Look Inside, Love, and Lead: Searching for Work-Life Balance and Discovering Your All
Can you create a fulfilling life while balancing family, work, and personal demands? It’s a monumental question women grapple with every day and one that continues to be...
Can you create a fulfilling life while balancing family, work, and personal demands? It’s a monumental question women grapple with every day and one that continues to be controversial, relevant, and sometimes incendiary. My answer is twofold: 1.) Absolutely! 2.) It is not easy, but most great accomplishments aren’t, so don’t mistake the challenging with the impossible.
Most women, at different points in life, face immense internal and external pressures about what to do and how to create a satisfying life: Get married or stay single? Work or stay at home? Join a company with a stable income or follow a passion in a risky startup? Have children, adopt, or be motherless? Seek a relationship with a partner who earns more or embrace a relationship with someone who earns less?
I believe that one key to finding balance and fulfillment lies in first abandoning the societal ideal of “having it all.” Instead, women should work on personally defining “their all,” which should be a combination of their unique priorities, passions, and personal self-awareness and circumstances.
In my experience, a critical ingredient in this process is the relationship you have with yourself. Do you love yourself and believe yourself worthy? This mindset affects your willingness to make decisions that serve you well, your reactions to what others think about you, and your responses when you fall short (which we are all inclined to do at times).
I decided to share my perspective on how women can first discover and then build a foundation to obtain their “all.” This is the first in a multi-part series that will highlight strategies that have worked for me through managing money (as a professional investor) and managing life.
My Experience as a Single, Working Mom
For the last 15 years, I have been a single mother to three wonderful children. Since they are about three years apart, their needs for care and attention tended to come in rapid succession, pulling me in many directions at once. This forced me to experiment with a range of strategies for managing my time and energy to reach my personal, familial, and professional goals.
I am an investor and, for over 20 years, I managed money for clients at a leading global investment management firm. I became partner and led the firm’s Industry Strategy Group. Since I helped set the investment strategy for several product styles and was directly responsible for managing billions of investment dollars, I had to closely follow several markets, read a plethora of research on macroeconomics, and stay informed about a myriad of company and industry dynamics.
It would be a lie to suggest or imply that raising my children while managing a demanding career was easy. It wasn’t. It was challenging, and I treasured the rare moments when life felt in perfect balance.
I think of my experience like that of a tightrope walk. A tightrope walker must carefully and frequently adjust, ever so slightly, to keep centered on the rope. Such is true of my life—and is true in the lives of many women (and men) seeking some semblance of balance. Being aware of what requires focus, you may have to lean more to the left to tend to one of the children’s needs, more to the right to complete work preparations, a bit forward to address personal requirements, or a tad backwards to respond to extended family demands. The tightrope walker falls when she moves too much or lingers too long in any direction. Valuable information is embedded in each fall, but what keeps her most balanced is when she is centered at her core. Similarly, what helps keep women balanced is when they learn from mistakes and stay centered at their core, and that is best accomplished when there is a strong sense and understanding of self, values, and priorities. The tricky part is—how do you define and fulfill what’s at your core?
Broadening the “Having It All” and “Lean In” Debate
Two respected thought leaders have very publicly debated whether it’s possible for women to achieve a work-life balance, each advocating for the position that encapsulates what did and didn’t work for them.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg tells women to climb the corporate ladder and lean in to their firms, even when children come. This approach worked well for her, and it may for many, but it may not be appropriate for others who want something different in their lives.
In another perspective that sparked much discussion, former Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter told women that they still can’t have it all because of structural problems in the U.S. In her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” she commented on her decision to leave her teenage sons and husband in Princeton, N.J. to commute weekly to Washington, D.C. for a time-intensive and taxing job at the U.S. State Department. Just because this experience proved difficult for her, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to set and achieve your own challenging goals.
These bright and talented women both mean well, however, what is notably missing from the debate around work-life adjustments and tradeoffs is an assessment of your unique needs, your life, and the factors that make up your unique fingerprint.
When women ponder “can I have it all?” it begs the question: What does having it all mean? Whose “all” should women try to have? The “it” is not a very well-defined societal concept. It is aspirational in nature and just beyond reach, like the bone placed ahead of dogs running around a racetrack. Since there is no clear way to measure this externally defined, nebulous notion, there is no explicit way for women to know when or if they’ve achieved it. In my experience, this tends to breed confusion and frustration. This leads to the important distinction that while women can “have their all,” it is not likely they will “have it all.”
Managing Money, Managing Life: A Case Study for Leadership Strategy
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s experience exemplifies one life leadership strategy that I find critical both in managing money and managing life: the screening process.
Investors screen prospective portfolio holdings for both risk and for fit. Managers and people alike are naturally drawn to “wonderful opportunities” presented to them. Those offering the shiny object will typically point out the benefits and potential upside of your purchase or participation. Your job is also to consider the downside scenarios. What if the base case doesn’t occur and things turn south? Is it still worth having given the possible impact on what you value most?
Perfecting your personal screening for your heart desires can be a source of joy when you get it right and one of pain when you get it wrong. For example, have you or do you know someone who says they want a serious, committed relationship and then proceeds to date or marry the popular bad boy who historically hasn’t been loyal to other women? You can find yourself pursuing what others identify as attractive, but if you are honest with yourself, it may not fit with what you say you want.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s research revealed that several other women also reported it was too difficult to have a family life and hold that kind of high-demand job on the Hill. Sometimes you want to believe it will be different. Simply put, Slaughter’s initial choice reminded me of an optimistic/naïve young woman or an aggressive/rogue portfolio manager who put in her personal portfolio something with too much risk for her stated or implied objective.
All was not lost, however. While Anne-Marie Slaughter may have not given the downside of her Washington job enough weight, like tightrope walkers and strong leaders who learn from falls, she learned from her proverbial “fall” and pivoted. At a London conference for Generation Investment Management, where we were both speakers, I shared my assessment of her choice while acknowledging real structural challenges in the U.S. for mothers and men who are primary care providers. I was happy to learn more about her new position as President and CEO of the think tank New America, which takes advantage of her leadership and strengths, and allows her the time and flexibility to be the mother and wife she wants to be and the thought leader and professional she is. She made choices with her goals in mind. She appropriately screened her options, and she says she is happy.
Outside Influences: Stigmas and Perceptions
In response to Sandberg’s lean in advice, one young woman emphatically shared with me that “there is so much stigma around taking time off” to accommodate family. With some careers, companies, and bosses, there may be stigma around taking time off, but keep these points in mind:
1.) There will always be people who have opinions about what you choose to do. While you need to be aware of how you are perceived, it is more important to not be defined by these perceptions, especially when you believe in what you are doing.
2.) Perceptions matter, especially initially. But, ultimately, performance tends to matter more. Stigmas tend to fade over time when you deliver.
3.) If what you value continues to clash with your firm, career, or boss, you may need to look for opportunities more aligned with your values. I selected a career in money management, not only because I was passionate about the investment field, but also because it allowed me to be the mother I wanted to be and enabled the home life of regular family dinners that mattered to me.
Perceptions can often differ from reality. I’ve found it good to be aware of, but not be defined by, the thoughts of others. As you become more comfortable and confident in your skin, the easier it will be to make choices that work for you, especially in the face of divergent opinions and perceived perceptions.
A Different Perspective: Look Inside, Listen, and Lead
As a portfolio manager, before I undertook the act of actually investing money, I had to understand two things extremely well—client objectives and guidelines of what was permitted in an investment portfolio. I was required to understand clients’ desires, values, and unique goals and to define their boundaries and tolerance for risk.
This strategy can work for you, too. Ask yourself: “What does a healthy balance mean and look like to me?” Successful voyages begin with a destination in mind, and great companies originate with visionary leaders.
Women are the CEOs of their own lives. Like corporate CEOs, they have missions, objectives, limited resources, and sometimes have to navigate changing environments. The decisions they make about how best to allocate their resources contribute greatly to the likelihood of reaching their goals. Feeling fulfilled is often a result of the choices you make in light of your priorities and objectives, combined with the way you respond to the challenges you face.
I’ve found that many women feel lost, not sure why they are on their particular path never mind where they are going. Part of the issue is that they hear many voices and directives. Work and make your own money. Stay home if you have children or a husband with a well-paying job. Divide and conquer; stay home then go to work when the children are older.
Unhappy moms tend to look externally for affirmation while happy moms tend to look internally for confirmation and try to create what they desire for themselves.
Consider how stigma, perceptions, and external voices play a role in your decision-making. External voices of loved ones and advisors can often make good points worth hearing. Women should hear these perspectives and, like most strong leaders, run them through their personal filter. Once doing so, the volume of her inner voice increases, confidence strengthens, and external noise begins to fade.
The best piece of advice I was given on this topic came from my grandmother, Rose. She said to make sure you make the choice that will make YOU the happiest. For a woman born in 1911, a directive to essentially do what is in your heart was a novel and bold statement. That advice has served my family and me very well and underpins my ability to create my “all.” How? I encourage women to get in touch with whom they are and what they deeply value, and allow that knowledge to be their inner compass and reference point for decisions they have to make.
Look internally every day and check in with yourself regularly. Pay attention to your body and watch your energy. In what environments do you thrive and in what settings do you wilt? Some people, places, and things drain your energy while others enhance it. What brings you joy? What triggers stress and consternation? What type of family or personal life do you want to create and maintain?
I’ve found that writing down your observations helps the process of finding clarity and creating visions. If you find yourself frequently doing things you dread, then ask yourself why. Someone might come to mind. You may find you are attending a particular school, pursuing a career, or staying in a relationship because subconsciously you are living out someone else’s goal for you. Explore your aspirations and your vision—not your mother’s, father’s, Sheryl Sandberg’s, or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s. I am encouraging—no, I am table-pounding—that you create the time and space to look inside, listen, and learn about you. Once you become self-aware of your goals, priorities, strengths, vulnerabilities, and risk tolerances, you can then begin to execute your plans and lead.
A Few Comments on the “Resource” Divide
It is dangerous and inaccurate to paint women with one brush because there is an enormous diversity of experience. Those with more education, money, and access to opportunities and support have decidedly different profiles and daily challenges. This is true.
Since most women—regardless of race, financial status, or creed—still have some limit to their resources (money, time, etc.), the key question is how can you best make your dreams a reality? At the center of the women issue is you, the woman. Yes, there are real structural constraints, and I don’t want make light of them. Some of your most valuable assets include your attitude about yourself and your condition, your willingness to make changes, and your choices. Personal choice is central here, and those with extra resources don’t necessarily or always make the best choices for their stated aspirations and vice versa.
Take my grandmother, for instance. She was very poor and wasn’t formally educated. She married and delivered her firstborn at 15, dropped out of high school, and went on to have nine children. Her life had a variety of perceived and actual limitations, but she figured out ways to efficiently use her resources of time, energy, and funds in ways that helped her build a satisfying life.
Finding your balance on the tightrope is much harder when you have fewer resources, and the challenges are different. It may feel like the walk is over the Grand Canyon, where the risk of falling is more damaging. Ultimately, it’s like a puzzle. How can you best utilize what you have to fulfill your aspirations?
My grandmother was a maid for families who were better off than her financially. However, she realized that if she started taking care of children in her own neighborhood she could make more money and have more time to be with her own children. Sure, it would have been much easier if she had a bigger bank account to hire someone to help her with tasks around the house so that she might pursue a career outside of the house. But that was not an option for her. Still, she made decisions that resonated with her, added value to her life, and brought her and her family joy. Again, it was challenging, but it was her series of small choices that made a huge difference in creating the best life she could with her limited resources.
Leading: Putting It All Together
We began this conversation with the question: “Can a woman really strike a work-life balance and have a happy, fulfilling life?” While doing so is not always easy or simple, the answer is yes. But understanding how is not so straightforward. Once you have tapped inside to your spirit, listened to your heart, and identified your unique goals and aspirations, the focus must then turn to how you can best achieve these goals by leading from the inside.
As is true with most great accomplishments, there are proven strategies that work well and, when followed, they increase the likelihood of success. There are also identified approaches that work poorly and, when followed, they increase the likelihood of failure. I have watched women make many common mistakes, and I have made mistakes of my own, which are worth sharing.
So, what are the steps to begin leading from the inside. How do you create your vision with limited resources and competing demands? Some of the topics that we’ll cover in this series include: Setting and Honoring Appropriate Guidelines, Maximizing Your Return on Energy (R.O.E.), and other lessons that I’ve discovered at the intersection of managing money and managing life.
Remember, at the center of attaining your customized “all” is you, and the most powerful tool at your disposal involves choices about how you spend your time, energy, and resources. Give yourself a precious gift—the permission to REALLY do what is in YOUR heart.