Tiffany Dufu: Drop the Ball Instead of Trying to Do It All
Businesswoman and Drop the Ball author Tiffany Dufu may seem to do it all, but for years she hampered her own growth with the expectation that she must do it ... (bouncy music)
(audience clapping) - You look awesome. Last year I released a book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. And I racked up about 200000 miles promoting this book all over the world. And in that amount of time, this lovely family that you see in this photo. There are actually two children in this photo. (audience laughing) Went without this beautiful, purple centerpiece that you see in the middle. Now, normally in the mornings, my husband and I tag team. He gets the kids ready and then I commute them to school. But obviously when there's only one adult in the home, it means that the one adult that's left has to do both of these jobs. Now when my husband travels, I get up an hour earlier. I get myself ready, I then get the kids ready and then we can get out of the door on time so that I can commute them to school. Which is why, at the end of the year, when I was thanking my husband for holding down the fort, particularly, for losing out on sleep, he says to me, "Oh thanks babe, but I didn't miss out on any sleep." So I asked him, "Well how is it that you were able to get "yourself ready, the kids ready and to get out of the door "with everyone to school and work on time, if you didn't get "up any earlier?"
And when he explained what he was doing my mouth kind of fell open. He says, oh, he says, "I get up at the same time that "I normally do and then on my way into the bathroom to get "myself ready, I wake up the kids with a proclamation. "Kids, wake up. I'm setting the timer for 45 minutes. "In 45 minutes I need you at the front door, "with breakfast in your stomach, your hair brushed, "your teeth brushed, the ash off of your skin, "your shoes on, your coat on, your homework in your backpack "because your mama's not here and I don't have time "to get you guys ready." (audience laughing) To which I responded, "They can do that?" (Tiffany and audience laughing) And in that moment I had, what I now call, a Tiffany's epiphany, which is that sometimes in an effort to get things done. We can stunt other people's growth. And that what we do is far less important than the difference we make. I've always been someone who strived to make a difference. My life's work is advancing women and girls, that's pretty much why I'm on the planet. So my life is very simple. I know what's on my tombstone and on most days I'm just kind of project managing my life backwards. Or at least that's how it feels to me. And for most of my career I've been very focused on trying to do something about this conundrum,
that is shown in this slide. Which is that women enter the workforce at about the same rates as men. But that by the time that we get to the highest levels of leadership, this is across every industry, there's about 18 or 19 percent of us left. And I think that it's really important that we have more diversity in leadership, because there's a lot of research that shows that when you have a diverse group of people, sitting around a table, trying to solve a problem, it leads to a more innovative solution. So I have been, for my career, a diversity and inclusion practitioner. But, the dirty, feminist secret that I never really told anyone, because I didn't really understand it as a dirty, feminist secret at the time, was that even though, for all of this time I was publicly advocating for the disruption of gender stereotypes. I thought this was very important in order for us to create more inclusive organizations. At home, privately in my private life, I wasn't disrupting gender stereotypes at all. In fact, in my own home, I was pretty much on Stepford Wife autopilot. And my Stepford Wife autopilot was made even more insidious by the fact that I had a very bad case of HCD.
Home Control Disease. This is basically when you feel like everything under your roof should be done a particular way. Which is your way. And it manifested in all kinds of ways that amounted to what experts now call, emotional labor. So for example, I used to have a running expiration date in my head for all of the leftovers that were in the refrigerator. And I would get really annoyed when people would eat the leftovers out of order. (audience laughing) I used to feel that, all of the hangers in the closet should face the same direction. And I would go back and fix them. I thought that all of the towels in the linen closet should be folded a particular way and I would host tutorials for people to try to teach them how to fold the towels. But inevitably they wouldn't do it right and I would have to go back and refold them. I felt that it was very important that everyday you retrieve the mail from the mailbox. That you recycle all of the advertisements that you don't want and then you open every envelope and deal with what was inside, because if you didn't, the mail would pile up and guess who was gonna have to deal with it? I especially felt that, if you had to get yourself and two kids ready in the morning and get them out the door
that you should get up an hour earlier. Now, I think it's important to note that during this time in my life when I had a very bad case of HCD. And I've been told that creatives, men and women, often have a bad case of HCD. (Tiffany laughing) That I didn't think of myself as having HCD or being on Stepford Wife autopilot. I imagined myself, in fact, to be a very modern woman, okay. Who was quite ambitious and very much in the driver seat of my own life. And I was definitely a person who felt that dropping the ball was a very bad thing. In fact, for me dropping the ball meant that I was failing to take timely action, that I was disappointing myself, I was disappointing my peers, I was disappointing my family. I know it sounds very dramatic, but in my case I felt that I was disappointing the entire black race. As if, they're not gonna hire another person if I screw this up. And what happened to me, was not that I developed some really amazing philosophy for how to drop the ball. But that I got to a point in my life where a life event, and for me, it was the birth of my first child, created a scenario in which I started dropping balls left and right. And by the way, last year
I spoke to many people about this phenomenon. And it turns out that it can happen when you finally get the job that you always dreamed of and you realize that it's a lot harder to be the boss than you thought it was gonna be, or you get a diagnosis, or someone in your family becomes ill or incapacitated and you need to take care of them. Lots of things can happen that create the scenario where we start dropping the balls. But long story short, Armageddon never really hit. So, one of the realizations, another Tiffany's epiphanies was that all the while, I was trying to keep all of these balls in the air, when they finally started dropping, nothing really happened that I was always afraid of happening. No one ever came, for example, to read me my Miranda Rights because I had racked up all of those orange parking citations for not moving the car for alternate side parking. No one ever called me to tell me, "I don't love you anymore, I'm not gonna be your friend "anymore because you missed the birthday party." And so I started questioning why it was that I felt that I had to keep all of these balls in the air and I decided to reappropriate the term. So for me now dropping the ball means that I've let go of these unrealistic expectations
of having to do it all to begin with and I've let go of the unrealistic expectation that it should be done my way, though I'm often very tempted when I look in the refrigerator. (audience laughing) There are three balls that I had to figure out how to drop that I encourage everyone to really question and drop. And I wanna talk about those three for the rest of the brief time that I have with you. The first ball is this unrealistic expectation about who I was supposed to be. So it turns out that all of us are born playing certain roles. If you were born a boy, your first role was probably son. If you were born a girl, your first role was probably daughter. If you have siblings then you automatically became, or eventually became, a brother or a sister. Certainly we all become friends, students, eventually workers, some of us wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, managers, citizens. And because, for ambitious people, it's not sufficient to just be the role. You, by default, put the word good in front of your role. So it's not sufficient just to be a son, you strive to be a good son. You don't just wanna be a friend, you want to be a good friend and a good student. And what I find fascinating about connecting
with so many people and listening to their stories is that somehow, even though we're born in different parts of the world, to different families, in different cultures we all ended up with very similar job descriptions. For what it means to be a good anything. I'm the oldest of four girls and in my good sister job description it says that I need to respond to my little sister's text messages within two minutes. Like literally there are two probably right now that say "I need a hundred dollars", right? (audience laughing) In the good mom job description, there's a line that says you need to be physically present when your child takes their first steps. Okay, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard the story of the woman, she's very stressed, she has to go off to a work event, it's gonna take her to another city and she just knows, as soon as that train pulls out of the station or as soon as that plane takes off, her child who is about a year old is gonna start walking and it will have meant that she's a very bad mother. Okay. This is despite the fact that no one in this room can tell me that you remember who was there when you took your first steps. Right? But this is apparently a very, very important moment in the life of a child. That if you miss means you're a very bad mom.
In the job description for a good husband, for a good father there is a line that I think is one of the most insidious. That says that you need to aspire to be a breadwinner at all costs. Even the cost of meaningfully engaging with your family. And I hope someone writes a book about how men can drop that ball, because I actually think that it will help us change the world. So I had to figure out how to stop living someone else's story and someone else's job description of what I was supposed to be and really get clear about what matters most to me. And it took a lot, that's why I wrote a whole book about it. But at the end of my journey it became very clear that what mattered most to me was; advancing women and girls, surprise surprise, nurturing a really healthy relationship with my partner, with my husband and raising conscious global citizens. And if any of you are wondering, how do I get clear about what matters most to me? There's a number of exercises that I would encourage you to do. But one that's very simple and doesn't cost any money was made very popular by a man named Stephen Covey. And it's a funeral visualization exercise where you imagine your future. Some of you are shaking your head, that's good. Hopefully you've done this. And you imagine people eulogizing you, a friend,
a coworker, a family member and what you would want them to say about you. And when I did this exercise, it became very clear that I didn't want people to just stand up and say, "Well you know she got a lot of things done." Right? (audience laughing) You want them to say something more important than that. And it really helps you to get out of the trees and into the forest. The second ball that I had to figure out how to drop was this unrealistic expectation about what I was supposed to do. A few years ago I was leading, what I thought was gonna be a time management workshop for a bunch of women, about 80 of them. We didn't get very far though, because the first exercise I asked everyone to do was to write down a list of all of the things they expected to complete in an ideal day. And I mean every single little thing. So if you wake up in the morning and you go to the gym, write that down. If you wake up in the morning and you're just lying in bed for 20 minutes thinking about how you should go to the gym, like write that down. Okay, if you have to walk to walk a dog, get anybody else ready, your commute, your meetings,
every little thing until you can't think of anything else. And then I asked them to write down next to each item how long they thought it might take for them to complete each one of those and then to sum it at the bottom. And as I was walking around the tables, looking at everyone's paper as the facilitator I was having another one of my Tiffany's epiphanies, because not one woman in the room had a sum that amounted to less than the 24 hours all of us are given in a day. And some women didn't even have sleep on their list. And they were already at the 24 hour mark. And it became very clear to me that there's no wonder that so many of us are walking around with feelings of inadequacy, as if we can't get it all done, because our ideal about what we should be getting done is actually humanly impossible. And so I really think it's important for us to ditch the to-do lists altogether. And to really get clear about our highest and best use. And when I say our highest and best use I mean a combination of what we do very little well with little effort, usually because we've done it over and over again, combined with what are the things that only you can do. It would be callous or irresponsible to delegate those things to other people. In fact, I now, when something comes over the fence, can you blurb my book, can you serve on this committee,
can you read this, can you write this? I go straight to my calendar and if I can't fit it on there it's a reality check that maybe I need to drop the ball on it. Or that something on my calendar needs to be dropped. The third ball that I had to figure out how to drop, which is the most ironic one for me, because I'm obsessed with helping other people was this fear of asking other people to help me. Not only was I not good at asking people to help, I engaged in a dynamic that I call imaginary delegation. This is when you assign someone a task and you fully expect them to complete the task. And when they don't, you're annoyed or you're angry. But you never actually tell them that you assigned them the task. (audience laughing) And then when common sense prevails and you think to yourself. Well "You never actually told her to take the notes." or "You never actually told him to take out the recycling." You snap back at common sense. Well when I was an associate no one had to tell me to take notes. I mean can't he just see that the recycling needs to get taken out? And then you kind of continue this cycle. So I had to go from imaginary delegation to a completely new dynamic
which is delegating with joy and asking for people for something higher than just the task at hand. And one of the people who I able to engage and delegate successfully to was my husband. I mean obviously I've learned a lot about how to get things done through him. This is my mom, Brenda. And my mom found out that she was pregnant with me when she was 19 years old. My family was from Watts. Her and my dad were in Watts, LA. Is anybody familiar with Watts? Some, some of us. Well suffice it to say that in the 1970s Watts was a really rough place. It was a rough time. My mom didn't know anything other than the environment that she was in. But she believed that there had to be something other than this. And she happened to have an uncle who was an Army recruiter. And between the big, foreboding uncle, as my father tells it and my mom, he was convinced to join the Army. And I was born nine months later at Fort Lewis Army Base in Tacoma, Washington which is how I'm from Seattle. I'm homesick right now. (audience member whistling) Oh I got some whistles, thank you. (Tiffany and audience laughing)
My parents broke a very vicious cycle of poverty and addiction and violence in one generation. The same guy that had to kick a heroin addiction to even be able to pass the physical exam for the military eventually went to college on the G.I. Bill, became a Ph.D. in Theology, he became a pastor. I grew up, literally in a nice little house with a white picket fence around it. Not knowing about any of these cycles personally. Which, by the way, is why we live in the greatest country on earth. That you can achieve that kind of progress in just one generation. And in so doing, my parents taught me this fundamental truth which is that, if you want something you've never had before you're gonna have to do something that you've never done before in order to get it. Now the downside of that truth is that it's really scary to put ourselves out on a limb and to do things that we've never done before. Particularly when those things disrupt ourselves and the assumptions that we have about the way that things should be done and about who we are. But the upside of this dynamic is that you could probably get a bit more sleep. Thank you so much. (audience clapping) (bouncy music)