In 2004, I was your typical college graduate who had done what society had expected of her. I went to college, earned good grades, developed lifelong friendships, and graduated with the ambition of climbing the ranks of Corporate America.
And climb I did. The beginning of my career in Big 4 Accounting coincided with the implementation of Sarbanes-Oxley regulations; work was abundant, rates were high and the staff was fully booked. I quickly progressed through the ranks and loved post-college life. Travel, Fortune 500 clients and a fast-paced schedule made me feel like I had “made it.” It was fun, for awhile. The luster wore off quickly.
I felt trapped. Was I really supposed to work 60+ hours per week for the rest of my life in something I didn’t love? What would I do when I had kids? Eight weeks off to bond with a new bundle of joy, then head back to the grind sounded more like prison than freedom. And four weeks of vacation per year — which was quite generous compared to many of my peers — felt more like indentured servitude than the American Dream.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a hard worker and have a strict work ethic. I give 110 percent to everything I do. It’s not that I didn’t want to work, I just couldn’t help but feel that this standard idea of success was all wrong. Wrong for me at least. I was told to feel excited when I heard words like “Partner Track” and “accelerated leadership.” I didn’t feel excitement; I felt golden handcuffs digging into my wrists.
I felt 45 when I was 25. Let’s just say that audit rooms aren’t the healthiest of spaces. Take-out twice a day and major sleep deprivation quickly pulled me into a downward spiral. I craved a career where I could feel relevant, make an impact, and still manage to take decent care of myself.
I thought it was a pipe dream, but lucky for me something in the world had been changing. People were starting to rebel against society’s typical definition of success. I (luckily) had the moral support from my husband and family to leave the path of success laid out for me in the “Handbook of Conventional Wisdom.” I left my corporate job and all its glory to start my own online health coaching business. It wasn’t without judgment. Outside of my immediate family, I could feel the disapproval from my peers. Most of them thought I was ridiculous, but that didn’t matter. There was something far greater inside of me telling me to move on.
My definition of “having it all” had morphed into something different than my 18-year-old self had once seen. Career-wise, instead of a CEO-corner-office-power-suit position, I wanted to build something for myself. Family-wise I wanted to spend a good long time enjoying time with my husband before leaping into parenthood.
I’ve always had the belief that women can have it all, perhaps just not all at the same time. We can have fulfilling careers, the family of our dreams, give our best to what we value, and feel relevant in society. The only caveat is that we just have to have the wherewithal to understand that there are only 24 hours in a day. We have to prioritize not just what is important to us, but when it’s important to us. We have to manage our options. Options like building a career, starting a business, getting married, and starting a family, to name a few.
I frequently find myself engrossed in these types of conversations with my girlfriends who already have children. I attended a private university and for the most part, all of my college friends went on to fruitful corporate careers. Most of us feel that if you’re going to pay $100,000 for an education, it’s foolish not to put it to (at least some) good use.
As young women we were always taught first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes… you know the rest. But in all reality, a young, smart college graduate has to decide. It’s more like first comes college, then comes career, then comes a bunch of challenging choices.
For some it goes like this: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the decision of whether or not kids are in the picture, then whether or not to hire a nanny, find a daycare or leave the career we’ve been working so hard for to stay at home because we want to bond with our babies. Each option feels equally painful. We have invested our education, time, energy and finances into a career that is, in many cases, just starting to gain traction. Should we really opt out to stay home? Will we be able to opt back in? According to a recent article in The New York Times it might not be an option. Are we terrible mothers if we keep our full-time position? Are we “not made of the right stuff” if we leave? Why did we just invest our lives into building something just to leave it?
There isn’t a right answer. I’ve been married for six years and my husband and I have consciously put off having kids to build our careers. Some people praise us. Some people shame us. Some people even make our marriage gossip fodder because they can’t believe that two people in their 30s who have been married for six years don’t have kids. (They must be on the brink of divorce! Do they even like each other? What do they talk about if there aren’t kids around?! They must feel so unfulfilled.)
I wouldn’t trade our position for the world. However, it still comes with internal conflict. I have a flourishing career that I love; it’s both lucrative and gives me the freedom to live life how I choose. However, I also know that there’s a good chance I’ll be the oldest mom in the class when I’m attending parent-teacher conferences and that my husband and I might lack the energy of 25-year-old parents. Will our future children suffer because of that? I think not.
I don’t have all of the answers to these questions, or even solutions to these issues. I don’t think anyone does. But I do think this: Regardless of what a woman chooses to do, her contributions to making the world a better place reach far beyond climbing the proverbial corporate ladder.
I’ve redefined my own success to mean being relevant to people who need my help, giving more than I take, and living life on my own terms. The letters behind my name and my rank within a company just don’t matter.
My advice for anyone who wants to create her own success? Be authentic, choose your own truth, and own it. You are the only one who has to live your life, don’t let someone else’s path dictate your idea of what it should look like. You have the full right and power to define your own success.
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