Having It All Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

What do we mean by “having it all,” anyway? What ever happened to “enough”?

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Monthly article, which I already blogged about earlier this week, asserts that we are lying to young women when we tell them that they can have it all. Instead of blaming women’s lack of ambition, Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, recommends sensible and forward-thinking changes in workplace policy and culture that would improve the potential for women (and men) to achieve professional success without sacrificing family. I agree with her suggestions and share her aspiration of greater representation of women in top jobs. But that is not what I am writing about today. Instead, I am questioning the goal of having it all.  Even if it were possible to achieve maximum success in every area of our lives, would having it all make us happier or increase our well-being?

As Stephanie Coontz points out, the concept of “having it all” was not coined by feminists, but by advertisers. Remember Enjoli’s 24-hour woman  who could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man”? Somehow we have internalized this do-it-all, have-it-all ideal wholesale and then felt dissatisfied when we missed the mark.  And marketers know that we Americans are uniquely susceptible to the notion that if some something is good, then more of it is better. The U.S. appetite for more brought us Super Sizing, “giving 110%” and countless other forms of excess. Is having it all just another example of this? Imagine one’s life as a dinner plate heaped with huge helpings of everything. Viewed in this light, having it all looks more like over-consumption than fulfillment.

Think of the happiest times in your life. Did you have a full plate or right-sized portions? I am reminded of when my husband and I moved across country. We had a small box of excellent chocolates by Jacques Torres. Each day on the road we would share one or two, savoring each in several tiny nibbles, letting it melt on our tongues, guessing what flavoring each was infused with. It was joyful because of the quality of the experience, not the quantity. And when I think of truly peak experiences in my life, they are instances of doing one thing with focus and intensity — not of keeping multiple plates spinning like a circus performer, nor of having the volume turned up to 11 on all channels at once.

As Slaughter notes near the end of her article, our founders guaranteed us life, liberty and the “pursuit of happiness.” I think that happiness comes not from having it all, but from choosing well where we invest our attention and energy, taking the long view, and appreciating what we have. Enough already.