How Talk of “Trade-Offs” Keeps Us Playing Small

“Balance” ain’t such great shakes (photo by Gioia De Antoniis on Flickr)

I am so tired of hearing about “balance.” An article in Fortune rounds up the ways in which all the different women interviewed are “balancing” their lives. You know what it reads like to me? A prescription for living small. A bullshit framework that we’ve all bought into, that says life is about “trade offs” and “sacrifices,” and so we smush down what we really want deep inside, because we don’t believe we can have it.

What you really want is to produce documentaries, but, but, but, and so, you’re an account manager for an ad agency instead. What you really want is to write children’s books, but, but, but, so you create information architecture for government websites. What you really want is — you don’t even know, you can’t even find the space to figure it out, because you’re shuttling kids to swim practice and fighting with your husband about money.

What if more of us grew up with an intrinsic faith that we were meant to first, figure out our innate gifts, and second, live our lives as an expression of those gifts?

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” — Howard Thurman

What if our teachers and parents worked their hardest not to get us into college (i.e. get us a credential that gets us a secure paycheck), but to help us figure out the thing that makes us come alive? …and to instill in us the resourcefulness and fortitude to do that thing?

What if that was the cultural norm?

Would we still have women priding themselves on “balancing” of “it all,” where “it all” actually adds up to far less than what they really want? We balance til we break. The energy it takes, scheduling every little thing into our calendars, it saps us dry, and then what are we left with? Still a sense of depletion, of incompletion, until we give ourselves that insidious fucking pep talk: “Trade offs.”

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
— Howard Thurman

This awesomeness is by Topher McCulloch, a Chicago graphic designer who runs Make Something Awful Every Day

It’s popular to say that big change starts with a tiny step. And I get that; I do. Rather than sit, paralyzed, because you didn’t pursue that dream career as a Hollywood director, start by making a short film on your iPhone, today. There’s inspiration, there.

But it also holds us back. It encourages us to play small. If you really want to direct Hollywood films, for god’s sake, being an attorney for a pharmaceutical company who makes some movies on your iPhone ain’t gonna get you there. Something is better than nothing, sure, but “better than nothing” isn’t enough. It’s a disservice, it’s disrespectful to the gifts we were given, to tell ourselves that “better than nothing” is the best we can get.

What if we dared to be radical? What if we said, “screw you” to finding an hour here or there and we INSISTED, and DID NOT ASK PERMISSION, to in fact do EXACTLY THE THING we know deep down we were meant to do?

And if we didn’t know for sure what that thing was, what if we DIDN’T STOP until we figured it out?

What if? Seriously — what if, all of us actually did this? What if we filled the world with role models of people who were pursuing their gifts? What if — and this is where it gets really scary, for me, personally — we trusted that we could do this and still find a way to pay the bills? What if we didn’t let fear of money shut us down? Even now, a voice in my head says, “But Amanda… but, but.” I am confronting that voice; I don’t know what to say to it, yet, but I know that “but, but” is not my friend.

It’s not your friend, either. If you’re stuck at “but…” — please, see it for what it is, a symptom of a cultural sickness that is not supporting us as human beings for realizing our true, innate potential.

I feel a bit like the character in Network: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.” I want all of you to raise up your windows and howl it to the moon: “I REFUSE TO PLAY SMALL.” Make RADICAL change, not tiny steps. Just do it. And see what happens.

Please tell me what you learn, and I’ll do the same. We need each other’s stories to fuel the revolution.

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2 thoughts on “How Talk of “Trade-Offs” Keeps Us Playing Small

  1. Pingback: I got it wrong | Having it Alt

  2. Pingback: What is real power? | Having it Alt

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