“I want to dance at your wedding.”
I don’t quite remember the first time I said this to my young friend M, but I do remember that I had not been her boss for a while at that point. After the magazine we had been working on was shuttered, our daily conversations had morphed into highly anticipated catchups over coffee or Prosecco. We weren’t girlfriends, but we had survived the death of our magazine and that had somehow bonded us for life.
M was easy to dote on. Smart, sweet and blessed with a smile as bright as sunshine, she exuded confidence without a whiff of cockiness. When we had worked together, all she needed was a teeny bit of guidance, and off she went. Of course, at this point, M needed little direction from me. She was killing it at work, but I sensed that, having reached a career milestone—you know, the job that comes with the hiring of an assistant and a big enough paycheck to graduate from having a roommate—she was wondering about life outside of work.
As luck would have it, so was I. At that point, I was working for a celebrity magazine, managing a team of young women who were just a few years older than M was. They were asking me to steer them toward a balance of work and family in a 24-7 around-on-the-clock environment, but the truth was, I was struggling to find my balance, too.
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I suddenly had the biggest job of my life, and it was nonstop. I knew it took skill, confidence, agility and swagger to do the job I did. I felt enormously accomplished climbing that mountain every day and was awed by the team I worked with. But I also had a toddler at home, a husband starting his own business and a sibling who needed my weekly supervision. There was a maddening unpredictability to my workplace that often crowded out my best intentions to meet friends for dinner, spend a quiet evening with the family or hit the gym before the cycle started over again. It was a badge of honor to have the stamina to work that hard. It was a sign of weakness or disloyalty to the organization if you didn’t crave living the rest of your life that way.
Telling M that I wanted to dance at her wedding was the kind of advice no female boss of mine had ever directed my way. Those women were working too hard to get in the room to worry about my having a life outside of it. It was mostly my male supervisors—many divorced once or twice—who warned me of the toll late nights could take. I was happy to pass on that accumulated wisdom because I adored M and wanted her to have a life full with partnership (and because she wanted that, too). But before long, the goal I had set for M had become something I wrote on a Post-It as a reminder to myself: Was I practicing what I preached? Did I do my best to not disturb my staff with emails late at night? Did I get to the trainer that week? Was I doing right by my husband, my daughter, my siblings and the many friends I loved? The more I told M I wanted to dance at her wedding, the more I challenged myself to create the choreography needed to live a 360-degree life.
Eventually, M, being the prodigy she is, no longer needed my guidance on the subject. She found a stellar partner to have and to hold, and, yes, she did invite me to the wedding. There, along with some of the other important bosses in her life, I danced (hopefully not an Elaine-like shimmy that embarrassed her to no end). I felt lucky to be included. I felt overwhelmed when she introduced me to her parents and her beloved brother. They greeted me with a smile as warm as hers and told me what an influence I had been.
On the flight home, I teared up every time I thought about the small role I had played in M’s life, but then a horrible feeling came over me. My advice sounded so…dated, un-feminist and out-of-step with the way offices behave today. After all, is there a company worth its stock options that doesn’t stress how important work-life balance is to them? Offices now look more like the basement hang in That 70s Show than the hierarchical mid-century modern halls of Mad Men. There are endless snacks, lockers, couches to surf and snooze on. You can bring your dog to the office and drop off your dry cleaning. Facebook and Apple made headlines by agreeing to pay for female employees to freeze their eggs. And flex hours and paid time off make it easier to juggle a family, right? Except I couldn’t believe it when I heard a tech CEO brag that he times how quickly people respond to his emails. There it was again: That expectation that you are all-in, all-the-time. Was this the payback for all that hot-seating and all the free hummus you could eat? Could you imagine inviting that CEO to your wedding? Or your egg defrosting?
If you’ve read this far, you have probably reached that moment where eating cheese sticks and Diet Coke for dinner while crashing a project is not the mad rush it used to be. You feel as M did, as I once did, that it’s time to perhaps stop doing something, so you can maybe start doing something else. You know you want to work differently. You’re just not sure how. Though I don’t know you well enough to say I want to dance at your wedding, I can encourage you to make a Post-It promise to not work late every night this week, to use that paid time off to do something you’ve never done before or to sip Prosecco with someone you love, whether that’s a partner or just an old friend. It’s my experience that when you live a life that exists beyond work, you become better at the work you do. Will it be the same for you? I’m eager to see you try. Your invitation is waiting.