Our Identity Crisis
There is a concept in design thinking: the extreme user. When exploring the needs of potential users of a product or service, focus on individuals who inhabit the extremes. If you’re designing ski equipment, go observe professional skiers. My favorite example here is designing a better suitcase. Who do you talk to? Pilots and stewardesses, of course. That’s what a design team did decades ago for a client, and that’s how the first suitcase with wheels came to be. Back then, the average person didn’t travel so much, so the old hand carried suitcases worked just fine. If you had to travel every day, however, it was a problem. Of course you know where this story ends: rolling suitcases then made the handheld ones obsolete.
I realized recently that as an career oriented mom of three young children, I am an example of an extreme user. I’m torn in two impossibly directions, with unrealistic demands to be two things at once that aren’t very compatible given the time commitments required for each. In this case, my struggle reveals a universal need that goes far beyond balancing motherhood and career. It goes beyond the framing of women, men, caregiving, and work that Anne-Marie Slaughter so artfully up leveled to in Unfinished Business. It’s a need that applies to all of us: the freedom to explore and express ourselves as the multifaceted human beings we are deep inside.
We are held back by the social narratives we’ve internalized about how we should live our lives. About our careers; about our romantic relationships; about our families. We are held back by the rigidity of the dominant models of how we work. We are held back by a capitalist machine that puts us on a relentless hamster wheel to keep up with the Joneses. Put bluntly, we are suffering a crisis of identity.
We need the freedom to define our own narratives about who we are. And, we need to redefine how we work in order to give us the space to do so.
The response to my post, I Didn’t Lean In, I Pushed Back, was tremendous. I heard from so many women like me who are torn between their families and their careers. One had turned down a job and worried the decision would yield a painful blow to her career trajectory. Another knew deep down the right decision was to stay home with her children but fear held her back. But I also heard from single friends for whom my post resonated because they struggled to find time for themselves in the midst of the intense demands of their careers.
There is a common thread: our jobs are taking up a disproportionate amount of space.
The default for so many of us is a 40+ hour work week sitting at a desk or in a conference room, surrounded by others doing the same. In far too many cases, our work sucks the life out of us more than it fulfills us. Even when we manage to confine our time at the office to 40 hours a week, work follows us home. It follows us home with our smartphones that receive emails 24/7. It follows us home in the form of stress.
We are spent, trying to find the energy to make time for a long list of competing quotidian priorities: children, spouses, significant others, friends, workouts and other forms of self care. The long list of our interests and passions we’d like to make time for sits collecting dust. We tell ourselves some day we’ll get to it. We veg out watching Netflix or scrolling social media (or both simultaneously) when we so often have nothing left to give.
We get a few weeks of vacation a year. That time tends to get take up with either obligations we can’t get out of or much needed restoration. We rarely allow ourselves time off between jobs. Financially it’s often impossible: we have rents or mortgages, credit card debt, and health insurance to pay. The next opportunity feels too great to pass up. We tell ourselves when we retire, we’ll get to those hobbies and passions of ours. And then, like my father and many others of his generation, our health falls apart when we finally get there. So much for that life we’d been waiting for so long to get to live.
This is a truly insane state of affairs. It has to change. Even for those of lucky enough to love what we do, it still crowds out the rest of what’s inside of all of us.
What would happen if we allowed ourselves the space to take time off between jobs, to work part time, to explore other career paths, to attend to our passions? We’d not only be much happier humans, we’d be much better problem solvers. And this pale blue dot of ours has a long list of hard problems in desperate need of polymaths to solve.
What I experienced making room for motherhood after a lifetime of focus on my career was tantamount to an identity crisis (one I wrote about years ago here). For the bulk of my life, my career had been my identity. At seven I took an IQ test to get into a gifted program at my public elementary school. Then it was to the next prestigious academic institution and onto the next. At each step of the way the focus was on making sure I had the story required to get me in at the next transition point. Then it was about where I worked. Everyone was always so impressed: Berkeley, Accenture, Google, Harvard, Stanford. Society rewarded my efforts with abundant praise.
We all know the first question you get when you meet someone new. “So… what do you do?”
It’s because in today’s day and age, for so many of us our careers define us. When you aren’t defined by your career, your response makes you feel as if you lack value. “I stay at home with my kids” tends to be met with an awkward “Oh…” and glance around the room for someone more interesting to talk to.
We need to get to a place where we don’t feel judged for having an identity outside of our careers. Where we have the freedom and opportunities to allocate our time across all the things that light us up: be they caregiving, multiple career paths, hobbies, or anything else in between.
In my case, I needed to shift my career from a 40 hour chunk of my week into a 10 hour one. That massive shift in the allocation of my time opened up space for me to attend to two equally important parts of my identity: that of a mother and that of a life partner. I saved plenty of energy in case of emergency (there are no shortage of emergencies with multiple children and a startup). I found time to do that yoga teacher training I’d been thinking about for a decade. It deepened my spiritual practice and changed me profoundly. I learned how to dj after twenty years of telling my friends I’d get around to it eventually.
How much more fulfilled would we be if we lived in a society where we had the freedom to explore the true self inside each of us? Our interests and hobbies are hints at passions that could have very well led to careers. A friend of mine took a break from a successful career as a technology entrepreneur to pursue professional sailing. He’s now taken on a job as the CEO of a world-class sailing team. How amazing would it be if we could all have such circuitous resumes? And how incredible for the world if we could draw on a rich diversity of experiences in our work?
As I’ve begun this journey of writing about my story and extending to a greater cause, another angle has emerged. I’ve had conversations with female friends who have decided against having children who spoke of the judgement from the world for not procreating. I have friends who are single and thriving who feel pressure to settle down and find someone, even though they’re abundantly happy just where they are.
So this, I think, is a problem we should seek to solve. How might we push back against society’s expectations of who we should be so we have the freedom to explore who we are? And if our careers as we know them today are the primary impediment given their disproportionate share of our time, how might we redefine work to open up space for such exploration?
Much fodder for posts to come.