On Being A Reluctant Career Girl

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 4.24.45 PMLike most people, I’ve always been taught that working hard was an inherently good thing. It built character, it taught you the value of a dollar, and it gave you the freedom to define and expand upon your own dreams. As someone who, for many years, lacked the fundamental work ethic to reach any of her goals — a college degree, a stable job, a decent income — finding myself at 26 with a deeply rewarding professional life feels wonderful, if not completely unexpected. And it’s true that, when it comes to things like patience, delayed gratification, and the deep joy of a job well done, my life has become much richer for working hard at something I love. The lessons I’d heard all my life about being one of those “hard workers” has proven to be true, for the most part.

Today, I work harder than I ever have in my life. (Though I am under no illusion that, in the grand scheme of things, I work that hard. I am well aware that no work which takes place in one’s home and primarily at a computer can be considered the true “hard” work of the world.) But the point is, I am more dedicated to my professional life than I ever have been, produce more product — in the varied forms that takes — than ever before, and see my goals actively growing in size and scope. Every day, I am more implicated in my work, take more personal responsibility, and have more on the line. For many people, to have one’s own business is a dream, and to be the master of both their timecard and their career trajectory is the ultimate goal — something I am lucky to have in my mid-20s.

But I realize each day, the harder I work, just how limited the rewards of professional life can be. The more responsibility you have, and the more your day revolves around your work, the less opportunity you have to invest in the many other sources of happiness and fulfillment in your life. If your joy were to be visualized as a pie chart — friends, family, work, hobbies, leisure time — the more work grows, even if you love it, the slimmer the slices for everything else. So you had better hope that whatever work you’re doing is something you live and breathe, because otherwise, you’ll find yourself feeling deeply isolated in your job.

My father has always had his own business, a freelancer for as long as I can remember. His spirit is truly entrepreneurial, in the sense that creating his own lifestyle and adapting it to fit around his “real” life has always been of the utmost importance to him. He has looked at self-employment not in the “I get to be CEO” way, which many people do, but in the “no one is going to impose their work on my life” way, an enormous benefit of creating your own schedule and reporting to yourself. He never aspired to grow an empire, but rather have the humble-yet-satisfying life of someone who lived within their means, worked hard, and wanted to take at least part of their reward in freedom. He’s never had benefits or a 401k provided to him, but he’s always had that freedom.

And I share that entrepreneurial mindset, in the sense that I am impatient in group settings and long to work on my own terms. I often write at night, don’t like to get up before 9 AM, and sometimes would prefer a weekend to be on Thursday instead of Saturday. I think this is normal, and it’s certainly the most immediately noticeable upside to being self-employed. But like my father, I feel I also lack the gene for mogul-dom, and my aspirations stop far short of ever being on the cover of Forbes (though I have had several photos of me in Entrepreneur, which was kind of a trip). When I see interviews with some of the powerful female business leaders out there, both in the media world and the more traditional business world, they seem to draw a sense of fulfillment and meaning from their work that I never have. They thrive on seeing their influence grow, their brand take shape, and their bank accounts explode in tandem. They are passionate Career Girls, and I respect them for it.

But, no matter how much I enjoy work on any given day — and many days, I really do — I cannot ever picture myself sacrificing much quality of life for success. I would like to earn a moderately comfortable living, and have control over the projects I do, but that feels like more than enough for me. I don’t want to have an empire, I don’t aspire to rise through a corporate ladder, and I wouldn’t draw meaning from seeing my name on a billboard. Being able to work from home as a full-time writer feels like more than enough for now, anything else is whipped cream.

The truth is, no matter what anyone says, you cannot have it all. And this is not a phenomenon limited to women, either, because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to be equally divided between a thriving career, a meaningful social life, a passionate love life, and a dedicated family life. You have to take your hits somewhere, and you must eventually learn to prioritize what you have and don’t have time for in any given day or week. Even without children, I’ve found that my social life has already taken a pretty profound hit since working on this site, and while I recognize that building something now is also about setting up a future that matches my dreams, it’s incredibly hard in the immediate. I am not the sort of person who can throw herself into work entirely with no repercussion — I feel cut off from “normal” life, depressed, lethargic, even hopeless. I am one of those people who needs a much more balanced life, and I suspect that I’m not the exception to the rule.

I believe that there are many reluctant Career Girls out there, who work hard partially because they were taught to, but also partially because they know that it’s what’s best for investing in their future self. They do what needs to be done, hustle through multiple jobs, side jobs, and side-side jobs, to live a life that is more comfortable and independent than the one they have now. But their dreams are not to be the ruler of a queendom of their own making, nor to dedicate the lion’s share of their emotional lives to their work. Their sun doesn’t rise and set with another dollar earned or promotion achieved. They are ultimately not the Career Girls, despite having the fire in them to work as hard as they can.

I wish I knew what the answer was here. I wish I knew how to strike that balance, how to say to the world “I don’t want to climb to the top of the mountain” without everyone thinking that I don’t want to climb at all. Having ambitions that are equally about personal life as they are about professional life is not lazy, nor does it mean your horizons are narrow. It just means that in your dreams, part of your grand definition of “success” has to do with the people around you, and what you have the time to do with your life. It might be travel, it might be going back to school, it might be a rich home life with a spouse and several children. It might be a tight-knit friend group who meets for dinner every single Sunday. It could be any number of things, perhaps in tandem with a good career, perhaps not.

But those dreams are just as valid. And perhaps to achieve them, we must be the reluctant Career Girl, at least for a while. Until we have the freedom — financial or otherwise — to choose who we really want to be.

  • Summer

    I absolutely fall into this category. I have zero desire to climb ladders, call myself an “executive” to a flock of underlings, or engage in cutthroat competition for promotions. I just don’t care about any of that, try as I might. As you mentioned, this can be difficult to convey to others without seeming as though I lack ambition, passion, or am indifferent to success. Perhaps even more irritating, I have found that this also invites questions like, “well, if you’re not a workaholic, does that mean you’re counting down the days until you start a family??” – which, NO. It is frustrating to be a woman sometimes for the simple fact that if you’re not a die-hard career girl, you must be itching to fill your uterus with life. I greatly resent the seemingly default notion that women must be defined by something other than themselves; be it a job, children, whatever. I realize this is a bit off the original subject, but I’ve found that the discussion of one generally tends to lead to the other (particularly IRL conversations), and I wish it wouldn’t.

  • laura

    Thanks for the real talk! I fall into this category too, which occasionally results in insecurity when I see my friends/peers clawing their ways up the ladder and wonder if I’m doing something wrong or “settling” for self-perceived mediocrity. But we all have our own definitions of success and happiness!

  • šmrflj

    YES! This is my situation as well.

  • meep

    four articles in one day! this is making me super happy.

  • GBee

    A few years ago I would have classified myself as a Career Girl. I was never satisfied. Every time I received a promotion I was already looking to the next one. Then life happened. I’m currently not in the best place career wise (based on what I previously had planned for myself) and I may be in a career rut, but I’m so much happier now. My relationships with my friends, SO, and my family are so much stronger. Traveling, socializing, reading, creating art- those are things that bring me a kind of happiness that a career won’t. Yes, I still want to reach certain goals, but it’s okay if I’m a Director at 40 instead of 30. My job doesn’t define me and frankly it builds character to have to work your way up slowly.

  • PREACH.

  • There’s something called the “Peter Principle” which basically states that in the corporate world, you keep getting promoted until you are no longer good at your job. So if you’re a salesman, and you’re really good, you eventually get to manage salesmen. And if you’re good at that, you get to manage people who manage salesmen. And at some point, you just won’t be any good at managing the people below you and your new responsibilities & you won’t get promoted anymore.

    It’s funny, and true, but it’s also kind of scary. As I rise in the ranks at my job, I do less and less of the stuff I was really good at that earned me promotions/influence. Some people really thrive on that, like you said. Titles. Brand-building. Etc.

    I’m not sure I do. And I think a lot of creative, entrepreneurial types don’t either.

    Anyway, great post, from a fellow reluctant career girl.

  • Ronja

    This a side note, but can I just say how much I cringe every time I hear or see the expression ‘Career Girl’ used? Isn’t it time that we all refer to ourselves as women?