The boardroom series: can you really have it all?

Over the last two years I have interviewed a number of CEOs and senior leaders, from entrepreneurs and small business owners to leaders of FTSE 100 companies. These individuals have had success in many areas of their lives, personal and professional, and have also all experienced burnout or a crisis of wellbeing (COW) along the way. While the surrounding circumstances which have led to these crisis moments have been diverse, from external investment in their companies creating pressure for rapid growth, to a change in personal circumstances, or the process of exiting an organisation, with all the legal complexities which this entails, there have many commonalities between the stories I have heard. Many of these I have shared with you in previous articles, largely focusing on offering you the practical habits which have helped these CEOs recover and subsequently maintain good mental fitness amidst challenging times. (If you have not read them, you may want to revisit them here, here or here.)

Today, I would like to address one theme that continues to arise which I have not yet addressed. This ever-present challenge has been prevalent throughout the study, however, it seems to be growing in its intensity as we emerge from lockdown and there are predictions that this intensity is only going to ramp up further over the year ahead. Furthermore, this issue is not just creating a challenge in the boardroom, it is plaguing a much larger population of the workforce from aspirational graduates and long-time managers to future CEOs and leaders. What is it? The myth of “having it all”, and the urgent desire to “have it all, now”.

The Cinderella Story

If, like me, you grew up being sold this story, being told you could have it all, do it all and be it all, your inclination at this point might be to stop reading here. (I think if I were reading, I might want to do the same.) It is a very human reaction to want to turn a blind eye or stick our head in the sand when we are confronted with a view which does not align with our own beliefs. This is at the core of so much discrimination. Having said that, listening to other opinions is at the heart of innovation and progress, so, I encourage you to read on.

I am not here to tell you that you cannot have it all. What I do want to offer you is the opportunity to consider that there may be some caveats to the story of “having it all”, and that it is worth considering how this phrase is helping or hindering your life. And then to offer you some simple ideas which might help you to boost your energy, your efficiency, and your productivity so you become a little more likely to actually have it “all” in the end.

The myth of “having it all”

Do you constantly strive to be the strong, resilient, and compassionate leader; the perfect parent, partner and friend; the picture of good health and the valued community member?

Do you feel that, despite your best efforts to juggle your workload, have quality time with family, stay in touch with friends, remember birthdays, stay fit, eat well, meditate, look after your home and still have time to sleep, you are always falling short of your own expectations?

Does the idea of “having a little time for yourself” seem a like a laughable concept that only ‘Instagram influencers’ have the luxury of?

Well, you may be falling pray to the wolf of “having it all” and, trust me, you are not alone.

At its best, this phrase inspires us to take action, make bold moves, be courageous and get out of our comfort zones, empowering us to reach goals that we never even dreamed possible. At its worst, this phrase drains us, limiting our capacity to think clearly or perform well. The internal need to succeed in all areas of life looms like a cloud of high pressure over our every move, paralysing our emotions, sapping joy from every moment, inhibiting our efficiency, preventing any meaningful connection with those around us, and leaving us feeling flat and unsatisfied even in the face of our own success.  

As one CEO I spoke to explained, “How do you sustain that lifestyle? Make a long list, and it is a long list, of all the things you’re willing to give up, in order to get that title. Um, and I use the word carefully of “willing,” because if you’re not willing to give it up, then the likelihood is, something will break in your life.” He went on to say, “I think very few CEOs will ever admit that, but I was caught in that trap, when I did the first job as CEO.”

Why is this such a challenge now?

In the last 18 months, I have spoken to countless leaders who have stumbled into this “trap” as they have tried to stay cool under pressure, gracefully managing their workload and home lives, while never being too busy to speak to a colleague who is struggling or read a bedtime story to their kids. And the truth is that, while it might last for a while, more often than not it ends up leading to a state of being drained, demotivated, disconnected and disappointed.

So, now, as we start to reintegrate socially, there is the additional pressure of commuting, social get-together’s, corporate events, and more. If we rush into this mindlessly, chasing the notion of “having it all”, doing it all and being all things to all people, we are at risk of trying to squeeze in yet more to our already overflowing, busy lives, and we may end up paying the price.

I am seeing this rush to “have it all” show up in three main ways.

1.     As we return to physical office spaces many people are trying to keep up the same levels of hyper-productivity that they have been able to achieve while working from home and finding it is not feasible. The casual water cooler chats, in-person meetings, business lunches and simply daily travel all take time, time which needs to be transferred from other tasks. As a result, these people are feeling unproductive and overwhelmed. As a result, they are feeling the need to work longer hours to make up for this.

  • If this is you, remember that while these social interactions may not tick things off your “to-do” list, they are essential investments in your career success. Read Shawn Achor’s book Big Potential if you want to learn more about how better business relationships can boost your productivity and performance on a personal and a company-wide scale. You may need to adapt your expectations and goals for the days you are in the office to focus on optimising connections, rather than achieving ‘tasks’.

2.     Others are fearful that the transition back to offices will mean that no longer have the time for their hobbies, their family, or their fitness routines. For these people, lockdown has offered so many upsides that the transition into a hybrid working model is seen not as a gain, because they can work from home some days, but as a loss as they cannot work from home every day. 

  • If this is you, you are wise to realise that you are probably going to have to make some changes to your daily routine. But that doesn’t mean giving everything up, forever. It means making some choices and prioritising what’s important to you right now. These priorities are likely to fluctuate over the months and years ahead, and that’s ok. You may have to let go of some things, but you will also probably gain some things too. Just keep asking yourself “What’s really important to me?” “What am I willing to let go of for the next 3 to 6 months in order to commit fully to the things that are important right now?” “What will I gain as a result?” (Remember, anything you put down now, you can pick up again next month or next year.) If you are struggling to think of what you might gain by returning to the office space, consider the things you missed most at the start of lockdown and this might help you remember. 

3.     The third common challenge is for those people who are ready and raring to jump back into life as we knew it pre-Covid, and to make up for the opportunities missed over the last 18 months. These people have been missing travelling, dining out, gyms and sports clubs, theatres, galleries and all that the opportunities that modern life affords us. As they now dive in to doing these things, they are rushing to do it all at once. While this feels good for a short time, they are quickly finding it is exhausting. For some, work performance is slipping, for others their healthy habits are falling to the wayside or relationships are paying the price.

  • If this is you, I remind you of another wise quote from one of the CEO’s I spoke to last year, “Energy is finite. You can’t overspend because eventually you’ll bankrupt yourself”. I am not telling you that you cannot do all those things, but it is unlikely that we can do all those things right now without expecting there to be a knock-on effect in other areas of our lives. I recently read a short story by Lisa Smosarski who summed this up perfectly with a quote from Oprah Winfrey “you can have it all, just not all at once”.

 Once again, I am not trying to tell you that you cannot “have it all”. On the contrary, I believe you can have all the things that are important to you, at least in part, if not in full. To do that, we need to harness the potential of this motivating mindset while avoiding the pitfalls of always striving and never feeling like you are succeeding. This means we need to prioritise and focus on what’s most important now, and we need to acknowledge all we do have, rather than focusing on the 5% we did not achieve and berating ourselves for that.  

So, as we move into the next ‘new normal’, I encourage you to be conscious of how the lure of “having it all” is playing out in your life. Are you trying to have it all, do it all, be it all? Is this inspiring and energising? Or is it draining, depleting, and demotivating? If the myth of “having it all” is burning you out and fueling unfulfillment, it might be time to pause, and remember that you can have it all, but perhaps you can’t “have it all right now”. 

So, now that you know that you can have it all, all in good time, what is your priority going to be today? Please share your thoughts below.

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