Why You Should Ditch the Quest for the Perfect Career

Can today’s career women really have it all?

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But here's where I think it's different. Men have been raised for generations to know what their role is, to go seek and conquer, to go out and slay the dragons. Their role is more defined. They've got role models. The culture accepts that. For women, it's new. We have that extra layer on top of trying to figure this all out.

You make another distinction in the book, saying women's choices are more loaded than men's. Why?

Shannon: One not insignificant factor is the biological clock. It's a sad fact of life and it's not fair, but it's a fact. Women have a deadline on having kids, where men don't. So if you want to make that work … It adds another level of pressure and angst. If I do this—it's like a chess move—what does it mean for this and this and that?

[See Top 25 Companies for Work-Life Balance.]

When it comes to career, what's the difference between settling and making a compromise?

Shannon: It's a difference of perspective, really. Settling is sort of the dirty word. It's the shadow of a compromise, where compromise is a little bit more positive. Along with the women's empowerment messages, accepting anything less than perfect, less than the best possible man, job, apartment, outfit of your dreams is settling. And settling is selling yourself short. How dare you? You can be in a great job, but it doesn't have X, so rather than being like, this job is so excellent, it gives me this, this, and this, it's like, well, I'm really settling on this one factor, so therefore maybe I can do better.

What advice do you have for women who think the grass always looks greener on the other side, particularly when it comes to career?

Shannon: If you really feel that way, don't be afraid to try. We're all going to have something like 10 jobs in our lifetime. One of the big ironies is that for all of the angst over all of these decisions, things are so much less permanent than they used to be, whether you're talking about a job or a relationship or a mortgage. People don't settle on one path and stick to it like they used to. So allow yourself to try things and allow yourself to fail.

[See How to Position Yourself to Change Careers.]

Barbara: Redefine what you mean by happiness or satisfaction. Culturally, we're very aspirational and we tend to measure satisfaction or happiness by externals, when in reality, studies have shown that only about 10 percent of your well-being or your happiness has to do with changed circumstances. So you may be lusting after that new job or new house or new boyfriend, and maybe at the moment that will make you happy, but a few months down the line, you'll be back where you started. Get rid of that arrival fallacy.

You make a point in the book about how online identities play into this. How does the digital world factor in?

Shannon: It puts what's going on on the other side of the fence right up in your face at all possible times. And it's not the reality of what's going on on the other side of the fence. It's a very meticulously curated, very crafted image that other people are portraying—just in the same way that you do and I do—of their lives. We get sucked into the comparison game and the grass-is-always-greener [mentality].


Corrected on 6/7/2011: A previous version of this story misidentified Shannon Kelley’s occupation. She’s a journalist.