Over the last several decades, our culture has adopted a new definition of success. It used to be that success in life involved being really good at one thing.
You might be an amazing writer. A brilliant teacher. A savvy businessperson. Or a devoted stay-at-home parent.
Nowadays, however, we've expanded the scope of success. It’s no longer enough to be good at just one thing. We now have to be good at, well, everything.
If you're an overachiever at work, with a stressful job, you can’t just be really good at your job. You have to also have a stunning body, sculpted through daily workouts, be a devoted parent, in attendance at every soccer game, and up-to-date on the latest new ideas and news so you can impress your friends during cocktail banter.
If you're a stay-at-home parent, you may experience the same thing, just in the reverse. You can't just care for your children and manage the house. The you-can-have-it-all motto of our culture says you should also be building an entrepreneurial side-hustle or training for a marathon during your "off hours."
Both men and women encounter this new definition of success. But it lands harder, much harder, on women. As Gloria Steinem puts it, "You can work full time in the paid labor force, only if you keep on working full time in the unpaid labor force. You cook three gourmet meals a day, you raise two perfect children, you dress for success, and as a women’s magazine once put it, you are 'multi-orgasmic till dawn.'"
There’s a phrase for this perverse new cultural definition of success: “You can have it all.”
And here’s the problem. It’s an impossible aspiration. Your overachievement at work makes being a 24/7 parent all but impossible. Your devotion to your kids at home makes being a 70-hour-a-week entrepreneur impossible. You simply can’t have it all.
So what can you do instead?
Instead of drinking the cultural Kool-Aid and trying to “have it all," redefine what success means for you. This might mean focusing on one or two areas in life where you can put in your best work. Maybe it’s enough to just give it your all at work. Maybe it’s enough to help your kids with distance learning, schedule all of their play dates, manage the house, and instill your children with character and compassion. Maybe you don’t need to be good at everything.
In a previous newsletter, we explored the idea of intentionally failing at certain areas of life. It applies here as well. The best way to break out of this cultural delusion is to learn how to purposefully fail at the demands in life that aren't your top priority.
This isn't our normal habit. Most of us try to do everything, fail miserably or feel completely overwhelmed, and then feel resentful at the thousands of to-do's and demands of modern life.
We think there's a better approach: consciously failing at life. Try out getting an F in helping out with the PTA at your child's school. See what happens when you fail at organizing the house with perfect precision. Try failing at saying "yes" to every invitation you receive.
You may find that it's scary, even terrifying to fail. But you may also find that you have more time, energy, and focus for the things that matter most to you.