You can’t accelerate and brake at the same time

July 2020

It’s hard to be a young woman at the start of your career. You want to push yourself to reach your full potential, but you also want to lead a balanced life that is conducive to having a family one day. I have had several conversations with young women on this topic. They all go something like this:

Young woman: “I have a few interesting opportunities, but I’m concerned about work life balance”

Me (believing work life balance is a myth): “What is your concern?”

Young woman: “That I can’t work at the pace required of me and have a family”

Me: “Tell me about your plans for having a family. Are you planning children soon?”

Young woman: “I don’t yet have a boyfriend, but one day.”

And there it is – hitting the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

As someone who started out her career in management consulting, while aspiring to have a family down the line, I get it. You see the stop street ahead and start braking to avoid danger. The problem with that strategy is that you never reach your top speed. You play it safe to keep your options open. This aversion to risk is particularly common in women. I have never had the conversation above with a man.

The challenge is you don’t know what lies ahead: whether or when you will find your life partner, whether, when or how many children you will have, what your style of mothering will be, what your support network will look like, what your heart will desire and the list goes on. Life changes so quickly that you can only make the best decision with what you know at the time. Maya Angelou famously said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

A good friend of mine wrestled with the decision of putting her name in the hat for a CEO role while her children were still young. The exiting CEO had warned her about the demands of the role. He didn’t think she could do it as mother to a young family. My encouragement to her was to go for it – push down on the accelerator and be ready to brake hard if you need to. Who was to say she wouldn’t find a different way of running the business? Who was to say she wouldn’t love it so much that the joy it brought would overshadow the challenges? If she took the role and at any stage it didn’t work out, she could always leave (like the exiting CEO).

I once heard it said that brakes were not designed so cars could stop. Brakes were designed so cars could accelerate. My advice is accelerate first, then stop when you need to. I do, however, have one word of caution: beware of deceleration injuries. Stopping while driving at top speed is harder than you think.