Why You Can’t Have It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a wonderful essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It’s directed toward women, but it’s really for everyone who cares about work-life balance in his or her own life and in society as a whole. Her basic premise is that “having it all,” while possible, is predicated on a series of half-truths:

  • It’s possible if you’re just committed enough
  • It’s possible if you marry the right person
  • It’s possible if you sequence it right

To change this, we need to:

  • Change the culture of face time
  • Revalue family values
  • Redefine the arc of a successful career
  • Rediscover the pursuit of happiness
  • Enlist men

Slaughter’s essay struck me on two levels. First, the lack of women in positions of structural power does not reflect an “insufficient commitment.” Slaughter writes:

To be sure, the women who do make it to the top are highly committed to their profession. On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of them have something else in common: they are genuine superwomen. Consider the number of women recently in the top ranks in Washington—Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle—who are Rhodes Scholars. Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32. Or consider [Sheryl] Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics. These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure.

While these “superwomen” are trailblazers, we cannot view the existence of these kinds of women as a measuring stick for a more equitable society. I recently had a Facebook exchange with Tara Hunt about some of the systemic challenges that women in technology face. I referenced Janice Madden’s study of African-American coaches in the NFL and wrote:

I think the problem is that if you’re a woman in tech, you have to stand out in order to make it. We’ll know that real progress has been made when there are just as many crappy female programmers or entrepreneurs as there are male.

Second, we have to reevaluate how we define success for ourselves and for society as a whole. If success is solely about rising to the top of our professions, then the vast majority of us our failures. When did balance, happiness, and family fall out of that equation? And if they haven’t, if we all truly value those things, what kind of structural shifts do we need to make to support them?

At the beginning of the year, I blogged about Groupaya’s three goals for 2012. One of our goals is, “Space for renewal, learning, and play.” I noted:

This is my favorite goal, and it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully. When you’re action-oriented, it’s very easy to spend all of your time, well, doing stuff. But it’s not necessarily healthy nor good for business nor good for the world.

When I said, “it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully,” what I really meant was that it would be the hardest one for me.

I go out of my way to emphasize to my peers how important I think this goal is. I am constantly reminding my business partner, Kristin, never to apologize for her lack of scheduling flexibility due to her 10-year old son. (The fact that she often does speaks to the unfortunate societal mindsets around work and family to which Slaughter alludes and that we all unconsciously perpetuate.) I am constantly discouraging my colleagues from working on weekends. I go out of my way not to overallocate people’s times.

While my colleagues will credit me for all of these things, they will also (un)happily point out that I am terrible at modeling them and that it sends a very mixed message. Earlier this year, I was complaining to Kristin and my other colleague, Rebecca, about a client who was having trouble respecting boundaries. I observed how often this client emailed or called “after hours,” then admitted that it was more the symbolism than the logistics of this that bothered me, because in reality, I kept similar hours.

“You mean you both work late into the night and start work early in the morning,” responded Rebecca in exasperation. She then told Kristin about an epic email exchange that she was copied on between this client and me that had started after she had gone to bed and that had continued before she had woken up.

I have realized for some time that the sheer numbers of hours that I work along with the lack of clear start and stop times create stress for my colleagues and undermine our collective goal for space and work-life balance. On the one hand, I resent this. I’m not asking others to be like me. Why should I be punished for my persistence and commitment? Why should I hold back if I feel passionate about what I’m doing and compelled to keep doing it?

On the other hand, it’s not about either-or. It’s about finding the balance. The truth is, I’m not happy about where the balance lies for me right now. Adjusting how often and when I work won’t just help others, it will also help me.

Moreover, when I dig deeper into why I work the hours that I do, it’s not all about passion and drive and all that rah-rah stuff that I like to pat myself on the back about. There’s a dark part of me that doesn’t truly believe that we can be “successful” (whatever that means) if I don’t “work my ass off” (whatever that means).

The rational part of me understands the hidden traps of this kind of thinking. The rational part of me understands that space and balance means that I’m more creative, I’m more effective, and I’m more pleasant to be around. I know from experience that slowing down can mean going faster. I know all of these things, but I’m worried that my dark, hidden beliefs undermine my attempt to achieve balance. Even worse, I’m worried that they undermine my attempt to support my colleagues in living this balance.

Finding this balance takes work and discipline, but it also requires reexamining the structures around you. We’re experimenting with a lot of things at Groupaya right now. We have tools that help manage our information flow so that we’re not disturbed after hours. We all track our time, and I’m trying to figure out how we might reward people for working smarter, fewer hours.

It’s not easy, and we don’t have the answers yet, but it’s a necessary exploration. If your structures don’t reinforce your beliefs, then neither will your behaviors. This is true for individuals, for organizations, and for society as a whole.

One reply to “Why You Can’t Have It All”

  1. Excellent post, Eugene. Gets to the heart of the matter: Work/Life balance in America.

    First, led me applaud for encouraging a good balance in others, while at the same time having such dedication, yourself. That is a rare combination, my friend. Very, very rare.

    As for your dedication, I think it is fair to remind you that you are still very young! For 10 years out of college, I routinely worked 12 hour days. Mostly, it was because there was nothing else I would rather be doing! It was a gas. A great game.

    With advancing age, comes a need to focus on family, on community, on spiritual pursuits. And even when young, it is only natural that a "worker bee" does not share the same driven nature as the "owner'. (Taking ownership, of course, is a very good thing. Having "ownership" forced upon oneself is much less so.)

    Now then, for the social aspects. Why on earth are we working 40 hour weeks? With today's technologies, we do in an *hour* things that took a week, only a 100 years ago–from digging a trench to totaling the day's receipts. We are technologically-enhanced productivity mavens who do *far* more than our forbears ever dreamed of doing in a day.

    So why the 40-hour week? Bottom line: Money pays for both sides of every campaign. So whoever gets the seat, it is corporate money that wins the election. And corporations *like* worker bees. So even the kind of minimal workday reforms have no change. (For example, France's "35-hour" work week, with one day off every other week–so you get 25 3-day weekends in a year, in addition to other vacation time–much more than we get in the States.)

    And yet, we as a culture our *proud* that we are so "productive". Why? What on earth is so noble about working yourself all the way to your grave, so that someone else can make a fortune?

    But that is not to denigrate hard work! On the contrary. To be totally dedicated to producing something that helps humanity is a noble enterprise–when it is a matter of personal choice, when it actually does help humanity, and when the benefits can be realized.

    But that brings us to another failure of our society: With the elimination of the estate tax and other forms of millionaire welfare, we creating an "owner" class consisting of people who never have to work a day in their lives, who yet feel totally justified in demanding 60-hour weeks from their employees.

    And there is one more failure, as well! Because money controls government, there is nothing that guarantees the enterprise benefits humanity. Of course, outright robbery is banned. And things that kill people on the spot are outlawed. But it is entirely legal to sell foodstuffs that kill people slowly, debilitating them with diseases (cancer, heart disease), and then either foisting the cost off on the public, or draining their pockets with medical costs and the cost of insurance.

    In my view, government exists to embody knowledge–to exercise long-term judgement. But corporations exist for the short term. Their goal is to make money. NOW. And corporations control government. So there is no long-term oversight of their practices.

    So, back to the topic of work-life balance. How can there be a balance, when so much time is required in one's job, and the job is necessary to pay for the insurance needed to fend off the worst of the problems created by so many of those very jobs!

    It's a vicious circle that can only come to an end when an appropriate balance is achieved. And that balance can only be achieved when money is made *irrelevant* to elections. (See http://CitizensAdvisory.org)

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