There are these moments, as parents, when every once in a while everything goes so utterly, terribly wrong that you feel like life itself is slapping you in the face, telling you to wake up and pay attention to the hot mess you’re creating. I had a moment like that about a year ago, when one morning, as I was getting my daughters ready for school, my then-6-year-old stood paralyzed in our kitchen, inches from hyperventilating, rattling off her child-sized to-do list, in a puddle of tears.
My first thought was: Damn these schools with their early start times and their packets of homework. No 6-year-old should even know the word “stressed.”
My second thought was: she sounds just like me.
Her school hadn’t created this panicky meltdown. I had. I was leading her reactions to outside expectations by example.
Our kids are the most honest mirrors, aren’t they?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 12 years, a mother for the last seven years, and someone who has always wanted to accomplish something meaningful in my life. The only way I knew how to run a business and balance the never-ending tasks society tells we need to check off to be “good moms” was to keep a mile-long to-do list and a carefully calculated calendar.
Most of the time, though, it left me feeling like my daughter: too overwhelmed to breathe.
But after having too many mornings like that one—sometimes with her melting down, sometimes me—I was broken down. This was not the life I wanted for my daughters, I thought. This was not the life I wanted for myself.
It wasn’t so easy to get off the hamster wheel. We’re trained to want more, better, faster. It feels like the only way to live, and that anything less is the disgust-inducing idea of “settling.” Especially in the self-improvement movement that is prevalent in the business community, we’re made to believe that anything less than sky diving, working from a laptop on the beach and sitting across from Oprah is a failure. And like many others, I’d bought into this wholeheartedly.
It took me too long to realize that this picture of success was the equivalent of thinking I could look like a Victoria’s Secret model with just the right push-up bra and good lighting. It was a fantasy used to sell more books, more courses and more seminar tickets. But more importantly, it took me too long to realize it wasn’t even my own picture of success, which looked more like being spread out on a blanket at the park while my kids played, working at a pace that made me feel energized not drained, and getting all the dishes in my sink cleared out before I had to make the next meal.
And just maybe, impacting someone’s heart with the words I eked out at naptime.
But in the meantime, my day-to-day life was suffering and I had to ask myself the hard questions: What was I trying to prove, and to whom? What was I working so hard for, and why? The answer was a better life for my family and me, and I realized that a better life didn’t start in the fantastical land of “someday,” it started where I was standing.
So I made the unpopular decision that terrified me to the very core. I slowed down. Stopped, even. I stepped out of the parade and watched it pass me by, wondering if I’d lose everything I’d been working so hard for.
And a funny thing happened. Everything was fine. My career kept rolling along at the same pace. I still got the important things done. Nobody missed me from Facebook. And most importantly, I could breathe. All this time, I’d thought that if I slowed down even a little, all the plates I’d been spinning would come crashing down around me and that I’d never accomplish anything worth being remembered for. But it turned out, when I learned to spin each plate effectively and purposefully, I didn’t have to touch them so often.
It wasn’t about the quantity of my effort, it was about the quality, of which I could never give enough when I was running at breakneck speed. It wasn’t about pushing, pushing, pushing. It was about trusting myself to be pulled.
Since working and living at a slower pace, I’ve learned a few lessons.
I’ve learned that the voice in my head that was always pushing for more, better, faster, wasn’t society’s, the self-improvement market, my readers’, or even my publisher’s. It was mine, and it was operating from a fear of failure, not a vision for success.
I learned that when I give myself enough time and space to listen to the quiet guidance of my heart, I make better decisions, I’m more effective in my work and home life, and I’m lighter.
I learned how to prioritize.
I learned how to dance in the kitchen with my daughters, instead of delivering marching orders.
And most of all, I learned that happiness and success weren’t things that happened somewhere in the future, when the to-dos were all checked off my list and I’d reached all the coveted milestones in my field—they were right here, right now, in the choices I made in each moment to create a life worth living, for myself and for my daughters.