Forget everything you’ve heard about work/life boundaries.
By MARCI ALBOHER, Pennsylvania Gazette, March/April 2007
After graduating from Penn, Carrie Lane C’89 began a career befitting her Ivy League pedigree. An art-history major, she scored fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. She began studying for a masters, stepped up to a Ph.D. program, then put that aside when she saw the opportunity for a business helping young professionals acquire art. On the side, she got a gig writing a book about the 19th-century American artist William Merritt Chase. Her parents and peers were impressed.
Much as she enjoyed her work, something was missing. In addition to her passion for art and her skills as a researcher, Carrie had always been a serious athlete. During high school and college, she was a champion equestrian. Later, it was marathons. People frequently told her she would be a great coach or trainer, but she had always thought of these things as purely extracurricular activities. Then something changed. Like many people, Carrie had an epiphany shortly after the September 11 terror attacks. “With the art, I’m helping people and educating them. But I was feeling this intense need to help people in a more hands-on kind of way,” she explains of her decision to begin training to become a Pilates instructor.
At the time, Carrie didn’t think much about how Pilates would fit in with the rest of her work. For about six months, she refused to accept new art clients and focused on her Pilates immersion. “I have a tendency to just leap forward, and worry later,” she told me.
Today she divides her time between her art projects and a part-time job at a health club where she runs the Pilates program. She inhabits two worlds, often moving from spandex and sneakers to cashmere and pearls in the same workday. She doesn’t have a tidy answer when people ask her what she does, and she often varies what she says depending on the questioner.
Carrie is one of my closest friends and I watched all this happen from a prime spot on the sidelines. Soon I started noticing that Carrie wasn’t the only one building a career with a slash in the middle of it. It was happening everywhere. From banker/novelists to lawyer/ chefs and mommy/CEOs, the slash had graduated from a mere punctuation mark to the new must-have resume accessory. Why were all these people turning their hobbies or passions into second careers and reengineering themselves in this way? And why did these slashes (as I started to call them) seem so much more fulfilled—and less stressed out—than those who stuck to one job?
To get the answers, I did what any reasonably curious Penn alum would do. I hit the pavement, did some research, and wrote a book. Along the way, I talked to hundreds of people who have created careers that involve a quirky coupling of occupational interests.
We all worry about the so-called wasted years we give to those things we do right out of school. The year in Aspen finding yourself while working as a bartender/ ski instructor. Or even longer forays, like my own—a decade long stint as a lawyer.
But so often, those experiences show up as the slashes we use to describe ourselves when we break into something else. Or they allow us to short-circuit the dues-paying in the next endeavor.
Mary Mazzio is a living example of this. As a competitive rower, Mary had always made time for rowing regardless of what else she was doing. As an associate at a large Boston law firm, she negotiated a flexible schedule to allow for early-morning rowing sessions two days a week along the Charles River. After making it all the way to the Olympics in 1992, Mary returned to her law practice and retired from the highest levels of rowing competition.
But she quickly turned to another slash and began studying filmmaking on the sly. A master at time management, she used a maternity leave to work on a film idea that wove together her interest in women’s sports and her legal background— the story of a Title IX revolt by female rowers at Yale in 1976. Mary had her second baby, returned to her law practice, and launched her film.
Before long, Mary realized there was a limit to the slashes she could manage and left the law behind to focus on being a filmmaker/mother. Now running her own company, 50 Eggs Productions, Mary has made two films about mothers, Lemonade Stories about entrepreneurs and their mothers, and Apple Pie, about athletes and their mothers. She has created a career/life that easily blend her identities as an athlete, lawyer, and mother. It is a job description that few others could fill.
Incongruous combinations have inherent appeal in the world of slashes. Joe Van Blunk, a Philadelphia longshoreman, discovered this when he made the documentary film Echoes of a Ghost Minyan, about the withering Jewish enclave in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up as a Catholic kid earning small change by turning on the lights in the synagogues for his Sabbath-observing Jewish neighbors. When he showed his film at Jewish Community Centers around the country, people lined up to meet this working-class artiste who also happened to be a gentile making art about Jews. The media couldn’t get enough of him, repeatedly writing articles about the filmmaker/longshoreman.
Even those who appear to have a career with a single focus are slashing these days. Psychologists, accountants, and decorators all show up in my writing class to work on their ideas for articles and books. They realize that writing is one of those slashes that goes with anything.
In the end, the slashes convinced me that all the talk we hear about work/life boundaries is hooey. The most satisfied people I found never talked about “leaving work at work.” What they had in common was a career that fueled their passions, whether or not that career made sense to anyone else. They were typically people who forged ahead with little planning, following Carrie’s lead about not worrying about how it will all come together.
Angela Williams, a Baptist minister/corporate lawyer, showed me this time and again. For a time, she worked as a federal prosecutor while also presiding as a minister at a church. “I’m the one who puts them in jail in the morning and prays for them at night,” she once told me. Over the years, her dual occupations led her to opportunities perfectly suited to her twin passions: A stint investigating arsons at black churches. A post in the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund allocating money to rebuilding houses of worship damaged in the hurricane. And most recently, as the general counsel of the YMCA. Angela’s two identities are merely two different ways of expressing her core values.
Funny that it took me so long to figure this out. I grew up living above a motel my parents owned on the Jersey shore. Our life didn’t have many boundaries, as is the case with most family businesses. The working and living was all jumbled together, as we interacted with motel guests and desk clerks while friends and family dropped by to take advantage of our beach access and pool.
Family dinners were interrupted by a ring from a guest needing to be checked in. And all of us took our turns cleaning a room when the chambermaid didn’t show up. One of our lifeguards taught me how to drive in the motel’s parking lot.
I used to think I wanted more separation between work and life. So I spent the early years of my career as a lawyer whose work usually remained at the office. Today, my laptop is my job and the world my office. My work consists of things I’d do even if no one paid me. When I travel, I usually find a way to publish something about the trip. When I want to learn something, I write an article about it.
When I teach, moderate panels, or speak to groups of people, I’m doing something I enjoy and do for free on a regular basis. For now, my work and life don’t want much of a fence between them. But who knows if this will change. If there is anything I learned from the slash careerists, no career choice is forever.
Marci Alboher C’88 is the author of One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.