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The Real Reason to Have Perfect Hair

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I was always amazed, when writing for NBC's Style Goes Strong, at how well the hair articles did. It was tough, given the constant pressure of accruing pageviews, not to cater to the seemingly insatiable quest for tress perfection. Our jobs guru, Leslie Ayres, summed it up when she said, "I gave up thinking this would be lucrative for me when I saw that... whether we should wear bangs is more interesting to the reader than serious advice on getting a job."

I noticed the hair phenomenon everywhere: Photographer Bruce Weber remarked on its importance during his 92Y interview with Fern Mallis; the gazillion viewers for a recent YouTube how-to on wacky braids. As someone who clearly doesn't spend enough time worrying about her hair, it's baffling.

It took Marie C. Wilson, founder of Take Your Daughters & Sons to Work Day, to help me really understand what perhaps (I hope), is the underlying, unconscious impetus behind this obsession. It was at the TEDx Barnard event, where the theme "Rethinking Failure" challenged us to reframe our crash-and-burn moments. Filled with the thrill of defeat, I ran home to write about Jimmie Briggs' Failure-in-Action lesson; but it also made me want re-do my résumé to feature only the failures.

Screw this solipsistic I'm-so-great, proven-track-record stuff. What about the bleeding badges of courage? "Here's where I royally f-ed up and showed up anyway. Here's where I made a mistake and turned it around. Here's where I took lemons and made lemon sorbet" (hat tip to author Amy Ferris). Accompanying soundtrack: Elaine Stritch singing "I'm Still Here." Motto by Nietzsche.

Marie Wilson, who is now a sort of mentor-in-residence at Barnard, strode onto the TEDx stage and began talking about perfection. Ah, perfection -- that ideal women are always striving in vain to reach. Is it vanity? Probably more like self-flagellation (or preemptive measures against criticism).

Marie said she had one thing that was perfect: Her hair. She bent her head down, rubbed her hands all through her perfectly coiffed hair, vigorously messing it up. And poof, it returned to perfect with just a slight smoothing of her palm.

Oh! Enlightenment was dawning. But I called her anyway, to further clarify her points on coping with failure.

Create a Circle of Courage
Marie's first rule for following your dream, living large, stepping up, seemed to evolve from two primary sources:

• For women, the cultural ideal is still wife-and-mother, she explained. And there are big perfection issues around that. "They know so much more than we did, have to know so much more." She's observed this from her five children, two of whom are daughters. "It's overwhelming! How do they do it?" Communities on line help enormously. Community is crucial, she says.

• "Name your 5" someone said to her when she was forming The White House Project, an initiative to teach women leadership skills.

Determine who can support you in various ways: Tell you the truth, make you feel safe, root for you, advise, support, stick around, see you through.

"So much discouragement comes your way. Courage is embedded in encouragement," she pointed out. And the root? Someone else mentioned to me that coeur is heart in French. Duh!

So essentially, she is advising: Find the guardians of your heart. I suddenly recalled the startling rise in women's heart disease in recent years. As we are called to live bigger lives, guardians of our hearts are as much for our health as our hardiness.

"How do people who do any kind do pioneering work live? We have to have people who see us, and stand for us," Marie said. Sentinels of the soul, perhaps.

"Being seen is powerful," she noted. Indeed, there are all kinds of studies showing that babies and the elderly thrive much better with focused attention. Why should we who live between those two poles be any different?

Diversity counts: Assemble a group with a spectrum of age, race, class. This will give you a more comprehensive perspective on what you might come up against, and how to handle it.

Have a Daily Call: Regularly downloading what you're going through helps you let it go. Obsessing over failures keeps you stuck in them. "Get people in there who are committed to each other's lives," she adds. Building a community of courage will help you move forward much faster on your chosen path.

Internal GPS: Route Recalculation
There was a ping when Marie Wilson told me: "I have never had a job I didn't invent."

With technology driving the rapidly changing landscape, coupled with the Great Recession's impact on jobs, we all have to be Masters of Invention now.

She suggests taking a tip from GPS technology. (Personally, I love it when my GPS, whom I have named Alistair, says 'route recalculation.' He never says, "Hey, you can forget about finding this place!") What to do when you've made a mistake, a misstep... failed:
1. Do I have one thing that I can do about it?
2. Sleep is an excellent recalculator: more sleep = better recalculation.
3. Cry if you need to. (Contact your 5.)
4. It's tempting to be one of the boys, Marie cautions. Lots of women do this to be successful: imitate the way men do it. It's important not to lose who you are. (When you find this happening, route recalculate!)
She cited as an example Maine senator Susan Collins heading up the trio of women who solved the government shutdown conundrum.

"Remember: There is power is numbers," she concludes. "With one woman alone, it becomes all about hair, hemlines and husbands -- these are the primary areas of attack. When there are three or more, that stuff falls away."

A-ha! Hair again. If you haven't gleaned it by now, the real reason to have perfect hair... is to get it out of the way. You obviously have much more important things to do.
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Photo of Marie C. Wilson courtesy of TEDx Barnard Athena Center