Having It All Starts With Defining 'ALL'

I worked with Anne-Marie Slaughter when she was at the State Department. In case you don't know, her policy contribution was enormous. She has since written a very thought-provoking and deeply personal piece on whether women can have it all. Anne-Marie's willingness to share her struggles and bare her family's story makes the conversation about women having it all palpable. We got to wake up with her at 4:20 a.m. on Monday to catch the train to DC and as we listened to her cell phone ring with trouble at home while she was trying to modernize foreign policy. Our heart ached along with hers.

But what is 'ALL' anyways? And who's 'ALL' is it?

I agree with Lisa Belkin that Slaughter's article should be one of the most widely talked about pieces. It continues the conversation that Lisa started in her New York Times Magazine article, "The Opt-Out Revolution." Sylvia Hewlett brought a similar issue up in one of her first books, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest For Children a decade ago. Parts of both of those arguments made me mad and also made be think. Both of these women have continued to write and help everyone understand what's at stake. I am pleased Sheryl Sandberg has raised the issue of ambition with younger women.

Most of all, I hope The Atlantic article spurs thousands of conversations -- with women and their boyfriends, with women and their girlfriends, with executives and their management teams, with entrepreneurs or wanna be business owners, with women and their sons and daughters, with academic deans and their tenure committees and among couples.

Here is where I think the conversation must start: We each must start by doing some soul searching about what the 'ALL' is that we are talking about. And I believe it must be a profoundly personal decision, not an irresponsible or selfish one. Not an answer that wins us awards or the adulation of the media, our family or the people we work with. Those things may come, but if that is why we are primarily doing it, then I know it will be fleeting. We only need to read the news or talk to our neighbors to see the fallout that occurs when fame, fortune or a medal-seeking addiction becomes the centerpiece of our ambition, rather than a soulful pursuit of what gives us the greatest joy.

What I do know is that we need a basket of 'ALL' that we are proud of, that encompasses the life and set of experiences that we want. That makes us jump out of bed in the morning, electrifies our special gifts and even soothes our soul during the lonely and dark moments that always accompany this journey. And one that is filled with grace and gratitude, for if we forget those then we will never understand what joy really is.

The definition of 'ALL' will be a different one for each of us -- as it should be. We just need to know that it will come with its own set of requirements and trade-offs. We can't wish those all away. Anne-Marie underscored how tough some of those can be.

I am not encouraging women to limit their ambitions. I think going for it 'ALL' makes for an incredibly interesting and fun life. And yes, do we need to make some changes in the workplace and in our home so that everyone has a fair chance at having their version of 'ALL?' Absolutely. We still have way too much race, gender, age and cultural bias that we don't even realize. University of Washington Tony Greenwald and Harvard's Mahzarin Banaji's groundbreaking work on unconscious bias is so eye-opening. Over 14 million people have taken one of their free tests to see how much we are walking around with.

Too few women in the world have the chances that Anne-Marie and I have had in our life. And all of us need to work hard to create a more free and just world that allows everyone to contribute. Great ideas come from all places. I know that the most vexing problems in the world today can be solved if we empower more people -- men and women. Look what crowd sourcing has already brought us -- new breakthroughs. New leaders.

In A Strange Stirring , Stephanie Coontz reports on two interesting developments. The first is that housework is still not being shared equitably by husbands and wives but it's getting better -- at least in the U.S.. The second is that women still have to publish more papers to get tenure. There is much at home, in our workplace, in our university and our government that we, as women, must do.

Like Ann-Marie, I made sacrifices when I went to Washington, leaving behind a husband and house in Seattle for an amazing set of public service opportunities four years ago. My kids were grown but they each bounced back for an extended stay on my couch in DC or our home in Seattle. You never stop being a mom, and seeing my husband only every three weeks after a very long plane ride never gets easier. When my beloved mother is raced to the hospital too often by 911, I wondered about my choices. There are no easy answers.

I am also mindful of the other side of the trade-off -- what we get when we give something up. To play a key role in re-imaging foreign assistance, developing ways to drive faster, broader and more lasting results that do not depend on USG support forever is a privilege for me. President Obama has pushed us to create the conditions where foreign aid is no longer needed through broad economic growth. Secretary Clinton knew how powerfully public-private partnerships could accelerate outcomes and USAID Administrator Shah drove innovative change faster than any previous Administrator had.

As Anne-Marie did, we all have to periodically take stock of the career, life and love choices that are before us. Nothing is static. We are always getting more input. How are we doing? Are we still loving what we are doing? How are our kids doing? What about our health? Oh yeah, when do we fit that in?

The one thing I know is that the 'ALL' will change and should change overtime. It will move up and it will move down. We will throw out some of the elements in our ALL basket and we will add new ones. Stay tuned as surprising opportunities will also emerge if we hold tight onto our integrity along the way and know what brings us joy.

There will undoubtedly be disappointments -- stumbles and even failures along the way. Lord knows, I am driven to have the fullest life and it has come with its share of bloody noses. Life doesn't spare any of us. There are no do-overs with our kids and we can only hope that they will grow with our stumbles as well.

We must carry our own basket of 'ALL' and make sure it is ours. We are the only one that can look in the mirror and answer the question, 'was it worth it?'

But that is why if we are really clear on what matters and laser focused we can come as close to 'having it all' as one life can give us. Now go fill up your dance card.

The opinions and views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S Agency for International Development.