Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can have it all, but we can’t.
That’s really what priorities are all about. If we could have it all, we wouldn’t have to set priorities because we could do all the things. We’d have infinite resources: enough money to pay for life’s necessities and that trip to Bali and five new outfits and front row seats on Broadway. Enough time for a demanding career and friends and a relationship and a second job and kids and pets and vacations and hobbies and volunteering. Enough energy and brain space to keep track of it all.
The media tells us stories about how we can have it all. But the media lies. Penelope Trunk has written a few essays recently about high-powered career women–using Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg as her examples–and how they don’t ever see their kids. Because in order to be that high-powered, it’s necessary to work something like 100-hour weeks. That’s more than fourteen hours every day of the week. So really, there’s very little time for anything else. My first instinct is to think, wow, those two women are among the most important in the Silicon Valley, and they have kids too, so they really do have it all. But they don’t. They’ve set priorities that have led them to where they are, and priorities always involve a trade-off.
It’s so much sexier to talk about priorities in terms of what you can accomplish with them, as opposed to what you have to give up. But the accomplishment and sacrifice come together. Do you remember that movie from the ‘80s, The Competition? It followed a group of professional pianists through a concerto competition, and it shows this idea so clearly. All of these pianists are so talented and accomplished, and in order to be excelling at such a high level, their lives consist almost entirely of practice and music and more practice and their coaches and travel and practice. One of the main plotlines is about how the two protagonists are reluctant to have a romantic affair together because it will take away from the necessary focus and drive to win the competition.
Priorities are set based on how much we want something, but they are also set based on what we’re willing to do without. You’re willing to not have much of a normal social life? Then you can be a concert pianist. You’re willing to not see your kids very often? Then you can be a high-powered CEO. Most of us don’t have choices that are quite as extreme, but the core principle remains the same.
We often forget the trade-offs other people are making. People used to think I was really lucky to be working only part-time at my music teaching business. And I felt very lucky. I was doing work I loved and felt made a difference, and I had time to spare for my personal creative projects. But I was also constantly worried about money and the sustainability of my business model as the price of living kept increasing. I didn’t have a company behind me that provided paid sick days and cheap health insurance and retirement matching. The worry and the skimping were worth it to me in order to have a life focused on artistic pursuits, but I was very aware of the choice I was making. And everyone has made similar compromises somewhere along the line.
We can’t have it all. Nobody can, and that’s okay, as long as we don’t buy into the myth. What’s fabulous is that we get to decide what is most important to us and make our life choices accordingly. We don’t need to have it all in order to lead happy and fulfilled lives. We just need to understand where our priorities lie.