Why Asking the Wrong Questions Yields the Wrong Answers

In a series on women’s ambition, The Atlantic asks “How Much Ambition Can a Marriage Sustain?” The question itself suggests that the answer is a fixed amount that get apportioned across two people in different ways — either equally or with one spouse having much more while the other has much less.

But what if this is the wrong question? What if the question, instead, is “How Can a Couple Build a Life They Both Love?”

The problem with asking how much ambition the marriage can take is that it treats the players like they are sitting across from each other on a seesaw — they can be equal, but then each can only go as high as the middle, or one can be much higher and one is on the ground. This seems like a uniquely unhelpful way to view marriage, right? But more importantly it treats three different states — equal, man up/woman down, and woman up/man down — as if they are the same. But is that so? Are all three of those states essentially the same?

I’d suggest they aren’t. The key reason we all discuss ambition as it relates to marriage is because of the oft-asked question “But what about the kids?” While many (though not all) people tend to believe it’s “okay” if Mom works there is  belief that if both Mom and Dad are working all that time, that would be bad. That seems like a reasonable conclusion. But then it gets murky — is it okay if one parent works “all the time” and the other doesn’t? Does it matter which one? If one parent works “all the time” does that mean the other parent must not work at all to even the seesaw?

What’s interesting to me is that the research on the effect on children if Mom works is pretty clear — they do fine. There is some research on the effect of Dad’s career and it finds that kids do fine with a Dad who works a reasonable amount, but that Dad’s who aren’t around are missed (I know, right?).

If that’s true I think it fundamentally changes the question. Because clearly one parent around “all the time” doesn’t actually make up for one who isn’t around very much. And now we can ask, instead of how much total ambition can the marriage take, how much ambition in either parent can the family take?

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to that last question is “More than most of us think.” If you use your time with your family well and create wonderful and loving memories, those will loom much larger in the minds of your children than the missed dinners or a weekend away for business. Yes, there’s likely a limit to how much a parent can work and still be effective. But that’s true regardless of how little the other parent works, which means the marriage (and the family) can likely sustain ambition in both partners and turn out fine.

A Week In The Life

I’m starting a new series of occasional posts I’m calling “A Week In The Life.” My goal is to highlight weeks that I think illustrate work/life integration. The goal is not to pick “perfect” weeks. But weeks that highlight something I think is important or helpful in thinking about integration. I also want to highlight weeks that bust toxic cultural mythology around work & life.

What kinds of myths?

  1. Work only “counts” when it happens at certain places and times. This myth is common at many companies, but it is also a myth that many people have trouble letting got of too. Obviously some work requires us to be in a certain place at a certain time — waiting tables comes to mind. But plenty of work doesn’t.
  2. Working outside “normal” hours is bad (especially when mothers do it) but attending to life during the typical workday is good. Using evenings and weekends to catch up on work to offset time spent at school events, for example, is neither good nor bad. It’s just a way of managing all of the things you want to do.

Okay, so on to our week.

Sunday, January 8: The best laid plans of mice and men. Hebrew school was canceled because of weather so my plan to go to the gym was scuttled and I just went straight to the hair salon for a cut and color. My husband and kids picked me up after and we went out to lunch and then saw Sing!

Monday, January 9: It was the best of days, it was the worst of days. The trains were messed up badly. My normal 45 minute commute turned into a 2-hour-and-then-some journey. But the day got better as we scored a big win at work and I was able to get to most of the stuff I planned. I got home early, finished up a bit more work from home, then enjoyed tacos with my kids. Lovely way to end a day that started out rough.

Tuesday, January 10: Up at 4:30 am. Yup, you read that right. I had a morning meeting in Boston that requires a 7am flight. When I arrived I was able to make a quick phone call from the airport club and then get to my meeting. I was able to get home early enough to go to the gym and pick up my daughter from Hebrew school. These nights can be a bit nutty from a dinner perspective and everyone just kind of ate something and drifted off to bed.

Wednesday, January 11: A pretty typical workday, but I was able to slip out for a gym class at lunchtime. I stayed later than usual because I had a great evening activity. I got to be in a focus group for my favorite clothing brand, MM.LaFleur. So fun! Wine, snacks, and clothes.

Thursday, January 12: One of my commitments for 2017 is to get massages at least once a month. This is made easier by the fact that we have a massage therapist come to our office every Thursday. So I looked at my calendar and decided this Thursday was the best day this month. Such a great way to start the day! I spent the rest of the day getting ready for an event next week, including doing a practice run of my speech.

Friday, January 13: I spent the day with my partnerships director getting ready for our events next week. In the late afternoon I ran a training webinar and was able to duck out on the early side to pick up challah and rugelach. On Friday nights we make dinner special — we light Shabbat candles, have challah and enjoy the end of the week. It’s a lovely weekly ritual.

Saturday, January 14: Ah, the weekend! We all slept late. I took the kids to babysitting at the gym to give my husband some time, then he returned the favor by taking the kids out to lunch. We spent the afternoon watching Zootopia (for the fourth time …). Then, we made our own pizzas for dinner! Such fun.

Summary: A good week with a mix of intense work but also lots of well-spent personal time. Getting up at 4:30 for a flight wasn’t fun, but getting a massage at 9am on a Thursday certainly was.

Maybe your to-do list isn’t ambitious enough

There’s a lot written about to-do lists. How to do them better, why you shouldn’t do them at all, ideas for taking stuff off them, ideas for adding things to them and so on. It’s a popular topic in the productivity literature.

I’ll admit, I’m a little obsessed with these articles and generally click on lots of them.

So, I couldn’t resist an article titled Leonardo’s To-Do List is Much Cooler Than Yours. It’s a fun read. And I think the takeaway is that the issue is not how much is on your list, but WHAT is on your list. Is your to-do list interesting enough? Do you look at it and think “Yeah, I can’t wait to do these things” or do you look at it and sigh?

Before you spend a lot of time writing down what you HAVE to do, think about what you want to do. Really, really want to do. Then write those things down. Now you will have a to-do list as cool, as interesting, as ambitious as Da Vinci. Try it.

Megyn Kelly Shows Us How You Can Have a Big Career and a Life

Megyn Kelly chose NBC over Fox News, in part, for work/life balance reasons. NBC offered her a daytime slot which would allow her to have dinner with her family more regularly.

What’s interesting is that Claire Zillman reports in Fortune that this isn’t the first time Kelly has made a career move for the sake of her family. She quit a lucrative legal career, with its crushing hours, for a $17,000 entry-level job on television news, because she perceived a journalism career to offer more flexibility.

Two points I feel compelled to make. First, journalism is actually not famous for being a family-friendly endeavor. The hours can be just as crushing, without the upside of big salaries, and can often require big moves to find the next great opportunity. Second, while law is famous for chasing out smart, talented women, there are certainly ways to make a law career work for your life. I know women who go into private practice, for example, so they can have more control over their life and work.

What I like about the Kelly story, though, is that it advances the idea that you can make a career “sacrifice” for the sake of your family that still allows you to have a big and fulfilling career. She left the law, in part, because she didn’t find it very “interesting.” The fact that it also made it impossible for her to be the kind of mother she may have been a big factor in her move, but I bet she would have quit law anyway. By moving into journalism she found a career she liked more, was better at, and got herself into a position where she can could negotiate the kinds of jobs that also allow her to have the kind of life she wants.

So often the media narrative around career sacrifice for the sake of family — a sacrifice almost exclusively made by women, of course — posits the idea that our heroine must pare back her ambitions. Ideally she quits, because that’s really the only response we can imagine when a woman is working crushing hours and not seeing her children and has had enough. If she doesn’t quit then she takes a job that is somehow “less” — has less responsibility and power, requires fewer hours and less energy.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with paring back on career in favor of family. It’s a choice many women, and some men, make and it works for them. There are all kinds of ways to build a life and many definitions of success.

But I think what Kelly’s story illustrates, for me, is that when you decide that BOTH your family and your career are important it opens up a lot more possibility. Yes, there are still a lot of systemic problems that make it unnecessarily difficult for working parents to balance their home obligations with their professional ones. But it’s even harder when you are told by the culture, over and over, how very hard it is. So hard that you probably can’t do it and shouldn’t even try.

I don’t make tens of millions of dollars a year as a television journalist. But I do have a big, interesting career. I’m building a nonprofit from scratch. I work hard. I travel pretty frequently — I logged more than 50,000 air miles in 2016. But I also have dinner with my children most nights of the week. I spend weekends seeing movies, taking them to the zoo and doing other fun stuff. My husband is also home most nights and takes on many tasks that aren’t typical. For example, he is 100% in charge of setting up our daughter’s summer camp. He also has a big and demanding career. We have a rich, full life. It’s not always easy but it isn’t miserable either. On the contrary, it’s filled with a lot of joy — both personally and professionally.

Forget Resolutions: Focus on Habits and Projects

No matter how many articles get written about how resolutions don’t work, come January, everyone is making resolutions. And they keep making resolutions the same way, year after year.

This year I am going to try something different. I broke down what I want for myself in 2017 into two buckets — habits and projects.

Habits: I imagine you know what a habit is and these are what, for many people, would be traditional resolutions. Get to the gym, eat better — that sort of thing. For me, in 2017, I’ve decided to focus on a few habits that I want to cultivate this year. I have set goals for myself for each of them, but I’ve also decided that my real goal is to track myself against these habits. The idea is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that it can really become a habit — something I no longer need to think about and track because it just works. I’ve picked 5 habits that I want to track, which is probably too many. But since I’ve only committed to tracking them, at least for January, I think it’s okay. Also, they are habits across a few different dimensions that are aimed at, yes, getting me to the gym, but also reading more books, getting more massages (!), making more connections and planning better weekends with my family.

Projects: These are anything that have an end. Unlike habits, projects are not about making an ongoing change. Certain projects have a tendency to languish on my task lists forever. Generally projects that would be good to do (paint the apartment, declutter my wardrobe) but aren’t a must-do. Right now I have a list of seven projects, but that will change over the course of the year as I complete some, add others and choose to ditch some.

Next I need to set some timelines around the projects so they don’t just languish again. Some are timebound (my sister is getting married in June!) so those will happen. The ones I need to think about a bit are the ones that aren’t — like revamping my home office and seeing a dermatologist.

I’ll report back at the end of January on how it’s going, especially on the habits.