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!