When my first mentor told me, “You can have it all,” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. His assessment was based on the pioneering leadership he had established as one of the Peace Corps’ original country directors turned founder of an international development organization with a mission to provide humanitarian assistance across the continent of Africa. In that world, stellar credentials and my proven capacity to manage a vast portfolio of responsibilities as a young professional were the pre-cursor for limitless career opportunity. For the generations who entered the workforce after civil rights era legislation was passed, the floodgates were open. It was an exciting time. My mentor had positioned himself as one of the trusted gatekeepers to ensure those opportunities were evenly distributed and prided himself on making sure there were qualified successors properly positioned to take advantage of them.
“What is ‘it all?’” My question stunned him. A product of a bygone era of segregationist North Carolina, who found unprecedented success upon migrating his family to the nation’s capital, his ideas would undoubtedly be different from my own. Still, I appreciated the insight good mentorship could provide. It enhances our vision of what is possible and improves our chances of accomplishing something far beyond what might have otherwise been possible. I deeply respected this man’s accomplishments and valued his perspective on how I could fashion a protocol to string together a few of my own. He described the “big job” or the distinction of being the first (insert protected class description here) to accomplish something noteworthy enough to justify all the crushing student loan debt I had acquired.
“You could work in the White House!” His access was intriguing, but on some level, those jobs had always been a possibility. Despite the likelihood that I too could benefit from one of the coveted positions his influence secured for his own daughter and several other proteges, the suggestion held little appeal for me. I believed there was more. There had to be…more than either of us could fathom at that point in time. His next thought would prove to be the key for me, “…or whatever you want…” This, I loved. It required me to get clear on a few things I didn’t want to continue to reconcile like sexual harassment, pay discrepancies, and discrimination for starters. I also didn’t want to forfeit my fertility for a high-powered professional life. No job could compensate for that part of “it all” I knew I wanted to express. My mentor did not agree. His vision of “it all” would never be enough for me. With that understanding I knew our mentorship was complete.
Honestly speaking, “it all” was not something I was even seeking at the time. It was something I was gradually coming to realize I already had. I was uncovering an interesting truth for myself. “It all” was not something that could be obtained through external pursuits. It was something to be revealed. To have “it all” then, I only needed to figure out how to reveal more of the essence of me. This is the artist’s space, where creativity reigns and the harshest critics live in our own heads. Here is where we relinquish our attachment to acquiring more things and become them one daring note or the experimental at a time. The objective is not to temper our expectations to accept a lesser reality, but instead to align the reality to the frequency of our fulfilled desires. It was the regrets, the untapped potential, the over-cautious hedging and the ache of unfulfillment that scared me more than trying something that may not have worked out the way I hoped. If nothing else, I learned something. In my case, I learned a lot. What is the point of having cake if you cannot eat it too? Perfect metaphor for “it all” if I ever knew one.
What is “it all” for you?