Every time I get a letter from my MBA program, I feel guilty. Unlike my other classmates, I don’t have a high-powered career—a vocation with thousands of people and millions of dollars in my purview. I’m a writer and what’s in my scope, most of the time, is just me and my own output. My decisions mostly affect just me.
My chosen job role doesn’t fall in the ranks of typical MBA careers like finance or marketing or something else that has “manager” in the title.
And although I spent over $100,000 on classes designed to teach me how to be a leader, I have no interest in becoming one in the traditional sense.
I don’t want to be a corporate denizen. I don’t want to run a company, or to run anybody’s anything. I just want to be a regular person.
I did not get to this point easily.
The road to my quasi-success began when I was a child. My mother had my IQ tested when I was 5 because she suspected that I might be very smart. When we got to the university that administered the test, the doctors there didn’t want to test me. They insisted that black children didn’t score high on IQ tests and encouraged my parents to abandon their plans. From what I’ve been told, there were some very choice words delivered by my mother before I was finally ushered into the testing room. All I remember is thinking that they were asking me really easy questions.
Later, we found out that I’d scored in the “genius” range on the test; Mommy vowed never to tell me the actual number for fear that it would affect me negatively. My parents enrolled me in a gifted school soon after.
I was on the “fast track” before I ever knew what it was.
Since my parents had verification for how smart I was, they groomed me to be the smartest kid in the room. And then they encouraged me to be a leader. Someone in charge of things. They told me that African Americans had not been given these opportunities for leadership and that I should seize my opportunities to be whatever I wanted to be. I’m pretty sure “whatever I wanted to be” actually meant “be something great because you can be.”
I continued to feel as though my life was supposed to be big when I entered an Ivy League college. Although we never talked about it, the understanding was that all the students there were all special in some way, and that we were all expected to run the world someday. Most folks—myself included—were running student groups and organizing protests and generally being kick-ass. It was why we were at that school in the first place. And I felt the weighty expectation that it was even more important to be running things as a woman.
My women’s studies classes were rife with stories of women who had beaten the odds and become firsts in their fields. Second-wave feminism encouraged us to redefine ourselves as women who could have it all.
We could rule in the boardroom, then rule in the bedroom, and we were letting down our sistren if we chose to do anything but rule the world.
Armed with feminist bravado after college, I tackled business school, followed by corporate America. I thought I was invincible.
But the path wasn’t what I imagined: I got sick in business school. I was diagnosed with major depression during my first year and I struggled to get my medication and therapy in place so that I could resume my rise to workplace importance.
Once my treatment was squared away, I again performed up to my abilities. That is, until my first post-MBA job. I still don’t know what triggered it, but I entered a depressive episode that prompted me to take a few months away from work.
In overachiever fashion, I was excited when I could go back to work. I showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for my first day. By the end of the week, I was crying in the HR director’s office. Apparently I was still depressed, and I was exhausted. Exhausted from thinking that I had to hide my disease. Exhausted from working early mornings and late nights. Exhausted from the constant concern about being good at my job and planning my career in addition to just doing the work. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to keep doing it all anymore. In truth, I wasn’t sure that I could do it. But I had a freshly-minted MBA degree and significant intellectual capacity. What would either thing mean if I dropped out of corporate life?
I didn’t listen to my own doubts. To counter them, I kept reminding myself how proud my parents had always been of my academic and career achievements. I thought about the other African American leaders who didn’t have the support that I had.
I didn’t want to let my people down by not living up to my potential.
And recalled all the feminist tomes I’d read and agreed with, saying that women could surpass our biology and traditional roles. I didn’t want to let Eleanor Roosevelt down. So I kept working.
In spite of my depression, and the later-diagnosed bipolar disorder, I accomplished a great deal in my work life. I launched products. I gave presentations. I got more responsibilities, I got promoted. But every few years, I had to leave my job to be treated for depression, including several times in an inpatient setting. And every time I got better, or better enough, I got back on the corporate merry-go-round. I read about Sheryl Sandberg and participated in “lean in” groups with my business school classmates. We talked about being leaders and representing successful careers for other women in our fields. I felt empowered by my peers and by new writings about women’s authority and success.
By the time I reached the vice president level at my last full-time job, I felt like I’d finally grabbed the brass ring that I’d been trying to grab for years. I started exhibiting my authority, puffed up from years of kudos and encouragement. Then, depression hit again and I tried to hide it. I missed days of work, I was late to everything, and I deftly covered up times when I just couldn’t concentrate—a common symptom of depression. Eventually, I couldn’t handle my work responsibilities and my responsibility to myself and my own health.
I had to quit working, this time, for a few years instead of a few months. I decided that I couldn’t go back to the professional life I had led for so long, so I turned my writing hobby into a job so that I could work from home and better manage my health.
The literary profession doesn’t subscribe to the same tenets as the corporate world. I’m a writer and all I want to be is a writer, not the Queen of All Writers. There’s no real career ladder for individual contributors—and that’s how I see myself. I get no value in participating in typical women’s leadership activities any more because all I manage are words on the page. My old corporate friends appreciate what I’m doing, but their encouragement for me speaks to an achievement culture that values upward movement over productivity.
In my old life, I looked for titles and accolades from my bosses as signs that I was doing well. Now, I just judge my success by how good I feel and how much I’m able to write and get paid for it. I still get external validation, but it doesn’t speak as loudly as that from a movement of women who think we should have high-powered careers and want them for our daughters and granddaughters.
There could be a business suit and a big presentation in my life again someday. But I’m not working in that direction. My purpose right now is to focus on an enjoyable vocation, a healthy disposition, and a fulfilling life.
I’m waiting for the public conversation about women and work to shift away from leadership and toward leading a good life. Because when it comes to choosing between leadership and my health, I know which one I would choose.
I see so many women who feel forced to choose “leadership.” That was me for a long time. But for now, I’m not a leader, and that’s okay.