Monday, July 31, 2006

Juggling Personal Ambition and the Needs of Others

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture delivered by a successful corporate woman turned corporate consultant. Afterwards, I was haunted by her talk, not because it had inspired me to advance my corporate career, as the speaker had intended, but because it had seemed to me a cautionary tale. She'd told about her climb up the corporate ladder, reaching the level of director before age 35, while giving birth to two children (her husband raised them) and traveling the globe. She'd explained the networking that she'd had to do in order to climb the corporate ladder, including going out drinking with the guys. And when someone in the audience suggested that being mentored by men in the office might lead to sexual tension or misunderstandings, she completely dismissed the question: "We're all professionals." At that point, I began to suspect that she was not completely honest about her life, and about the price that she'd paid for her personal success.

Days later, I was still obsessing about the decisions that this woman had made. And I kept imagining the regrets she must hide, about being so absent from the early years of her children's lives. There must be some reason that she'd decided to go into consulting, which gave her a more flexible schedule, instead of continuing in the corporate world - maybe now that she saw that her kids would soon leave the nest, she finally wanted to have a relationship with them. She'd made the same mistake that many corporate fathers make: She'd let her unbridled personal ambition rule her life, at the expense of her family's needs.

After hearing her talk, I wanted to leave the corporate world completely behind. But I finally calmed down and reminded myself that to avoid making the same cold-hearted decisions that this woman had made didn't mean that I had to swing completely in the other direction and become a fulltime homemaker. Maybe, instead, there was a middle road that would give me a balance between personal ambition and the needs of loved ones. Maybe corporate life could be part of my life without my having to turn into a woman willing to sacrifice my family in order to climb the corporate ladder.

I reminded myself that the corporate world isn't the only place where personal ambition can run amok. I could leave the corporate world behind and still not be a good mother, wife and community member. I know writers, living far from the corporate environment, whose personal ambition has so narrowed their lives, they live alone and isolated with only their books and a computer screen. I suspect that for me, balancing personal ambition with the needs of others will be a lifelong juggling act, even if I someday leave the corporate world behind.

(Photo taken July 6 in Harbin, China. Two little boys play outside a former Russian Orthodox Church near Gougeli street.)

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