Leading Our Own Lives First: Ageless Lessons from Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing A Life

March 31, 2012 0 Comments

Originally published in Color Magazine, March/April 2012

At least once per year I read Mary Catherine Bateson’s incredible book, Composing A Life, and I learn something new each time. First published in 1989, it explores the life paths of four different women—all friends and colleagues of Bateson’s—who have enjoyed both a rewarding professional/creative life as well as a fulfilling personal life. I mention the book because it offers insights and lessons just as relevant today as they must have been 20 years ago. And the women Bateson profiled for the book didn’t stumble across such rich, balanced lives by chance; each woman chose to live her life with deep intention, responding creatively to those challenges she inevitably faced.

A writer, cultural anthropologist, wife, and mother herself, Bateson was interested in the decisions women make in balancing multiple commitments over time as well as the recurring themes that only become visible in a person’s life over time. She was equally interested I think in how creative people, no matter their gender, go about crafting careers that support lifelong learning and inquiry—a subject near and dear to my own heart.

I return to this book again and again—and speak about it in connection with women’s history and women’s leadership now—because as Marie Wilson of The White House Project says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” (Wilson and others explore this idea further in the fantastic documentary on women in the media, Miss Representation.) And in Composing A Life, Bateson shows women of all ages what it looks like to live and work with a steady degree of mindfulness and courage, respecting one’s own desire for meaningful work right up alongside one’s desire for love, and in many cases, family and children. Bateson shows us what it looks like to honor our own independence within all the places we create community and care for others in our lives.

These stories are important because when I think about how desperately the world needs women leaders right now, I want to remind myself and others that leadership can and must look like many different things. Most of us think of leadership as something positive, yes, but also something loud and highly visible most of the time. Sometimes it is and should be… Leadership often means running for office or assuming a position of power and influence; it can mean founding or leading an innovative organization or business. But just as often, and perhaps first and foremost, real leadership means making good choices for ourselves, big or small, on a daily basis and over time about how we live in the world. Choices that we can believe in, that feel authentic and true for us as women and creative people; choices that often go against the grain and feel difficult; and choices that as much as possible, sustain us individually as we seek to do good work in the world.

When I think of my own goals and the goals so many of my women friends and colleagues have for themselves, I remind myself of Bateson’s wisdom on the subject of achievement. She warns us—and this is especially helpful for young women—that “goals too clearly defined can become blinkers,” and encourages women to worry less about continuity or ‘success’ and focus more on the creative potential of where we find energy in our lives. With very real project deadlines and financial needs before us, this is much easier said than done. Nonetheless, these are timeless lessons for us all, and particularly useful ideas when we find ourselves at a professional or creative crossroads or when we forget about our own well-being somewhere in the midst of a busy work life.

Every so often I meet with a few women friends and colleagues for a pot luck gathering we call the women’s social entrepreneurship circle. We don’t meet as often as we originally planned, but when we do meet, we share ideas and stories, laugh, and leave feeling energized. We’re meeting next week, and for me, I know I’ll be bringing Bateson-inspired questions into the conversation. Where do I feel creative potential in my life? How can I support myself in “composing” the kind of life I wish to lead, and how can I support others in doing so? These are questions worth exploring during women’s history month or any time of the year, with our women friends and with men. More than 20 years later, Bateson’s book continues to be an remarkable gift to women leaders.


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