Thursday, May 21, 2009

Our Having-It-All Culture

It started innocently enough: Can a woman have a career and a family? Would she have to sacrifice success at one in order to have both?

All in all, a reasonable question.

What happened next was not so good. Expert sloganeers got their hands on the issue and reformulated it as: can you have it all? Could a woman have it all? Or were men the only creatures who could have it all?

For now let's ignore the question of whether men have it all? A man who sacrifices family time to work in the office does not really feel that he has it all.

Anyway, once you offer a new banner, a new standard for the good life, the concept comes to have a life of its own. Provenance does not much matter. Once the term becomes a slogan to live by, its meaning infiltrates the psyche, sets up an absurd standard and unrealistic expectations, and ends up making a lot of people miserable.

What does it mean to have it all? Does it mean that we have reached a stage in human civilization where all of our needs can be satisfied. But if this is true, is it really desirable to get to the point where there is nothing left to be desired?

Or does it mean that we no longer have to make choices and endure the sacrifices that come with any choice? Ask any parent who is torn between a child's recital and a board meeting and he or she will tell you that having it all is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Does having it all mean going to the restaurant and having everything on the menu? That would be impractical and wasteful.

Does it mean engaging in multiple activities, like a professional dilettante? If so, how successful do you think you can be if you are doing everything at once?

Success involves focus and attention and concentration... qualities that are not involved in having it all.

We do not just want to involve ourselves in a multitude of different activities. Normally, we want to be good at what we are doing. At times, we even want to excel at the tasks we undertake?

Do you think that having it all is the friend or enemy of our desire to excel?

Surely, when they invented the concept of having it all they did not completely denude it of value. Would you be happy to be a mediocre parent and a so-so executive?

Of course, everyone wants to be a great parent, a great partner, and a great executive. And yet, most people suspect that if you have it all you are going to become overextended and someone or something will suffer.

Does that mean that you should not try? Not at all. It means that adult judgment involves choices and that choices involve sacrifice and loss.

Fortunately, we have more choices than our ancestors did. It is our ethical duty, however, to exercise them judiciously. In the end, the more freedom we have the more we are responsible for our choices.

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