A Good Man

“Why do men like boobs?”

This of course is one of those trick questions that women ask men, and a step up from the infamous does-this-make-me-look-fat question. The man being questioned is a wise man, however, and after pausing to think, said, “Well, I suppose it’s because it’s something women have that we don’t.”

That got me to thinking about the old adage, “Opposites attract.” Generally speaking, I think women are attracted to strength in men. It could be physical strength, yes, but it could also be strength of emotion, or intellect, or of a particular skill. Again, I’m speaking generally.

Maybe this isn’t such good news for men if you’ve read any of Brene Brown’s research on this issue. Essentially, she observes that women have many roles in which we might fail – employee, mother, wife, daughter, friend, volunteer, supermodel – and we make ourselves batty trying to fulfill all those expectations. Men have just one area in which to succeed or fail, however, and that is strength. Even with their spouse, they never feel permitted to fall off that white horse.

What does this say about a typical marriage? It says that men never feel completely safe because they are never permitted (by society, not just their spouse) to show weakness, and this is compounded by the fact that most women are attracted to strength (in whatever form) in men.

I want to suggest a solution for that by discussing strength just a bit more. Here is something I’ve casually observed in the great stories we tell, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction:

A great man affirms the women in his life.

I once got a job where my hourly salary was quite a bit more than I expected it to be. I saw my parents later that week and said, “I’m getting paid an exorbitant amount to do what I love!” My father looked at me with disbelief and said, “But you’re worth it.” He couldn’t understand why I thought any amount would be too much.

He made a connection where I did not. He saw me more completely than I saw myself. A great man – in any type of relationship – affirms the women in his life as complete individuals, and stops them when they try to define themselves against other people or other standards.

That’s a different kind of strength than we normally imagine when we think of strength. It’s a lasting strength. I might be attracted to physical, emotional, and/or intellectual strength, but those things fail at some point. Bodies get sick. Emotions change depending on many factors. People make bad decisions. But an unceasing propensity for affirmation, regardless of other conditions, is a powerful gift men can give to the women in their lives.

Now I’ll come full circle: Women, you can do this, too. If a man can’t be vulnerable or intimate with his wife, he probably won’t find it from anyone else (at least, in a healthy sense). You are joined with your spouse, yes – but you are still an individual, and so is he. Strengthening each other by affirming the completeness of the other as an individual is a primary source of strength in a marriage — maybe the source of strength in a marriage.

People will always fail you, no matter how hard they try. Women, we will never experience true intimacy until the men in our lives know we are not dependent on them for our identities. Please note, I’m talking about personal identity, and not comfort, or joy, or any of the other experiences we long to share with another in our lives. I’m talking instead about men knowing if they fail, our fundamental valuing of them does not change.

Use strength to affirm each other. That means declaring the worth of the other as a human being, not as an employee, or spouse, or parent, or whatever, even though those things are important. And men, affirmation means something special coming from you versus coming from our mothers/girlfriends/sisters, although those people are important. When you affirm the women in your life, you share with them your strength in a lasting way, and you create a relationship where vulnerability is safe.

“Think less. Take action. Be authentic.”

That’s the takeaway from The Confidence Code, which I recently finished reading. I’m going to start giving this book as a graduation gift to every young woman like me — perfectionists who are good at doing school and following the rules and receiving awards for doing so.

“Think less” makes good thinkers turn their noses up in disdain. What it really means, in my opinion, is “trust your instincts.” To some extent, that comes with time, as you learn that your instincts really are pretty good. There’s been a few times that I did not trust my instincts, only to find out that I really was right.

“Take action.” We always want to weigh every factor before making a decision, but so often that leads to no decision at all. Make your decisions more quickly

“Be authentic.” Another difficult phrase. A teacher who is really laid back cannot be that sort of authentic in the classroom or all hell will break loose. There are concrete ways to convey presence and confidence, so those factors can be consciously manipulated. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In website, for example,¬† has some quality videos on the topic. Those techniques are vital to people for whom confidence presence does not come naturally.

So how can you be authentic? I think it starts with knowing your stuff and believing that others will benefit from it. During my fourth year of teaching, I had a much better handle on my subject matter, and I also therefore believed that was worth asserting in the classroom, despite the normal resistance and questioning that happens in any classroom.

The authors discovered that women can’t just “act like men” and come off confident, because it lacks authenticity. They point out the stereotypical male qualities we’re all familiar with: aggression, assertiveness, and confidence. The typical strengths of women in the workplace? Collaboration, process orientation, persuasion, and humility — qualities we either don’t notice, or don’t value. The authors cite a study showing that women who exhibit a combination of the two groups of traits tend to be the most successful.

There’s quite a bit of “nature vs. nurture” discussion in the book that I found enlightening. If a person tends genetically toward less efficient management of serotonin, e.g., they will tend to exude less confidence. But the good news is that nurture does win out over nature, and people who aren’t naturally confident can learn to be so.

Getting back to the topic of perfectionist young women, this quote was revealing for me:

…somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change and they don’t understand it. They slam into a world of work that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.

Furthermore, these young women will not volunteer for a new assignment or ask for a promotion if they aren’t 100% sure they can do it. (Wow, it’s like they KNOW me!) They also assume their bosses will see that they are doing great work and offer them a promotion. Men, on the other hand, tend to sign up if they’re 60% sure of themselves, and they are willing to ask for a promotion. (“That’s so… rude!”) Women also tend to overthink and to place too much value on others’ opinions.

Here’s the rub, though, and it’s a fact that was becoming clear to me when I started the book:

“When a man walks into a room, they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise.” For women… it’s the other way around.

That, right there, is one of the reasons I struggled so badly in my first years of teaching. It wasn’t until I started researching the issue that I even became aware of it. I had never been “intentional about presenting myself forcefully.”

So women, be intentional.¬†Trust your gut. Believe you are capable of learning anything, including confidence. Stop worrying about screwing up. If you come across too forcefully and are not authentic in an encounter, fix it and move on. Do not brood over it! Step out into those things that you’re only 60% sure of, and “fail fast,” as the new catchphrase says. As the authors point it, failure is weirdly essential to building confidence.

Think less. Take action. Be authentic. That is all.