Why “Having it All” isn’t the Best Goal

having it all

Being a freelance consultant and full-time mom, I’m always interested in how parents (men and women) juggle their professional and personal lives. Not surprisingly, I’ve been following Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her recent book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. More fascinating than the book itself is the reaction it has garnered in the media: from very positive reviews praising her stance on balancing work and life issues to very negative reviews that bash millionaire Sandberg for not understanding a more modest woman’s struggles.

All the arguments seem to boil down to one simple question for working parents: Can they “have it all” – the rewarding challenge of a full-time career and the joy of raising a child in such a way that you can be there for all the “little moments?”

And therein lies the problem. By framing the question “Can you have it all?” I believe a person is setting themselves up for disappointment. Here’s why:

Life is full of prioritizations and decisions.

No matter who you are, if you are faced with a decision based on limited time, you have to make a choice on where to apply yourself. In the child-rearing case, you either decide to spend more time directly with your child or more time directly on your career. Even if you try to “balance” it out to equal time, there will be moments where you will miss a business opportunity or moments where you will miss an emotional moment in your child’s life.

I’ve seen this myself in my personal situation. I decided to quit my job and do part-time work from home, meaning that I get more valuable time with my child. However, because I only work so much, I’ve had to pass up some very interesting work contracts I would have enjoyed doing. On the flip side, my husband works full-time and has missed out on my daughter’s first steps and words, but he is advancing faster in his career. There is no right or wrong decision here, simply a matter of priority and how we decided to split our time.

“Having it all” is an extremely vague goal…

Even if you have no interest in raising children, “having it all” is a pretty vague, and therefore, near impossible goal. “All” could include (but is not limited to): great wealth, time to travel, time for personal projects, career advancement, family time, professional satisfaction, improved health, spiritual or meditative time. If you intend to maximize all these things, you will fail since you will always find someone else who has more time to spend on one aspect than you do.

…which is why no one person truly “has it all.”

You could name every person on the planet, and it would be easy to see that he/she does not, truly, “have it all.” People who earn great wealth often receive it by giving up family time or health. Most people I know with spectacular careers tell me they wish they had more time to do personal travel, but can’t due to the nature of their jobs. Stay-at-home parents wish for career fulfillment, while working parents yearn for more time with their kids.

To me “having it all” equates to perfection in life, and no matter how great of a person you are, no one is perfect. So does that mean we should just give up?

Define life in how you prioritize.

In lieu of “having it all,” I go back to prioritization and decision-making as a way to define yourself. Don’t worry so much about “having it all” because that’s not possible. Focus your efforts, instead, on finding true balance for yourself, the right mix for you. Determine the things that are truly important to you and work backwards from there.

It’s important to note that what works for you will not necessarily work for others. On the contrary, comparing yourself to others can be silly at best and harmful at worst. If you gain a lot of satisfaction from your working career, becoming a stay-at-home parent would make you miserable. It’s just not an option for you. Anyone who tells you differently doesn’t truly appreciate what makes you happy in life, and so trying to emulate their lives will only make you more dissatisfied. So don’t try to have it all; try to have what’s right for you.

What works for you now may not even work for you long-term. In my case, I’ve decided to go on a semi-career hiatus while my children are young. I still do some work, but it’s only a fraction of what I used to do as a project manager and writer, and that’s okay for me for now. As my children grow, I suspect I’ll itch for more professional time, and then my life will balance in a different way. That’s okay too.

I’ve always respected and still very much do respect professional women like Sheryl Sandberg. And while I do respect her decision to “lean in” to work, I have to say it just isn’t for me right now. I know deep in my soul that I would have regretted not being the primary caregiver in my children’s young lives, and since I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity, I’m going to take it. So my career will take a hit for now, but I don’t plan to be away forever. And that works for me.

Please share your own experiences in “having it all” and other balancing decisions you’ve had to make in your life.

Photo by creative1the

21 thoughts on “Why “Having it All” isn’t the Best Goal”

  1. The problem with the idea of “having it all” is the fact that we’re on a hedonic treadmill. When you’re in that feeling that you’ve truly made it and have everything you need, your brain is going to adjust to it and only want more. Stoicism brings up an interesting point that is easy to see in our own lives.

    Their idea is that no matter what you get or where you are, you’re only going to be happier for a short period of time before your brain starts wanting more. The only way to counter this is by practicing wanting what you already have and extinguish that desire for more.

    I’ll share my experience with “having it all.” When I started my website, I felt like I was on top of the world. It was growing astonishingly quick, my friends were amazed, and I had landed three internships with tons of connections as a result of the site. I thought I’d be happy for the rest of my life. Flash forward three months later, I’m slowly feeling my mind get used to the feeling and now it wants more. It wants 1,000,000 visitors per month instead of just 10,000. It wants more and more, but it’ll never truly have it all for a long period of time.

    1. I agree that “having it all” can be a cycle of always wanting more than what you have. While I do believe it’s good to have goals and continue to redefine them, that doesn’t mean you should be unhappy if you can’t have everything you want.

      You provide a great example with your website. Obviously, you should feel proud of growing from nothing to a website that grew at great speed. You should keep that satisfaction no matter what happens. Of course, if you’re working towards getting 1 million visitors per month, there’s nothing wrong with that, but hopefully it will not make you unhappy while you work toward it. You may make mistakes along the way and experience setbacks, but that’s life. There’s reward in the journey too and enjoying your current successes.

  2. Great article Deborah—and certainly one that all women should read regardless of whether they have children or not. As you say, everything is a choice about what it important to you and why you feel you are here on the planet in the first place. As a person who made the decision NOT to have children, I never once thought “I could have it all” anyway and knew it was something that needed to be decided early on–because with children there really shouldn’t be any going back! I firmly believe that not all women are meant to be mothers–but because our culture so promotes procreation, many women who might make other choices are pressured into the decision and thinking they “can have it all” anyway. I’m just not sure that is possible because life is basically a tradeoff. Something has to give. Thanks again for raising this issue and giving us all more to think about….~kg

    1. It’s great that you are self-aware and have been able to make good choices for yourself, Kathy. I do feel that our culture can promote procreation, and some of my childless friends do feel pressure to have children even though it’s not in their best interests. In the same vein, since I’ve had children and stopped working, I’ve felt pressure (both internally and externally) to go back to work soon because “that’s what professional women do.”

      That’s why I think it’s doubly important not to buy into any “one size fits all” rhetoric and strike your own path. Some people may judge you, but I’ve found your best friends and family will support you, no matter what path you choose.

  3. The gist of your article for me is that we are all different and listen to different drums, so I personally would be unable to answer what is ‘having it all’ – as for me it is only a perspective.
    I appreciated the way in which you were able to say that what someone else thought was ‘having it all’ was not for you and so could find happiness with where you are because it is your decision for you at this time in your life. To me that is the point.

    1. Joan: This article is personal for me because I do struggle from time to time with choices I have made, wondering if I could have made better decisions and “had more” if not “have it all.” I wrote this as much as a reminder to myself that life is full of trade-offs, and it’s okay not to compare yourself to others and stop worrying. Your drumbeat is as valid as the next person’s.

  4. Great points Deborah. One thing I have discovered in writing “who Stole My Success” is that many women allow the expectations of others to determine what is good for them. For many years I struggled with feelings of guilt because I was an executive manager, a parent of teens and a university student and I had little time left for community involvement.
    I learned that it’s never about having it all but about having what I want and need so that I live on purpose and enjoy what really matters to me. And yes sometimes I still wonder about having it all and then I get grateful for the 44 years of love and care with my husband, the health and wellbeing of my children and grandchildren and the fact that I can live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I have it all but my needs are modest.
    Thanks for filling my heart with gratitude this morning

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Roberta. I think you’re a great example of how others might think you “had it all,” but you still had to decide what was best for your life and make cutbacks. I also strongly believe that as our lives evolve, we’re able to shift our priorities and experience more out of life, rather than doing everything all at once. Glad to hear you’re doing well with your own list of prioritizations.

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more, and it’s about time we had some honesty on this issue. I do not have children but I understand how unrealistic it is to aim for having it all. In fact, I think it’s okay to be strategically imbalanced at various stages in your life. Sometimes you have to over-commit in a particular area in order to achieve your goals. You need to be okay with this. The most important thing is to clear about what’s important to you and how your decisions fit into your long term goals.

    1. I love the phrase “strategically imbalanced.” That’s exactly how I feel at this point in my life, and regardless if you have children or not, you may find yourself in the same position for a variety of reasons. There’s nothing wrong with making choices that you won’t sustain for the long run, but need to do so now.

  6. A fine post. I think we can have most of what we want, just not all at once. Prioritizing ought to be a painstaking and serious task where we question everything – everything so that we are damn sure what we want. The things I want most in life are time-consuming and intellectually rigorous (classical guitar, writing, fitness) so I have to commit to very few and choose very wisely. It means ruthlessly cutting the fluff so that I can have what I want and be a pleasant, content person to talk to and hang with.

    1. It sounds like you’ve been through a bit of the prioritization process yourself. It’s true that you have to “ruthlessly cut the fluff” – sit down and really think about what’s important to you. Otherwise, you’ll never get to where you want to be.

  7. Deborah, I really like how you wrote about this difficult topic. You really made great points about priorities and the illusion that people “have it all.” What has been really difficult for me, but definitely the most fulfilling, is putting aside what others think about the decisions I’ve made in my life about work, diet, and fitness. For a long time, I tried to do what I thought others wanted which made me very unhappy at the end of the day. When I started to own my own needs and take my life in the direction I wanted, I started living very happy days. In fact, all of them are happy now. What I once thought was pie-in-the-sky became reality. I love that you shared your story of how it worked for you so that others can benefit!

    1. I’ve been through the same struggles, Tammy, and on a bad day I still read an article or talk to a friend and wonder, “Am I doing this right? Is this what I need?” Right now, I know I’m holding the right mix because 99.9% of the time, I am content and happy. When that changes, I will need to change with it. No need to compare myself for answers; they are all contained within me.

  8. Well, I don’t have children. But I definitely have always wanted it all, and that has made me fail time and time again. Especially when I’d start to accomplish something, my parents would see it, and start complaining that I wasn’t spending that time on cleaning or working on their projects. And then I’d try to balance that on top of everything else.

    And, just like a juggler juggling too many balls, it would all fall apart.

    But I have always wondered if it is possible to have a balanced life. You know, to do a little bit of everything while still concentrating on the one you love the most? So, that’s why I started this recent life change. Most people would say I’m taking on far too much. But I love it! It’s helping me get further than I ever could have imagined possible.

    Of course, I do it very slowly. I introduce another ball into my juggling act only after I’ve mastered the skill of the ones before it. And I practice, practice, practice and fix the flaws in the balls I’m juggling before I move on and add a new one.

    It’s working so far. I don’t know if what I’m trying is impossible. But it feels possible. And I’m going to do everything I have to to make it happen.

    Great post! Very thought provoking. Thank you very much for taking the time from your obviously very busy life to post it.

    1. What you’re doing sounds very reasonable. You’re trying stuff one at a time and adding on more things as you get better. It’s actually a very smart way to try introducing new things into your life. I say if it makes you feel better and it’s working for you, keep doing it, and don’t let the naysayers take you down. Only you can truly decide if it’s not going to work for you in the long run.

      Good luck on your journey!

  9. Nice article Deboarh! I too believe that prioritizing “all” is very important. One can not get anything and everything. This need not be taken as lack of ambition but as an acceptance of a basic reality of life. The problem arises because many people believe in just two colors in life – black and white. There is no grey color in existence. And in trying to achieve either of the two, one reaches nowhere. At the same time, there are people who think having just one specific thing will make them happy and contented. They spend their entire energy in trying to achieve that particular goal, and in the meanwhile end up not enjoying so many other reasons of happiness.

    Similarly, as one of your readers has rightly stated that even she has it all but the needs are modest. If the needs are defined pragmatically, “all” can be achieved … well, may be!! But the sad truth is that modesty is one of the least favored virtues today.

    1. You make a great point that some people may feel like they have it “all” because of they way they define it for themselves. If you truly want to have everything out of life, that isn’t possible since there’s too much to do for one lifetime. Through prioritization, though, you can create an “all” that includes many aspects of a good life and be content.

  10. Actually, you gave an excellent case for how we can all “have it all”.
    The key point to recognize is that your “all” isn’t my “all”.
    My “all” involved x,y,z and yours was q, b, a…
    Neither is correct or perfect for the other- but the best for the person who made the choices. If you think your choices are/were bad- change them- and get the all you want and can live with happily.
    That’s the key point!

    1. I see what you’re saying. If “all” is relative, then you can find a way to balance your life to have it all. In the media, however, it seems as if “all” refers to achieving some universal standard, which I think is counterproductive to leading a good life.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *