Illustration: Istvan Banyai
Last year my 26 year-old assistant asked me to write her a recommendation for business school. I was happy to help. For two years, Megan had worked around the clock, or so it surely felt to her, bringing insight to my work and order to my life. And so when I sat down to compose my letter to the school that had become her number one choice, my goal was to convey praise of the highest order, the kind that wouldn't fail to impress prototypical Powers That Be. At last, the right words struck me. "No matter what the request," I wrote, "Megan's answer is always yes.
She got in. Now, I'm not saying my recommendation was the reason. She had grades and test scores going for her, too. But when someone says yes all the time, she tends to find that doors open, and that the elevator is usually going up.
She also tends to find, in due time, that she's exhausted, or at least torn in too many directions—between work, family, friends, and all the messy rest of life. Indeed, a decade or two out, halfway up the career ladder or higher, a yes-yes-yes woman will discover that she wants to start saying no sometimes.
But can she? Can any woman in a fast-paced, high-powered career ever stop saying yes—without self-destructing?
I've debated that question with a group of my friends for about 20 years now. I've also discussed the "yes question" more recently with about a half-dozen women who are our heroes—friends and colleagues who have made it to the very top of their professions with their lives looking, well, perfect. The president of a large consumer company with the romantic husband of 35 years and three great kids in college. The consulting firm CEO who was elected class mother at her third grader's school and sits on two prestigious boards. The respected anesthesiologist who finds the time to run marathons with her husband and sing in a choir with her three children. (Maddeningly, these women are not composites; they're completely real. We agreed to leave their names out of this article and alter minor identifying details for privacy reasons.)
These superachievers would be the first to tell you that they do not have it all together. They have their little crises. They forget birthdays; they're late to staff meetings and soccer games more often than they'd like. They cry in the car every now and again. That's no shock, really; everyone's life has ragged edges and little dings. What is more of a surprise, to me at least, is how much these überwomen tend to agree about the "yes question" as they reflect on their career bumps and bruises, many sustained from falling off the ladder and scrambling to get back on.
Go ahead, they'd all tell you, say no anytime you want. Say no to the relocation 500 miles away from the one house and one town that your kids know as home. Say no to working one weekend so you can be with your ailing father before it's too late. Say no to the client who wants it done tomorrow so you can go on the vacation you've been planning for a year with your best friend. But before you utter that word, know the consequences of that answer, or, as my friend the corporate president calls it dryly: the consequence kickback. "You can say no, and you can restore some order and balance to your life," she says. "And your career can even thrive, but you will have narrowed the opportunities. That's the way it is." She should know. She is 56, and after two decades with her company, she had become so successful and powerful that her name was beginning to appear on the short list for its next CEO. Then, five years ago, when the firm was acquired, she was asked to move to headquarters, now located in another part of the country. She declined.