The Fiction of Tough Love

I have two daughters, both teenagers now, and I love them more than all things big and small, say, the morning sun or a haiku. They fascinate me. They try things and succeed in ways that leave my expectations slack jawed. They throw themselves bravely into new endeavors. Some of these adventures they love. Others they discover they do not care for as much, and they try to finesse separating themselves from those commitments with the deft balance they believe is required to avoid parental disappointment.

Earlier this week, my fourteen year old finished Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One-Hundred Years of Solitude. (!!!!!!!!!) Now, full disclosure: I am an English professor. I possess an advanced degree composed of multiple letters of the English alphabet, but I have yet to read One-Hundred Years of Solitude! In fact, I think I have actually put the book down…twice! I am a disgrace to the profession and an insult to master translators across the globe.

Midjourney’s rendition of the title ‘One-Hundred Years of Solitude’

It was on our drive home from school that my daughter told me she had finished the book. I was thrilled! We talked about her thoughts, I listened to her words and thoughts fill the air around us. The sky was crystal blue. She brought me inside her mind still nestled in the pages of the novel. I could almost smell the paper. Then I paused to tell her something simple but essential: she should be proud. Truly proud. She had finished reading her first real work of challenging, adult, canonical, literary fiction. I told her about my finally reading Moby Dick (after a few tries) and having crossed a similar threshold. I told her I couldn’t wait to hear about what she read next, no matter what it might be.

Now, most important of all: we celebrated. I immediately deviated from the route home, headed to the famous local bakery, and got her not one, but two chocolate-chip pastries. “You deserve it, kiddo! This is a big day!” She was happy, proud, validated, and clearly thinking of her next conquest. As an aside she offered, “I will try to read it in Spanish soon, just to really get into it.” Yes, of course you will.

Now, to the title of this majestic blog post: no tough love needed. No, “okay, but can you try Gravity’s Rainbow next, then we’ll see how far you’ve really come! Then we’ll really see if you have what it takes.” I am someone who’s swallowed enough tough love in my early years to last a lifetime, and I swore long ago to never be the parent yelling at a child on a field somewhere, hammering them into some broken shape that meant “you will get this right, and you will get it right now!” As an adult, I also swore never to be that kind of teacher, manager, or boss.

For a bit of a leap in terms of transition, my workplace is big (not a lot of solitude!). I talk to and work with a lot of people. Over the past few years, someone has told me the same “tough love” story a couple of times, offering the narrative as a positive, as something that is needed for success, and as a possible explanation for how I myself might be treated. My (non) response each time, which I have bottled inside, has been the same: Your mentor sounds terrible. I bet you would have been just as successful with support and encouragement. I never say it. I know that, growing up in America, tough love is valued, even aspired to. If that is the reality, I have never been so supportive of weakness.

Here’s what I can definitively offer on the myth that is “tough love”: people who don’t respond to “tough love leadership” are not failures and are not weak; the leaders are the failures. This is a myth we should actively bury, and if it re-sprouts as a poison tree we just keep cutting it down until it never grows back. The truth is plain whether the context is work or play, night or day: we can separate high expectations from meanness. We can separate high expectations from taunts, from stoney silence. We can separate high expectations from death by a thousand indifferences. Honesty can be used as a balm rather than a stick. Goalposts can stay planted right where they are, waiting for someone’s happy arrival.

I have spent the last six years in my leadership position vowing, each and every day, to be different than the tough-love crowd. Instead of closing off space with tension, I clear space for creativity and ideas. The people in my office love coming to work, me included. We all value and depend on each other and we’ve had many great successes. And, imagine, we were able to that without having to stand out in the rain until we finally got something right. It turns our that working together and realizing our goals for years has been more satisfying than any number of years of solitude.

Oh, and did I mention that my younger daughter just finished a Marquez novel? Incredible.

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