Having it All...Fact, Fiction, or Fantasy

Dana Brownlee

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Having it "All"...Fact, Fiction, or Fantasy

In my 20s and early 30s it seemed that lunch with my girlfriend's resembled a scene from Sex and the City - nonstop analysis and au pining about the pursuit of Mr. Right. Now in my early 40s, it's amazing how much the conversation has shifted although everyone seems to have the same struggle - how to manage the nonstop juggling act of career, family, personal goals...indeed the discussion inevitably turns to the question of "Can we really have it all???" It seems to be the lingering question in the back of everyone's mind 24/7 like a persistent nagging migraine and recent insights from the likes of Marisa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anne Marie Slaughter have made the question that much more pressing. For me, I've come to the conclusion that the answer lies really in questioning the question. "Why do we want to have it all in the first place?"

I can't help but think that having it "all" may be a very American concept. I was struck years ago by a documentary about an Asian fishing village that had somehow retained an amazingly simplistic (some would say primitive) culture. Within this culture they explained that the language had no translation for the word "want" because within their culture there was no concept of "want". They said that you either "have" or "don't have", but you don't "want". I was blown away!!! My immediate thought was that in many ways we've built an entire society based on the concept of want! We either want money, things, affection, achievements, successes...the list goes on and on. I think that this cultural distinction is so important when we consider this age old question of can you really have it "all"? In my mind the answer lies in how you define "all". In my case I could say that I have it "all" if I were PTA President, managing a successful training company, happily married and constantly attending to my relationship, actively mothering two preschoolers, lunching with new clients constantly, mentoring at my alma mater business school, vacationing regularly with my family, having drinks with friends after work, training for/running half marathons to stay in shape, and reading Harvard Business Review and the Economist in my spare time J But, is that even close to realistic? I don't think so. Indeed, I question whether "all" should even be the goal. I think that the best analogy is an all you can eat buffet. Instead of going in with the goal of eating "all" 78 items on the buffet, doesn't it make a lot more sense to pick the 6 items that you're most excited about and truly enjoy those? I call this mental shift "satisfaction with plenty". Indeed, I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we define "success" or "our all" as an insane list of roles, jobs, responsibilities that we can never prioritize simultaneously. Somehow, I suspect that in other cultures, they indeed feel that they have it all. Their "all" is just much less...actually doable

Accepting this "satisfaction with plenty" (instead of "having it all") approach does require sacrifice which means that we'll have to let go of what we thought we'd be doing. In my case I always envisioned myself as someone reading scholarly journals before bed and continuing to run a half marathon every year after I ran my first several years ago, but the reality is that after the birth of my second child (after 40), my absolute favorite hobby was sleep - no periodical could compete with that and my bucket list half marathon goal had been checked and sporadic Pilates classes have been perfectly satisfying since then.

Instead of embracing conscious sacrifice, I find that we often continue to try to fit a square peg into a round hole and scratch our heads wondering why it won't work. This reminds me of an article that I read years ago that left an indelible mark on my psyche and my overall perspective on life. It purported that our culture often breeds a state of low level depression because our expectations of a continuous state of happiness are completely unrealistic. In fact, the article explained that it's much more natural human nature to feel random fluctuation of highs and lows. The implication was that normal psychological state is not a state of euphoria but midway between sadness and happiness. The powerful takeaway for me was that it's unrealistic and indeed inviting disappointment to expect happiness daily - ironically, recalibrating expectations (down) results in less stress and more contentment. Similarly, with our day to day responsibilities, we set ourselves up for perpetual frustration and disappointment by striving for unrealistic goals.

Interestingly, in several of my training classes when I'm teaching techniques for decision making and/or prioritizing, I sometimes suggest a technique called "paired comparison". The concept behind the technique is that sometimes traditional rating of options won't work because we're tempted to rate everything as "high" or "important" which means there's no clear distinction of what's truly highest priority. Paired comparison forces one to identify preferred options by comparing and selecting each option against every other (e.g. chocolate vs. strawberry, board meeting vs. kid's soccer game). In many ways we too must use a paired comparison approach to life and simply acknowledge that having it "all" simply isn't a realistic goal.

Having embraced this "satisfaction with plenty" philosophy, I've identified small day to day actions that help underscore and reinforce the big ideas that help me maintain more realistic expectations and healthy perspective.

Big Idea #1 - I can't do ten things at once. Instead focus.
Focusing on one thing at a time not only enhances productivity long term but also provides greater personal satisfaction (for all parties involved, actually). This applies not just to working but also to talking to your spouse or child. Even as multitasking has become more and more commonplace, it still feels rude to the other person when you're texting while talking to them.

How to integrate this big idea in your day to day life...

Daily Tip #1 - Change your email settings to turn off the chime to announce each incoming message.
I don't care if someone is performing life saving surgery. Once they hear that little "you've got mail" chime, they invariably stop what they're doing, glance at the message and either change gears to now focus on it or at a minimum become sufficiently distracted so that they lose not just time but critical momentum with the original task. To help avoid this, turn off the chime so that you focus on one task at a time. Also, consider scheduling specific times during the day to check email so that you're not constantly checking it throughout the day and thereby inviting distractions throughout the day.

Big Idea #2 - Make first things first...religiously.
I believe Covey originally coined this phrase and it's so true. Most of us have one or two goals that are really important to us during a particular time in your life (e.g. losing weight, providing care to an aging parent, positioning yourself for a promotion, etc.). Of course, we could all come up with a laundry list of goals/interests, but anything beyond the top one or two can become noise that distract us from the absolute most important short term goals.

How to integrate this big idea in your day to day life...

Daily Tip #2 - Isolate your absolute top one or two short term goals, and block regular time to work towards them.
The simple truth is that we make time for what we choose to make time for. We're all given the gift of 1,440 minutes each day without fail. The tragedy is that we too often waste them by blindly walking through our "to do list" without truly taking ownership of it. If you absolutely want to finally get your small business records in order, swap a weekly client lunch for a records management analysis meeting with yourself until it's done. Or if you're tired of blaming baby weight on your kindergartner, commit to a regularly scheduled morning jog and plan other tasks around that commitment. Write it down and keep the appointment as you would if it were with a client or coworker.

Big Idea #3 - Let go of the dream...embrace the reality.
Truly recalibrating expectations means that some things simply won't happen...sad, but true. The first step toward moving forward is letting go of the past. My previous vision of myself as a successful 40ish entrepreneur included skirting between client meetings in stylish clothes and a flashy car. The reality is that while the idea of expensive, stylish clothes is appealing (still), comfort and fiscal responsibility simply trump glam at this point in my life. Likewise, with two children in private school, there's nothing sexier than not having a car payment. Focus on the opportunity cost of trying to do/have it all - what you're not able to do/have as a result of that choice. This will help you embrace (not just accept) your new reality.

How to integrate this big idea in your day to day life...

Daily Tip #3 - Develop a "Stop Doing" list.
To operationalize this principle identify 3-5 activities that you will relinquish in order to create more space and time for more important goals and actually move towards your new reality. If you're struggling to identify those "stop doing" activities, try finishing these sentences:
"If I didn't achieve x this year, I'd be ok with that..."
"If I'm honest with myself, x takes too much time/energy for the benefit that I receive"
"If I stopped doing x tomorrow, there would be minimal negative impact in my life."


As my preschoolers get a bit older and become involved in extra curricular activities, I'm horrified at the thought of my loving, low key home environment turning into Grand Central Station. I've heard such horror stories about completely overscheduled kids whose lives are filled with stress and exhaustion with so many activities, commitments, and "responsibilities". I even recall last year's stories about Chinese students parents giving them IV drips during critical test times to keep them in tip top shape (Telegraph)...yikes! As I enter this critical age with my children, I can't help but wonder if women trying to "have it all" breed children trying to "do it all"? Indeed, making choices, sacrificing, and being ok with not doing it all is indeed a skill - one that I'm hoping my children will begin learning at an early age. I can't help but think that part of my parenting responsibility is to begin to role model this "satisfaction with plenty" lifestyle now. I'm not sure if there will ever be a firm, decisive answer to the "can we have it all" conundrum, but for me, I've made small changes that have had a huge impact on both my productivity and my peace. Maybe I don't really have it "all", but it sure feels like it ☺

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com.

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