In the play Hamlet, Wm. Shakespeare immortalized that famous phrase: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
While on the Peterson-More annual family trek to the Eastern Sierras, one has an opportunity to read, hike, fish, indulge in all variety of flora and fauna (excluding, thankfully, snakes – altitude too high for them), and to meditate and contemplate. For me, the paradox “being or doing,” keeps coming to the fore.
This brought back a memory that, undoubtedly, is universally shared by all high school seniors. I was asked to write an essay on what I wanted to “be when you grow up?”Setting aside for a moment that the question presupposes that a) a 17-year old knows what she wants to “be,” and, b) that she aspires to “be” anything at all, for the question really asks what the student “wants to do when she grows up.”
I began my essay with lofty aspirations to do who knows what – I don’t remember. What I do recall is that midway through the essay, I threw it out, and repositioned the question and my work, writing an essay entitled something along the lines of “Why do adults always ask teenagers what they want to do when they grow up; rather than what kind of person they want to be.” I admonished adults for focusing on doing rather than being, and explained that I wanted to “be a good person, kind, thoughtful, with generosity of spirt and heart.” (Likely, I didn’t use the last phrase, rather wrote whatever a 17-year old would have said.)
The expression “deer in the headlights,” comes to mind when my English teacher quietly called me aside to “discuss my essay.” Again, I have no recollection of how the conversation went other than I got an “A,” and was also admonished that “next time, you should follow the instructions.”
Being or Doing: Assessing My Life to Date:
As a garden variety over-achiever, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life over-achieving. My babyboomer generation of professional women aspired to be “superwomen,” with perfect careers, perfect spouses and perfect children. Anecdotally, over the years I’ve noticed that we babyboomer over-achieving, superwomen aspiring professionals, often master well two of the three – very few do all three well: I know great professional women with fulfilling careers and wonderful marriages, yet no children; I know others with fulfilling careers and amazing children, with failed marriages; last, I know many professional women who gave up their careers for home and hearth – marriages and children. In my case, children came first, career second, and marriage third. As you might imagine, I ended up a single mother with three amazing children, and now three wonderful grandchildren.
Meteoric Rise to the Glass Ceiling:
This phrase is one I often use to describe my own early career. I rose from an in-house employment lawyer, to an employee relations specialist to the first female HR manager, to a healthcare director (the company had a self-funded and -administered healthcare program) where I negotiated a PPO (preferred provider network), to being elected Secretary of the Corporation at the tender age of 38. There were 18 officers – 17 men (of all races and ethnicities I might add) and one woman – me.
Balancing Family and Career: The so-called “Work-Life Balance”:
For me it was a blessing that I was pregnant my last year of law school, having married a classmate at the end of our second year. Starting my career with an infant (my son is celebrating his birthday today as I write) caused me to become extremely efficient with my time at work. No chit-chat around the water-cooler for me. This trait has served me well throughout life. Two daughters followed, and I managed to juggle (perhaps a better word than balance) my many duties. If one can visualize the circus clown keeping all of the plates spinning in the air, that was me. Along the way – first out of necessity, and later out of commitment – I also served and continue to serve on many nonprofit boards and governmental commissions, task forces, etc. The first was as a founding board member/officer of a child care center. I needed to find a nurturing, child-centered environment for my child, then children. The rest, as they say, is history.
Work-Life Balance Today:
Following in her Mother’s footsteps, my elder daughter was a board member of the local YWCA. As an awardee one year, I wrote an “Ode to My Daughter” as my acceptance speech to chronicle how life had evolved for working women, in large measure due to the efforts of the Y and many other nonprofits. At the conclusion of my speech, my daughter came up to me and said “Mom, life hasn’t changed that much.” Although that may be true – the enormity of progress – life has changed, incrementally.
As I observe my daughters and their generation of women in the workforce, there are better laws and policies supporting working women (FMLA, CFRA in CA, Paid Family Leave, also in CA, etc.), childcare – although pricey – is available (time to tackle that one and to expand leave policies to other states), and, employers generally, whether grudgingly or not, recognize that workers have families and lives outside of work. There is recognition that these policies impact positively men in the workforce, too. I am impressed with the number of men who take time off for the birth or adoption of children.
Being or Doing: Where Does that Leave me Today?
“I’m working on it,” to quote my four-year old granddaughter. After a life-time of doing, it’s hard to transition to “being,” though, I’m giving it a valiant try. Is it time to reread my high school essay?
Spending more time focused on what it means to “be” in this world, has prompted me to reflect on the many lessons I’ve learned over my lifetime, to try to capture them in writing, and to share them with others. I’m fond of saying when I start a leadership training series or an executive coaching assignment that “I made a lot of mistakes as a manager and leader; the good news is that I learned from those mistakes; the better news is that I’m willing to share those lessons with you so you won’t make those same mistakes.” Also, I try to follow my own admonition by concluding each day with asking myself “what have I learned today, and based upon what I learned, what am I going to do differently tomorrow?”
For me, staying engaged and involved with my growing family, making time to be the parent and grandparent that is supportive, nurturing, and yes, challenging is top priority. Staying engaged and involved with friends and community comes second. Sharing the lessons of a lifetime comes third. And, time for me – whether traveling abroad, reading, hiking, exercising, meditating and contemplating, or just plain “being” is last?
What advice would my 17-year old self give me today? What important lessons did I seem to know so well then that I need to recapture today? Much to contemplate on these two weeks in the glorious eastern Sierras.