Studies show that your personality and emotional intelligence solidifies by age 26. You can always change, that is the gift of consciousness, but your fluidness starts to depreciate. Your crystallized intelligence, the ability to recall learned knowledge and experiences, begins to become first nature rather than your fluid intelligence, the ability to solve new problems using new solutions and pattern recognition. This hopefully does not sound like scientists are calling 30 “old,” but just an observation of brain chemistry I assume.
This concept may point to the catalyst of why young professionals want to be promoted, moved, and burdened as fast and as soon as possible. Do we subconsciously know that our time is already ticking down? That in a few years we will start to solidify in our open-mindedness, versatility, or Emotional Intelligence? Our hurriedness could also be caused by that previous concept of immediate gratification and customization bestowed by our parents. If anyone knows of scientific studies that involve each generation and the levels of ambition, (or more accurately, impatience and promotional levels) I would be curious to see it.
If these concepts prove to be true on the timeline of minds, this also explains why university involvement is so crucial for companies, such as bringing in interns and entry level graduates from ages 18-22. They are a blank slate, open, eager, and ready to be filled with knowledge from a credible and established source. The undergraduate process is for learning, while equipping students with everything they need to make informed and educated decisions. The buds of morality, principle, and interests are rooted in the years that we pick our major, take liberal arts classes, and join student organizations. Then, the career experience is for application and putting into practice what the college tool belt holds. This is why companies pay thousands and thousands of dollars to promote their brand, jobs, and values on campuses. They want to make a mark on the young people, those that are hungry to learn and grow, that want to project their findings, passions, and ideas. They (we?) don’t even know what they (we) truly like or dislike yet. The tone of these writings is not to sound cynical, but to sound admirable. It is pure genius and presents mutually beneficial opportunities for both the business and the students.
One of the first ideals that I had begun to form post-college and into my career, in reaction to the environment around me, were my principles and morals — specifically, what I valued when it came to my work and life balance, priorities, and scheduling. In school, you work towards a specific goal: A, B, C, D or F. Once you achieved that A+ on your mid-term exam, the weight was lifted, you could slack off for a few weeks until it got down to the wire again. But now, the workload stays consistent, and there are always meaningful projects, goals, and tasks you could be working on at any given time. Throw in the technology for constant connection to email, calls, and texting, and you have a completely unscripted schedule.
Now what? Well, this is a reasonably challenging question, because you are trying to sort between the personal pressures, work pressures, and inspiration. When did I feel like I was working because I had to, and when was I working because I was inspired to? Was I putting in extra hours to keep up? Or was it to impress my boss? Was I taking on too much, or just the right amount? This is what was running through my head almost weekly the first year of my new role. To muddy the waters even more, I had interacted with both peers and upper-level management who had completely 180-degree views of work-life balance, all the way from “once 4:30 hits I completely disconnect – no calling, texting, emailing, etc. And I ESPECIALLY don’t open my laptop on weekends. Get done what you can get done, and enjoy your personal time,” all the way to seeing employees logged onto Business Skype at 1:00am or emails coming in mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Christmas vacation. Who was doing it the “correct” way? What did I believe was the right thing to do? I want to advance my career, but I also cherish the time I get to visit my family, friends, and explore my hobbies. AND if I only have until 26 before my morals really set in… this internal conversation needed to start wrapping up. Work Sara and Inner Sara were once again, trying to both hug it out, but also drop kick each other.
Now here comes the epiphany, but this time, it didn’t sprout from an either Sara winning out, or making a pro and con list. It actually came from a speech I heard at a young professionals development conference, from a fantastic speaker and entrepreneur who shared both her personal and work journey — what it was like being a full-time mother while starting a multi-million dollar business from the ground up. Amy Langer, the President of Salo L.L.C., gave her account of starting out in the financial services industry, and then branching out to start her own company, utilizing her skills and abilities both learned and innate. She spoke about the ups, and the downs, and the rollercoaster of having two children in the same year her company took off. She mixed in lessons on leadership, authenticity, and most influential to myself, the importance of sticking to your values. I don’t want to put her story to shame, so I will not paraphrase her content – but it was entirely relatable while being aspirational. At the end of her seminar, I raised my hand* — I asked something like this: “Obviously being a woman in the workplace is hard enough, but did you have, or how did you deal with the inner turmoil of splitting your time between raising your family and starting up a company where both people are depending on you?” I wanted to know. I needed to know how she chose her values, her spectrum and schedule of logging in and disconnecting, and how someone who is that incredibly busy can create her own philosophy of work-life balance. As to be expected, she had anticipated this question. She replied that of course she received questioning, and even condescension from people looking in from the outside, and of course those early years were the hardest of her entire life, however, the correct choice, the “right” path, the divine equilibrium, is simply “what you can live with.”
Dumbfounded and inspired, I thanked her afterwards. That her lesson had meant a lot to me, and it is always rewarding to listen to women in the business world achieve their dreams. It also gave me quite a bit to think about. As the obvious answer was, there is no right answer to work-life balance. Maybe Europe has laws against using email past 5pm, while the U.S. worships just how many hours you put in, but it all trickles down to what you can live with, and what brings you the most joy (or least amount of anxiety, if you need to look at it that way). As a young professional with no kids or major responsibilities, I can say I occasionally take enjoyment out of logging on at 10pm on a Tuesday night, to finish up a project I find meaningful, or answer a few emails I had been neglecting during a busy day full of meetings. I liked being prepared, and it allows me to join project teams that I otherwise wouldn’t have time for. However, I definitely felt ashamed for being “that person” who can’t disconnect. It seemed a lot of people around me had that very strict work-life balance. Was I wrong? Was I missing out on being a 22 year old, living in the city, if I spent my free time doing more work? Was this going to set me up for a horrible balance in the future if it is something I would begin to grow accustomed to? Would it start by logging on just a few hours here and there, but escalate into full-blown 14-hour workdays if I got sucked in? These were the questions I asked myself. And yes, sometimes I do shut down, throw my laptop in the trash, and walk away at exactly 5:00pm. I am still working on a balance that is best for my lifestyle and what satisfies my inner self. But what I learned is that you are the one that has to live with your decisions and no company, friend, boss, parent, or coworker can decide that for you, and you really shouldn’t have to explain your decisions either. And as you noticed, there aren’t any research sources cited to the “26 rule” above, so maybe it’s never too late to change your principles, morals, or values… and that is the beauty.
* I usually never interject in Q&As unless something particularly strikes me – why does it make me so nervous to ask questions?