Most Likely to Succeed

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Photo: Loyd Schutte, ‘High School in the 80’s’. Shared under Creative Commons License.

One of the most fascinating things about being in my thirties is that I’m discovering what kinds of adults the people I went to school with have become. My family moved around a lot and I went to many different schools, but through Facebook, and extroverted tendencies, I’ve managed to keep in touch with several people. Some of their experiences have surprised me, particularly those of my old schoolmates Harry, Angie and Cecilia. Here are their stories. I’ve changed the names and fictionalised the details, to avoid incurring me a defriending, but the basics are true.

Harry was one of the first guys in the ‘challenger’ class for ‘gifted’ kids to get a girlfriend. They earned social status in well-behaved ‘challenger’ circles by making out at the bus stop and drinking beer, but not so much that it affected their grades. Later, Harry graduated from Law with great marks and started with a prestigious and highly competitive firm. He moved into a house with some of his male colleagues who’d also just started with the company. He once invited me to one of their parties, where Harry and his friends spent a lot of time listing which of their female colleagues had the best legs/tits/arse. He then moved to a regional office, where he worked for a female manager who talked openly about how as the acknowledged geek at high school, she’d been highly unpopular. (She would never have won that graduate boys’ prize for best legs/tits/arse.) She yelled at him in front of clients and criticised every piece of work he produced. Normally reluctant to admit to vulnerability, Harry asked for advice from his old school friends and sought help from HR. Our advice didn’t work, and HR backed his boss. Eventually, he quit his job. He now works for a smaller, less prestigious firm. He’s still angry about his earlier experiences, but he also says they’ve made him a kinder manager, because he doesn’t want to turn into his old boss.

Angie drove me a bit crazy at high school by asking me what mark I’d got on every assignment, and smugly announcing whenever she’d done better than me — which was quite often. Angie worked hard and got excellent marks. She also struggled with mental health issues. She was never popular and sometimes faced teasing by the ‘cool’ kids, but she always had a few loyal, nerdy friends. At the end of high school, when she didn’t win the dux, rather than congratulate the winner and grit her teeth, she went home crying. Shortly after graduation, she won a prestigious overseas role as a middle manager with an international development agency. She was unlucky enough to be involved with a public stuff-up in which her agency inadvertently caused several local people to be injured. As a manager, Angie was held partly responsible. The work pressure and media attention were too much. She left her job to focus on her mental health. Once this was stabilised, she took a less demanding management role back in Australia. Now, she devotes her competitive energies to running the best ever under 18s local girls’ basketball team. The girls love her — especially those who are going through tough periods — because Angie always makes the time to listen to them.

Cecilia always intrigued me, because she managed to get through one of the most brutally alpha schools I ever attended, doing well academically, and never being bullied or bullying anyone. This in itself was remarkable at our school. If you did well in class, the teachers would like you but the other kids would torment you. If you did badly, the teachers would call you stupid, but the kids would leave you alone. In Cecilia’s adult life, she continued to achieve impressive things modestly, earning a PhD and then a sought-after scientist role in an elite national institution. When she started at her workplace, the women’s toilets were being turned into offices because there weren’t enough female scientists to use them. Many of her male colleagues resented the arrival of this young, female upstart, and they didn’t bother to hide it. Yet Cecilia kept doing her job well and ignoring the critics, just as she’d brushed past the bullies in high school. She’s been there for five years now, quietly advancing the nation’s knowledge in her field, and showing future scientists that it is indeed possible to be female and do her job. She recently had her first child.

High school can be one of the most difficult experiences people go through. Surprising numbers of adults struggle to hold it together when asked about high school — or they lie and pretend it was all easy. What I’m seeing with the people I know, however, is that high school is not destiny. The smart, popular guy can lose his job. The modestly high-achieving girl can quietly smash gender barriers.

We as grown-ups have a responsibility to share this knowledge. I think this is a role for books, and for young adult writing in particular. We need to tell our own high school stories — honestly — and we need to share the perspective that comes from being out of school for twenty years (and developing wrinkles and knee problems). Yes, high school is full of bullshit, but the bullshit will pass. If you’re having fun, great — enjoy, and be nice to others. If you’re not having fun, ask for help, and try to remember that grade nine is not all you will become. Life has many more challenges and adventures along the way.

Penny Jones   

What Social Science Can Teach You About Dating


Never underestimate the importance of your internet dating profile picture.

For many years, friends have asked me for dating advice. At first, I wasn’t sure why. But eventually I realised: I had spent too many years studying the social sciences, and they wanted my evidence base.

Social science can teach us many important things — from tackling poverty to helping people to make better life choices. It also offers a lot of insights about dating. Here are four of the most useful.

1.  Grow your sample size

In the 90s, a group of men calling themselves ‘pick-up artists’ formed an international ‘seduction community’. The goal: to maximise their dating success with women. They coached each other in a series of seduction techniques — many of which were slammed as misogynistic, but continue to be promoted and taught today. Some techniques were straightforward, for instance improving the men’s self-esteem, social skills and appearance. Others were more complex, such mastering the backhanded compliment in order to gain the attention of a popular woman. Many pick-up artists reported significant numbers of conquests. Yet I suspect a large part of their ‘success’ was due to increased sample size. The pick-up artists encouraged each other to bust a move on lots of women, and not to take it personally when they said no. This increased their chances of eventually getting a yes.

2.  Recognise that humans are superficial

Dating sites can tell us a lot about our dating preferences — and it’s not always flattering. The OkTrends blog crunches the numbers from the OkCupid dating website, with some interesting results. When assessing another person’s ‘looks’ and ‘personality’ based on their profile, most people focus almost entirely on the photo, rather than the text. OkTrends therefore provides instructions on how not to be ugly by accident. In short, use a good camera, don’t use flash, emphasize the foreground, and take photos in the afternoon or at night.

3.  Know when to stop looking

Economist and politician Andrew Leigh found that people who marry in their teens are a lot more likely to split up than those who wait until at least their twenties. He attributes this to the optimal-stopping problem. Basically, nobody is a perfect match for you, but some people are definitely better than others. You need to get to know people before you know if they are right for you. Time is scarce, so it’s better to make a decision with limited information than no decision at all. In short, you need to choose a time to stop looking in order to get the best outcome, factoring in the need to allow time to gather enough information. (Leigh does acknowledge that this is not the most romantic of theories, and suggests not busting it out on the first date.)

4.  Get some perspective

Research suggests that people who are married or in stable relationships have better wellbeing than others. But relationship status isn’t the only aspect of wellbeing. So if a relationship isn’t happening for you right now, it might be smart to switch your focus to other aspects of wellbeing: exercise, eat well, spend time with friends and family, and make a positive contribution through work or volunteering.

Penny Jones   

On Travelling Alone

Charlotte Walking by Tom Kemp copy

The media and the travel industry sell us the idea that the best sort of travel is with someone else, preferably your partner. The posters in travel agencies show couples lying together on tropical beaches, or holding hands on the Great Wall of China. To an extent, they’re right — travelling with a partner is a terrific way to strengthen your relationship. It also means there’s someone to hold your bulging backpack when you go to the loo in a crowded train station in a developing country — a benefit not to be underestimated.

But there is something magical about travelling alone. Something that the travel agencies and media don’t tell us, and the security warnings try to scare us away from. The people who get closest to explaining the magic of solo travel are writers, such as Emma Ayres, whose book Cadence describes her bicycle adventure from England to Hong Kong with a violin, and Robyn Davidson, whose book Tracks tells of her travels across the Australian desert with a dog and four camels.

I came to solo travel in a slightly different way. In year twelve, I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and loved it so much I decided to travel to India. I got my opportunity a year later, when a university scholarship gave me the funds. My parents were worried that their eighteen year-old daughter was about to go schlepping around the subcontinent for three months, but now that I had the money, I couldn’t be stopped.

My first weeks in South Asia made me wonder if my parents were right. In Sri Lanka, after signing up spontaneously for some sort of alternative medicine treatment, I found myself shut up in a wooden box like a coffin with small holes at the bottom. Someone I couldn’t see started putting hot, aromatic substances under the coffin, presumably so they could be absorbed through my skin. With no language skills to figure out what was happening, I lay there and wondered if I was going to end up steamed to death in the name of a medical procedure I didn’t understand.

On my first day in Delhi, my backpack caught on the back of a rickshaw in the narrow streets of the old city. Still attached to my backpack, I found myself dragged fifteen metres down the street, through laughing and pointing crowds, before the driver realised he’d attracted an unpaying hitchhiker.

At that point, I found a payphone and rang my mum, close to tears. I was thinking about going back to Australia. But instead, I got on the first train out of Delhi. ‘Amritsar’, said the sign.

And it was on that train to Amritsar that I began to understand the beauty of solo travel. I met a group of university students who were travelling back to their home in Amritsar, and they decided I should visit them. So I spent a few days staying with a young Muslim woman at the university’s Girls Hostel. (No males allowed — not even baby brothers.) She told me about her secret relationship with a boy. They’d been in love for years, but they hadn’t even kissed, or told their families about their relationship. As I told her about my friends and our own views of relationships, I began to question aspects of my own culture that I’d taken for granted.

She was the first of many wonderful people who invited me into their lives in India. Each of them shared different perspectives on the world. A young lesbian told me how she couldn’t bring herself to explain to her parents why she kept rejecting the male suitors they brought her. An older trade unionist forced me to question the ethics of being a young, white middle class person traipsing around looking at the developing world.

I often think about many of these people, and their ideas and experiences have informed many of the decisions I’ve made about my own life and career. If I’d been travelling with another person, I doubt I’d have met them — one person is more likely to meet other people than a self-contained duo.

Later, after I’d finished university, I had my first major solo trip in Australia. Lacking the money to go overseas, and with a month to go before I started at my new graduate job, I decided to take my Mazda 121 bubble car from Canberra to Alice Springs and back. It was January and scorching, which was wonderful, because the roads were clear and I had campsites to myself, from the Grampians, to the Flinders Ranges, all the way to the West MacDonnell Ranges. I spent hours each day walking and sweating and thinking, and in my evenings I read. I had never had so long to spend inside my head, nor had I ever had the opportunity to see the Australian desert, with its red earth stretching for miles until it met the bright blue sky.

I didn’t meet so many people on this trip, but one man sticks in my mind. I was camping — alone, as usual — in the West MacDonnell Ranges, when I got caught in sudden, torrential rain. It beat down, soaking me in seconds and flooding my tent. I was taking down my tent, and trying to figure out if it would be safe to sleep in my car, when an Indigenous ranger showed up. He invited me to stay at his place. As a respectful man, aware of the strangeness of inviting an unknown woman to sleep in his house, he didn’t talk much. I went to bed early, and slept gratefully in his child’s Sesame Street-themed sheets. In the morning, he was gone, having left just a note encouraging me to eat as many eggs on toast as I needed.

I know that solo travel is more dangerous than group travel. You’re more likely to meet nasty people and get caught in threatening situations. But you also have the sorts of experiences that just aren’t possible if you’re travelling with your partner, let alone a busload of tourists. You notice things more, and you meet more people.

Now, more often than not, I travel with my partner. But I do still go off on trips of my own — admittedly with a few more safety precautions than in my younger days. I’m aware of the dangers, but I think they’re worth the risk. Solo travel has made me who I am, and it continues to introduce me to new places, people and ideas, and make me question aspects of my life and culture I’d otherwise take as given.

Penny Jones

This essay was first published on Penny Jones’ blog: 

‘An Untamed State’ by Roxane Gay – Review

cover_untamed_stateAt first, I didn’t want to review An Untamed State, the debut novel by Roxane Gay, because I found it highly disturbing. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The novel begins when Mireille, a Haitian-American woman from a privileged family, travels to Haiti and is kidnapped. Her father refuses to pay her ransom, knowing that this could herald the destruction of the fortune he’s taken a lifetime to accumulate. In retaliation, her captors — men from poorer backgrounds — lock her in a small room, torment her and repeatedly rape her. Mireille forces herself to remain strong until she is finally released. She then faces the challenge of re-learning to live her old life and coming to terms with her experience.

One of the most distressing aspects of this novel is reading the details of the violence perpetrated against Mireille. This is in contrast to an essay Gay wrote about her own experience being gang-raped, in which she simply states: ‘They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.’ In An Untamed State, Gay doesn’t spare the reader the horrific details of Mireille’s experience in captivity — the knives, the gang-rape, the cruel manipulation of her hope. Reviewers have questioned whether this detailed depiction of violence is necessary, with some suggesting it forces readers to become complicit in the brutality. Yet in my opinion readers need to understand what Mireille has gone through if they are to comprehend the strength it takes to rebuild her life. This is the focus of the second half of the novel, told largely through Mireille’s perspective as she begins the gradual journey from a ‘no one’ who is ‘already dead’, back to a mother and a wife and a daughter who can find ways of living with her past.

The novel also pushes readers to consider the extreme inequalities between rich and poor, both in Haiti and in the world as a whole. Mireille’s family live in a mansion, separated from the Haitian poor by thick walls. Her kidnappers, by contrast, live in slums where garbage covers the streets and it’s unsafe for women to walk alone. The book does not allow the kidnappers’ poverty to excuse their sadistic behaviour, yet the conversations between Mireille and her kidnappers do highlight the vastly different opportunities available to them. One of them ‘buys’ her from the other kidnappers so they will leave her for him. He tells her he watches rich women from a distance, with their elegant clothes and perfumes. ‘It’s like the shit of this place doesn’t touch you.’

For me, this book was confronting in part because I’ve been one of those ‘rich women’, working in highly disadvantaged countries including Haiti, living behind big walls and paying other people to cook my meals. I’ve read a lot of books about countries beset by extreme inequality, and few have marked me quite as much as this one. The gripping narrative, believable characters and unflinching depiction of difficult issues make this an unsettling novel, but also one that is insightful, powerful and highly relevant to the world today.

Four stars   

An Untamed State is published by Grove Atlantic.

Penny Jones

Music Festivals: Life After 22

Mark C Austin crowd surfing

Mark C Austin, shared under a Creative Commons license.

Some of my finest memories from my university days involve music festivals. I recall with great fondness queuing for hours to see Kraftwerk and Underworld at the Big Day Out in 2003. There is even a special place in my heart for the time I got dropped crowd surfing to Regurgitator, and ended up in the Emergency Ward with a suspected back injury.

Music festivals are one of the best ways to catch a wide range of musicians in a short timeframe, and discover artists you didn’t already know about. But by the time you’re in your late 20s, having beer spilled on you by girls in tiger onesies and dodging teenagers sucking each other’s faces next to the Portaloos can get a bit old. The Big Day Out’s owners have figured this out — their middle-aged fans are moving on, and younger audiences want something new, so they’ve cancelled the festival for 2015.

For those of you who still like the idea of music festivals, but don’t want to rub up against hundreds of sweaty, drunk teenagers crammed in front of a stage, the key to happiness is to choose your festivals wisely. Here are some tried and tested festivals that hold up when you’re over 22 and (more or less) sober.

  1. Folk, Rhythm & Life (5 to 7 December 2014, rural Victoria)

This is your hippie festival extraordinare, where you camp in the bush, wash in the creek and mingle with cheerful, dusty people from all over south-eastern Ausralia. The ethos is egalitarian and environmentally responsible — and the music is great. Folk, Rhythm & Life gets some moderately big names (we had Mia Dyson in 2012), but one of the best things about this festival is discovering local Australian musicians you never knew about before, and dancing barefoot until morning. A tip about this festival — it’s very popular with those who know it exists, and numbers are limited, so you need to book quickly to avoid missing out.

  1. WOMADelaide (6 to 9 March 2015, Adelaide)

A world music festival set in Adelaide’s Botanic Park, a short walk from the centre of town, WOMAD attracts a broad cross-section of music lovers. From the sweaty twenty-somethings dancing right in front of the stage to the stoned baby boomers relaxing under the trees, everyone is welcome, and everyone gets along. WOMAD also earns double points for disability accessibility, with viewing platforms for wheelchair users so they can see the stage over everyone else’s heads. And did I mention that the music is amazing? The 2015 lineup includes blues musician Bombino, hip-hop artist Neneh Cherry, Senegalese music legend Youssou N’Dour — and many others.

  1. National Folk Festival (2 to 6 April 2015, Canberra)

I go to this festival nearly every year, because I love the friendly atmosphere and the diversity of the music. You’ll find musicians from all over the world, from Sydney-based string quartets to banjo gurus from the USA. A crowd favourite at the 2014 Folk Festival was Indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach. At last year’s festival I also discovered one of my favourite musicians of 2014 — Candy Royalle, who commandeered the poetry slam, then packed out a full house to perform her spoken word poetry mixed with hip-hop inspired politics. Friends also rave about the Session Bar, where all the musicians gather after hours to jam until morning, but I have to confess I’m such a nana that I’ve never managed to stay up that late.

These three festivals are my favourites, but there are more. Elise Janes, my fellow Cringe blogger and former Big Day Out attendee, insisted that I must also include a mention of the Woodford Folk Festival. At Woodford, held on the Sunshine Coast hinterland, folk and roots musicians and other artists perform for highly diverse audiences, and Indigenous cultures are celebrated. This year’s festival will be held from 27 December to 1 January 2015. Elise also reminded me that Bluesfest is another favourite for grownups, causing an annual pilgrimage of national and international blues and roots musicians and their fans to Byron Bay. The next Bluesfest will be held from 2 to 6 April 2015.

So if your patience for wading through vomit has waned with age, don’t despair. This summer has plenty of music festivals for you.

Penny Jones   

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas — Review

BarracudaBarracuda is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Loaded.

Danny Kelly, known as Barracuda, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school, where he overcomes bullying through his drive to become ‘the strongest, the fastest, the best’. He sacrifices everything to his Olympic goals, but he doesn’t make it as a swimmer, and commits a violent crime out of anger and humiliation. As an adult, he has to overcome the shame of his past and create a life in which he can respect himself.

Barracuda simultaneously tells the story of the young, ambitious Danny, and the same character after he has ‘failed’. Tsiolkas tells a well-paced and engrossing story, populated with compelling characters — above all its flawed protagonist. The book offers reflections on a number of issues without descending into wankery or preaching.

The novel considers class issues in Australia through the clash between working-class Danny and his privileged schoolmates who make fun of his hairdresser mother. Several characters challenge the myth of an egalitarian Australia, but it is ultimately Danny’s experience at school — wearing the uniform he can’t afford to outgrow, intimidated by his classmates’ designer houses — that the book makes its most persuasive argument.

Danny’s character is also a vehicle to explore the idea of ambition. When Danny doesn’t make it as an Olympian, he realises there is only a ‘hole’ where he used to be. Gradually, he attempts to re-create himself as a decent person, who supports his family, earns his living and atones for his past. The book forces readers to consider whether our society pushes us to be great at the expense of being good.

Barracuda also offers a gorgeous meditation on the body — Danny’s fit, young body flying through the water, then losing control of itself as he faces failure and shame. It compares the sculpted bodies of Danny’s privileged schoolmates to the ‘slovenly’, ‘pear-shaped’ bodies of his family. Gradually, Danny comes to an understanding that class itself is expressed through the body.

Tsiolkas offers an insightful reflection on contemporary Australia, in an engaging novel which is possibly his best so far.

Four stars

Penny Jones