Why You Should Ditch the Quest for the Perfect Career

Can today’s career women really have it all?


For twenty- and thirty-somethings, the constant search for the perfect career can be both a blessing and a curse. The grass-is-always-greener mentality can serve as motivation, but it also has a tendency to become a trap, causing us to live in the future rather than enjoying the present.

Or so say mother-daughter pair Barbara Kelley and Shannon Kelley, authors of Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career—and Life—That's Right for You. U.S. News spoke with Barbara, a journalism professor, and her daughter Shannon, who's also a journalist, about why young women should change their mindset when it comes to making a living. Excerpts:

Can you explain the premise of your book, Undecided?

Shannon: Thanks to the success of the women's movement, we have all of these choices now, the world is our oyster, we can do anything we want, we can have it all. But as it turns out, while having all these options is great, dealing with them can be sort of a bitch.

While the messages are awesome, there's kind of a flip side. The flip side is all the pressure there is to be all things to all people and have it all, do something really incredible. Also, [experiencing] feelings over what you're missing out on, what you're not doing.

Barbara: It's all so new that there are no generational role models. On top of that, women of my generation have raised their daughters with the sense of, oh, you can do anything you want, aren't you lucky, without considering the difficulty in making those choices and navigating that new terrain. And understanding that there are compromises.

[See 14 Secrets to Career Change Success.]

How'd you get turned onto the topic?

Barbara: I had the seed of the idea, then Shannon was the catalyst that turned it into a book. [While working as a professor at Santa Clara University], I went through this state in early 2008 where I was just being bombarded with emails from former students who were unhappy. These were women who had done really well in college ... they had good jobs, they were living in cool places, they kept emailing me [saying,] I don't know what I should do next. [I thought,] what's this dissatisfaction? Where's it coming from?

You write that it's impossible to have both a high-powered career and a family. Why? What's wrong with trying to have it all?

Barbara: I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to accomplish that, but if your expectations are [that] both will be perfect, I think you're going to be sorely disappointed, because you can't be in two places at the same time. It's what we call in the book "opportunity cost," which is an economics term. If you're doing A, you can't be doing B. Unless you have an awful lot of help at home, I don't see how you can be at work for 52 hours a week and be arranging play dates and taking your kids to the park and baking cupcakes. It's physically impossible. Of course, men have been doing this for years because they have their wives to do the cupcakes.

When we give younger women the message that hey, you can do everything, you can have it all, it's all going to be perfect, there's a sense of almost failure when you can't do it all.

[See What Women Should Know About Breastfeeding at Work.]

Why are we setting ourselves up for disappointment by seeking work that's spiritually fulfilling?

Shannon: It's just a little bit unrealistic. Not that it's a bad thing to strive for, I just think that if you're expecting emotional, spiritual, financial, and professional fulfillment out of one place, it's pretty unrealistic. And, in the meantime, if you're getting two out of the three and you're just focusing on the fact that you're missing the spiritual component, maybe you actually have it pretty good. And maybe you can get the real fulfilling thing from someplace else in your life.

Doesn't this apply to men, too?

Barbara: Yes and no. The indecision does apply to men. I think more so than it has before because I think men are stepping up a lot more at home and with family. Which is not to say they're covering their share of the second shift, but they're doing more than their dads did.