"I wish I had enjoyed it more," Barbara Walters told the audience at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday night, recalling what she said when Oprah asked her to reflect on her career and many accomplishments. Oprah, with tears in her eyes, responded: "I do, too.'"
For women still at the beginning of their careers, with no way of knowing whether they will ever attain the level of achievement, wealth, and renown Walters and Winfrey have, the regret that duo expressed could be daunting. Even if you're after that kind of success and believe you can make it happen, long hours and late nights can often raise the question: Is it worth it?
For a recent piece on The Grindstone, Meredith Lepore put that question to women in finance. Most of those she interviewed said they sacrificed a personal life in their 20s to build the financial security they desired by their 30s, claiming that their Wall Street experience "prepared them to be unprepared."
But the preparation a finance career supposedly provides is not without its price. A female investment banker in New York spoke to Lepore about her worries about what she was giving up to get ahead:
"Is it worth it to work this hard at this point in my life and give up time with my friends and family or just having a weekend to myself so maybe in my 30′s I can take a breather and figure out my next step and have a really substantial chunk of money to help me figure it out? I don't know. Sometimes it is yes, but on those really long days it is no. You can ask me when I am 35 and not married with no friends because I stopped speaking to them in my 20′s."
Others argue that even women who don't work in finance or other professions where the financial payoff is potentially substantial aren't necessarily "sacrificing" their 20s.
At a recent panel in New York city hosted by Glamour Magazine, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor counseled women to take advantage of your minimal family obligations at this age and go after the right experience -- even if there is no big paycheck attached:
"You really have a huge advantage on your side. More than any other time in your future life, you don't have to worry that much about making money yet [Kantor made $18,000 a year in her first job after graduating from Barnard more than a decade ago].... Compared to the obligations you'll have 10 and 20 years from now, you're so free."
I admit that I find myself haunted by those quotes from Barbara Walters and Oprah. If women who have reached that level of success feel later on that they didn't enjoy it, are the rest of us on the right path? But in that same interview at The 92nd Street Y, Barbara Walters asserted that she wasn't retiring anytime soon, and we all know Oprah is about to take her career to the next level with The OWN Network.
For driven women in our 20s, it might help to acknowledge that we choose to work late and hard, and that how we think about that choice is in our control. If we can find happiness in the now of our work, in being a particular age in a particular place at a particular time having this particular experience, maybe the hours spent in pursuit of success -- however you measure it -- aren't sacrificed. In a way, they're consecrated.
If you're in your 20s, do you feel like you should be enjoying work more? If you're further along in your life and career, do you wish you had spent more or less time working in your 20s, and why? We'd love to hear your thoughts.
Follow Jessica Pearce Rotondi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jessicarotondi