27 Mar. 2013 | Comments (0)
You're successful, ambitious, and full of big plans. You're on a quest for greatness. But could dreaming smaller help you reach your goals?
My friend Whitney Johnson's popular pieces on these pages encourage us to dream, to disrupt our thinking, to dare to do great things. But what I take from Whitney's writing is truly a practical nudge: "Inside of the something you can't have, there is often the makings of something you can achieve."
Necessity really is the mother of invention; like many, I took an involuntary course in compromise at work when I found myself with two toddlers, a husband with three jobs, and a small business that would not, no matter how hard I wished it, grow magically by itself. Over the past couple years I've observed several brilliant women and men manage both life's demands and the big dreams they have as entrepreneurs or corporate players. You know, the kind of people who are very successful but still manage to meet the school bus most days (yes, they do exist). I've been inspired by people who consciously live what they call a "Third Path," where men and women prioritize work and home time equally, even if that means both mom and dad work four days a week. These leaders have figured out to maximize their time, their social networks, and their skills, but they may not do it from 9 to 6. They have found what Cali Yost calls their "work-life fit," often because they simply had no other choice.
You think compromise is a negative word, but life demands adaptation: a toddler needs you at home, or you're in grad school while working full time, or you have a sick parent, or you need to keep your day job even though you don't like it. Compromise connotes less than the best, and indeed when you're compromising you may not be achieving your full potential. But you will get things done, and in doing so you will learn skills and tactics that prepare you for success.
Compromise, like negotiation, is an art, and an important one. It's not something they often teach in business school, and it's never going to be on the cover of Forbes. Instead we read of great leaders' relentless drive for perfection. Never stop; never settle.
I'm very lucky, because I truly have my dream job. I'm very proud of what I've built, but I recognize that I built it out of compromise. A freelance project as a digital consultant turned into my life's work mobilizing women online. Once the work started to gain traction, I dreamed of making it big, of creating an empire in women's new media. Still, mine is a small business, and it probably will remain so — because I make many trade offs in order to run it. That's not to say we don't have an impact, but small isn't sexy in the entrepreneurial world. Women in fact are often dismissed as entrepreneurs because our businesses are "small": from banks and credit card companies who won't extend credit to women-owned businesses to those who exhort us to think bigger so we can get more venture capital, you'll hear time and time again that while women start small businesses at a very high rate, these businesses remain small. As if that's always a bad thing.
In year three of my company, I've accepted there is simply no way for me to be the hands-on mother I want to be, and to build a company that scales quickly. What I can say is that I'm fortunate enough to be able to pay the bills, work with incredible clients and grow the company — slowly. I do miss high-level meetings and important industry networking events, and sometimes, clients need me and I can't be there. I also miss my children's milestones. But the truth is, I don't miss either that often. My mentors have taught me to judge keenly which events are worth the price of childcare, so to speak. I can only travel in limited doses, so I've learned how to plan my trips to exact the most value from my time. I've learned from my friend Christine the "no fester" rule: don't churn your time with unnecessary meetings or emails, and minimize drama, because drama is very time consuming.
The bloggers and social media influencers I work with have shown that you can carry great influence and credibility no matter where you are. Friends at big companies like Deloitte and IBM work from home full time, and while they may not make partner this year, they are still on the track, if that's what they want. It will take longer to achieve. Sheryl Sandberg famously said, "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on." But it's also possible to cruise for a while until you're ready to accelerate.
I'm not glossing over the issues. Highly skilled women have a net eight percent reduction in pay during the first five years after giving birth. Women who step back from promotion in their thirties and forties may sacrifice the leaps in pay and status they've worked so hard to achieve. But by making certain trade-offs, you can stay in the game, and if you're in the game it's a lot easier to win it — eventually.
And yet we live in such an extreme culture. Arguments about feminism portray a world of binary choices, where working mothers either work overtime or quit to stay home full time- when many choose to work somewhere in between. Our very image of an entrepreneur is someone who works 24-7. 71% of workers — of both genders — report feeling disengaged from their jobs and 60% of full-time working mothers would prefer to be part time. Most dreamers who take the small business leap compromise financial security and a big paycheck; the average small business owner takes home $34,392 to $75,076 a year in her first ten years in business.
Compromise has its limits, and we all have our own set of "non-negotiables." Consider my friend Naama's story: "About 3 years ago my husband and I jointly decided that he was going to start a tech business and I would be responsible for keeping the lights on, the family intact, and our benefits." Naama is now about to launch her business as well, despite making big sacrifices. She says, "I have come to realize that there are things you should and shouldn't compromise. For me, staying in a big corporate job just because it was responsible was more than I could deal with and I realized I'd rather compromise on savings, exercise and a social life."
Spending more time with my kids right now is worth the corresponding diminution of my dream to become a media mogul. That's my choice.
The rigor lies in creating a compromised vision of your dream, knowing that compromise is often necessary to accommodate competing needs in life. But it's OK to sometimes make your dreams and your career a little smaller in order to have the whole, long life you want and need.
And my business may be small now, but in ten years, maybe it won't be.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 02/27/2013.