Earlier this month, it seemed everyone was opining on Yahoo’s new 37-year old, pregnant CEO, Marissa Mayer. The media and blogosphere had much to say on what her selection meant for women, Yahoo, Silicon Valley, pregnant women, working mothers, fashion, and an entire generation. Most public comments were positive. After all, who wants to be on the opposing end of that discussion?
However, in private, with muted tones and usually between mothers, there was another conversation I repeatedly heard. It went something like this: “Is she crazy or just naive? Does she understand what’s about to happen to her physically and emotionally? I wouldn’t have taken that risk if I were Yahoo. I wouldn’t have taken that job right before giving birth. She’ll figure out how impossible it is to balance so much eventually.”
It’s not that anyone wished Mayer to fail, but there wasn’t exactly optimism for her success either. You’d expect working women and pro-working mothers to be buoyed by her brave decision to take on two such demanding roles simultaneously. But something wasn’t adding up so neatly.
This all got me wondering (and looking in the mirror). Is it possible that parents who’ve made other career choices are so vested in their own perspectives that they can’t imagine someone else making a dramatically different choice work? Or maybe our view of our own potential simply falls short of what Mayer believes is her own? She shoots higher, and so far, scores.
Now we could easily wrap this up with “different strokes for different folks” or “opportunities of the privileged” bows. But I spend too much time as a coach in conversations about knowing, and meeting, personal potential. One of the hardest human actions is to understand if you’re living up to your full capacity, or if you’re making excuses, settling for less, or adopting others’ expectations as your own.
This becomes ever important as move through life, and align our dreams for ourselves against the reality of our lives. There’s a direct relationship between the size of this space and a person’s dissatisfaction or restlessness. For so many people, there’s a yearning inside to be as much as they can in their short time on earth, using their unique strengths. Sometimes success can come from a hard-driving career or big salary, but just as often people seek to reach their potential in other ways.
I’m not advocating any one way of living our best lives, only that we’re as clear as possible why we make the choices we do. I am constantly in my own interior conversation about my potential too, so this one’s near and dear to my heart. Here are some questions that help me gain clarity. These can be especially helpful when opportunities or forks in the road present themselves.
1. What does success look like for me?
2. What does this bring me that I currently lack?
3. Does this notion of success give me intrinsic joy, or is it a vestige of a childhood dream or someone else’s desire for me?
4. What excuses do I tell myself to avoid taking risks, and how valid are they? How easily can I debate them?
I remember reading an interview with a triathlete once, who said that she felt that parents use their children as an excuse to not live a fuller life. Yes, kids need time and care. And there’s always room for what’s truly important to us. Too often, parenthood provides an easy excuse for what’s actually complacency, fear or plain laziness.
As a parent of two elementary aged children, I have to say that at times this is true for me. I feel like I’m pinging back and forth between my ambition, my responsibilities as a parent, and the lure of the comfortable and familiar. Around and around.
And personally, I stand in awe of a 37-year old, 6-month pregnant woman who becomes the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Not because she’s the first this, or the youngest that. But because her vision of her own potential is big, bold, and rocks convention.
Mayer’s appointment has us talking, and more importantly, questioning what’s possible.
Share your thoughts here or @kristihedges. And if there’s a particular management or leadership issue you’re struggling with, let me know. I’ll consider it for a blog post.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.