A Balanced Definition of Success

A STORY OF COURAGE

 

 

by Katherine Martin

I am aware now of life as a process of learning, and I am becoming more comfortable with the idea of not needing to know the 'right' answer right now. Regina Ballinger

Regina Ballinger was controller of a large New England law firm when she began to suspect that something critical was missing in her life.

 

In 1992, I was working as a controller of a three-hundred-attorney law firm.

I had been there seven years and had recently completed my M.B.A. by attending evening classes. My life was a success: I had my own home, a new car, a comfortable paycheck. But something wasn't right. I felt a gnawing sense of something being awry, something intangible, and it persisted even as I tried to ignore it.

I had been working for about sixteen years as a woman in a man's world. I enjoyed it. I have three brothers, so I was used to being around the "guys." My undergraduate training was in accounting, at the time a very male-dominated field, and, in addition to enjoying the intellectual stimulation and competition of the male world, I liked the challenge of being a women pioneer of sorts on the frontier of the male corporate world. While pursuing my career in the eighties, I even quite comfortably wore those gray pinstriped suits accompanied by a little silk tie.

When I joined the law firm in 1985, the culture I encountered was so extreme that I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually become aware that something was amiss, and, although it took a while, that subliminal discomfort eventually became impossible to ignore. The organization I worked for was male dominated, nothing new there. The hierarchy was more overt than any I had encountered: In their scheme of things, there were the lawyers, and then there was everyone else. A lone-wolf mentality was encouraged, with bottom-line orientation: The partners shared profits based on their individual financial contribution. Here, more than anywhere else I had worked, I had a sharp sense of being compensated for my skill set period, end of sentence. I felt a complete compartmentalization of my role in interacting with attorneys. I learned and accepted the idea of doing my work without "personality leakage." Another lesson quickly reinforced was to never let the words "I don't know" cross my lips, something that, in other competitive experiences, I had already been trained to do. To be quick, decisive, and action oriented were the attributes rewarded, and so I was all three. If evening hours and weekends were required to get the job done, I was happy to oblige. It was part of what I needed to do to be successful.

But that nagging, percolating discomfort was not to be assuaged and, eventually, I decided to look for a position with another organization. I began networking to jump-start the process. As I contacted resources, one woman's name kept emerging as a mover and shaker. She was the chief financial officer of a local high-tech company, and she graciously agreed to meet with me early one morning. After some brief introductions, this woman proudly related to me the story of her first child's birth: The child was born on a Thursday night, and she was back to work on Monday morning. As she told this story, something inside me was screaming.

That gnawing feeling got worse.

Something considerable, yet unknown, within me had been unleashed. After reviewing my financial situation and confident of my future, I decided to leave my job without having secured another one. My plan was to take the summer off and be back at work in a financial capacity in the fall. The decision to leave was definitely scary I had no idea where I was going to land, but something inside me knew it was the right move for me to make. I was surprised by how many men in the firm, once my letter of resignation was submitted, came into my office, shut the door, and shared that they would love to be doing what I was doing.

Something interesting and unexpected happened after I left the firm. I started to become inexplicably happier and happier. I spent my days working in the garden, cooking, reading (often books on leadership, organizational development, and spirituality). I did whatever my heart desired and, when autumn rolled around, I didn't feel ready to return to the workplace yet. I talked with my husband, John. He, too, was aware of how much happier I had become and was totally supportive of me taking more time off.

That more time off kept becoming longer and longer until now, several years later, I am still on "sabbatical" and treasuring it. No one is more surprised than I am that I still haven't returned to the workforce. Not knowing where I'll wind up professionally and financially is not always easy to cope with. But I have learned much about what was percolating in me back at that law firm. A fair amount of it had to do with me not liking the person I had become, with how far away from my values I had grown in order to fit into a highly competitive business culture. I had unflinchingly, unquestioningly, and unconsciously signed up for a system that rewarded only my masculine characteristics. Don't get me wrong, I love those parts of me. But this same system didn't value or reward my feminine characteristics, and it became apparent to me that I wasn't valuing those parts of myself either.

I now have words to put to that uneasy feeling: It was the feminine part of me call it yin, call it right brain, call it emotional intelligence that would not be denied and wanted acknowledgment and life breathed into it. That was what I heard screaming inside me that early morning as I listened to the female CFO talk about her firstborn.

Today, I am in touch with and love those long overlooked and undervalued feminine parts of me that are reflective, collaborative, nonlinear, intuitive, and creative. I try to honor all of who I am and who others are. I feel more whole and balanced. All those wonderful activities like gardening, cooking, reading, or simply being still that I engaged in so hungrily when I first left work are meaningful to me. I had overlooked them for too long.

I hope never to forget how important it is to make space for those nourishing components of my life. The word that has found a home in my awareness is both. Both the masculine and the feminine principles are vital to creating a satisfying sense of wholeness in my life.            

Where I will go professionally and how I will incorporate this awareness, I don't know. I think of going back into an organization in a leadership capacity, perhaps financial, perhaps operational helping to model a kind of leadership that creates a more effective organization by honoring the whole person or perhaps as a consultant, coaching industry leaders about the value of and honoring of the feminine qualities of the men and the women in their workplaces. I am aware now of life as a process of learning, and I am becoming more comfortable with the idea of not needing to know the "right" answer right now. The biggest lesson for me so far is about consciously choosing a balanced definition of success that reflects my internal musings, as opposed to the externals of house, car, salary, and an awareness of what I now value in myself and others, both the masculine and feminine qualities. And I am forever grateful for that persistent gnawing that didn't go away until I paid attention.

 

From Women of Spirit by Katherine Martin. Copyright 2001 by Katherine Martin. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 ext. 52 or click here.