If I have a spirit animal, I’m pretty sure it’s Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Decidedly single, Mary moves to a big city, overcomes fear and trepidation to forge a bold career, and is the woman every girl either wants to become or befriend. For its time (it debuted in 1970), the show was groundbreaking. Today, relocation, reinvention, or “pivoting” is common, yet still remarkable, enviable, and inspirational when done with aplomb.
Like most kids in the ’70s, I was raised on TV, canned foods, and second-hand smoke. I also survived a largely “free-range” childhood. Being scrappy, street smart, and resilient are great traits, but let’s face it, they’re the same credentials shared by most organized crime mobsters. Without having found positive role models, there’s a strong possibility I could have emerged a mob mistress instead of a design boss. Lacking real-life role-models, I looked to television for clues as to what my options for adulthood might be.
1970’s television offered an oddball assortment of female role models. Mine ran the gamut from gritty to glam and consisted of a witch, a genie, housewives of varying ethnicities and economic backgrounds, a “dingbat”, crime-fighting sex symbols, a ditzy blonde roommate, an Amazon princess with bullet-deflecting bracelets, a combat nurse with “hot lips”, and a couple of career girls hesitantly tossed in by TV networks. Sound familiar?
Networks took a risk on shows like That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show because they didn’t think anyone was interested in watching intelligent, single, working women on TV. They were wrong. Feminist-era America was indeed ready for smart, sexy, sassy women, and apparently, so was I. Outwardly, I was a shy, soft-spoken, wisp of a girl, but there was a shit-ton happening beneath the surface, and I willed myself into becoming “something”. I mean, that’s what parents would say back in the day as they somewhat unceremoniously ushered you out the door at eighteen: “Go make something of yourself!”
A little specificity would have helped, or perhaps it was the lack of specificity which made me feel anything was possible. How hard could it be? “Something” is a fairly low bar. I set about inventing a life from nothing (an even lower bar). To me, “Something” meant getting the hell out of Dodge, and designing a career and a glamorous life.
Necessity really is the mother of invention (and creativity!). Since leaving “Dodge”, I’ve reinvented myself many times over, and the more I’ve done it, the less scary and more doable it is. I’d argue that a good do-or-die situation is often the moment when the magic happens. The moment that a perceived disappointment, roadblock, challenge, or setback is presented is frequently the catalyst for creativity. Not to go off-topic, but well-meaning parents who cuddle, coddle, protect, entitle, and enable their offspring are robbing them of the chance to recognize, accept, and overcome challenges, and experience real triumph and a sense of accomplishment. A challenge – even a minor one – leaves these candy-asses shitting in their pampered panties.
Nothing is as satisfying and rewarding as overcoming challenges, and successful problem-solving. I also know that it seems exciting when you’re twenty-something, and full of spit and vinegar, but forging a new path can be daunting if you have to reinvent yourself in middle age. However, it’s not impossible and, with the right mindset, can be fun. Never before have so many people at the same time found themselves in this very position because of COVID.
While we’re addressing reinvention, can I address the word pivot for a moment? It’s a stupid word – don’t use it. It’s the jazzy, little buzzword employed to make a defensive tactic seem like an offensive one, literally like tripping over your own two feet, falling down a set of stairs, ending up in the emergency room with a broken collarbone, and saying, “Yeah, I meant to do that.” Pivot is used so that instead of sounding like the dumbass you probably are, you try and make yourself sound all business-savvy. You’re not fooling anyone, dumbass.
My advice? First, (if applicable) admit you’re a dumbass (it’s more fun, and people will like you better). Second, if tempted to use the word pivot, replace it with a pirouette (less pretentious, more whimsical, less pressure) and think Mary Richards in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as she spins around and tosses up her hat with “You’re Going to Make It After All” playing in your head. Third, lose the ego and do the hard work. You may not become famous or a millionaire, but you will be quietly happy. You will stay curious, engaged, and satisfied. Your successes, big and small, will all feel big in your heart, and in the hearts of those who love you and are rooting for you.
2020 threw us for a loop. As a result of the pandemic, economic crisis, and political divisiveness, you may feel like you’re lying at the bottom of the stairs with a broken collarbone. My hope is that we find ways to lift one another up through encouragement, sharing our struggles, acts of kindness, or simply being there. Women, we only need to look inside ourselves for the strength needed for change. Collectively, this is not the first time we’ve been here. Maya Angelou said that when faced with a challenging situation, she’d walk into it bolstered by the idea that her ancestors walked with her (metaphorically speaking). This concept resonates deeply for someone like me who perhaps, in real life, doesn’t have many shoulders to stand on. I can still stand on the shoulders of both the historical and fictional characters who’ve inspired me.
(Accompanying video & photos by Ron Stewart of Seidl Stewart Video Productions)