Career Advice

Tiffany Dufu: Why I Dropped This Unrealistic Expectation of Doing It All

When I first met Tiffany Dufu back in 2015, she was the epitome of a woman who “had it all together.” Radiant smile, perfectly petite with expertly coordinated outfits, a sweet TWA (teeny-weeny afro) that said “I refuse to conform to America’s definition of a professional Black woman,” and an encouraging tone no matter who she spoke to — the intern or the executive. She showed me pictures of her family — husband, Kojo, now 43, their son, Kofi, 10, and their daughter, Ekua, 7 — as we walked through the brisk New York City winter air to grab coffee. Over our lattes, she asked me, “What do you want to do with your life?” I had been asked this question plenty of times before, so I replied with usual my short, quippy response, “I simply want to be a wife and mom — barefoot, pregnant, and off this career ladder.” She laughed, as most people do when I say that. It’s not often that a Stanford graduate with a successful publishing career says that she wants to exit the work world. After placating me with her laugh, her eyes narrowed slightly and she took a sip of her hot drink, then said, “But what is your purpose?”

What I thought was a simple coffee between Black women who are #KillingIt, instantly became a moment that pushed me back on my heels — Prada, of course — and made me question my entire life. Tiffany Dufu wasn’t trying to stump or rattle me, but she was trying to get me to see that there’s more to life than titles: journalist, wife, mother, sister, friend. There was something more than simply succeeding in a 9-to-5 and going home to my amazing husband. She wanted more from me, and that stuck with me.

downloadSo when I got the call that Tiffany had finally released a book, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I just knew she’d have all the answers to help me find my purpose, lean in, get it “all together.” However, what I got from reading Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less wasn’t a list of things I should be doing. Instead, I got a rare look into how this radiant woman actually fought her way away from having it all.

Named to Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women, Tiffany was a launch team member to Lean In and is Chief Leadership Officer to Levo, the fastest growing millennial professional network. Prior to that, Tiffany served as President of The White House Project, as a Major Gifts Officer at Simmons College in Boston, and as Associate Director of Development at Seattle Girls’ School.

With support from Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem (who wrote the book’s forward), author Anne-Marie Slaughter, and writer/director/producer Mara Brock Akil, Tiffany’s book is authentic storytelling at its finest. I caught up with her during her whirlwind book tour to talk about “having it all,” what it means to drop the ball, and the one piece of career advice that she refuses to dole out.

Glassdoor: On top of everything that you do in terms of empowering young women, being a mom and a wife. What was the impetus for writing a book because isn’t this considered “doing it all”?

Tiffany Dufu: My life’s work is advancing women and girls. That’s pretty much why I’m on the planet. In 2013, I was doing far more public speaking than I normally did, in part, because I was on the launch team for Lean In. I would talk about equal pay for equal work, affordable child care, the importance of workplace flexibility, all of the things that I felt, on a global scale, we could put in place to create environments where women could bring their full self to the table.

One of the observations that I made was that every time I would open the conversation for Q&A, I would always get personal questions about my children, my husband, my travel schedule, my dress, how I stay fit, et cetera. They wanted to figure out how I managed to do all of this. My response was and still is: Oh, I just expect way more from my husband and far less from myself than the average woman.

Glassdoor: <Laughing> That’s honest of you.
Tiffany Dufu: That’s when I had what I call a Tiffany’s Epiphany. It was a voice that said Tiffany, “This is not about you. They are not trying to get up all in your business.” The reason why women kept asking me how do I manage it all is because they’re trying to figure out how they can manage it all. I realized that I had been imposing my own ambition on hundreds and hundreds of women in these talks. I was aspiring for them to be CEOs, for them to be senators and for them to launch their own businesses but they were just trying to figure out how do we get everybody out of the house at the right time. They deserved more than the one-liner of the new and improved Tiffany. They deserved the backstory.

Glassdoor: What was the backstory you wanted to tell?
Tiffany Dufu: Part of the backstory that I was going to have to tell was this dirty feminist secret that I have been carrying for many years which was that publicly while I was a staunch advocate for women’s non-traditional roles in the workplace, at home I was on Stepford wife autopilot.

Glassdoor: Did you equate being a good wife with being Stepford-esque?
Tiffany Dufu: I never thought about it. I never questioned it. I just did what I learned from my mother, what I learned from popular culture and part of my drop the ball evolution was getting to a point where I couldn’t do all of that anymore and it would be extremely exhausting and overwhelming. I had to stop and say: Why is it that I feel this pressure to have a flawless home and why does that mail need to be taken from the mailbox every single day? Why does the laundry have to be folded while it’s still warm? Once I began to explore that, it just became very evident that were some balls that I needed to drop.

Glassdoor: Why do we as women take pride in being busy or overwhelmed? We love talking about how busy and over-exerted we are.
Tiffany Dufu: A lot of the women that I interact with are sick with overwhelm. For them, it’s not actually a cool thing. They are drowning in the overwhelm. They’re overwhelmed largely because their expectations about what they’re supposed to accomplish in any given day are humanly impossible.

Glassdoor: To-do lists are longer than ever it seems…
Tiffany Dufu: I did a time management workshop with a group of women where I asked them to just write down a list of everything that they expected to complete in an ideal day. No one in the room had a sum that was less than the 24 hours in a day. Only half the women put sleep on their list. It became very clear to me we’re walking around with these feelings of inadequacy. If this is what we think we’re supposed to be doing in a day, the math just doesn’t add up, yet we feel guilty and have this sense of anxiety.

Glassdoor: How do women drop the ball?
Tiffany Dufu: The first step of dropping the ball is recognizing what everybody else expects from you and then taking ownership and deciding that you’re going to create a new set of responsibilities.  I encourage people to be focused on your highest and best use. Your highest and best use is basically a combination of two things: What you do well with very little effort and what only you can do. Then you have to ask yourself, “What can I drop?” You’ve got to apply the Drop the Ball question to whatever is on your to-do list. Is XYZ, the task on the list my highest and best use to achieve whatever it is that matters most? For example, one of the things that matters most to me is raising conscious, global citizens. Sometimes I have things on my to-do list that are related to my kids that I need to quickly put through this filter in order to determine whether or not I can drop the ball.

Glassdoor: Like scheduling dentist appointments for the kids or folding hot laundry?
Tiffany Dufu: I ask myself Tiffany, is scheduling a dentist appointment for Kofi your highest and best use in raising a conscious, global citizen? The answer is no. That is something that someone else can totally do. My highest and best use in raising conscious, global citizens is a combination of one, something that I do well with very little effort is coaching people, helping people to achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement. Something that I can do that only I can is to instill values in my kids. It’s hard to outsource the installation of values. My highest and best use in raising conscious and global citizens is engaging my kids in meaningful conversations every day. That is the ball that I cannot drop otherwise I give myself permission to be a bad mom.

Glassdoor: What happens when the ball that you choose to drop is not necessarily something that either your kids or your husband thinks is worthy of being dropped? Just because you put it through that lens and you asked to drop the ball question has no bearing on how they receive love.
Tiffany Dufu: Part of the reason why this is a book and not like an article is because that is a whole other part of the process is in engaging other people in your own life to understand the role that they can play and you being successful and you flourishing and you thriving. The problem is it’s very hard to do that until you’ve dropped the ball. It’s very hard because, first of all, you’re very resentful. You’re kind of pissed that they don’t pick up the ball. You’re kind of pissed that they don’t pick up the ball and they don’t do things. If you haven’t dropped the ball, you’re a control freak around how things are going to be done.

Glassdoor: Is this where your concept of imaginary delegation comes in?
Tiffany Dufu: I came up with that because I was trying to find a way to describe this phenomenon where I would assign someone a task. I wouldn’t actually tell them but I would be really mad if they didn’t do it. Then common sense would prevail and say, “Tiffany but you never actually told them to take out the recycling.” I would snap back with, “Nobody ever told me to take the recycling out around here.” It becomes a vicious cycle.

Once you drop the ball, people around you understand the things that are important to you and you’re able to talk to people in your life about the things that you need help with.

Glassdoor: Where do men factor into dropping the ball? Or do they?
Tiffany Dufu: The ball that women often need to drop is this unrealistic expectation of doing it all. The ball that men often need to drop is this unrealistic expectation that they should be breadwinners at all costs — even at the cost of time with their families. It’s a very insidious ball that men carry around that is quite frankly is more insidious than ours because we can play multiple roles. Men who venture outside of the very narrow traditional role are often ostracized. I would encourage them first to think about their own ball and recognize they have one too and drop it is because that is the way that they can release themselves and relieve themselves from the pressure and can feel free to support the woman in their life to endeavor.

Glassdoor: How does “Drop the Ball” fit into the larger conversation around women having it all, leaning in and being empowered? Where do you see it fitting in the zeitgeist?
Tiffany Dufu: One, this book is not an advice book. It’s not a how-to book. It’s actually a memoir. I wrote it as a memoir because women don’t want to be told what to do, plus I wouldn’t dare tell a woman that this is what you should do. It’s fully a memoir that kind of says, “You’re asking me this question. This is the answer to this the question.” There are great books out there that advise women in the workplace on success, and they work.

Lean In is a very good example. If you did everything that Sheryl told you to do in the workplace from sitting at the table, to making sure that you’ve got a mentor, from thinking of your career as a jungle gym and not a ladder you will be successful. My challenge was that women were not there. I couldn’t get women to go there with me because they were saying to me to me, “Tiffany, I’m just so overwhelmed.” I don’t think most women understood that you weren’t supposed to lean in by yourself. You were supposed to lean in with scaffolding.

Glassdoor: And who is the scaffolding or what is the scaffolding? What is that support system?
Tiffany Dufu: It’s people that you have to cultivate around you depending on your circumstance. There’s a really great story that I tell about two phenomenal women. They were single women who had both been recently divorced and were really struggling separately. They knew each other from church, but they never sat down together. The first time they sat down together it occurred to them that they could be all-in partners. I’ve dealt with the idea in the book about all-in partners. My all-in partner is my husband but they decided they could be all-in partners. They didn’t call it that, but they moved in together. They helped to share living expenses and they helped to provide childcare. I felt it was just a beautiful example of how you curate a village especially in today’s world. Unless you live in the community that you grew up in you have to intentionally recruit people. I recruit neighbors to help.

Glassdoor: So how do you do it? Juggle being a wife, mother, author, speaker?
Tiffany Dufu: I have this tool in the book that I call a MEL, a Management Excel List. Basically, I was at work one day and I had to launch a project. I launched the project by galvanizing the team and asking us to brainstorm all of the things that we needed to accomplish in order for the project to be successful and then leading everyone to this exercise where we decided who would do what based on gifts, talent, skills, abilities or roles. It hit me: “I’m so effective at work in doing this but at home, I don’t do this at all.” That night I went home and I opened an Excel spreadsheet.  For the first time in my life I created a column and in every single row wrote out all the things that would be required in order for us to manage our home effectively. Then, I put my husband first like a column for him, a column for me. The most important column was the No One column. No one is going to do it. But when I shared the MEL withy husband, his first observation was, “Your list isn’t complete.”

Glassdoor: Oh really?
Tiffany Dufu: I had written tasks like ‘take out the recycling’ and ‘do the taxes’ but what is interesting was that he started adding titles. The first title he added was ‘botanist.’ I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” He says, “The last time that you watered a plant that was in 1997. It was a cactus and it died. I have been watering the plants around here for 20 years.” I looked around and realized we do have plants. They’re alive and I never watered them. Then he wrote down ‘travel director.’ He then says, “Do you know where your airline miles are? Who keeps track of your airline miles? Who knows how to get a good deal when we go on vacation?” That has been probably one of the most important tools for our family because for the first time it became really clear what tasks he does and what I do. There’s a bunch of stuff that isn’t going to happen and we’re not going to feel resentful, we’re not going to be upset with each other about it. I am now on this book tour, so there are a lot of things in his column and fewer things in mine. Now, our kids are old enough they have their own columns. They’ve got theirs but there is always a No One column. The No One column is how we engage our village. When people say Tiffany, I know you’re going on this book tour and you’re just kind of holding down the fort in New York. What do you guys need? I always go to my No One column.

Glassdoor: Now for an unexpected one, what piece of advice were you given earlier in your career that now seems irrelevant?
Tiffany Dufu: I was always told that it was important to go find a mentor as if a mentor was something you could fish for. The reality is that when I look back, the reason why I am successful is because I spent far more time and energy focused on being the kind of leader that anyone would die to mentor.

Glassdoor: That’s a great one…
Tiffany Dufu: I attracted mentors. An example is this book. Gloria Steinem wrote the foreword to the book. Sheryl [Sandberg] read the book and her blurb on the front. If you flip the book over Anne-Marie Slaughter has written in the book and there’s a blurb. Adam Grant has supported the book. Mara Brock-Akil, Soledad O’Brien, Susan Cain. Your path is made easier by having people who sponsor you and invest in you, but your path is also made easier by you spending less time going on out and finding these people and more time running, booking through the doors that people open for you —not walking, not skipping, not hopping. If someone opens a door, you run through it.

READ MORE! Buy Tiffany Dufu’s new book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less on Amazon now.