Can we have it all?

Can we have it all?  That question rings so deeply for those of us trying to pursue career, family, and personal wellness all at the same time.  The ever-elusive concept of work-life balance is one of the most salient issues of our time, for dual-career households raising kids.  It is a constant challenge in my own life and one that I take very seriously.

Perhaps the most famous statement on this topic came from Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her manifesto and most widely-read The Atlantic article ever, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  (Followed up by her superb book: Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family)  She writes about her struggles with raising two teenage boys while simultaneously pursuing the highest echelons of public service in the White House.  She wrote:

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.

To me, asking whether we can “have it all” is the wrong way to think about life.  Of course we can’t have-it-all, all-the-time, whenever-we-want.  Life is about trade-offs and choices.  Pursuing extreme success in one dimension necessarily comes at the expense of other dimensions.  Pushing career too hard comes at the expense of family or friends.  Prioritizing family too highly may come at the expense of a desired career trajectory.

Trust me, I get it.  I’m a type-A super-succeeder who wants (or at least, has wanted) to be the best at everything.  I had a 4.0 GPA in college, full of A’s and A+’s — you can’t get those kind of grades without caring and sacrificing, ultimately, for the perfection and grades themselves (oh sure, the pursuit of learning matters, but by itself it’s not enough).  So when I see people outworking me at the office or making more money than I am because they don’t have the same home responsibilities I have, it is frustrating.  By my late 20s, I realized that to be the best at any single dimension, you have to over-sacrifice on other dimensions.  Career success truly is a pyramid where you not only have to have the ability, but you have to out-work everybody else to make it to the top.  Not my idea of fun, but the cold reality.

And that’s okay.  People who sacrifice other dimensions of their lives to make it to the top, well, should be at the top.  The problem, it seems, is when those people at the top impose their single-dimensional preferences on the rest of us.  We can’t all work 80+ hour weeks (nor do we want to!).  It’s true, we aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice.  “Having it all” shouldn’t mean being the best in every category — successful career, best dad, super fit, has hobbies and friends — having it all should mean having adequate success in each area, in other words, having balance.

I’ve been enjoying reading The Atlantic articles on work-life balance today, all with provocative titles:

To me, the bottom line is this: you can’t expect to be #1 and have work-life balance.  And it’s okay to choose between them or enjoy partial success at each!  I fully recognize that I’m not the best employee or the best dad or the best sibling or the best friend or the best husband or the best piano player.  But, all things considered, I’m pretty good at all of them and, importantly, I’m satisfied with my performance in each.  I’ve been in a darker place where I have felt inadequate at each one — feeling overwhelmed at work as well as home — but ultimately have learned to focus on our gifts rather than our shortcomings.

I’ve heard somewhere that there are five areas to succeed: (1) career, (2) family, (3) health, (4) friends, (5) sleep — now pick 3, because that’s your limit.  Picking five, it seems, makes it impossible to succeed at any of them.  But why can’t we seek balance across all of them?  We may not be the best at any single dimension.  After all, could I be a better father and husband?  Sure, if I were willing to give up my career or health.  But would that be a smart choice?  Not for me, at least not at this point in my life.

I think it’s important also to think about balance over the life cycle.  Some years will have little sleep (e.g., child rearing), others may have less time for family while we follow other pursuits (e.g., the adventures of our early 20s).  But our life can ebb and flow and put different emphasis at different times.  Will we make it to the top in ever dimension?  That’s an unrealistic goal and one that can drive us crazy if we strive for it.  But will we peak on various dimensions over time in a way that makes us fulfilled?  We can, if we do it right.

In a super-duper Ted Talk (one of my all-time favorites), Nigel Marsh argues that we need to think about balance over a longer time scale, with our focus varying over time:

The third observation is we have to be careful with the time frame that we choose upon which to judge our balance… We need to be realistic. You can’t do it all in one day. We need to elongate the time frame upon which we judge the balance in our life, but we need to elongate it without falling into the trap of the “I’ll have a life when I retire, when my kids have left home, when my wife has divorced me, my health is failing, I’ve got no mates or interests left.” A day is too short; “after I retire” is too long. There’s got to be a middle way.

Now my point is the small things matter. Being more balanced doesn’t mean dramatic upheaval in your life. With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life. Moreover, I think, it can transform society. Because if enough people do it, we can change society’s definition of success away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins, to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well lived looks like. And that, I think, is an idea worth spreading.

I’m all for work-life balance.  Some people describe it as the wrong objective, but I disagree.  We want fulfilling careers (not necessarily the best careers, but good careers), happy families (not necessarily the best families, but good families), and to pursue health, hobbies, and friends as best we can with the little time we have left.  Don’t strive for having it all, strive for thriving — or being good enough — in multiple areas of your life.

Perhaps Annie-Marie Slaughter herself summed it up best (or good enough?!), at the end of her Atlantic article, by diverting the conversation away from having it all.  Instead of focusing on having it all, she focuses on creating healthy, happy, productive lives.  She wrote:

We’ll create a better society in the process, for all women. We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.

In other words: having-it-all set aside, let’s support human thriving.  I couldn’t agree more.

— Thriving Dad

Referenced books:

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