One of the keys to actively managing your work+life fit is flexibly redefining success. Think of your work+life fit as a highway. Too many of us see only the fast lane or a stop at the side of the road. But the truth is there are three options—a fast lane, stop at the side of the road, and a “slower” lane. The countless work+life fit possibilities involve moving back and forth across all lanes over the course of a flexible career between the fast lane and the slower lane, and sometimes pulling off the road for awhile. We all know about the fast track, and about taking a break. But we don’t hear much about what it means to move into the slower lane. What does it look like? How do you do it?
Notice I didn’t say “slow” lane, because no self-respecting high-achiever ever wants to admit to being in the slow lane. But the slower lane…perhaps. In theory, it may not sound bad at all, until you look back over into the fast lane. What’s happening? Someone is passing you by. That can be very difficult. But sometimes we have no choice.
The all or nothing, all work or no work, fast lane/stop at the side of the road mentality doesn’t reflect today’s work+life fit reality especially in this economy. As we found in the 2009 Work+Life Fit Reality Check, a majority said they are less likely to leave the workforce to care for children or aging parents, and a majority now plan to do some type of paid work in retirement. Taken together, we have to honestly examine what a shift into the “slower” lane involves, since it will mean something different for each of us.
Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Miranda Bailey Painfully Redefines Success…
The season finale of Grey’s Anatomy unexpectedly granted my wish for more examples of shifts into the slower lane. Chief Resident, Dr. Miranda Bailey made the painful move out of the fast lane by turning down a prestigious fellowship for the less demanding position of general surgeon. This well written and acted episode accurately depicted the conflicting considerations and emotions behind her decision.
For those of you who are not Grey’s Anatomy fans, here’s Dr. Bailey’s backstory: Season after season, Dr. Bailey continued her determined ascent up the ladder. She overcame professional setbacks, even if that meant periodically showing up at the hospital with her young son, William, in tow. Although her marriage to her husband Tucker struggled, it had seemed to be back on track.
As Chief Resident, she had to choose an area of specialization. While she liked general surgery, midway through the season it seemed she’d found her true passion as a pediatric surgeon. She began to pursue a prestigious fellowship for two additional years of training, which would keep her in the fast lane.
But when Dr. Bailey receives the news she’d won the fellowship, she goes to the hospital’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Richard Webber. She asks him if there is still an opening for her as a general surgeon. He says there is but admits he’s confused. He’d supported her for the fellowship because he thought it was what she wanted, and with that she confesses, “It is, but Tucker said if I took the fellowship our marriage was over. I need the consistency of a general surgeon’s schedule to be home at night as much as possible.” She goes on to say that she’s decided to leave her husband anyway because that’s no way to have a marriage, and she catches her breath as she concludes, “I am now a single mother, and need to be home for my son…”
And then there’s the reaction of Dr. Arizona Robbins, the doctor who sponsored her, “You don’t turn down a fellowship like this!” Her response symbolizes the toughest part of pulling into the slower lane–the outside voices telling you what you “should,” “ought,” and “can’t” do.
So how does being a general surgeon put you in the slower lane?” For Dr. Bailey, turning down that fellowship meant she had to redefine success. She settled for a position she enjoys and will give her the work+life fit she needs right now, but it isn’t her passion and doesn’t have the same prestige. To her mind and perhaps in the minds of her colleagues, Miranda Bailey is in the slower lane.
How I missed seeing Michelle Obama speak….
Actively managing your work+life fit and consciously redefining success doesn’t just happen at major life reset points, like a divorce or potential promotion. It’s something we do on a daily basis, and it never gets easier…even for me.
The last three weeks my schedule has included more than the usual amount of travel (thus, the light blogging). When I committed to the opportunities that took me to Boston, Chicago and then Lexington, Kentucky I knew there would be very little room for any last minute additions to my work+life fit—personal or professional. Then I got an invitation to attend the Corporate Voices for Working Families conference in Washington DC.
The conference sounded wonderful, and I knew many of my favorite work+life industry colleagues would be there. But looking at my calendar I saw that if I attended the conference I would have to fly from Chicago to Washington and be away for the last two days of my older daughter’s statewide standardized tests. Because these tests partially influence her placement in Junior High School next year, she was more nervous than usual. So I declined the conference invitation in order to be home.
I was disappointed, but happy with my decision, until the first day of the conference when I received an email from one of the attendees telling me about Michelle Obama’s fabulous speech! Michelle Obama?! Yes, Michelle Obama delivered an unannounced speech at the conference that I had consciously chosen not to attend! (Click here to read the post by Ellen Galinsky of Families and Work Institute about her meeting with the First Lady).
I spent the rest of the day reading articles and blog posts about her speech. I found myself thinking of what it must have been like for my “fast lane” colleagues who attended the conference to hear her speak about a subject many of us have spent more than 15 years studying and promoting. Had I missed a once in a lifetime opportunity? What had I done? But all of my doubts were erased when I put my daughter to bed that night and she said, “Mom thanks for being here. It made me feel better in my tests.” I’d said no to the conference, pulled into the slower lane, missed Michelle Obama, and made the right decision.
Maybe I’ll see Michelle Obama another time, and maybe Dr. Miranda Bailey will get that fellowship in a couple of years. But we both actively managed our work+life fit and redefined success in a way that worked best for us, for our jobs and our personal realities at a given point in time. There’s no right answer. Today, we pulled into the “slower” lane, as we defined it. The next time the decision may be to put our blinker on and pull back into the fast lane again. It’s not all or nothing…as hard as that may be sometimes.
How many lanes are in your work+life fit highway? Have you even pulled into the slower lane as you define it, either by choice or circumstance? What did that look like and what did it involve?