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She Does It. Can We?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a cover story for Fast Company called Balance is Bunk. To summarize, I said that work-life balance was “an unattainable pipe dream, a vain artifice that offers mostly rhetorical solutions to problems of logistics and economics.” You can’t, I wrote, have everything–even if you work really, really hard.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a cover story for Fast Company called Balance is Bunk. To summarize, I said that work-life balance was “an unattainable pipe dream, a vain artifice that offers mostly rhetorical solutions to problems of logistics and economics.” You can’t, I wrote, have everything–even if you work really, really hard.

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So, what do we make of Sophie Vandebroek, who’s profiled in our April issue? Ten years ago, Vandebroek’s husband died suddenly, leaving her alone with three small children and no other relatives in the U.S. She responded not just by sticking to her career, but by taking on a string of increasingly challenging, high-profile roles. Her latest is chief technology officer at Xerox, a job she won in January.

How does she do it? By sticking to strict rules for travel, refusing relocations, and living simply. She hires someone to do laundry and grocery shopping, and doesn’t sweat it if things don’t go perfectly. “So many things we worry about,” she says, “are not important.” She keeps the family schedule uncluttered–only one sport or activity per kid per season–and chooses simple weekend activities and vacations, as well. She even keeps her hair short to make the morning routine quicker.

At work, she instructs her assistant not to plan any meetings before 9 am or after 5:30 pm. When traveling, she avoids scheduling meetings before 10 am, so she can fly in and out the same day.

And she always has accepted new jobs, no matter what crisis was unfolding at home. “The more senior jobs you get, the easier it is,” she says. “You get less control over how busy you are, but you get more over decisions about when you’re busy and how you’re going to do things.”

Now, I’d argue that Vandebroek is exceptional, in more ways than one. She’s clearly brilliant–and her talent affords her the organizational capital to pull off arrangements that many people probably couldn’t.

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But I’ll make two more observations. First, she never assumed that her employer would say no to any of her accomodations. I think too many of us do. We think the boss won’t buy in to a more flexible work arrangement, or less travel, or a sabbatical–so we never ask.

And second, Vandebroek has dialed down her life outside work. That’s something very sane that seems very difficult to those of us wrapped up in kids’ sports, ballet, and piano, plus book groups and community volunteering and expensive vacations and all the rest. There’s a lot to be said for discipline, and for self-knowledge.

What do you say? Could you do what she does?

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