Growing up, a lot of us were told the same thing: work hard, and you can do anything. It was the mantra of our generation, instilled by parents everywhere as they encouraged us to pursue our dreams. It didn’t matter if you wanted to be a teacher, a doctor or an astronaut—just keep at it, we were told. You’re smart and talented and awesome. If you put in enough effort, anything is possible.
It’s been argued that this style of parenting ruined us all, more or less, by turning us into entitled monsters who think we’re smarter and more special than our peers. The ‘work hard’ part was lost on some people, while the ‘you can do anything’ bit really made an impact. A good theory (and yes, a few monsters exist), but I like to think it gave a lot of us confidence instead. We believed in ourselves, we worked hard, and now we’re succeeding. It wasn’t all terrible, and really, we have to stop blaming our parents at some point.
Ambition can take you a lot of places—but it can also be a weight on your shoulders. I grew up being told that hard work would get me where I wanted to go, and I believed it. I still do, though with a more realistic view of obstacles and limitations. But that belief that I needed to work hard and jump at every opportunity in my path has come with an unintended consequence. As much as I’ve always felt inspired to get ahead, there’s been a correlating fear of falling behind. Of getting lazy or complacent, and letting something pass me by. The fear of missing out. It’s career FOMO, and it’s not going away.
And so people like me say yes. We take the extra shift, the extra project, the extra course. We work the extra hours and embody the side hustle. We do it all because you never know when that big break is coming or what it will look like. You live to work, and you love the satisfaction that comes with another gig or win. You’re exhausted, but it’s the kind of exhaustion that comes with a rush. Some call you driven, while others call you a workaholic. You don’t mind because it feels good to get ahead.
When you’re young and carefree, it’s easy to let your career be the centre of your life. In a way, it’s your baby—something you nurture and grow while making plans for the future. It’s something you attach goals to, and it becomes a part of your identity. You aren’t just Jane—you’re Jane, the bookkeeper who is taking courses to become a financial advisor. You’ve chosen a path, and you’re working hard to achieve your end goal. It may be a struggle, but it’s a struggle you’ve taken on passionately.
But it can’t go on this way forever.
Everyone has a limit to how much they can take on, and as you start having more wins in your professional life, you have to narrow your focus. You start saying no to the opportunities that no longer reflect your goals. If you’ve grown up as a Type A, never-turn-down-an-opportunity kind of girl, this will kill you. It will feel like career neglect or self-sabotage. How can you say no to anything when you’ve worked so hard to be in demand in the first place? It feels wrong, but at some point, saying yes all the time becomes counterproductive. Nobody does their best work when they’re stretched thin and burnt out. You don’t get to the top by doing ten small projects you’re not excited about when three amazing projects are on the same table. Saying no becomes a powerful tool in being able to do what you want—work that is the best match to your skills and goals—and doing a damn good job of it
This becomes even more important when you have children. As a parent, you have to prioritize every single thing you do, all the time, forever. Every damn second of your day is a choice that’s laden with consequences. Mothers, in particular, are pulled in a thousand directions at once and spend every waking second giving themselves to others, be mentally, physically or emotionally. Work is hard, and working while parenting is even harder. When you’re choosing between breakfast and a shower because there’s no time for both, you better believe you can’t take on every single thing the career world throws at you. Your family and your career can coexist, but in order for them to thrive, you’ve got to make time for what matters and throw away everything else. It’s not selfish; it’s smart. This is a skill that’s underdeveloped in my own life, but lord knows I’m trying.
Your passion for your career doesn’t wither up and die the moment you become a mother, but your free time does. If you had any blank space in your mind, that’s gone—it’s been taken up by to-do lists, mom guilt, extracurricular schedules, birthday parties, teacher conferences and the location of each child’s beloved comfort item. If you hadn’t started saying no before you had kids, now is the time to start. Doing it all isn’t a badge of honour—it’s a bad habit that personally, I’m still working to break.
Work hard, and you can do anything. There’s still a lot of truth to this, and it’s something I’ve begun to tell my own kids. But I’ll be tweaking this advice a little. Work hard, but don’t do everything—instead of getting to the top, you’ll run yourself into the ground. Say no, and make each yes mean something. In the end, life is better when you sometimes choose to miss out.