What’s Wrong With Our Girls?

America is facing a pandemic unrelated to COVID. It is a mental health crisis. 40 percent of incoming freshmen at our elite universities are already on anti-depressants. Depressed and alienated young men are increasingly eschewing college, marriage, and gainful employment in favor of living in their parent’s basements smoking weed, watching porn, playing video games, and all too often either killing themselves or others. It is the rare high or middle school these days that does not have a suicide help line.

Recently the CDC reported that 57 percent of teen girls report being “constantly sad,” and 30 percent have “seriously considered suicide.” So, what’s going so wrong for our girls? 

Of course, the “experts” and mainstream media continually round up the usual suspect: social media. But while social media may be a contributing factor, it was back in the late 1990’s – long before social media— when I was mentoring university students, that I began seeing more and more anxious and depressed young women “self-medicating” through anorexia, bulimia, cutting themselves, burning themselves with cigarettes, and obsessively compulsively pulling out their hair. 

Here are a few alternate causes for this crisis among girls. Causes never seriously considered by the academic and political elites in our culture.

  1. Divorce. Divorce is traumatic for boys and girls. But girls often blame themselves: “If I was just a better little girl Daddy would have loved me and he wouldn’t have left.”
  2. Sex. Kids are being sexualized at younger and younger ages and girls who get into sex too young and with too many partners end up feeling used and devalued. The result is depression and a serious blow to their self-esteem.
  3. Absent Fathers. Whether through divorce or illegitimacy, many girls lose that strong male father figure to show them what to look for in men and to make them feel safe and protected. Often this trauma is compounded by the pain and confusion engendered when their mothers invite a series of boyfriends into their home.  
  4. Missing Mothers. We now take it for granted that mothers working outside the home and the “latch key kids” this generates is economically necessary and completely harmless to children. Perhaps it is not. Maybe boys and especially girls need their mother to be available when they need her, not merely when she comes home dead tired from work toting yet another pizza for a late supper.
  5.  Lack of Spirituality. With the decline of organized religion and the triumph of materialism, young girls are being increasingly deprived of the transcendent meaning and higher purpose that is essential to their well-being. As Carl Jung said, “Whether God exists is a legitimate question. That man needs a God is an incontrovertible fact.”
  6. Marijuana smoking. Marijuana is NOT a harmless drug, and it is increasingly associated with mental illness. We’ve spent 50 years stigmatizing cigarette smoking just in time to legitimize pot smoking.
  7.   Missing Road Map. Down through history, every society created a road map for their young called “rites of passage.” These road maps guided young boys and girls through the tangled twists and turns of adolescence on their journey to adulthood. Every society outlined in great detail what society expected from women and what they could expect and rely on in turn. In the last fifty years we have “deconstructed” these roadmaps leaving our young people to “figure it all out for yourself.” Girls are struggling to come of age in a society where even a female supreme court justice claims she does not know what the definition of a woman is. Is it any wonder so many young girls seem confused and depressed?
  8. The Feminist Ideal. Often the feminist ideal for women is nothing more than a “me too” replica of a masculine model. Not long ago, if you asked adolescent girls what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would almost universally say: “To be a wife and mother.” 

That model has been hunted to extinction. No girl in her right mind would admit to such a “demeaning” goal today. Today’s young girl is expected to grow into an assertive, driven, sharp elbowed, rugged individualist who always takes the lead, stands on her own two feet, eschews anything smacking of “dependence on a man,” and evaluates herself strictly by how much money she makes and how far she rises on the corporate ladder.   

What if this masculine model isn’t what many girls really want? What if family, relationships, community, romantic love, and motherhood are a lot more important to millions of girls than they feel comfortable admitting —even to themselves? We now teach girls these longings are a sign of weakness and source of dependency. What if many young women feel like square pegs being forced into round holes originally bored for men? Worse, they feel guilty and blame themselves for even having these outmoded and “unacceptable” feelings.

*     *     *

It is unclear whether any of these factors are playing into the sorry situation among young girls. And if so, how much. But it is deeply problematic that our culture is so utterly invested in new orthodoxies for women and girls that few would dare raise these issues, let alone fund the research necessary to examine them objectively.  It is so much easier to keep beating up social media than consider issues that would take soul searching, serious thinking, and momentous remedial measures to overcome.

AUGUST TURAK is a successful corporate executive, entrepreneur, award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. He is the founder of the educational nonprofit the August Turak Foundation. Turak writes and raises cattle on his seventy-five-acre cattle farm near Raleigh, NC.

The Red-Hot Heart of Leadership

The one key trait that all leaders share is their absolute commitment to what they are doing, why they are doing it, and to the people helping them get there.

In 1985 I became the vice president of marketing for a privately held, family run, cable television operator that owned 20 cable systems across several states.  Anxious to drive revenue, I put together a crack crew of “door busters;” door to door salesmen with names like Paul “The Hammer” Rotstein and Joe “Closin’ Joe” Scalise. These guys cut their teeth selling baby pictures door to door, and to a man they had that ineffable capacity to, as they liked to put it, “leave the women crying and the men signing checks.”  These guys were so good that I was afraid to take their calls for fear they’d leave me crying as I doubled their commissions.

I instituted a bonus system and watched with fascination as these “closers” competed for the highest bonus and the distinction of being the number one salesman. Then one week a mysterious name appeared at the top of the list: Claire Froehly. At first, I considered it an anomaly, but Claire continued to top the charts week after week.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Claire was not just consistently beating Closin’ Joe, The Hammer, and their equally colorful brethren, she was murdering them.  Doing what sales management inevitably does I continually raised the bonus bar, but no matter how high it got Claire consistently blew through it.

I flew into Pittsburgh just to meet this wonder woman. I can’t exactly say what I was expecting, but it certainly was not the person I met. Claire was a 21-year-old girl; a high school educated former waitress working her first “real job.”  Petite and a bit shy, as we chatted the only thing that struck me as extraordinary about her was that there didn’t seem to be a darn thing extraordinary about her. 

Finally, I asked the question I’d flown in to ask: What was the secret to her amazing numbers? Why was she beating dozens of guys twice her age with a million times her experience?

“It’s my card,” she said.

Reaching for her handbag she fished out a well creased index card and handed it to me. There in all caps was written, “I WILL BUY MY DREAM HOUSE IN THREE YEARS WITH CASH.”

By the time I handed it back her shy young girl persona had utterly disappeared.

“Just before I knock on a door, I look at my card,” she said her eyes flashing.  “When I’m rejected and depressed, I read my card.  When I’m dead tired and the other reps have quit for the day, I just pull out my card and keep going.  I’ll work Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, it doesn’t matter. And just so you know,” she finished fiercely, “it doesn’t matter how high you make the bonus, my name will be on the check.”

Three years later Claire invited me to the lovely new house she bought with the cash she made bustin’ doors.  We stayed in touch for several years after that, and the last I heard she was the regional vice president of sales for a Fortune 500 company at the ripe old age of 29….

*       *      *

I got my start selling 3M copy machines in Boston in 1975.  One day my boss, Kevin Moriarty, handed me a sheet of paper that contained “everything you need to know about being successful.”  I lost my sales trophies long ago, but I’ve held on to that piece of paper with its quote from W.H Murray just as fiercely as Claire Froehly held on to her battered index card.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.  All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings, and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way…”

There are many traits that mark great leadership, but all great leaders share an absolute commitment to what they are doing, why they are doing it, and to the people that are helping them get there.  It was not the words scrawled on an index card that were the secret to Claire’s success. It was her commitment to those words: her willingness to put her back against the wall, stick out her neck, go all in, and put everything on the line. While most of us live in the comforting and comfortable world of both/and, for Claire there was only the scorched earth of either/or.  

Commitment has become unfashionable.  Marriage without a “pre-nup” is the height of folly, and it is the rare women’s magazine that doesn’t have at least one article dedicated to “commitment phobia” among men. One wag recently opined that it is now easier to get out of your marriage than it is to get out of your car payment. We all want an “exit plan,” a “plan B,” a “fallback position,” and “options.”  We are all going to get rich while keeping our day jobs and “hedging your bets” is the new definition of prudence.  A colleague summed it up, “I never make a commitment I can’t get out of. I never want a problem so big I can’t run away from it.”

But while there are times to hedge and times to compassionately let others off the hook, commitment phobia destroys the magic that Murray so eloquently describes.  A life of both/and robs us of the creative fire that only a total commitment can elicit.  Maximum motivation arises from the pull of inspiration and the push of desperation, and when we constantly hedge, we short circuit the push that only a back against the wall mentality can produce. Samuel Johnson said that the knowledge of one’s imminent execution wonderfully focuses the mind, and the same is true for commitment.

Continual hedging damns us to a life of one foot on the gas and another on the brake, and when our marriage, business or project fails we never know whether we were wise to hedge or whether we failed because we hedged. In stock market investing there is a term called a Mongolian Hedge. A Mongolian Hedge describes a position that is so well hedged that the investor can neither make nor lose money.  Money trapped in a Mongolian Hedge is “dead money,” and all too often that is where we find ourselves in life.  What looked like the smart hedge and safe bet devolves into that spiritually dead existence so aptly described as a “rut.”

We all long to know just how it would feel to be utterly committed to something worth doing.  We long to know what it would be like to find ourselves in a situation that calls forth or better said, demands everything that is best in us. Something that awakens all that sleeping potential we all know is there. It is not the failure to succeed that produces despair.  It is the failure to try. Failure is living your entire life without ever finding anything worth committing your heart and soul to regardless of how it may turn out.  Failure is never experiencing that feeling of self-transcendence that only takes place when we are finally “all in.”

But success in business and life is not the most important benefit that commitment bestows.  Woven between the lines of Murray’s quote is a spiritual message. He speaks of “providence” and “magic:” something almost supernatural that the religiously inclined might call grace coming to our aid. 

Murray touches on this supernatural theme yet again at the end of his piece on commitment, “I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.’”

I sincerely doubt that Claire Froehly had ever heard of Murray let alone Goethe, but that didn’t stop her from making their magical lesson her own and providing me with an inspirational example I will never forget…

AUGUST TURAK is a successful corporate executive, entrepreneur, award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. He is the founder of the educational nonprofit the August Turak Foundation. Turak writes and raises cattle on his seventy-five-acre cattle farm near Raleigh, NC.

What Every Leader Must Know About Personal Development

Man is a mystery. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out do not say that you’ve wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Columbia Business School recently published my book Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity. This has led to a number of interviews that I’ve generally enjoyed very much. However there is one recurring question I find difficult to answer: “What do you do for personal development?”

The reason I find this question so difficult is that it assumes that personal development is something we do in order to get “success.” And by success we usually mean having a successful career. It rarely occurs to anyone in our culture that someone (a Trappist monk for example) might become an artist, entrepreneur, leader, or politician as a means to personal development and not the other way around.

As a result “personal development” is compartmentalized; it becomes something we do off the clock and in our spare time in order to “get ahead” in the “real world.” Slowly and unwittingly we become like the real estate agent who religiously accompanies his family to church only because being perceived as a family oriented, God fearing man is “good for business.”

This entire world view tragically puts the proverbial cart before the horse. Whether you call it personal development, personal growth, self-actualization, self-transcendence, or spirituality does not matter. What matters is realizing that the reason you were born is to become the best human being you can possibly be. Personal development is not a tool for reaching a bigger goal. Becoming a complete human being is already the biggest and most noble goal you can aspire to.

Ironically, my entire book is an argument for making personal development the central mission of our lives rather than merely the means to a more limited end—a fact that makes answering a question from a bright, well- intentioned interviewer who apparently missed this argument even more difficult to answer.

Trappist monks have been among the world’s most successful businessmen for over 1000 years precisely because they dedicate their entire lives to personal development. Being on time for work, for example, is not just part of a monk’s “job description.” It is a way to build self-discipline; a way to show the same compassion to customers and fellow monks that he prays God will show to him. In other words being on time is not a result of a monk’s personal development it is a form of personal development.

The secret to the amazing business success of Trappist monks is not that they have managed to establish the mythical “healthy balance” between their personal and professional lives. The secret is that their personal, organizational, and business lives are all subsets of their one, high, overarching mission- becoming the best human beings they can possibly be. Business success for the monks is merely the by-product and trailing indicator of living for a higher purpose. Trappist business success is living proof that when we seek first the kingdom of personal development everything else will take care of itself. And this is true of our personal lives as well.

So back to the question: What do I do for personal development? On one hand I don’t do anything for personal development. Like the monks I simply live my life. Yet on the other hand I’ve built my whole life around personal development, and it remains to this day the only thing I truly care about. It is just that pursuing personal development has become so habitual that I never think about it. In this sense everything I do is filtered through the screen of personal development.

Throughout my career, for example, I sought out companies, bosses, challenges, and mentors that would help me grow. I did so even if it meant baffling friends and family as I repeatedly seemed to trade the lucrative “safe bet” and “sure thing” for an opportunity to learn and grow. Similarly, I’ve spent many years cultivating people like the monks of Mepkin Abbey who continually inspire and challenge me to become a better human being. When in 1993 I decided to become an entrepreneur I did so because I felt that the pressures of entrepreneurship would provide a perfect incubator for personal development; a way to put myself and my principles to the ultimate test. When seven years later my partners and I sold the company we started on a shoe string in a shoe box of an office, it was not the money or prestige that mattered most but what we had learned and who we had become.

*  *  *

“Man is a mystery….” I have moved many times over the years, but Dostoevsky’s quote has graced the door of every refrigerator I have ever owned or rented since college. Dostoevsky penned those lines in a letter to his brother when he was just 17, and every time I read it I marvel that it was written by a boy so young. But what I love most is that this boy, destined to become one of mankind’s greatest writers, never mentions a job, a career, a profession, or material gain. A few years later he would achieve overnight success with his first novel Poor Folk, but he doesn’t even mention any aspiration to become a writer. Instead all he wants from life in exchange for a lifetime of labor is “to be a man.” Like a good Trappist monk, Dostoevsky didn’t see personal development as a way to become a great writer, but writing as a way to pursue personal development. And if we want authentic rather than ersatz success in life we must do the same. 

*Photo Credit: “Self-Made Man” by Bobbie Carlyle at Quent Cordair Fine Art

AUGUST TURAK is a successful corporate executive, entrepreneur, award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. He is the founder of the educational nonprofit the August Turak Foundation. Turak writes and raises cattle on his seventy-five-acre cattle farm near Raleigh, NC.