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Nobody Can Have It All, and That's OK

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A lot of excellent pieces have been written in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's thought-provoking piece on the fallacy of having it all.

If you haven't been following the back and forth so far, you should have a look at why we should man up, and why working from home is OK. Nobody can ever tell you quite why any article you write is popular or stokes debate, but quite often it's because you've hit on some idea that has been secretly bugging everybody like a hangnail or a cut in the roof of your mouth.

Slaughter has exposed the underlying fact that secretly worries men who take the time to think about this issue - despite advances in gender equality and reductions in sexism, we still have it a hell of a lot easier than women in pretty much every aspect of life. Don't get me wrong, things are headed in the right direction, but I also know that we're in a pretty bad place when men feel lucky that not 'being a woman' is still accepted to be an advantage. I think a lot of men don't engage with the issue because once you see how entrenched sexism still is in a lot of aspects of our daily lives, you can't 'un-see' it, and once you do it's hard not to get pretty pissed off about it.

A perfect example of this is given in Malcolm Gladwell's excellent latest book Blink. Before the advent of using a screen for auditions for orchestras, women were drastically under-recruited for instruments like the trombone and horn - traditionally viewed as male instruments. It's hard not to wonder how many amazing musicians we've missed out on because they happened to be born without a Y chromosome.

The debate on sex and having it all will roll on for a lot longer, but kudos needs to go to Slaughter for dragging some the dirtier truths of 21st century equality kicking and screaming into the light. Women need to feel comfortable to call us on them more often and we in turn need to feel comfortable saying "OK, how can we make that better?"

Not only is it true that we need to man up and start contributing more both outside work and to the debate, but everyone needs to accept the hard truth that regardless of sex we're all trying to do too much.

Nobody can have it all. Read that again and this time, try not to dismiss it as a face value platitude. Now take a deep breath and try not to freak out. It's true, and that's the way it has always been. Stopped hyperventilating? Good. Let's continue.

Look at the various people you admire or hold up as paragons of where you want to go in your career. Chances are, none of them had it all. How about world leaders? Barack Obama doesn't get a great amount of time with his kids and had to screen test potential dogs while trying to fix the worst recession in living memory. Bill Clinton spent his time as a dad trying to shepherd Chelsea through her awkward teenage years under the shadow of the Starr Report. George H. W. Bush had to deal with a son who was fighting the demons of alcohol addiction (and managing a baseball team) while juggling wars in the Gulf and the Balkans.

Next think about all the people you know who are amazing parents, have kids who seem genuinely content and fulfilled and who also seem to be in a relationship that doesn't revolve around sleep deprivation and blazing rows. How are their careers going? Ever seen them have to miss their son's play or daughter's soccer game for a big meeting? Or miss out on a promotion because they did the opposite? These are the trade offs we all have to choose from, and like most things that matter in life, there aren't necessarily any right or wrong answers - just options.

A lot of this debate is being framed in a way that does not recognize how fundamentally the workplace has changed in the last two decades. As such, our current concept of the triple shift is pretty flawed. In the past people had to juggle work, kids and housework as relatively discrete tasks whereas now we live in a world where everyone is always at work. Even when the kids are screaming and a burst pipe is spraying volcanic temperature water across your face/bathroom, your smartphone will still be chirping to tell you that about that contract you forgot to sign before leaving the office. There's a larger issue about our relationship with home/work spheres here, but again this ties in to trying to meet the unrealistic expectation that we can/should juggle all of this.

Everyone is constantly consumed with thinking about minimising trade offs that could derail their nascent career because that's what everyone else is talking about. Being busy and by extension worrying about the various pressures we put ourselves under has become normalised, and it's time we look at whether we're OK with that. Time is a finite commodity these days for enough concrete reasons that I don't want to waste any of it worrying about things I can't change.

I find it hard to believe that FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt spent their days off thinking about how they could be more efficient, and squeeze an extra hour of parenting out of their lone free weekend. In reality I'd like to hope they kicked back with a beer and argued about the books they were reading. This is the pair of mental sweatpants we all need to slip into every now and again to remember what it's like to just live our lives without a constant pressure to be more, do better while making it all look effortless.

Life is about trade offs - whether they happen now or at some point in the future. All of the choices we make cut off certain other opportunities and require compromises. I think the goal for most of us is to make sure that the paths we don't take aren't roads we want to eventually get to travel down. If you want to be a good parent, or good at your job, that time is going to have to come from somewhere - and unless you give up sleeping, there is no unlimited supply of time to borrow from. The new metric for success needs to be doing what we choose to do well, and making the most of the time with people we care about - not becoming consumed with how everybody else is doing when they don't share our own priorities.

As Aaron Sorkin constantly reminds those of us who aspire to better (most recently in Newsroom), we need to keep reaching for the stars. But what we shouldn't forget is that sometimes, we need to be able to look up and just think 'Damn it's a beautiful night.' Life doesn't need to be this hard for men or women.

Moreover, men who recognise that we already have it pretty good should try and figure out ways to break the day-to-day misogynies that make women feel like we're all just fine with things the way they are. Otherwise we aren't just missing out on generations of amazing trumpet players, but generations of transformative leaders who happen to be women.

Getting past preconceived notions of what anyone can do opens up a lot of new possibilities and as anyone who picks up a newspaper today should recognise, solutions to Syria, the economy and climate change need all the talented people we can get. If that means guys need to get off our asses and help out more at home, that's a pretty reasonable price to pay.