So you want to be a High Achiever…

The Wall Street Journal ran my review (paywall, sorry) of Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace’s new book, The Ambition Decisions, on Tuesday. The authors — feeling adrift in their mid-40s — decided to reconnect with their sorority sisters from Northwestern, and see what they were up to in their lives. They talked about how their work and family choices had played out over the previous two decades.

They divided their sisters into three categories:

*High Achievers, who kept their feet on the gas pedals of their careers after having kids

*Opt-Outers, who tended to channel their ambition into parenting, or even self-care (there were a lot of yoga instructors)

*Flex Lifers, who worked for pay, but tended to prioritize work/life balance, and so would seek out work that, for instance, would allow them to meet the school bus.

As with most books, there are some interesting points and some less profound points. I did think they had some reasonable thoughts on pitfalls to avoid if you want to be a High Achiever, based on how their sisters’ lives had played out. Some women have no interest in high-flying careers. Others do, but get derailed at certain key points. Here are the most common stumbling blocks they found among their sorority sisters:

Thinking work should be primarily about passion. This is a tough one because I write for a living. I would never want to tell someone to choose work they didn’t love. That said, I’m not trying to make a living writing experimental poetry. Many “passion” jobs don’t pay enough to cover the cost of childcare. There are lots of ways to derive meaning in life, and one is becoming very good at a skill, and being very highly compensated for it. You can always join a book club and take dance classes on the side. Women with this practical attitude — especially those who felt it was important not to rely on a man financially — were more likely to keep their feet on the gas.

Marrying highly ambitious — but the same age — men. Love is love but certain combos tend to be harder on women’s careers than others. If two people are building careers simultaneously, but he believes his should always take precedence, this will play out in predictable ways once kids show up. It’s not necessarily a nefarious thing. Men often grow up believing they should earn enough that their wives have a choice about whether to work. Even if she says that’s not what she wants, well, isn’t the world telling him that most women on some level want to be home with their kids? So that’s why he should work late and she should make daycare pick-up. And why the family should definitely think about moving for his job but not for hers. Because he will always work, but she might not — right? If you fall in love with a highly ambitious, similarly-aged man, have real conversations about these topics. Don’t just assume it will all work out.

Assuming mother-knows-best. Much has been written about women shouldering more of the emotional labor and logistical arrangements of families, but what doesn’t get talked about is how much of this labor could be shared, but isn’t, because mom decides her way is right. The authors of The Ambition Decisions quote one of their sisters talking about how her husband took a kid to the doctor and she felt the information she got back was so unsatisfactory that she wasn’t going to let that happen again. Even people who weren’t that extreme had often developed ideas of exactly what a “good mother” does, and could not possibly let anyone else do. In short, the more of these beliefs you have, the more work you will shoulder at home, and the less mental energy you will have for professional advancement.

Believing the harried-professional myth. Many of the Opt-Out and Flex Life women talked about the chaos of managing previously intense careers and families. They had to scale back their careers so their lives would be calm. This whole discussion made clear to me that chaos is a relative term. One anecdote involved being in 3 countries in 24 hours for a job. I think my husband did that twice last month alone. He clearly doesn’t think life is so chaotic he must do something drastic to get it under control. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we want. But these stories do have consequences. If you want to be a High Achiever, it’s important to keep the “crazy” narrative in perspective.

In other news: Lots of links to come in my round-up tomorrow, but Blinkist is running a campaign about Off the Clock that has all kinds of great stuff — an article on how being social expands time while social media kills it, and a short-and-snappy (15 minute) podcast episode I did with them on how we perceive time. Please check them out!







15 thoughts on “So you want to be a High Achiever…

  1. I definitely agree that chaos is relative, but it’s also about individual personality and the resources one has to mitigate the chaos. Or perhaps, the *kind* of chaos one is trying mitigate? One of my best friends from college and I are both librarians and we both had kids at about the same time. When she became a parent, she decided to get two part-time jobs, ostensibly for flexibility while her husband worked full-time. I remained in the full-time role I’d had for several years, and so did my husband, adding conveniently located childcare to our routine and some domestic outsourcing. When my friend looks at my life, she sees chaos and wonders when I have time for anything. When I look at my friend’s life, which involves juggling two work schedules, a variable childcare schedule, all kid-related decisions, and household tasks, along with lower overall compensation, I see total chaos. This isn’t the same as having three meetings in three countries in 24 hours, but I guess my point is that everyone has a different threshold, and a lot of it probably has to do with how much support is available/affordable and one’s own expectations for oneself as a parent, professional, partner, etc.

    1. @Robin- I agree that support is certainly part of it. But I’d agree that your friend’s situation sounds more chaotic than yours. Two part time jobs sounds like a full time job, only with less pay and benefits, and probably less say over schedules too.

      1. I was going to say your husband sounds extremely unusual to me! I could not have managed that amount of travel with out losing my mind even pre-kids. My husband could work an awful lot pre-kids, and did, but literally had nothing left to give after getting through a tough week ( which often included Saturday and/ or Sunday too). He wanted to have at least some meaningful interaction with our children and ultimately he had to change jobs to do that. I’ve read your blog long enough to know your husband does spend meaningful time with your kids which is great! But it just isn’t possible for some of us to do both.

        1. @Irene – people definitely have different comfort levels when it comes to quantity of activities. My husband has been traveling for so long like this that he doesn’t find it weird to fly overnight to London, do a meeting, and come back that night. Then it’s just work and life as normal the next day. As for 3 countries in 24 hours, I might note that a lot of European countries are really close together. 🙂
          In general, when people do want to scale down, they focus on the “craziness.” If they’re not looking to scale down, then they might not consider the same points to be evidence of a life out of whack.

    2. Robin, I’m right there with you–I’m also a full-time librarian and I’m expecting my first child. I’ve been in my same position for several years and have a great bank of sick and vacation time built up, as well as the career capital in the form of the trust and respect of my colleagues. When I look at part time library jobs, which often require many more weekend shifts than full time positions do and stricter about time off, I find it kind of horrifying. I think the right kind of full time position is more flexible, and I can’t imagine trying to juggle two part-time positions (not to mention keeping the policies of two different libraries straight in my head, on top of everything else!).

  2. Laura, I know you’ve mentioned being married to an ambitious and slightly older man. Is there any data suggesting that such a setup makes it more workable for the wife to be a high achiever (which you clearly are)?

    Also, would anyone else feel terribly condescended to if her husband said he expected she would want to stay home at some point? I guess having these conversations well in advance (pre-engagement?) is really important!

    1. @Kathleen – I’m not sure if I’d fit the High Achiever definition – I didn’t rise up the ranks of anything! I guess it depends how you look at it. If they were quick sorting me, they might see that I’m a freelance writer who meets the school bus many afternoons. Then there’s the side of me that traveled every week this spring for my job…so who knows? I also don’t know that there is data about what marriage patterns work – the authors were relying on interviews with their 43 sorority sisters, which is not exactly a representative sample. They just identified the ambitious man issue as a problem. That said, there are upsides to an older partner. My husband had leapt through all the major career hoops at his firm by the time we had kids. He also earned enough that even if I didn’t earn a lot, we could afford a lot of childcare. I do earn enough to pay for it, but I could take a lower-earning year in stride.

    2. @Kathleen I also fit Laura’s pattern–I have an older husband (12 years old than I am) who is a partner in what would be described as a “big law” firm. Add to that that I was in the process of switching careers when we met, from marketing to going to medical school. That meant when I was a medical student and resident we could afford a lot of help. However, to your second point, he knew that I was planning to go to medical school and work when we met and I would never have pursued the relationship if he expected me to give that up to stay home with children. I am not sure where I would be sorted in this book (I have yet to read it) because I do work flexibly–I can now make my own hours–and I don’t really travel for work. In a private practice there is no real ladder to climb…I guess all I can say is this pattern has worked well in my marriage and yes, I would feel condescended to if I thought I was expected to want to stay home.

    3. I think part of the trouble is that if you have this conversation with a partner or potential partner, most men would say “I don’t expect you to stay home with the kids!” Yet when push comes to shove and the kids are actually in existence, and two careers are compared, it turns out that actually they might have that underlying bias. Or they might think that you think you don’t want to stay home right now, but once you have those babies you will (which cultural pressures/assumptions build up as well).

  3. A question for your q&a section of the podcast with Sarah: what should a working parent keep in mind/consider/know they are choosing (and thus not choosing) when they have young kids, another working spouses and a job that is engaging but perhaps not advancing their careers as quickly as that person could? I ask because I am in a wonderful situation where I enjoy my job, my life, my toddler, and my working spouse. But I know I could be doing a “bigger” job. Bigger would require travel, or more hours, or managing people, or an inflexible schedule. While I’d be compensated more, it wouldn’t buy more outsourcing, as I’m already doing that. Am I less ambitious or selling myself short by choosing to stay in my engaging job for now and not constantly reaching higher? This is a season. But I honestly don’t know when I will want this season to end, as my spouse and I both have the flexibility and autonomy we want in our careers. The next step up would require one of us to give up some of that.

    1. @Cynthia – interesting question. If you are happy, there’s no reason to change. But if you are getting a bit bored, I don’t think that having children should keep you from trying something new. You’re focusing on things you think would change for the worse, but there might be things that would change for the better too.

    2. Cynthia, you might find some answers in Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It addresses your questions brilliantly. Good luck!

  4. The idea in your linked article that some women think of work as optional was a revelation to me. That thought had literally never occurred to me, even as I’ve been struggling to understand why ¾ of my closest female friends from my top college don’t work (or work in passion jobs that earn neglible incomes). Some are 1%ers with ample family wealth to support them. But the others are middle to upper middle class and they worry about money. And they aren’t even thinking about long term money needs like college or retirement. Working, and specifically targeting more lucrative options, seems to me the obvious solution, but they haven’t agreed. I see now that, perhaps subconsciously, they think work is optional. They all grew up with mothers who didn’t work, or worked intermittently, or worked on passion projects. I grew up in a very large, fairly poor with a primary breadwinner mom who found a way to have a passion-adjacent job that came with good health benefits and a pension (public school music teacher). She didn’t follow her real passion, which was being a professional musician, but she could incorporate her passion in a practical and responsible manner, and she loved teaching. I have a mid-six figure job now not because I’m a high achiever but because I refused to apply for low paying jobs. I said at the time that there was no cause I cared enough about that I was willing to be poor for it. And to me, that meant not only covering my day to day needs, but my future needs as well.

    My husband and I were talking about the article, and he said he’d never considered working optional. Of course, his economist father told when he chose religion as his major that he was making a mistake – he needed to be able to support a family one day. Given that I make nearly twice what my husband does, we joked that he should have told his father he’d marry someone who could take care of him.

    1. @Alyce- yes, this idea of viewing work as a choice came up in the book. Many of the “High Achiever” types felt that working was not optional, for whatever reason — some like you list, or people who’d seen family break up. If you believe that working for pay is just what people do, then you’re less likely to see it as detracting from your family. I think a lot of women walk around with the narrative that working for pay is a burden and not a blessing to their families. Whereas men grow up thinking they will need to support their families, possibly on their own. It definitely affects the choices you make.

      1. Yes, I absolutely think it’s essential not be financially reliant on my husband, or have my family dependent on one income. My father was unexpectedly forced to retire early due to health issues, so it turned out to be crucial that my mother had a career.

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