‘I’m done.’ It’s one of the most common remarks that I hear in interviewing people about their transitions. It seems to be a psychological plateau that women reach when they cannot give any more to their current pursuit. The scholar PhD student who realizes that academia isn’t the place of her dreams. The woman who spent years in the home with four children. The single woman who gets fatigued after years supporting an all-consuming boss. The veteran executive who is faced with the political and emotional jujitsu that accompanies most senior level roles. Have you ever said it? I’m done?
I did. I said it one afternoon while on a business trip in London. A minor family crisis left me feeling the weight of the 3,300 miles that separated me from home. It took me another year to disengage entirely from that job. But I knew it in an instant. I was done.
The repetition of hearing this remark sent me investigating its possible drivers. I found something surprising…..something I missed the first time through.
Anna Fels, author of Necessary Dreams (Summer Book Review # 8), first introduced early Novofemina readers to the concept of being done. She studied women’s ambition and introduced us to the notion of ambition being an outcome of two critical inputs…mastery and recognition. The need for the latter is ongoing – in all sorts of circles, not just work.
At the book’s outset Fels, a practicing psychiatrist, described two female lawyers who sought her services. One had recently finished law school and joined a small but prestigious firm. At the firm she was performing well but becoming increasingly miserable. There were only two women at the upper levels of the firm, one of whom was difficult to work with. This challenging lady was this recent grad’s boss. Her boyfriend, a new partner at another firm, often complained when she had to work around the clock on ‘no notice.’ She was concluding that career success didn’t seem worth the price.
The other attorney was a woman slightly older who also worked in a stodgy firm. She also didn’t admire the partners in the firm where she worked. However she was juiced about a new lens into law; the use of technology. She’d recently been asked to speak on the subject at a conference. The event brought her high praise. She was considering starting a legal-tech services company. Her husband, a lawyer and entrepreneur wannabe, was encouraging.
Fels wonders out loud how these lawyers experiences could be so different. One ready to start her own business, another feeling more and more dejected.
Fels argues convincingly that one had no intact ‘sphere of affirmation’ in any area of her life. She was running on empty. No recognition. The other was enlarging her ambitions thanks to the reliable sources of recognition and affirmation that she received from a multiplicity of areas.
What role does affirmation play in your life? Can you even recognize it?
“To thrive women must identify, critically assess, and purposefully develop situations that can provide sustaining affirmation – spheres of recognition. Without it, this condition women will engender painful and unnecessary self-doubt.” (Dreams, pg 96/97)
The time when I declared that I was ‘done’ sources of affirmation were scarce. The concept wasn’t on my radar screen. What was were the demands of my extreme job, my young family, an entrepreneurial husband in the throes of a start-up and a recently widowed mother and mother-in-law.
In comparison – and without knowing – I have developed a few spheres of affirmation. Thankfully. Blessedly. They are replenishing me as I write a book, a scary professional terrain for moi. Also, I serve as a sphere contributor to several others.
What’s different? Time – for sure. I’ve reduced my work hours by at least 1/3 since my business trip to London. What else?
Affirmation…seems like a big word. It is the simple bestowing of authentic recognition on someone. I saw it live last week in my son. He lit up as he was recognized for being ‘camper of the week’ at his beloved day camp. The kick in his heels still present – adding air to his sails.
Done feels too late to intervene. It isn’t if my story or any of my interviewees’ stories are right. But I’d like to dream that we never reach done…we cultivate our own and contribute to other’s sphere of affirmation continuously. My guess is many of us have the giving side down.
Today I wish for you a smile or word in recognition of the wonderful contributions you make. I also wish that the kick in your heels stays with you…even beyond done.
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