31/07/2013 12:52 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 06:12 BST

How Not to Get Promoted: Ask for Work-Life Balance


She tucked her blonde hair behind her ears and tried to ignore her mother's piercing stare as she slipped into her seat at the lunch table at her parents' house. She was late. And she knew what was going to come next.

"You look tired," her mother observed.

"Gee, thanks," she replied sarcastically.

She knew she had dark circles under her eyes. She had been pulling fourteen-hour workdays as a junior associate at a magic circle law firm, only to come home to a boyfriend who complained about her being too tired and 'a hollow version of her former self.'

She had found herself apologizing to everyone that week - her boss, her colleagues, her boyfriend, her friend; for that typo, that miscommunication, that forgotten detail, that missed dinner.

On top of that, this Sunday morning while getting dressed she had discovered that her favorite jeans didn't fit; thanks to the unexpected layer of flesh she had gained from missing all of her spin classes that week. Plus, she had a pimple on her chin, a shining reminder of the stress underneath which she was drowning.

After she had apologized to her parents for being late, they got on to discussing how her week had been. As she had dreaded, the same old conversation ended up unfolding.

("Why were you sleeping at your office?" "We had a deadline, Mum." "Can they make you work those hours?" "Our client needed it by the next morning, Dad.")

They didn't ask what she was increasingly starting to ask herself: was all this stress really worth it? And what was 'it'?

"A lot of people would kill for this opportunity," she would tell herself. She thought about her law conversion classmates who hadn't secured training contracts. On some level, she felt lucky to be enduring this torture, because it reinforced that she worked somewhere important for important clients; therefore she was important by association.

"We hate seeing you like this," her father said gently. "It's not good for your health."

"Well, Dad, nobody wants burnout and sleep deprivation at 26," she pointed out. "It's not always going to be like this."

She knew that she didn't want to make partner. She knew that her health, family and ability to make a difference in the world were part of her definition of long-term success. Someday, she'd have the luxury of stepping back. But first, she wanted to build something up to step back from. She wanted to get promoted. And she wanted another promotion after that.

She wanted to get promoted as much as possible before marriage and kids came into the picture. She suspected that once that happened, she'd increasingly miss a lot of the after-hours out-of-office discussions that already went on between male colleagues at the bar or on the golf course.

Most of the time, she felt excited about being a Generation-Y female and therefore licensed to both have a baby and to run the world if she felt up to the challenge. Other times, she felt overwhelmed.

She had loved reading Lean In - the feminist manifesto by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg - she wanted to lean far into building her career for as long as possible. She had also read about how hard it was for her male peers to 'lean out' - she knew that they were under just as much professional pressure as she was, but that they privately put even more pressure on themselves to compete with one another's external markers of success.

She thought about her friend and colleague James, who was also a junior associate, whose dwindling enthusiasm for the legal profession diminished by the day. Over lunch, he'd tell her about the books he was reading, like The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss and The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau.

"There's more to life than making money and being a lawyer," he'd insist earnestly, almost as if he were trying to convince himself. He had urged her to subscribe to Escape the City. She had. She knew that there were different paths available for her.

James had also told her about the Third Metric, an argument for measuring success not just by money and power but also through wisdom, well-being, and contribution. The argument resonated with her. Yet she also questioned whether (similar to the climate change debate) the people most likely to listen to the message were the ones who didn't really need to hear it.

Perhaps the ones who most needed to hear the message would challenge its validity, like her colleague Dan, who strutted around the office sucking up to the senior partners left right and center and wore his all-nighters at the office like a badge of honor.

Dan might call the Third Metric 'soft' and 'for the weak'. To him, success was tied into how many billable hours, impressive clients, and trophies he could cram into a life. He always looked at her funny whenever she complained about anything and she noticed that he had a very subtle way of implying that the only reason she was complaining was because she was female.

Of course she was inspired by the Third Metric concept and of course she wanted more work-life balance. But at this early stage in her career, when she was still trying to validate her place in this profession, she wondered whether she could afford it.

What would happen if she told her boss that she was leaving the office early because she had a yoga class? How could she fit more 'mindfulness' into her day when she barely had time to hear about how her boyfriend's day had gone? Would her colleagues snicker behind her back if she started ducking out earlier than they did? Wouldn't asking for 'work-life balance' strike her off the list for promotion?

She hoped to live in a world where the Third Metric was a reality. She hoped for a lot of things - honest politicians, jeans that fit, climate change legislation, not having to be in constant apology mode. But that Sunday afternoon, her Blackberry buzzed and she learned that she was getting called into the office. She turned to face her parents and wondered how she was going to get out of this one.

For more about Escape the City, click here.

For more articles and books by Adele Barlow, click here.