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The 10 Pennies Rule


© 2021 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, September/October issue, 2021

Back in the early days of my career, when I was a marketing director for a hard-driving, profit-seeking hospital company, the corporation liked to issue performance-related self-help books for us to read. The gist of most of them was that if we simply learned to manage our time better, we could be twice as driven and productive. 


I think I made it through three chapters of the first book before throwing it against a wall. “I don’t need to manage my time!!!” I screamed at the crumpled book in the corner. “I need more time!!” Like the boy who sensed the emperor really didn’t have clothes on, my gut sensed a hoax. I was a focused, organized, and goal-oriented person with a strong work ethic, and I was already working 60 hours a week. My co-workers and I were all stressed and exhausted––especially the women who had families to care for, as well. But that wasn’t enough for our employer, who was pushing self-help fantasies of squeezing even more out of us through some magic combination of short-cuts, tricks and guilt over not being perfect enough.


The guilt was the worst—and most effective—part. Because even as my gut was screaming that the problem wasn’t my performance, but the expectations being put on me, my mind wavered. Maybe I wasn’t doing enough. Maybe, for all the effort and hours I was already putting in, I should be doing more, or better. The books’ authors (and my bosses) seemed to believe that if I just got more efficient, I could handle everything with time to spare. And because I, like so many women, carried a belief of not being “enough” around with me like a second skin, the tactic worked. It didn’t improve my performance. But it was effective in raising my stress level even further.


At some point, however, I decided my gut was right. You couldn’t change the laws of physics, no matter how much the performance gurus promised otherwise. Processes sometimes could be made more efficient, but the idea that we could do it all if we just upped our game enough was hogwash. There were only so many hours in a day, so much you could push a human brain and body without cost, and so many things you could do well at any given time.


It was like my mom’s dinner table rules, growing up. At the start of dinner, my mom would put a stack of 10 pennies at each of our places. For each infraction of manners or rules, we’d be fined some number of pennies. So you had to think hard about your behavioral choices, because you only got 10 pennies. You couldn’t stretch them into more. No magic tricks or short cuts. If you used up all of them, you couldn’t buy any candy. And if you went into negative numbers, there was a cost. You had to work the debt off—and even one penny’s worth of debt always translated into some undesirable task.


Actual pennies may not buy what they used to, but the principle of my mom’s system still applies. We all have 10 pennies worth of time, energy, life force and focus to spend on our days. That reservoir is not endlessly expandable. So we all have to think hard about how we allocate those resources. The more demanding the job, the more pennies it’s going to take. Children are always a multi-penny endeavor, unless you can use someone else’s pennies to care for them by having a stay-at-home partner or hiring nannies and sending the kids to boarding school. Choices need to be made. How many pennies do you need to keep to yourself to stay fit or sane? How many to care for aging parents or pursue civic or social engagements?


Our allocations can be fluid, adjusting up or down as the needs of our lives change. But if we don’t let go of the idea that we can just keep spending to fit whatever expectations others put on us, or we put on ourselves, we’re guaranteed to end up stressed, unhappy, and exhausted from being constantly overdrawn on our accounts.


How can we prevent that from happening? The first step is awareness. Awareness, first, of how we’re currently spending our pennies. Make a list, estimating how many pennies you’re spending on the various attention and time-requiring parts of your life. If the total adds up to more than 10, that’s the first problem. You need to cut back somewhere, either in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, or shift some things onto someone else’s penny budget by jobbing out some tasks.


But to address the root problem, and make those necessary cuts and adjustments without drowning in guilt over it, we also need to think about where we got those expectations in the first place. From the time we’re born, all of us are susceptible to expectations and influences about who we should be and what we should do in order to be “acceptable.” Family, friends, media, and whatever combination of cultures we grow up in all send us constant messages. Not all of those influences and messages are bad. But we can’t sort out which ones are positive and reasonable, and which ones need to be jettisoned, unless we take a step back and identify not only what our beliefs are, but also what stereotypes and myths we may have unconsciously bought into.


I don’t know, for example, where the myth of “effortless perfection,” as a Duke University sophomore termed it, came from. But I know that too many of us struggle with it; with an unconscious and ridiculous belief that if we’re not only perfect, but perfect without breaking into a sweat, we’re not good enough. Women from different racial or ethnic cultural backgrounds may not battle that particular image of perfection, but most of us struggle with some version of a belief that we should be stronger, more on top of things, and able to have it all or handle it all, just as our grandmothers did (while walking 10 miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways).


What on earth makes so many very smart women susceptible to that kind of ridiculous standard and pressure? I think it’s an even bigger myth we’ve all been media-imaged and socially pressured into believing: the idea that other women are successfully pulling off the magic trick. The idea that somewhere out there, there exist these fabulous women whose lives are perfect; who are balancing careers and families and fitness and problems with ease and grace, while we’re stumbling along with misbehaving children, mismatched clothing, and always three steps behind.


Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s a myth. The emperor has no clothes. There are no perfect women out there pulling rabbits out of a hat. Nobody has, or handles, it all. Nobody. We all do each other a grave disservice by pretending otherwise, because we fear and believe that everyone else has it more together. But they don’t. Imperfection isn’t a human flaw, it’s a human feature. Otherwise we’d all be Barbie dolls. And there is no magic trick or short cut. We all only have 10 pennies to spend.


Once you recognize and embrace that truth, it’s far easier to resist the call of the crowd to admire and emulate the Emperor’s outfit, and to make choices that work better for you. Including, I might add, skipping the Emperor’s parade altogether and spending that penny of time on something truly important that feeds your heart and brings you joy.

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