Be careful with the word ‘crazy’

Back in 2018, I reviewed the book The Ambition Decisions for the Wall Street Journal. This book (which I had mixed feelings about) surveyed the authors’ sorority sisters two decades after their graduation from Northwestern University. Among other questions, they wanted to understand what led some women to keep their feet on the gas with their careers while others scaled back or opted out completely.

The authors noted that opt-out types often talked about the chaos of managing their two working-parent-families. They would recount tales of such chaos, points of evidence that they felt showed life could not continue this way. Generally this meant mom needed to quit as, I don’t know, earth might crash into the sun if dad did.

Anyway, this section stuck out for me because I realized that people have very different ideas of what constitutes chaos. One example in the book was a woman who lamented that she had once been in three countries in 24 hours for work. I got the sense from reading The Ambition Decisions that this woman had recounted this bit of evidence a lot. She was quite taken with this narrative that her life had been crazy — unsustainable! — based on what she considered an airtight story. Three countries!

Is it crazy? I don’t know. Visiting 3 countries in 24 hours might sound exciting to American ears, but it’s probably not too hard to hit if you do work in Europe (I know a few European vacations of mine have featured crossing into 3 countries in 24 hours!). Fly from NY to Paris for meetings, take the 90-minute train ride to Brussels later in the day for a dinner and you hit it without having done anything terribly heroic. Indeed, if you enjoy your job, and have a good system at home, another way to tell the story is this: “Wow, wasn’t I efficient to visit two of my European clients on one trip? I saved myself an extra 14 hours on planes! I’m definitely going to use that time for some other priorities in life.”

But no. People tell stories to justify decisions. If you are wedded to the story that two-career family life is chaotic, you will look for evidence to support that thesis. Can you find evidence? Sure. But there’s probably other evidence too.

So one message of my writing is to be very careful with the word “crazy.” Rather than calling a situation crazy, or chaotic, maybe the story can be retold in another way.

I know I try to do this. And I try to encourage others to as well. I was recently having a conversation with a woman who noted that her moment of Rethinking Everything came when she and her husband were both traveling — with a one-night overlap — and the relative who was supposed to stay with their kids bailed. While this story had a slight twist (he changed jobs, not her) it was still told as an episode that led to serious rethinking.

So I asked what happened. It turned out the sitter who was with their kids during the day re-arranged her schedule to stay overnight.

In other words, Plan A didn’t work, so they figured out a Plan B. I think this is a much better version of the story! A valuable lesson was learned (figuring out a back-up plan is good!) Indeed, told in the right way, this could be a helpful story for other people. The “crazy” narrative doesn’t have to prevail.

Do you have any “crazy” stories that could be retold?

Photo: All is calm, all is bright. 

20 thoughts on “Be careful with the word ‘crazy’

  1. I don’t have a scenario to share, but I’m really interested in your take on the Millenial Burnout article:

    I am just at the tail end of being a baby boomer (born Dec 1964) and my son is a similar barely-millenial (born 1996, just graduated with a BS and lucky enough to have a FT job offer in hand). I’ve seen several articles about the lack of POC experience in the article, but since your work is also data-driven, would love to read your thoughts.

    1. @MaryC – I’m saving the article to read later. My quick read at the beginning was “you’ve got to be kidding me” but I’m sure there is more to the story than that. Maybe…

      1. That was my first thought too! After reading it and thinking about it for a while, I can see some validity in parts of it (and the data/numbers seem to add up). However, I am not the targeted generation so I wanted to hear other viewpoints as well 🙂

  2. I do think that tolerance for “busy” is strongly correlated to personality. I find having a full calendar stressful, even when it’s not back-to-back. For example, from Sept -December, I had 2 business trips and one trip with the kids to see my parents in Georgia, my husband had 2 business trips and a couple of day trips for fun things he wanted to do (car racetrack and Seattle football), we had 2 family trips, and my husband and daughter went on her overnight school field trip. For approx 17 weeks, with most of these items spanning weekends, it should have been perfectly fine and doable, but it felt legit CRAZY and I was feeling burned out and overscheduled by mid-November. One woman’s crazy busy is another woman’s “full life”, I suppose. I guess I’m just a person who likes routine, and doesn’t deal well with SO MANY exceptions.

    Business trips are part of life, and our jobs allow us to have the life we want in rural-ish Northern CA, but I definitely would scale back on all the other fun stuff, or spread it out over more time if I could do it over. I’m starting to learn that just because something fun *fits* on our calendar, it doesn’t mean we HAVE to do it. I definitely lean towards a more empty calendar.

    1. @ARC – definitely people have different tolerances. I would more argue that there is no objective standard for what is “crazy” — the stories the opt-out women in The Ambition Decisions were telling were clearly ones they used precisely because they believed anyone would react with “oh, that is crazy” and not question the scale back decision.

  3. Sometimes you really need a reminder that plan B is an option.
    My children were terrible sleepers when they were toddlers. It took us hours to put them to bed and they woke up frequently. So I never had visitors durings evenings when my husband worked. Because that would have been ‘crazy’.

    Last month my husband en I had a conflicting schedule. He had to work a late shift and I had an important meeting on the same evening. Our sitter was not available.
    And for the first time in many years I thought ‘well, why not host this meeting at our home’. My collegues were fine with the altered location. My children were cooperating and went to bed before the guests arrived.
    And then my daughter got scared because the neighbours’ dog started to bark very loud and didn’t stop. (They were out of the house so the barking continued the next three hours). But what a year ago would not have seem possible: I could put her downstairs on the sofa where she felt safe enough to fall asleep. And we could keep our meeting around the dinner table. Some people only noticed our daughter when they left. What a year ago would have been crazy, now went fine, even when things went wrong. And this gives me so much more confidence to take on more work, because I dare to think about plan b or c.

  4. “People tell stories to justify decisions.” This is so true! After reading, I think, all your books (just finished Off the Clock), I get rather annoyed with people telling me stories that don’t sound so true. (“I can’t go to the cinema in years because I have children”, “I can’t stop working before 9 pm”).

    1. @Maggie – thank you for reading all my books! And yep, life is generally about choices, with the understanding that one must accept the consequences. There are definitely people who have kids who go to the movies. And definitely people who stop work before 9 p.m.

  5. I love this! It’s given me a paradigm shift… I realize that I’ve been using the word ‘crazy’ too much with my life. We travel with our 7 kids (30 countries on 5 continents) and homeschool them and are building businesses at the same time. I like to tell ‘crazy’ stories that exemplify the chaos of our life. But really, we love our life and we always figure out solutions to our ‘crazy’ challenges.

    BTW, I’ve been tracking my time every 15 min. since I picked up your book, I Know How She Does It, three weeks ago! Loving it!

    1. @Rachel- so glad you found me! And while your life no doubt has many moving parts, it is chosen, and it is manageable. Not crazy, not chaotic. I like the circus metaphor. There’s all sorts of stuff going on, but you make sure no one gets shot out of a cannon at the wrong time!

  6. Once my husband I and I had an argument about when we were having dinner with friends. We were standing in our entryway. It was 4:45 am. He was coming home from work and I was leaving for work. I was about 8 months pregnant with my second child and I was an internal medicine resident. “Don’t for get we have dinner with the Jones tonight,” I said. “Tomorrow night,” my husband corrected. This went on for awhile until we realized we were talking about the same night. He hadn’t slept yet so to him the dinner was “tomorrow.” I was on may way to work so dinner was “tonight.” We had many other “crazy” times when I was training and our kids were babies, but this one always makes us laugh. From a different point of view this could have been the “crazy” that led me to quit my residency. I am so glad I didn’t.

  7. Sometimes, too, you need to resist other people labelling your decisions as “crazy”. I went back to work the week after I had my second baby, and while no one used the word “crazy”, I was definitely made to feel like it was an incomprehensible decision. The narrative we are told is that maternity leave, what little we have of it, is sacrosanct, but really in a lot of ways it is just another choice for you to make. I’m a freelancer in the performing arts- I had committed to this project before I got pregnant and it was a project that I really wanted to work on. So even though I’m sure if I paused to really contemplate the decision, I would have called it crazy, I didn’t stop to think- I just plunged ahead and made it work. While people at work got that look in their eyes upon discovering that I’d had a baby the week before, I felt grateful that my parents came out to watch my newborn, that my husband was supportive and took care of our oldest child, and that I got to work on a really cool and challenging project. Life wasn’t crazy, but rather really fortunate.

    1. @Diance C- thanks for your comment. I agree with you that there’s nothing sacrosanct about taking time “off” after a baby is born if you feel like you’re able and ready to do other things. And if you’re a freelancer with a really cool project on offer, why not?

  8. I agree completely with your post laura. Many times “crazy” situations are self inflicted or could have been avoided. I spoke to a dear friend not long ago. She and her husband have 2 small children plus two big-time careers. She was working from home because both kids were home from school and scrabbling to save her week from imploding. It totally fit the narrative of “two careers plus small kids is unsustainable, mom quit fast and save us all”. Except that actually the reason the kids were home was because they were on their mid term break. A week long break scheduled months in advance and communicated by the school to everyone. Except my friend never checked the calendar. Her daughter had started primary school and she hadnt thought to check the scheduled holidays that every school has. This situation was absolutely avoidable. She rallied and she managed and it all ended fine. But I often wonder how many of the catastrophies we read about regarding children vs careers are easily avoided?

  9. I have so many stories that feel crazy in the moment and definitely make me pause and think “why am I doing this?” Like the afternoon I was in the car for 3 hours trying to get myself and my child to a doctor appointment that lasted less than 60 seconds or the time I stayed home with a sick kid and then went in to work 4pm – midnight. But I definitely agree that it is a mindset shift and that I not only need to remind myself that these things are not the end of the world, but that I be flexible and open to sudden changes.

  10. Crazy vs normal can definitely be a matter of perspective. I remember explaining to someone English that my parents & my in-laws were only about 4 hours from each other, with other family about 5 hours away. I thought that made things so much easier to have them so close. My English friend considers that far, “We would be in the South of France after 4 hours.” Our holiday travels seemed extreme to her.

  11. I have some coworkers that I (thankfully) don’t interact with all that often, but when I do….
    They have a lot of opinions on how my choice of a dual degree path is ‘crazy’. I’ve been biting my tongue, because, dignifying their negativity is not worth the energy, but sometimes, I just want to say that I had a very specific vision of my career, and the dual MD and PhD was the most efficient way to accomplish that goal without closing off my Plan B and Plan C.

    These people, when I discussed my mentor at a meeting about why I believed his interpretation of my data was not correct with the known literature, also called me “bossy”. They also said it was ‘unfair’ I got to travel to conferences to present my data. I guess I can’t win!

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