As I observed the debate ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter's controversial "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" article in The Atlantic from afar over the past week, I witnessed person after person, including Slaughter, fall into the classic "all work" or "no work" trap." It's a death trap that immediately kills any productive conversation about creative, innovative ways to work differently. And that's the real conversation we need to have.
But we won't until we figure out how to avoid the "all or nothing" landmine that everyone seems to run into whenever a discussion about how to manage work and life in a modern, hectic world begins. Here are three simple steps to get us started:
First, understand what it looks like when someone falls into the trap. You'll begin to recognize what to avoid. Here are a few examples related to the Slaughter article debate:
The truth is that Slaughter did not leave her senior position in the State Department to not work. She went back to her very busy, very prestigious full-time job as a professor at Princeton. The difference was at Princeton she has more control over her schedule.
Unfortunately, in many of the responses to and interviews about her article, the conversation quickly devolved into the unwinnable debate "should mothers work or stay home." That's not what Slaughter did or what she was talking about. And yet, that's where we ended up.
Few were able to pull themselves out of the trap. It would have meant acknowledging that some people do choose to work all the time, or not work for pay at all, but what about everyone else? How do we take advantage of the countless possibilities in-between and do it in a way that works for us and our jobs?
Watch how Slaughter herself falls into the trap in this video from her interview at The Aspen Ideas Festival. She tries to explain how we should praise women who make work+life decisions in part to care for their families. But then assumes men can't be guided by family concerns because they have to make money.
Actually, men could and often do make tough work choices based on family considerations as long as the default assumption isn't that the only alternative is to "not work," but to work differently.
Again, Slaughter did not choose to work less. She worked differently. There's no reason a man couldn't do the same. But in the "all work" or "no work" trap it's impossible to stay in the grey zone of work+life possibility for all. What about the men who turn down promotions that would have required more work or take lower-paying jobs closer to home? I see it happen all the time, but because those choices don't fit our rigid "all or nothing" work dichotomy, we don't see or celebrate them. We should.
Very few people, men or women, can afford to not work even for a brief period of time; therefore, working smarter, better and more flexibly is the solution. Hopefully knowing what the trap looks like will help us avoid falling into it. And we can finally focus our discussion on the countless flexible ways of fitting work and life together.
Second, the issue is how to reset your unique work+life "fit" not work-life balance: If you have a few minutes, go back and re-read The Atlantic article. Everywhere you see the phrase "work life balance," substitute "find a work+life fit that works for me and my job." It's almost magical what happens. All of sudden the unwinnable search to find "balance," turns into a series of deliberate choices based on work and personal circumstances at a particular point in time. And much of the drama disappears.
For example, Slaughter could have inspired and empowered the Cambridge students she presented to with the story of how she flexibly managed the unique fit between her challenging work and very full personal life over the course of her career. Instead she focused on how you can't find balance and you can't "have it all."
She could have told them how a change in her work and personal realities caused her to leave her job at the State Department. How she would have lost her tenured professorship and her son began to struggle. That it was time for her to reset her work+life fit. And five years from now, when her sons are no longer living at home, and she can take another leave, maybe she'll reset it again.
That's the real story--how do you flexibly manage those resets as your unique work and personal circumstances change? But that fluid, changeable narrative can't survive in the "all work" or "no work" death trap. It gets lost in, what I call, the tyranny of balance.
Third, substitute "work differently" for "stay at home": Yes, not working in the paid workforce for a period of time is a very valid decision; however, it is a choice most people increasingly cannot make without putting themselves and their families at financial risk. Unfortunately, we haven't found language to describe simply changing the way you work. We tend to go right to "stay at home" which infers not working for pay.
For example, last week I had an opportunity to listen to about eight hours of talk radio as I drove my daughter to camp. It was at the peak of the Slaughter article frenzy when she appeared on a number of shows (in my opinion, Tom Ashbrook of On Point on NPR did the best job). One caller after another kept talking about how they either "can't afford to quit and stay home" or how they "decided to quit and stay at home." Okay, but what about doing what Slaughter did which was work differently?
In fact, when you heard the details of the callers' stories, it became clear that most were working differently but they obviously didn't have the language to describe the change they'd made. Maybe they "can't afford to quit and stay home," but they were working from home two days a week. Or maybe they did decide to "quit and stay home," but they had started a business that they ran out of their house. However, they were stuck using "stay at home" because it's the only way they knew how to describe working differently. The conversation went nowhere.
The "all work" or "no work" trap will continue to stifle creative, productive problem-solving around the very real and urgent issue of managing work and life unless we break out of its limiting grasp. Know what it looks like to fall into the trap, focus on how to reset your work+life fit when your unique work and personal circumstances change, and talk about "working differently," not "staying at home." Then we will see and value the countless work+life fit possibilities that lie in-between the all or nothing.
Are you stuck in the "all work" or "no work" dichotomy? Do you see the countless creative ways to fit work into your life between the all-or-nothing? Would moving beyond limits of "balance" and talking about how you can work differently, not necessarily less, help to see the possibilities?
Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO USA, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk for almost two decades. Her second work+life fit book, Tweak It: Small Changes, Big Impact--Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in January, 2013. Connect with Cali at her award-winning Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.
[Image: Flickr user Tommy Toner]