Teresa Taylor, former COO of the multibillion dollar telecommunications giant Qwest, remembers the exact moment she stopped chasing the work-life balance myth.
When Taylor's eldest son Jack was in second grade he invited her to lunch at his school. Like many working moms, Taylor felt guilty for not coming to more school activities, so she jumped at the chance to have some perfect, purely undiluted mom time, as she imagined it, bonding with her son. After making extensive schedule adjustments and racing to the school, she squeezed herself into a child-sized chair.
Then just as she was about to prong a chicken nugget, the "perfect lunch" was over. It was time for recess. The whole experience took seven minutes.
On the drive back to work Taylor admits she reached a "failure-point" moment. Her son was beyond happy he got to see his mom. The school principal assured her that, by second-grade standards, this was indeed "how lunch was done." But Taylor, once again, felt like she was somehow disappointing other people—family, colleagues, friends—in her efforts to split herself in two to achieve "balance."
"That's when I realized it was time to hit the reset button," Taylor said. "My family was actually very happy, and my career was thriving, but because of my own unrealistic expectations I couldn't see that was the case. I knew then I had to find a way to combine my work life with my family life and set my own expectations for happiness and success."
Now, Taylor, a first-generation college grad and "average working mom" who rose from humble beginnings to become a Fortune 200 executive, is hoping to help other women hit that reset button as well.
In her book, The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success, Taylor argues the balance myth isn't just frustrating women by setting them up for inevitable failure—it's actively holding them back from success.
"One of the reasons women aren't making it to the corner office is because they begin to search for this mythical work-life balance," Taylor said. "But when they can't find it—because it does not exist—they believe they have to make a trade off. They believe the only answer is to step back on their journey to success."
Taylor believes the balance myth is hopelessly flawed in many ways, but its most insidious deception is its implication that work and family are separate lives that need to be balanced out against each other.
"'Balance' is a horrible word because the word itself implies equalization, an equation—the idea that work is half of your life and family is the other half and somehow this equation has to be equalized or solved for you to be successful," Taylor said. "But life is not a zero sum game."
"Balance," and its inevitable counterpart "trade-off," Taylor says, are "two words that fester and set women up for failure every time," and when women are faced with that false choice between home and work they inevitably do one of two things: they disengage from their work and offers of promotion, or they leave the business entirely.
"One of the major reasons we women cut back intentionally or quit, and we see it in almost every field over and over, is women say 'I can't do this. I can't balance everything.' They don't put themselves in the spot to take the promotion, or they just throw in the towel, because they believe they'll never find balance," Taylor said. "I'm just asking them to stop and ask themselves who told you need that? Who told you 'balance' is success?"
So how does Taylor suggest women re-think the myth? How can they push past the mythical balance crossroads to define their own vision of success?
Looking at a New Model
Taylor said she was able to find happiness and success, at work and at home, when she re-crafted a model of success that encouraged her to blend, not balance, her career and family life.
"Blending your life together is really about being authentic all the time. I don't think of myself as having two different lives or two different places to be. This is me. This is who I am," Taylor said. "I showed up the best I could be at home and the best I could be at work. Sometimes I brought work home with me and sometimes I brought my kids to the office. But I blended it all together and tried to be as efficient as with all of it."
Taylor said she used the following eight life and work tips to create that blended efficiency and redefine her idea of personal success:
- Stop searching for balance. One issue that holds women back is their search for balance. When it's not there, they get frustrated, possibly turning down a promotion or leaving the workforce completely. By staying in the workforce, women can be successful in both their work and home life.
- Make home life a priority. If there is something wrong at home, you need to work it out. Otherwise, it will always bother you at the office. You might change jobs, but your cornerstone is your home life—an important grounding point.
- Manage your time more efficiently. Be present in what you're doing, finish it and move on. I have my list of things to do, and I'll assign time slots to it. If I have one hour to work on a presentation at work or one hour to clean at home, I do the best I can for that one hour.
- Combine your work and family schedules. I used to keep two different calendars: one for home and one for work. But I was missing work deadlines, my kids' activities and other events. So I combined the calendars, which caused me to start talking about my family at work and integrating my two lives. It's one life and one calendar! And now I don't miss a thing.
- Stay in the moment. When you're at work in a meeting, be there. When you're at home, be there. If you're in a business meeting, don't be wishing to be somewhere else. Be present where you are, and don't feel guilty about where you're not.
- It isn't just a job. Work at a place and on something that you are passionate about. Don't just take a "job." Then you aren't choosing between work and life—it is your life.
- Take the promotion. The only way that you are going to be able to effect change is to get yourself and other women in a place where you are making decisions and influencing change
- Sponsor other women. It is lonely as you continue to move towards to corner office. Sponsor other women inside and outside of your company.
Taylor said one of the most important lessons she learned in re-thinking her success was the ability to be fluid and flexible in the face of constantly changing circumstances.
"The best analogy I can think of is to try to approach the day as if you are dressed in layers," Taylor said. "Don't approach it as if everything is going to work in accordance with your rigid plan. Realize something is likely going to happen that you didn't expect."
When it does, Taylor said, just as you add or peel back layers of clothing to adjust to the weather, women should be prepared with layers of backup plans, options, and alternatives to adjust to changing circumstances in their day. "If a meeting goes longer or shorter, if your daycare plan doesn't work out, then you have options to prevent a crisis," Taylor said.
Ultimately, Taylor said anyone who wants to make family and professional life work in concord will always have difficult choices to make. But if women make those choices based in their own personal integrity, instead of trying satisfy a daily balance quotient, everyone will be stronger, happier and more successful.
"True success is living an accomplished life and making sure that life is fully lived," Taylor writes in The Balance Myth. "To think in terms of 'balance' would require us to make a trade-off between one life and another. Instead, if your work life is challenging, take energy from your home and put it into your work. If your home life is difficult, give yourself a break at work so you can focus on your home. I couldn't take the mother out of the career woman, or vice versa, and you shouldn't have to either."