Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the 135th Wellesley College Commencement. During my speech, I encouraged young women to be resilient, be flexible and pace themselves throughout the journey of their life. And as we think about redefining what it means to live a successful life, I thought about what my own life experience has taught me thus far.
So much has been said and written about "having it all," and I offered my own perspective to these young women with their whole lives in front of them. Here's what I told them:
First, you can have it all -- but there's a catch. You can have it all, just not necessarily at the same time. Women -- and men -- who may have taken time off or slowed down to spend more time with their families may have to adjust their lifestyles if they decide to switch careers and begin working their way to the top again.
These decisions should be framed as choices that illustrate your priorities, not as sacrifices or giving something up. Women can decide not to have children because they love the fast pace and travel required of their profession. Others may see some of their peers achieve success in their careers faster than them because they decided to stay home with their children for a few years. But these are choices made by adults, not to be judged by others.
Second, we also must recognize that we are all human. Not superhuman. We should not be our own worst enemy. Many of my classmates, both men and women, thought that earlier generations of women had led demonstrations, forged court battles, blazed trails and broken glass ceilings, all so that women could compete equally with men in the workplace, while also continuing the "traditional" role of being primarily responsible for taking care of children, parents and men. That was the wrong lesson!
I spent my 20's and early 30's taking great pride in trying to be super woman. Proving to both myself and others that I could do everything. Most days, I felt like I was barely holding on by my fingertips, in fear of dropping one of the thousands of balls I juggled at once. I rarely made time for casual meals or movies with my friends. I barely ever exercised or curled up on the couch to read a mystery story. Multi-tasking became the norm -- not even relaxing during rare vacations or taking a moment to just catch my breath. That mindset caused me stress, anxiety and guilt, and I often felt I was not doing anything very well. Yet, I refused to ask for help. Fortunately, after the reality check of dropping a ball or two, I began to understand that having it all doesn't mean doing it all.
That brought me to my third point: We need support from others. I learned that the hard way. But now I am a firm advocate of nurturing, building and leaning on our support networks. To compete on an even playing field, we need to create our own field with teammates that respect and support what it takes for us to be healthy and whole. Leaning on each other is essential.
As soon as I finally learned to ask for help, my parents were right there. My dream job in the city often meant leaving early in the morning and working late at night. My dad took my daughter to school and picked her up every day, and my mom would read to my daughter in bed until I could rush home to tuck my daughter in. Without their support, I could never have thrived in such a demanding job.
Support at work is also invaluable. I love telling a story about one of my earlier bosses, Mayor Daley. He's a somewhat intimidating figure to most. Soon after he promoted me, he convened a meeting with a few members of his cabinet and Susan Sher, who was the corporation counsel, one of my dearest friends, and also a single mom at the time. Throughout the meeting, we kept looking at our watches, and at each other. Finally, he interrupted the conversation, gave us one of his piercing stares, and asked us if there was somewhere more important that we needed to be. I blurted out, "Susan and I both have second graders and their Halloween Parade starts in 20 minutes and it is 25 minutes away." We then braced ourselves, not having any idea how the mayor might respond. But without a second's hesitation, he replied, "Well, then, what are you doing here? You better get moving."
My experiences from so long ago have always motivated me to make a conscious effort to create an environment at work where those on my team know that I value and respect their responsibilities at home, so that they are comfortable telling me what they need in order to be whole. Being whole is what will sustain us for the long haul.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.