I’m often told that I’m proof that a woman can "have it all." But every time someone says it, I twinge because I feel like a fraud.
I founded a company that does over $1 million in revenue, where I have a strong social impact pursuing my passions. I’m married to my business partner, and we have two wonderful children. We work from wherever we want and can arrange flexible schedules.
What I’ve learned is that the concept of having it all isn’t really achievable. It’s a moving target.
For me, it started with having a successful business and time to pursue my interests. Then, I added a child. Then another one. Next, volunteering at their school. Then, an opportunity to speak internationally. Then, a goal to write a book. There is always something else to add.
So, where is the limit?
I’ve always prided myself on my ability to juggle multiple tasks in order to succeed as a mother and entrepreneur. Whenever it’s gotten tough, I’ve figured out a way to get more efficient so I could add another project to my schedule.
That’s what happened when each of my children was born -- major boosts in productivity so that the fewer hours I was working were yielding greater results. I kept waiting to see some caution tape on the horizon that would refuse my adding on a new project because my limit had been reached.
It didn’t happen.
Instead, I added more commitments and more projects. There were some close calls, but things always worked out and no one told me I had to stop.
The Breaking Point
One morning, my husband and I discovered we had schedule conflicts and no babysitter. He needed to leave and I had three important sales calls and our small children to handle. I braced myself.
With help from TV and snacks, I made it through the first two calls unscathed. By the third call, the kids noticed my divided attention and wanted it back. The room filled with wild behavior and calls for “Moommmmyyy!” I was a mute button warrior, and asked open-ended questions to get the prospect talking.
Finally, I needed two minutes to respond and went to my bedroom to reduce the noise. While there, I heard the vague sound of a screen door opening and closing and ran back to the living room. I arrived to find my two-and-a-half year old running towards the street yelling “hi!” to a neighbor he didn’t know.
The neighbor gave me a concerned look. Terror and embarrassment ran through me as I muted again for an awkward pause on the line to excuse myself to the neighbor. Back off mute, I guided my son back to the house while confirming next steps on the call.
As I hung up, it occurred to me that this was my caution tape. So many awful things could have happened. In a moment, my distraction could have ruined my life. I might never reach an opaque, "you can’t do this" ceiling on my limits, but the potential for danger from taking on too much was now clear.
How Fast Do You Drive?
“Having it all” is like speeding in a car: You can always go a little faster.
We might justify to ourselves that we’re still feeling safe and in control 5 to 10 mph above the limit and we don’t see any traffic cops on the horizon. Then, we’re late and the needle on the speedometer creeps more.
With each acceleration of speed, the danger increases. A crash is not guaranteed, but the situation is more fragile. If something goes wrong, it’s more likely the result will be the unthinkable kind of bad. An accident at 25 mph is just that -- an accident. One at 90 mph is fatal.
Less than a month ago, a 21-year-old Bank of America intern tragically died after reportedly pulling three all-nighters in a row. Within his group, he was known as the best intern.
He was found dead in the shower just a week shy of finishing his internship. You can almost hear him justifying his unsustainable actions in his head, “Just one more week to go, then I can sleep forever and guarantee a job offer. I can do this.”
Without a doubt, having it all is exhilarating. Speeding gets us where we’re going faster. However, before you add on that extra project just because you can, realize that you’re also playing a risky game of Russian Roulette.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Sheena Lindahl is co-founder and CEO of Empact, an organization facilitating entrepreneurship throughout the world through exposure, celebration and connection. She has been named by Inc. Magazine as a 30 under 30 entrepreneur and by Business Week as one of the country's top 25 entrepreneurs under the age of 25. She is a graduate of New York University.