a world championships, founded several companies, earned a Ph.D. You never would have done that if you quit.
I would like to go on record with my opinion.
That idea that winners never quit is complete and total bullshit.
I have accomplished a lot of things in my life and it would never have happened if I hadn’t quit other things.
- I started out as an Urban Studies major. I quit that and got a BSBA in business instead, where I was required to take Calculus and a couple of programming courses, market research and took an elective in statistics … all of which sparked my interest in software development, statistics and mathematics, which led to the career I have now. If I had followed the never quit mantra, I’d probably be a city planner.
- I had a job as an industrial engineer that I liked a lot. I quit that to take a job teaching computer classes in the corporate training department, because I wanted to live in the same city as my second husband. Then, because I really didn’t like that job, I quit it and got a Ph.D.
- I quit the marriage to my first husband and I am 100% certain that both he and I are much happier as a result. I certainly would not have had The Perfect Jennifer, Darling Daughter Number Three and The Spoiled One if I had stayed married. I doubt I would have gotten a Ph.D. or started a business.
- I quit competing in judo after I won the world championships. I had other things I wanted to do in life – have more children, get more education, start a business. I ignored everyone’s advice that I would regret it forever if I did not stick it out four more years and go to the Olympics. They were all wrong. I have not regretted it for one second.
- I quit my full-time job as an Associate Professor and moved to California to marry The Invisible Developer and start a business.
- I quit in the middle of a research grant to take a job that paid me a lot more money. Then, I quit that job for one that paid even more THEN, I quit that one to work for a university that paid diddly squat but gave free tuition to my children. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for Darling Daughter Number One to attend a university that costs slightly more than buying an entire small town, nor for Darling Daughter Number Three to train for the Olympics, nor The Perfect Jennifer to attend graduate school.
- Then, I quit the university because, did I mention my annual salary was approximately diddly squat?
If I hadn’t done that all of that, I would never have co-founded Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc., never founded The Julia Group, never co-founded 7 Generation Games, never written grants for tens of millions of dollars that paid for college scholarships, tutors for high school students, substance abuse counseling, vocational rehabilitation, development of online courses and educational software.
I’m pretty certain that everything I accomplished in life has come about because I DID quit a lot of things when they were no longer rewarding, productive or the right choice for me.
Yes, there are people who give up at the first sign of difficulty, and this is a mistake.
There are also people who go down the wrong path for far too long.
In fact, you cannot pursue an infinite number of opportunities. It would be nice if a new opportunity presented itself exactly when you had finished the previous one, if there were no dead ends and never a need to make adjustments in plans, but that’s not how the world works.
There is also the possibility that quitting is not final – but that’s a post for another day.
I try not to be a hypocrite, so after a long talk this week with someone about the importance of admitting mistakes and not continuing to go down the wrong path, I sat down and asked myself,
Self? What mistakes have I made?
Certainly, if you can’t see any mistakes you have made, you are delusional, because everyone makes mistakes. I think the biggest, stupidest mistake I made for many years was feeling like I always had to be the smartest person in every room and everyone had to know it, by God. This was stupid for a lot of reasons. Let me enumerate them for you.
- I missed out on making some good friends. I worked at universities much of my life with really smart people. I was so busy trying to prove how smart I was, that statistics was harder than history or some stupid nonsense, that I missed the opportunity to get to know those people better. When I look back and think about some of my former colleagues, I think, damn, Dr. X was pretty nice and interesting. If I hadn’t been so intent on proving I was smarter, we could have had some good conversations.
- It hurt my career. No matter how good you are at programming, statistics, grant writing, whatever, no one wants to work with a jerk. Yes, maybe Billy Bob wasn’t as good at something, didn’t go to as good of a school, didn’t write as many articles as me. So damn what? What was the point of constantly bringing it up so I could feel like I was winning? I never got fired from anything, but I’m sure I would have gotten promoted faster if I was better at getting along with people when I was young.
- I was being a jerk. What if I was right and Billy Bob was marginal at his job and I was super-amazing? Again, so damn what? He had a job. He was there before me. Who died and left me the God of pointing out everyone’s inadequacies? What did I expect people to do, pass out little post-it notes to me when I came in every day saying that I win and everyone else in the department should bow down before me because I brought in $ 6 million in grant funding this year?
- I was often wrong. Sometimes I really was the smartest person in the room. More often than not, though, there were a lot of really smart people and some of them knew more than me about certain things and less about others. Once I finally learned to shut up and listen, I learned a lot more.
I thought I would pass along this bit of knowledge because it was a hard, painful lesson. I had my reasons for always feeling that I had to prove myself, and if you are in the same situation, I bet that you do, too.
There wasn’t a particular day when I woke up and thought, “I’m acting like an ass and I should just stop.”
Oddly, (or maybe not), the more I actually accomplished, the less I felt I had to prove I was smart, competent, whatever.
I married well – twice. You might think that I mean I was married to people who continually reinforced me, told me how brilliant I am. You’d be wrong.
Both my late husband and The Invisible Developer had this in common – they (felt) feel comfortable in their own competence. They don’t have to put anyone else down to feel important. They don’t need anyone else to tell them they are brilliant.
That’s why it’s called SELF-confidence and SELF-esteem. You get it from yourSELF .
Role modeling. After living with someone for years who was brilliant and didn’t at all feel the need for EVERYONE to acknowledge it, maybe some of that just kind of wore off.
So, anyway, that is the biggest mistake I think I made over the years. I’m probably doing something equally stupid now that I can’t see, but five years from now, I will look back and wonder what the hell was I thinking.
Thirty years ago, I was a wet-behind-the-ears young industrial engineer working at General Dynamics. The production line had been shut down a couple of times in the past few months and I was sent to investigate. I met with the division manager and he told me that they had run out of material X, a small amount of which was used on each missile. So, all the workers on the line were sent home until more X was procured, and since we were a union shop, they were all paid for the day. He explained that X had a very short shelf life.
I asked him,
How much does it cost? So what if it expires and we have to throw some away? Wouldn’t that be cheaper than sending everyone home?
I don’t know but it must be very expensive, otherwise, they wouldn’t be always cutting it so close and sometimes running out of it.
I concurred that he was probably right but recommended he check. So, just to placate the silly young woman (women engineers were even more of a rarity back then) the manager called in some ordering clerk from inventory control and asked just how much was material X anyway. The clerk went to a terminal and looked it up.
Five dollars each, sir.
The manager looked a bit surprised at the low cost.
Five dollars an ounce?
The clerk shook his head,
No, sir. Five dollars a gallon.
I will admit that I did not help the situation at this point by bursting out laughing.
It was what happened next, and later, that was really interesting. He proceeded to yell, swear at and berate that clerk up and down. The clerk was a middle-aged man who was kind of a mousy guy to begin with. He was on the verge of tears before it was over and ran out of the office.
I looked the manager in the eye and said,
You had no right to treat that man the way you did. He was just doing his job. There is an inventory control system with a program that determines lead times and orders. You didn’t think to ask how much material X cost, either. Regardless, no one should be talked to the way you just did. You owe him an apology.
He looked at him and snarled,
Who the hell do you think you are? I run this place and you’re just a little piss-ant engineer.
I told him,
Maybe so, but I’m right and you’re wrong.
I went off to my next meeting. Several hours later, the same manager and I happened to be walking next to each other through the same plant. We walked by Mr. Mouse and he looked like he wanted to duck behind the nearest plank mills. The manager walked over to him, cleared his throat and said,
I just wanted to apologize to you for the way I acted earlier. You were just doing your job and I was wrong to blow up like that. In the future, though, I would like to be sure that we don’t run out of X because it shuts the line down. If it hurts your performance numbers in inventory control or something like that, just go ahead and charge any expired product you have to throw away to my department.
Then, he shook the man’s hand, and walked away, leaving Mouse staring after him with a stunned look on his face.
He fell back in step with me – we were heading to the same meeting, and I turned around and said,
I’m really impressed, Mr. Rousey. It takes a strong man to admit that he was wrong.
Yes, that was Ron Rousey. Even though at that moment my opinion of him started to turn around, the feeling was not mutual. He told me later he thought I was a conceited smart ass who made him look bad in front of his crew by laughing at him, didn’t know that it wasn’t my place to talk back to him and that he could not believe that I was not impressed by his professional accomplishments but that apologizing to some guy who was scared of his own shadow earned my respect. He must have got over it, though, because a few years later, we were married.
I was thinking about this today because it occurred to me that probably everyone could have a better life by admitting faults and mistakes. If you don’t admit that you are wrong, you are going to continue to make the same mistakes and have the same problems.
It occurred to me because it brought to mind a mistake I made for many years …
… but for that you will have to wait for my next blog post.
Funny how a random sight can jog a memory, like today when I was walking around the neighborhood, taking a break from the marathon push to get our newest game out the door.
It was November 11, 1985. I was about eight months pregnant, and about two months into my doctoral program at the University of California. I came home to a surprise – 11 dozen tropical flowers on my doorstep. I called my still relatively new husband at work. Nope, he hadn’t sent them.
It wasn’t my birthday. It wasn’t our anniversary. It was too early for Christmas.
A couple of days later, I got a call from my sister. She had sent them to commemorate the one-year anniversary of me winning the world championships. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t remembered.
In the year since, I had married, moved to a new city, gotten pregnant, quit my job as an engineer, started a new job as a middle school math teacher and started on my Ph.D.
That day, at the world championships, winning seemed the most important thing in life.
A few months before, I had been in Europe. I competed at the British Open and placed third. Then, I went to the Tournoi d’Orleans and placed fifth. Not only was it the only time I had represented my country and come home empty-handed, but I hurt my knee, again, in London and tore something in my thumb in France. These were not little injuries, either. I’d had surgery on that knee less than two months prior. By the time I was 50, I needed a total knee replacement. My thumb doesn’t really work. I’ve been putting off surgery on that for years because, I mean, who really needs two thumbs and I’m busy.
So, two career-ending injuries, a loss and in pain. I had a layover in St. Louis where I was supposed to meet up with my sister. I cried all the way across the Atlantic but thought, at least I’ll see my sister. I got to St. Louis, called her house and she wasn’t home. She’d forgotten I was coming. Cell phones were 20 years in the future. Did I mention that I was in the middle of getting divorced and in a custody fight?
I got back on the plane, flew to Los Angeles, couldn’t remember where I had parked two weeks ago, limped around the airport parking lot for half an hour carrying my luggage (roller bags weren’t a thing yet), finally, found my car and drove home. I’d lost, no one loved me and I didn’t know if I’d be able to compete ever again. It was the worst day of my life.
I hadn’t thought of that day in the past twenty-five years. You’d think it would make me depressed to remember that, but it actually made me smile at how naive I was in my twenties. There have certainly been worse days than that. I lost that custody battle – temporarily. My new husband died when I was in my thirties.
Now THAT should make me depressed, certainly. Oddly, it doesn’t.
What it all reminded me is that you get over things – or you should. My same sister laughed at me, in a friendly way, when I told her I was going to school to get a doctorate. She said,
You just accomplished something that would be most people’s goal for a lifetime and now you go and set another one.
That’s as it should be. As The Spoiled One brilliantly advised me one day when I was frustrated trying to solve some programming problem:
Life is long, Mom. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.
So, my thought for the day is this:
Whether you think today is the worst day of your life or the best day of your life, if you keep going, it will get better.
Feel smarter after reading this blog? Want to be even smarter? Check out what I do on my day job – adventure games that teach math and Native American history. Buy for yourself or donate for a child or school.
Your mileage may vary, your life may vary, but there are a few lessons worth learning . As a public service, I have decided to share with you things I thought I knew but was initially wrong about.
- Your children don’t actually consider you a person until they are nearly 30 (if ever).
Many years ago, when teaching adolescent psychology, I remember the textbook author saying that most people really don’t consider their parents as people until they are in their thirties. At the time, my children were very young, and I thought that was just a ludicrous statement. Now, I’m pretty sure that he was right. I can’t tell you the number of young adults I have seen treating their parents in ways that they would never treat anyone else. Doubt me? Consider an adult in his/ her twenties whose parent is paying part (or all) of their rent. I know plenty of people in this situation, some are employed but ‘want to live somewhere nicer’ than they can afford. Others want to ‘follow my dream’. Those same young adults would never expect their friend, boss or co-worker to pay their rent – because, well, why the hell would another person who doesn’t live with you support you? Maybe that other adult (your parent) has a dream to travel the world or open a knitting school or spend all their money on cheap women and expensive whiskey.
(For those who wonder if this is personal, I would like to note that all of my children are self-supporting except for the one in high school, and I have no interest in spending my money on cheap women – or knitting schools. I do like expensive whiskey.)
Speaking of personal, though, lesson number one was brought home to me recently when I was complaining to The Perfect Jennifer about something stupid and unimportant, like having to walk down to the bank to deposit a check. I apologized for rambling on and made a comment about being a complainer and she corrected me,
“No, Mom, really you’re not. You never complain about the things like having to take care of three kids by yourself after Dad died, while starting a company at the same time. I’ll bet that was hard. It sounds really hard.”
She was 29.
This is the first time any of my children actually acknowledged that it was difficult for me, too. I have to say, that made my day. It WAS hard. A friend of mine lost her father when she was in high school, and she was telling me that it wasn’t until she was in her forties and had her own children in high school that she thought about all of the things her husband does and how hard it would be to take care of everything without him.
My point isn’t that their father’s death wasn’t unbelievably hard on the children, nor that I expected them to feel sorry for me when they were little kids. It is simply this, as children, everyone sees their parents primarily in terms of fulfilling their own needs, basically in terms of how they can use them. Children see the world as centered around them.
We often don’t consider our parents as actual adult humans with their own feelings, aspirations, difficulties, strengths and weaknesses until we become adults ourselves. Sometimes, not even then.
—– Want to learn even more ?
Play yourself, buy it for your children (however they think about you!)