What Does “Have It All” Mean?

I read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All a while ago. I was stunned. Why does anyone think they can have it all, at the same time?

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

I have never believed that. I don’t believe in nonsense such as “work/life balance” either. I say this in Manage Your Job Search:

There is no such thing as work life balance. There is only life. Live it.

You need to decide for yourself what “having it all” means to you. You have to have your own personal definition of success.

When we decide on success, when we know what “having it all” means, then we can make our choices. Each of us has to decide on our personal project portfolios. We have to decide when to say yes and when to say no. Many of those decisions are difficult.

What you need to decide for yourself is what you want for your career, your family, and your legacy. These are not easy questions.

What do you think is your legacy?

I work hard enough that my books and articles will be my legacy, in addition to my family. However, it was clear to me, that my family was my primary legacy. I am ambitious. My achievements matter to me. I want to do the best job I know how. And yet, what matters the most to me? My family.

When it came time to make decisions about what to do for my jobs, I made decisions that would allow me to be able to give my babies their baths. I helped with homework. I only volunteered once in the classroom, because I don’t have the patience. (You’re not surprised, right?) I volunteered to be on the after school program board. I walked/drove the girls to the camp bus and picked them up.

In the 22 years that both of us traveled and the girls lived at home, we had three times that we had to get someone to stay with them, because the work was too important for one of us to say, “No” to the travel. Just three times. Those were our choices. They are not yours. These choices were difficult, at times.

My choices are mine, and not yours.

Could I have been a different consultant? I’m sure. What if Mark had made different choices? My goodness.

We chose to live our lives so that we maximized our family life, and still had great careers while we raised our children. It wasn’t fashionable to do it that way in the last 20-25 years. It won’t be fashionable in the next 20, either. But here’s one thing I have learned:

You cannot have it all, not at the same time.

I have leaned in, as Sheryl Sandberg says, my entire life. I’m still leaning. (Yes, that’s a vertigo joke :-)

If we want to have great careers and great families, we all need to adapt—businesses, families, marriages. And, we definitely need to adapt our expectations of ourselves and what is reasonable.

Over your career, you will want different things at different times. You can think of your career as a problem to solve, a little at a time. Don’t think you will want the same thing over the course of your life.

In my 20’s, I learned about software engineering, software development, bicycling, and kissed many frogs. I found Mark, and married him just before I turned 30. In my 30’s, I learned more about the dynamics of software project management, software program management, software management, how to raise children, how to be a partner and spouse. In my 40’s, I learned how to balance my needs as a person with my family’s needs (which was not easy!) when I started my business. In this decade, I am learning how to balance my condition’s needs with my desire to work.

Life is a balancing act.

So, think about what you want. Only you can define success for yourself. Do you know what “it all” is? Do you know why you want it? Once you do, you can make your choice, for now, and re-evaluate later. Doesn’t this sound like project portfolio management?

Gentlewomen, gentlemen, you fine adaptable problem solvers, there are two parts to the question for this week: What is “it all?” Do you think you can arrange your life so you can have it? That is the meaning behind “What does “have it all” mean?

9 thoughts on “What Does “Have It All” Mean?”

  1. Johanna,

    One of the better bits of wisdom I received was the truism that “It is what it is.” That allowed me to stop agonizing over why things weren’t different, and to stop trying to make “it” something “it” wasn’t.

    So your question of “what is having it all” becomes irrelevant to a person’s life because … “what it all is” is what you have in front of you. You’ve either created “it” or allowed “it” to happen to you.

    You are absolutely right that we each had and made choices that led us to where we are right now. Some of our choices turn out to be good for us. Other choices not so good. Some choices required work. Some people had choices that we wish we had (or glad we didn’t.) Everyone’s life is and was different. Some people were just a lot smarter, bigger, more attractive, etc. We had what we had to work with.

    Warren Buffet has remarked that he drew a winning lottery ticket at birth, being born in the USA, at the right time, to the right parents, etc. Following that line of thinking (if one is reading this) we were all born with various winning lottery tickets, some better, some worse than other people.

    Perhaps a better question would be … what does Ann-Marie Slaughter think is “having it all?” Do you suppose Ann-Marie Slaughter is envious of other people’s lives? Or at least promoting envy as her rationale for complaining about unfairness or unequal-ness? Perhaps if people put away their envy of other people and their lives, they would discover that they do have it all, right now. And if they want something different in the future, just chose to make their life different.


    1. Don,

      Some people can choose to make something different in their lives. They have the education and the ability to make the choices and then the perseverance to see those options through. I suspect Ann-Marie Slaughter is one of those people. There are other people who do not have the education or enough gumption to make their lives different. Maybe it’s enough self-esteem? Maybe not enough hope? I’m not sure. I try not to judge those people too harshly.

      I do know that we choose every single day. Or, that we can choose every single day. That’s almost magical. Not easy, but magical.

  2. for me work-life balance is about you can’t have it all.
    my personal life and my work life are integrated. I am one person just as you (or at least I’m not aware of my other personalities ;-) )

    yet I do need to balance my time. When I am giving a full week training in another country, I can’t get the kids from school . That is a problem with a partner that works in morning and evening shifts.
    SO time I spend exclusively with my clients, my children don’t have acces to me. Yes they can call, yet while I’m in the middle of an exercise, I won’t pick up the phone…

    In other words, life balance is about making priorities and not having it all.
    I’m not giving my kids everything they want. Not just because we can’t afford it, also because they have to learn that. Some time ago, a friend told me, in her daughters class, one of the boys his parents where so rich, they had a private airplane. On WE etc, they flew to southern countries to their other homes.
    For me this is the nicest example of “even if I would want to give much more to my kids, there is always a limit and always someone will have more money and be able to give their kids something I can’t.” so I rather stop earlier and learn them they can’t have everything…

    I lived 3 years of welfare, what was 370 euro in the month. (About 500 dollar). That was a hard life and I had to prioritise between have more then one drink on a saturday and maybe not 3 meals every day the next week. And yet, it’s not the first year when I worked and I had more money and bought more stuff, that I had a better life. The same is true for experiences.
    It’s the prioritisation, the longing for something that makes me appreciate it more…

    1. Yves, exactly. One of the best things Mark and I did as parents, was to give our girls clothing allowances when they turned 14. It was a generous allowance, but it wasn’t nearly as much as they wanted.

      I split it into half at the beginning of the school year and half in February. That way, they couldn’t spend it all in September. They had to learn to choose and to budget.

      Oh, the tears! Oh, the fights! “You are the worst parents in the entire world,” is what they said then. Now? Both of them are so happy we helped them learn what was important to them, how to prioritize, and how to budget.

      It’s all about choices. We make them all the time. Some of them are small choices. Some of them are big. All of them affect our lives. And, we can’t possibly know the effect until long after we make them.

      Life is wonderful.

      1. We already have it all … and more!

        My mother is almost 100 years old. When she was born in 1913 … there were no indoor toilets. No penicillin. Many women died in childbirth. One out of 10 children died in childhood. (One of my mother’s brothers did.) Polio and smallpox killed thousands of children. Painkillers were absent during dentistry and much of medical care.

        Only the richest people had servants who would spend all their days doing the wash, drying and ironing clothes. Chopping wood for heat and hot water. Cooking the meals over a wood or coal stove.

        Today even the poor have washing machines, dryers, perma-press cloths, indoor plumbing, and hot water any time they want it. They have Medicaid, electric lights, ranges, ovens, refrigerators, ice makers, home heating controlled with flick of a thermostat, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, iPhones, computers. Their “servant” are so much better that the human servants of 100 years ago, and much more reliable.

        100 years ago a school teacher worked one hour to buy a dozen eggs. Today a schoolteacher works 3 minutes to buy a dozen eggs. A person working for $10 an hour works 12 minutes to buy a dozen eggs.

        Not even the richest person in the world in 1913 could have the things, conveniences and wonderful quality of life that even poor people in this country have and take for granted.

        Life expectancy for males in 1913 was 50. Most likely, I’d be dead if I lived in that era.

        We have it all right now. Is that not cool? Yes, life is wonderful.

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