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Why I chose left

A few weeks ago, on March 1, 2019, I wrote a seemingly innocuous post on Facebook seeking my network’s opinions regarding my most recent professional photos.Specifically, I wrote: “Time to pick my new work profile pic! What looks more “professorial” - left or right?”The two photos are reproduced below.     Little did I know that this post would generate the greatest number of non-birthday comments ever (87!). On Instagram, the same post got 25 comments. Without even realizing it, I was conducting a survey experiment.The photo on the left displayed only a hint of a smile, chin up, and head slightly tilted to the right. The one on the right had me smiling a toothy smile, chin down, and head tilted left.Otherwise, the pictures were identical, down to the arm fold, slightly unruly hair, and outfit.(The only give-away that I didn’t originally plan this as an experiment was the fact that the two pictures were cropped differently, with the one on the left more zoomed in, so that less of m…
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Facing the challenges of everyday life, Part 2

Fall of 2017: my closet is out of control.  Bursting at the seams with hardly ever-worn party dresses, jackets, and jumpsuits, it still manages to be completely devoid of options.  How is this possible, I muse, digging through the racks, laden with hangers, each carrying two or more items. Among the multitude of impulse buys and total duds, I locate that 15-year-old black jacket, two sizes too big and 20 dry cleans past its prime.  I wear it with a belt, and it looks ok.      Fast-forward one year: I no longer fall for impulse buys, and I almost never dry clean anything! Thank you, unlimited membership at Rent the Runway.   In a nutshell, I rent clothes, keep the four items I pick as long as I want to, and then return (no dry-cleaning required!).  As soon as the returns arrive back at the distribution center, I can pick my next items (conveniently "hearted" in the app).  First, this is a perfect mental replacement for shopping (hello, commitment device!).  I no longer go for …

Redefining success

I can hardly believe it: last week marked the 10-year anniversary of my becoming a faculty member at Wellesley College.Over the last decade, I’ve coached countless students through health crises, anxiety over recruiting for jobs, striking the right school-life balance, and struggling over seemingly impossible problem set questions.But no concern looms larger for Wellesley college students than their angst over grades.      Grade anxiety isn’t just a Wellesley thing, of course. Yet the extreme extent to which grades define student experience at Wellesley has always bothered me, and never more so than now. Only at Wellesley would a student show up in her professor’s office after an exam not to argue about her grade, but rather to apologize for disappointing the professor. Oftentimes that “bad” grade is a B+!  More importantly, it seems like this self-defined “bad” grade is viewed as more than just academic weakness. Students see it as a failure in life in general – a profoundly disturbin…

Saying Yes and No

Gender gaps in representation at senior levels in the workforce are widespread, especially in academia.One possible explanation is that women just find it harder to say “no” when asked to do extra ‘stuff’ that detracts from research and is undervalued at the time of promotion.Indeed, women tend to perform more service than male faculty. Studies show that women also on average spend more time on teaching-related activities and advising students, while men spend more time on research.A clever experiment reveals that women are twice as likely as men to volunteer for tasks that are deemed by all as undesirable yet benefit of the group as a whole (service and advising are commonly thought of in academia as examples of these so-called ‘non-promotable’ tasks).

It is true that a typical academic derives little to no pleasure from administrative work or from interacting with students. In fact, at many research-oriented institutions putting effort into teaching is discouraged.Once, when I was a …

Facing the challenges of everyday life, Part 1

In about two weeks, a new cohort of college graduates will don their caps and gowns and receive their college diplomas.The speakers on the podium will undoubtedly talk about their accomplishments: the knowledge gained, the awards and accolades attained, and the life-changing experiences had. The speakers will also talk about the big challenges these graduates might face as they enter the world beyond the safety of their Alma Mater: issues like climate change, mass shootings, discrimination, and geopolitical tensions around the world.I will sit among my faculty colleagues, as proud of my students as can be, all the while thinking about the small challenges.    Small challenges of everyday life can loom larger and take up more energy and time than you anticipate as a college student.  If banks are only open 9-4PM and you have to work 9-5, when do you go? (Set up online banking ASAP.)  Same goes for any doctor’s appointment.  Even if you don’t have to fix the kitchen sink or the AC b…

How to NOT have it all (Confessions of a recovering choir junkie)

Little else delivers quite that same sense of belonging as choral singing. You literally hear yourself “fitting in” – one line of harmony within a larger whole.  Choral performance is a team effort, each person relying on others but also contributing individually.  In that sense, it’s like a team sport which I never got to experience because I moved to the US in high school, long after the age of little league and much too late for breaking into that world. 


     The feeling of abandon is also extremely appealing for people like me (yup, control freaks, type A, you name it). When it’s right, there are goosebumps, and weightlessness, and effortless energy. The right moment doesn’t come often because someone (probably me) would make a mistake and the magic would be broken. But once you experience the perfection of a true “choir moment”, you seek opportunities to recreate it.  Some of it is actually biology.  First, there is adrenalin of the performance itself. Second, there are endor…

On the importance of setting expectations

The winter holidays are almost here, and the sense of excitement is in the air.  Even if you don’t celebrate anything in particular, you can look forward to the vacation week between Dec. 25th and Jan. 2nd forced upon us by office closings and our kids’ school break.  During this time, we tend to expect magic to happen: a wonderful family celebration, or perhaps that special present we have been dropping hints about.  We anticipate that everything will be just how we imagine it, but does reality match this expectation? Not usually...
   As humans, we are built to anticipate the future. In fact, forecasting and scenario analysis is what has kept us alive in an evolutionary sense, like: “If I leave food lying around in my cave, will a bear stumble into it and wreak havoc?” Yet, as Daniel Gilbert explains in his brilliant book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” humans tend to be terrible judges of what will make us happy. I won’t give away Gilbert’s punchline; only that he blames our “wild” …