One of the tenets of my Sweet Spot Manifesto is “Accept that you are divergent. Go with it.” A lot of people are asking me what I mean by that.
My daughters—and all their middle school friends—love the dystopia that Veronica Roth creates in her book Divergent (the movie version of the sequel, Insurgent, will be released this season). In it, the characters are allowed to develop and display only one of the following character strengths: intelligence, courage, honesty, peacefulness, or selflessness. People who demonstrate more than one strength are considered “divergent,” which is seen as highly dangerous and threatening. The main character, Tris, is divergent—she is smart, brave, and selfless. Because the divergent are hard for the government to control, they are usually killed.
The appeal of Divergent to the middle school crowd is obvious, given the pressure that many teens feel to conform to a rigid set of standards set by their peers, parents, and schools. But I also see Roth’s dystopia as a commentary on the adult world we live in, where most of us are constantly comparing ourselves to three common, and powerful, archetypes that personify only one strength: the ideal worker, the intensely involved mother, and the provider father.
I don’t know anyone who has worked for a traditional business who hasn’t run up against our cultural notion of what journalist Brigid Schulte calls “the ideal worker”—the perfect employee who, without the distractions of children or family or, well, life, can work as many hours as the employer needs. Ideal workers don’t have hobbies—or even interests—that interfere with work, and they have someone else (usually a wife) to stay at home with sick children, schedule carpools, and find decent child care. Babies aren’t their responsibility, so parental leave when an infant is born isn’t an issue; someone else will do that. The ideal worker can jump on a plane and leave town anytime for business because someone else is doing the school pickups, making dinner, and putting the children to bed.
Most working parents can’t compete—in terms of sheer hours of work—with these ideal workers. And, truth be told, they often struggle with the other archetypes: the intensely involved mother and provider father.
The intensely involved mother might work outside the home, but doesn’t seem like it—if she does do paid work, it certainly doesn’t interfere with her mothering or volunteering in her children’s classrooms. The intensely involved mother always knows best. She was the one who breast-fed her children for years, after all, and so she (and she alone) knows what the babies need and when they need it.
When her children reach school age, she becomes the ideal parent volunteer. She’s a room parent, fund-raising worker bee, pizza-day helper, field-trip driver. She juggles so many roles that she seems omnipresent on campus. Her children are shuttled from every ideal enrichment activity available and are enrolled in the best summer camps. She takes lots of pictures, diligently documenting her children’s carefully constructed childhoods, but she herself rarely appears in the photo albums. Her needs are seldom considered. How fulfilling she finds her job serving her family is not relevant.
Similarly, provider fathers—who focus on making as much money as possible for the benefit of their families, yet rarely spend quality time with them—shame working dads who turn down promotions or take lower-paying work so they can spend more time with their kids.
Like the characters in Divergent, it’s easy for us Americans to get fixated on living up to any of these three archetypes. Our single-minded fixation on these idealized selves can lead us to hone only one strength: the ability to work long hours, or the ability to be a great and selfless parent, or the ability to make a lot of money for the family.
But here’s the thing: The ideal worker is not necessarily ideal. Nor is the intensely involved mother or the provider father. Reams of research suggest that people who work long hours, to the detriment of their personal lives, are not more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours so they can have families and develop interests outside of work.
And nothing in the research indicates that intensely involved mothers are more successful raising happy or high-achieving children than moms who invest in activities that are not 100 percent centered on their children. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that kids do better when they are given more autonomy. And we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that children benefit hugely from having an involved father—even when the father earns less money than he would if he worked more.
In other words, if we are to be our most productive, successful, and happy selves—what I call finding our “groove” in our work and our home lives—we must be divergent, as threatening as this can be to our cultural norms and to the people around us who strive to be ideal workers, intensely involved mothers, and provider fathers. True happiness and satisfaction are found in balance, not in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.
Divergence is especially threatening to the ideal workers who still run many of our corporations and government institutions. As in Roth’s novels, people wedded to the ideal archetypes will seek to control and, if necessary, discredit or undermine people dedicated to being good (enough) parents and good (enough) workers and community contributors and happy individuals.
To develop our multiple talents, we must stray from the herd of our cultural archetypes. Because humans are deeply social animals, our nervous system is designed to keep us in a group, so straying from the herd can be terrifying and disorienting. In Divergent, the strong female protagonist, Tris, is forced to join a single-strength faction in order to hide her divergence. She chooses to become “dauntless”—the group that prizes bravery—even though she secretly knows that she also has a predisposition for the highly intelligent “erudite,” or the selfless “abnegation.” She knows that changing the world, and her life, will take a great deal of courage, and only when she has enough courage will she truly be able to help others or make better use of her intelligence.
We will not find our groove by conforming to unrealistic ideals or outdated stereotypes. To find our groove, we must allow ourselves to be complex and divergent—our authentic, balanced selves.