What High School Musical And Anne-Marie Slaughter Can Teach Us About Work Life Balance

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter talks about her moment of truth in her much-viewed TEDTalk, Can We All 'Have It All'?, many people interpret that moment as Slaughter's realization that she couldn't have it all. All, for Slaughter, was defined as taking a high-ranking State Department job in Washington, D.C. and maintaining a family life in Princeton, New Jersey. But I think Slaughter's moment of truth was different.

I think Slaughter's moment of truth came after she moved back to Princeton and she realized she didn't really want a career in Washington after all. Slaughter said she came to accept what was really important to her, not what she had been conditioned to want, nor what she had conditioned herself to want. That, I believe, was the actual moment of truth. She stopped trying to be who she thought she should be, and she chose to be who she wanted to be. And I believe what could benefit the work life movement, is more people choosing what they want, not what they think they should want.

Last weekend, I went to see a local performance of "High School Musical." The storyline revolves around Troy, a basketball star who wants to audition for his high school musical but his teammates and coach don't approve. Midway through the play, there's a scene where the students share confessions that seem incongruent with their cliques: the braniac admits to an affinity for hip-hop music, the skateboarder for playing the cello, and the jock for baking crème brulée. As they share their secrets the chorus sings:

"No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
If you wanna be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don't mess with the flow,
Stick to the status quo."

Despite the resistance from their peers, by the final scene the students have moved beyond their labels and accept each other for who they really are. It's the classic high school trope - be yourself, not the person you think you should be - and it's played out in countless stories, but when we enter the workforce, we seem to forget it.

By the time we reach adulthood, our parents, professors, peers, bosses, and the media create a chorus in our heads telling us what we should be. And when we convince ourselves we want what the chorus says we want, we're more likely to accept the status quo corporate culture that says men should be the primary breadwinners and women should be the primary caregivers, that work should take place in an office between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and that mom should be home to meet the school bus at 3. I believe the more we adapt to these "shoulds" or cultural norms, the less likely we are to champion for meaningful work life changes.

I ignored "should" when I chose the role of primary breadwinner and my husband took the role of primary caregiver. Despite the media's current obsession with breadwinning wives, it's still an unconventional arrangement and certainly elicits some judgment from others. But it works for us and it has made me a stronger advocate for work life policies that support parents, not just mothers.

To be clear, I know that my choice, like Slaughter's, is a high class choice to have and that for many working Americans, work life balance takes a back seat to work life survival. And I absolutely believe that we need policies and legislation that support working families, like paid sick days, affordable childcare and eldercare, family leave policies, and fair pay. But I also believe those of us who have the opportunity to make choices can better serve those of us who cannot, when we stop doing what we think we should do, and start doing what works for us. Slaughter says real equality requires "a wider range of equally respected choices for women and for men." We get there when we decide to be ourselves.

Maybe, all we really need to know about work life balance we should have learned in high school.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.