(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)
As I observed the debate ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article in The Atlantic from afar over the past week, I witnessed person after person, including Slaughter, fall into the classic “all work” or “no work” trap.” It’s a death trap that immediately kills any productive conversation about creative, innovative ways to work differently. And that’s the real conversation we need to have.
But we won’t until we figure out how to avoid the “all or nothing” landmine that everyone seems to run into whenever a discussion about how to manage work and life in a modern, hectic world begins. Here are three simple steps to get us started:
First, understand what it looks like when someone falls into the trap. You’ll begin to recognize what to avoid. Here are a few examples related to the Slaughter article debate:
The truth is that Slaughter did not leave her senior position in the State Department to not work. She went back to her very busy, very prestigious full-time job as a professor at Princeton. The difference was at Princeton she has more control over her schedule.
Unfortunately, in many of the responses to and interviews about her article, the conversation quickly devolved into the unwinnable debate “should mothers work or stay home.” That’s not what Slaughter did or what she was talking about. And yet, that’s where we ended up.
Few were able to pull themselves out of the trap. It would have meant acknowledging that some people do choose to work all the time, or not work for pay at all, but what about everyone else? How do we take advantage of the countless possibilities in-between and do it in a way that works for us and our jobs?
Watch how Slaughter herself falls into the trap in this video from her interview at The Aspen Ideas Festival. She tries to explain how we should praise women who make work+life decisions in part to care for their families. But then assumes men can’t be guided by family concerns because they have to make money.
Actually, men could and often do make tough work choices based on family considerations as long as the default assumption isn’t that the only alternative is to “not work,” but to work differently.
Again, Slaughter did not choose to work less. She worked differently. There’s no reason a man couldn’t do the same. But in the “all work” or “no work” trap it’s impossible to stay in the grey zone of work+life possibility for all. What about the men who turn down promotions that would have required more work or take lower-paying jobs closer to home? I see it happen all the time, but because those choices don’t fit our rigid “all or nothing” work dichotomy, we don’t see or celebrate them. We should.
Very few people, men or women, can afford to not work even for a brief period of time; therefore, working smarter, better and more flexibly is the solution. Hopefully knowing what the trap looks like will help us avoid falling into it. And we can finally focus our discussion on the countless flexible ways of fitting work and life together.
Second, the issue is how to reset your unique work+life “fit” not work-life balance: If you have a few minutes, go back and re-read The Atlantic article. Everywhere you see the phrase “work life balance,” substitute “find a work+life fit that works for me and my job.” It’s almost magical what happens. All of sudden the unwinnable search to find “balance,” turns into a series of deliberate choices based on work and personal circumstances at a particular point in time. And much of the drama disappears. (For more, click here to go to FastCompany.com)