One of the fundamental questions I see almost every person I meet these days grapple with is whether or not anyone can ‘have it all’ or should they be trying to ‘do more’. I don’t remember personally coming across this dilemma while growing up (I was born and brought up in India and came to the US for graduate school). It was not necessary, or even recommended, as I was figuring out what to do growing up. Getting a job and earning good money to be able to sustain a family was the bird’s eye. But yet, I can’t categorize this ‘almost everyone wondering whether or not they can have it all’ as a ‘US’ problem. I see the same thought process in mostly urban populations everywhere I travel to – India, Japan, Singapore. In men and women. The need to feel fulfilled multi-dimensionally, not just work or family – but hobbies, travel, contributions to the society… and maybe more. And I think that’s a great thing.
But here’s the problem – most jobs that pay well, whether it’s employment for someone else or self – don’t leave very much time for much else unless there are certain conscious compromises.
And then, raising a family is hard work too – it requires a high amount of mental and calendar space. And it should.
And then, raising a family is hard work too – it requires a high amount of mental and calendar space. And it should. So how to have it all then?
Well, I think the problem is, there’s a lot of talk about the gets, but not nearly enough about the gives. The first step I feel is to understand and accept that there has to be, and are, gives (and this acceptance will take work, no matter how easy it feels). Hopefully, I will get to talk more (and continuously) on the gives, for I firmly believe that not sharing that picture creates unrealistic role models and cause women (and men) to shy away or self-doubt. But here I want to start with cataloging the basics that I have found to be useful in this journey of ‘having it all’.
First, having it all can happen, but having it all at once can’t.
I am often asked (because I did start my own non-profit (Her Rights) and I also write (www.thoughtsandrights.com) while holding a full-time job in tech managing a team, how do I have it all? My answer is by clarifying that I can’t have it all at once.
Let me explain. I decided to start writing while I was pregnant with my daughter, on maternity leave. After publishing a highly successful post on the then Huffington Post (my first published piece), I also decided to start my own non-profit. To sum up all my reasons of doing ‘so much’ with an infant and a full time job (which a lot of my friends and family at that time attributed to sudden craziness) in one line: I just didn’t want to go linear at life anymore. I had always wanted to do certain things and had been told to: a. first finish studying, b. then get a job, c. then have a family…. and then I could do whatever I want. I was made to believe that at some magical linear point in life, I will have all the time in my hand to pursue my ‘other’ interests.
But I realized after having my daughter that as you go through life, you don’t have more time, you have less. More importantly, you never really have time – you have to make time for that is important to you. But to have it all (I am not confusing having with doing here. The philosophy I follow, is ‘to do’ is ‘to have’. Action is the path to fulfillment), there are compromises that need to be made. I make three.
Re-defining success starts with not comparing success to anyone else’s achievements or societal milestones. This is not easy, and I will be doing a disservice to the intention of this post if I don’t admit that this is a constant struggle. The outside world and pop culture guidelines will not make this a cakewalk either, especially with the constant new age teachings on manifesting, reaching for the sky, blowing out the roofs etc… But for me, this needs to be a constant reminder to allow baby steps to happen. And once those steps happen, the fulfillment needs to come from that. I know way too many people who don’t pick up the pen out of ‘practical thinking’ on how impossible it’d be to finish the novel and then win to the Booker. My thought is, pick up the pen to write just a sentence if that’s what you had always wanted to do. Tell yourself that doing just this matters. The rest might follow.
Second, collaborate. I heard a quote early on in my career on how we are capable of achieving whatever we want, as long as we don’t care who gets the credit. Again, extremely hard to practice, but quite true. I am not advocating a priestly forsaking of all self serving motivations. But what I think is absolutely essential is to remember that a lot more can be achieved through collaboration and partnership, especially when we are trying to do a lot of different things. So sharing the load and the credit is important and practical.
Third, timely compromises. This brings back the point I started with: not having it all at once at the exact same time. There were years when I have had to recognize the signals and needs of my writing life and take a step down from the career ladder. It is important to be aware of such needs and understand that it might mean your career will go a few years slower because you will not be able to give the 200% that others who don’t have diverse interests (or other needs that life throws as curveballs) and accept that as fair. Step back from overly demanding roles if you need to. Again, do this by constantly reminding yourself that the meat and pace of what success looks like, whether in career or life, is unique. The opposite is true too. I have stopped writing when my inner urge pushed me to get back to a managerial role and drive a few years of career climbing. Women do this often for family. It is OK to do this for hobbies and diversifications too if life allows that option.
Lastly, know that everyone who looks impossible and invincible, go through struggles, every path requires some compromise, and not everyone’s launching pad is the same. We know our situations best. Some of us have resources favoring us, and a lot of us don’t. That is why I think it’s even more important to ‘have’ through ‘doing’ and defining success as it applies to you. You will not reach point B as fast (or maybe never) if you choose to meander off the beaten paths, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The world might tell us it is, but we don’t have to believe.