In the past week I’ve been confronted with three stories on the conflict between wanting it all vs letting go.
I call it the Universe really trying to tell me something.
All three of them are successful women, quite career-focused, ambitious and hard-working. However, at one point in time, they all realized that some other things may be more important in their lives – but the struggle and the choice isn’t as easy as it seems.
What would you choose?
Here are their stories.
Friend no.1 is a senior manager, with an awesome career and a wonderful family of a husband and two beautiful daughters. She’s been in this position for – how long, 2 years now? – and is now in the position of choosing between two next assignments. What a luxury, you’d say.
Assignment no. 1 is a local-based job, with a small-ish team and a limited responsibility. No major fights to fight, rather business as usual. Not something that would stand out.
Assignment no.2 is an international project, with lots of travel, difficult fights to fight, lots of influencing and political drama to navigate, but a major sense of accomplishment at the end. Bonus – it would look great in a CV, because, in her own words “people look with admiration to those who had such assignments and survived them honorably.”
On the lower side, it would minimize time with her family, put a strain on her marriage and relationship with her kids, miss out on so many wonderful moments and turn her into a stressed-out, permanently-thinking-about-job type of career woman. A reasonable sacrifice for a year, perhaps, but would you do it? And then, what?
What would you choose?
The quiet life, with little sense of challenge but a steady rhythm? Knowing that you can balance your life and work and have a peaceful mind and time for family and yourself?
Or knowing in advance that you’d have to sacrifice them for a while, for an exceptional sense of achievement, plus potential higher career opportunities?
I have to admit I was mesmerized by the second option. The glory! The rapid pace! The feeling that you’re shaping something and that you’re leaving your mark!
What a wonderful sense of accomplishment!
But then, I wondered – how much of these really matter in the long run? What’s at stake? What are your priorities now? What matters more in your life right now? What are the resources and support mechanisms that would hold this, like a bowl holding water? If the bowl is cracked, not much chance for the water to stay in, right…?
So, I was left wondering.
Enter, Friend no.2.
She is a junior manager, with a growing career and a lot of potential, with some fascinating hobbies and very positive outlook on life. Ambitious and a bit of an independent perfectionist, she was disappointed when she found out her future assignment might be a downgrade from her current fast-paced and quite innovation-prone job. At the same time, she had been working her ass of for several months, always dissatisfied with the current delivery level and wanting to prove more. Her health had been on the edge for some time, her marriage was holding off pretty well but who knows for how long, and her family needed her positive outlook more than ever…and there she was, at the end of her energy, still wanting to invest more in her job.
To me, hearing her story was a wake-up call on “life happens”. I felt that I was sitting on the edge of a cliff, looking down, but still wanting to climb even higher. Rocky terrain, amazing view, but anytime I could slip and fall. Was it really worth it?
Wouldn’t this assignment be the perfect opportunity to take a break for a while, deliver excellently (because it would be simpler), and take the time for family and self?
Why not stop on the side of the cliff, have a rest and admire the view?
In the end, you’ll be a better climber if you take regular breaks and manage your energy…
Finally, story no. 3, my own.
I’m quite similar to both of my friends – quite ambitious, quite career-driven, fast-paced and achievement-focused. I love to take difficult projects or assignments and put my own spin on them. I relish when I hear that someone says I’ve “left my mark” or “revolutionized” something. (that must have something to do with a sense of meaning or need for recognition, I know… )
The past year I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of not being able to do everything at my own standards; of having to let some things go or accepting criticism (based on the fact that I couldn’t do everything perfectly; oh, the horror.)
I’m still coming to terms with the idea and I’m not yet comfortable with it.
The past few months have been an immense joy for me, as I expect quite a big life change (read: addition) later this year.
At the same time, I will also have a career change, and I struggled with the need to do both of them; at the same time feeling guilty for not being able to just enjoy the perspective of becoming a mom in the near future. Last year I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and I was saddened by the realization that so many women feel guilty if they’re not able to have both a successful career and a balanced and fulfilling family life.
So at the bottom of my heart, I do want to feel that my focus this year is on myself and my family. I want to be relaxed, enjoying this wonderful phase of my life, which everyone tells me I’m so lucky to be going through. And yet, I still want more, and beat myself up for that.
Talking to my friends mentioned before made me realize that maybe, still, my career context right now is aligning perfectly with the life heading out in front. I will take a new role for a couple of months, and then I will retreat, and (hopefully) deal well with my newest role as a mother. I’m immensely looking forward to that, and I do feel I will enjoy it deeply.
Perhaps this opportunity, coming a few years earlier, or later, would have changed me in a different way. I would have taken it as a challenge, striving for new and better results. But now, it has made me see that sometimes, in this balance of career and family, I need to be open to the new, and take whatever is coming, with an open heart and mind.
Less letting go, but more enjoyment for whatever arises.
“Living like a river, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding”.
(from Mindsight by Daniel Siegel)