My friend Helen has always been a high achiever. After many years as a successful banking executive, she decided to do her heart's work and get her doctorate in psychology. She completed her master's degree with honors and is currently working on her dissertation. In addition, she is a student teacher, presents papers at international conferences, writes grant proposals for child-care programs, and has assisted in the organization of local and national conferences on child abuse. She is married and is actively involved in the lives of her three stepchildren.
Last year, a distinguished professor from a prestigious university who is considered one of the top women in her field gave a lecture to graduate students at Helen's school about the things they would have to do to pursue excellence in their area. Helen was excited by the possibilities, but her schedule was already crammed with so much work she didn't see how she could take on any more.
After the lecture, Helen went up to talk to the professor. She described all of the projects she was currently engaged in and said, "I'd love to get involved in some of the areas you discussed, but what can I let go of?"
The professor looked her straight in the eye and said: "If you want to be tops in the field, you can't let go of anything. You have to do it all."
Helen felt she'd been blindsided. For years she'd been pursuing an ambitious goal of achieving prominence in her career. Now it appeared that she'd set her sights too high.
After considerable soul-searching, Helen decided to let go of the need to be at the top. She continued to do everything she'd been doing before, and found that what she truly loved was the immersion in the work itself, not being No. 1. Her decision required her to rethink what success really means. She realized she didn't want to spend her life trying to reach the peak while not being able to enjoy the scenery along the way.
"My mistake," she told me, "was thinking I could have a fulfilling life, be involved with my family, and still excel in my field. But the people who reach the top are obsessed with work alone, and I'm not willing to live that way."
As I thought about Helen's experience, I wondered how we ever came to believe that such single-minded drive leads to success. How can we possibly call it success if we're at the top in our careers but our lives are off-balance in every other area?
When I first decided to simplify my life, I had to make some decisions about how I wanted to spend my time and what kind of lifestyle was going to make me happy. I had to let go of the idea of being No. 1 and having it all. There may be people out there who can do it all--though I've never actually met one--but I finally decided I would stop trying to be one of them. I hear from people every day who've made similar choices and feel, as I do, that it's one of the best decisions they've made in recent years.
It seems like a contradiction, but less is more. Imagine what your life would be like if you were doing less, but had the time and the energy to thoroughly enjoy it. That's real success.
Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111.