TARA: Welcome everyone. I am so happy to invite you in to this conversation with Whitney Johnson. Whitney began her career on Wall Street after studying music. That’s fascinating in itself. She became a very successful investor and a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review and then became one of the founding partners and president of Rose Park Advisors. Then she started pursuing a whole other direction writing about women’s lives, women happiness. She is the author of a wonderful book which I highly recommend called Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream. She is also a blogger. You can get a taste of her work at her blog as well.
Listen to our chat here, or read the transcript below.
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Whitney, I wanted to start with something you’ve spoken about and written about that really struck me: your noticing that so many women in your words didn’t feel “the privilege to dream.” I thought that was such an interesting phrase.
WHITNEY: First of all again, I’m delighted to be here. That was a wonderful introduction so thank you.
In terms of the privilege, here’s how I discovered this. As you mentioned, I had gone to Wall Street and had started out as a secretary. I was there so that my husband could do his PhD at Columbia. I was able to work my way up from secretary to investment banker to research analyst. And then about 15 years in, I decided that I was going to disrupt myself and I left to pursue entrepreneurial ventures.
When I was no longer working 80-plus hours a week, I had the opportunity finally to talk to friends and friends of friends and daughters of friends. These were really bright interesting intelligent women. As I started to ask them what’s your dream, far too often, they would say to me, “I don’t have a dream” or “I don’t know how to do my dream.” When I started to look at the subtext, it seemed that they were saying to me, “Actually I’m not sure it’s my privilege to dream.”
As I started to hear this over and over again or look past what they were saying, I thought and I felt, “What is happening here?” There’s something more than just, “Oh, I don’t have a dream. I can’t figure out what it is.” It was as if they really did not believe that dreaming was their privilege. It wasn’t their birthright.
I started thinking to myself, how can I build this case in order to persuade them to dream? I started doing research and came across Anna Fels’ work on “Do Women Lack Ambition?” and started digging into that and discovering that, in fact, girls, young girls have just as much ambition on average as little boys do but we’re socialized from a very young age that we’re not feminine unless we’re giving up something for someone else or within the context of a relationship.
What that meant is that we were taught okay, if you’re quiet or you do something for someone, that’s a good girl. We were not rewarded for, “Wow! That is really interesting that question you just asked.” or “Wow! That is so fascinating that work that you just did.” And slowly, slowly, slowly, we started to see that ambition or that desire or that belief that we could dream begin to be eroded so that by the time we’re adults, we stopped believing that actually it is our privilege to dream because by definition, when we dream, we are requiring some type of resource in order to get that dream done.
TARA: Got it. So rather than being in the mode of my identity is defined by what I’m sacrificing for others; if we’re dreaming, we’re saying I’m owning that resources of time, of energy, of help may all be going towards my dream.
WHITNEY: Exactly. What I think sometimes we tend to do is then we say, “Okay, it’s really important that you dream and that you have your own dreams” and then people say, “That’s really selfish.”
Then I started digging into Jungian psychology and this whole notion that an every psyche, every person actually comes with a psyche that is composed of two parts, a masculine and a feminine piece. In order for a woman to grow up, she needs to develop her feminine traits — nurturing or relatedness and love. She also needs to develop her masculine traits — to wield power and control situations. A girl needs to learn that and a boy needs to learn that.
TARA: I was so struck by this concept of being the harbor and the ship that you’ve been talking about. Can you just slow us down with that? What does it mean to be a harbor and what does it mean to be a ship?
WHITNEY: The idea is our psyche, according to Jungian psychology, we’ve got the masculine and the feminine. The feminine piece of ourselves is relatedness, nurturing, love. It’s that instinct that most of us have in order to care for other people whether it’s our children, whether it’s our spouse, whether it’s our friends — to be a harbor for them, to put our arms around them and say, I’m going to help you do what you need to do in order to be nourished and be able to make your way through life. To be that safe harbor, that safe place where you can come and refresh and replenish your perhaps depleted resources. That’s the harbor piece.
The ship piece is our masculine piece which we see from a very early age in little boys: “I’m going to go out and slay the dragon. I’m going to go out and sail the ship on the high seas.” That’s the ship. The ability to control situations, wield power etc. Little girls tend to be reinforced for harbor pieces and little boys tend to be reinforced for the ship pieces.
The main idea is in order to be a complete person, little girls need to grow up to not only be a harbor but a ship, and boys need to grow up to not only be a ship but also to be a harbor. They need to learn to care for other people. What I discovered is that our society actually doesn’t necessarily expect men to learn how to be a harbor. We’re perfectly fine with them delegating the harbor aspect to someone else whether it’s a wife or a secretary.
Women may instinctively grow up being a harbor and we’re reinforced for being a harbor, but to learn to become our whole self, we have to learn how to go out and be a ship and vice-versa. What that led me to really want to encourage women to do is to not only be a harbor and continue to be a harbor but learn to be a ship.
Typically, women are required to choose between the two, whether we’re a harbor or a ship. We end up feeling this tremendous tug while there is this ship full of dreams pulling at us, we’re trying to keep one foot on the dock of family life and we feel like we’re making Solomonic choices. I actually think what gives rise to the mommy wars, is that we have to make choices but it doesn’t mean that we have to choose between trying to be a harbor and a ship. The challenge is just trying to figure out how to do both and in what quantities and at what time.
TARA: I really was struck by this notion that not just it’s sort of, it’s a nice balance if you can be a harbor and a ship but your strong statement that because for many women it comes more naturally to be a harbor. It’s therefore the task of adulthood and development to learn how to be a ship and for men being a ship may come more naturally either from nature or nurture, socialization. And that therefore it is the real task of their adulthood to learn how to be a harbour.
It really made me see the work that I am doing with women in Playing Big. It’s just a new angle on it because I think the conversations I am so interested in with women are really, “How do we take that part of us that has the aspiration to do something quite significant as a ship, something that is informed by everything we know about being a harbor?” It’s informed by our love for humanity and everything we know about love and emotional intelligence but then we want to go and translate that into something out in the world. That’s a place where a lot of women are still getting stuck either because they don’t feel they have the practical skills or because of fear and limiting beliefs and blocks around really going there.
WHITNEY: I think too Tara there is a lot of shame. We both are familiar with Brené Brown’s work. Girls are shamed. Again, this goes back to Anna Fels’ work as well. We’re shamed for a very young age around our gifts, ambitions and dreams.
TARA: I also wanted to chat about which is this idea you write about that living our own dreams as women is critical to enabling our children to live their dreams. Can you speak more to that?
WHITNEY: Yes, and I firmly believe it. It’s been said in the feminist movement — if they can’t see it, they can’t be it. I think this is true for our children as well. If they can’t see it they can’t be it. If they can’t see us dreaming then they can’t learn how to dream. I think within the context of family life that especially applies to our daughters.
I think there is another element of that which is, we as parents, no matter how hard we try, we are going to force our ambitions on our children. The more we are out dreaming our own dreams, the less we are likely to do that. Again, going back to Carl Jung, he said, “the most important influence on a child is the unlived life of a parent.”
When we go out and actually live our lives and dream our own dreams then we’re giving our children permission really to have their own dreams and to live their own lives and to be the heroes of their stories. Then we as parents can actually simply bear witness to the lives that they live rather than trying to live our lives through them.
For me, we dream so our children can dream.
That’s Part I of my conversation with Whitney Johnson.
Part 2 of my conversation with Whitney Johnson coming soon! To learn more about Whitney’s current work, click here.