Over the past year, the work-family discussion has been injected with a massive shot of adrenaline. Much of the resurgence of interest has resulted from the advice and actions of some highly accomplished women. Their overtures and the public reaction to them has enabled all to clearly see that those who thought the work-life dilemma has been resolved were very much mistaken.
The dramatic increase in our national discourse on work-family began with Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article in The Atlantic addressing the issue of “why women still can’t have it all.” In her piece, which became one of The Atlantic’s most widely read articles, Slaughter discussed her experience as a senior State Department official and her frustrations dealing with the organizational barriers that prevent women from reaching and staying at the top. At roughly the same time, the story of Marissa Mayer appeared. Mayer is the Stanford educated multi-millionaire CEO of Yahoo! who decided that her maternity leave would be 1-2 weeks and that she would work during that time. After returning to work, she issued an edict that no employee in her organization would be allowed to work from home (neither occasionally nor on a full-time basis). To be clear, she wasn’t offering advice, she was just exercising her corporate prerogative as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer. That said, her decision to end all work from home met with a less than stellar reception, no doubt exacerbated by the nursery being built next to her office to address her own work-family challenges.
Next we heard from Sheryl Sandberg, the Harvard-educated billionaire COO of one of America’s most famous internet companies who encouraged women to “lean-in” and stop undermining their own career advancement. While her thoughtful message placed more responsibility on women’s actions and in doing so may have let employers off the hook, her well-researched book added much to the conversation. In response to Lean In, last month Erin Callan, another well-to-do Harvard educated former CFO of the now defunct investment-banking giant Lehman Brothers posed the question in a NY Times opinion piece, “Is there Life After Work?”. Callan had succeeded in a man’s world but decried the price that she paid personally for pursuing her ambition.
And finally, just a few days ago Susan Patton, president of Princeton’s class of 1977, wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian, “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.” In it, Patton cautioned her younger fellow female “Princetonians” to stop worrying about leaning in or leaning out and do the thing that no one else had advised them to do – find a husband. And by all means they should do so while still at Princeton. Patton’s article stated that “Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again – you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”
Isn’t it reassuring to know that there are still a few hopeless romantics left in this crazy world of ours?
The reaction to all of these words of wisdom and actions has been swift, loud, and most of all loaded with the values that under-pin a very wide ranging set of perspectives. Let me add one more voice to the Greek chorus. I didn’t go to Princeton or Stanford or Harvard although my wife did (now she must finally understand the magnitude of the mistake she made 23 years ago when she uttered “I do”). I am not a CEO. I don’t make or have millions of dollars, and if I publish a book on how to be “successful”, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a NY Times bestseller before its release date, or likely any time soon thereafter. That said I have been truly blessed in my life with a loving family, good health, and deeply interesting work. So you can be the judge of my credibility as I offer my own few words of advice.
For the past decade I have taught courses on careers and “following your life’s calling” to graduate and undergraduate students at a wonderful university. Beyond anything else, my courses are intended to take the students on an exotic and sometimes exhaustive journey to a place that too few have had the opportunity to fully explore – inside themselves. In my class, students reflect on their own life histories, their peak experiences, the values that drive them, the skills they’ve nurtured, their loves and their passions. They try to develop a vision for their lives that is guided by all of these and, dare I say, sometimes by their spiritual calling.
Hopefully without being seen as class warrior or a critic of these incredibly successful women, I can say that their life experiences are at least two standard deviations from the norm of the majority of women and men in America. Most of us haven’t spent nearly as much time breathing such rarified air. I would ask them, and everyone else, to challenge the view that “success” equates to reaching the top of a corporate ladder or the top of one’s field or marrying only someone whose pedigree is the equivalent of our own. Doing so seems so retro. At best, we are advancing a singular and I believe outdated view of success based on a historically male perspective.
I don’t happen to believe that he or she who “dies with the most toys wins”. But that’s just my view. I do believe that each of us must find our own path, develop our own definition of success, and live our own lives. And if we’re blessed enough, as these individuals have been, to achieve great financial success and attain powerful positions of leadership and influence, then we should use those to help others in their own personal journey to self-discovery and fulfillment.