by Jennifer Sey
I've been advised by the powers that be at work that I need to consider “moving geographies.” What they mean by this is that I need experience in another country, another region of the world, if I am going to ascend the ranks in a global organization.
I have extensive experience in the US market. But I have not lived and worked abroad. In today's global marketplace, experience in an “emerging market” such as China, India or Brazil is indispensable. I am only recently in the ranks of junior executives that would need to commit to a major move such as this to make the cross over from “junior” to “senior”. When I was recently confronted with the question – Would you consider moving to Shanghai? - I stopped dead in my tracks because I had to seriously reconsider my general approach to work and life as a whole.
Here's what my approach to life has been so far: Go! Keep going and going and going until I can't go anymore. If they say, “Jennifer, you're simply not qualified,” I prove that I am. I set goals that feel somewhat out of reach and then accomplish them. And I set the next one before I've even gotten to the first. If someone suggests, “You're simply not ready!” I use that to spur me forward, to prove them wrong. It lodges itself in my belly and creates a manic energy and drive that makes it impossible for me to give up until I've won, thus dislodging the skepticism (theirs and mine) from my gut. I am competitive. It is blinding. I never question whether or not I want “to win”. I just throw myself headlong into the game. And expect to win eventually, if only by attrition. It is not others I seek to beat; in fact, I rarely consider the others that might be playing. It is only myself I want to trounce.
Does this make me crazy? Maybe a little. But only to people who aren't intensely competitive by nature. To those of you out there that are competitive to the core, you understand what I'm talking about. Is it a self-destructive impulse at times? Absolutely. But it is the only way I know how to be. And at 40 years old, I've finally learned to just accept it as a truth about myself. I can't yoga or breathe or therapize my way out of it. And oh how I've tried. Not adhering to it is not being true to myself. And creates more physical discomfort than following the go go go path.
So when I am asked by the very most senior executives at my company, “When will you be ready to make the move to another country?” and my gut tells me “Maybe never,” I cause myself serious pause. Because acknowledging that I may never want to move to Hong Kong means I may never want to get to the next level. To go from Vice President to Senior Vice President. It means taking myself out of the game. It means admitting that this is the end of the road for me. It is a white flag of surrender that, to me, has always felt like weakness. I don't view it that way in others, mind you. In others, I view stepping out of the game as having different priorities, as winning by being true to one's own path. Only in myself does it feel like giving up, because it is not the path that feels like mine.
I know in my head it is not weakness. There are other considerations. I have two children. My parents aren't getting any younger. They already live 3,000 miles away from their grandchildren, can I stand to pull them further away from their progeny? I don't care about the money so do I really want to make getting to the next corporate level the thing I organize my life around? Prioritizing it over family? My orientation has always been: ascend, achieve, accomplish, check the boxes and move on to the next. When you always, blindly commit to go go go, saying, I don't want to go anymore, feels like conceding defeat.
On a side note, it is especially galling for men with no children and no wives to expect anyone and everyone, especially women like me - supporter of two kids and a husband, attentive daughter to parents, aunt to two nephews - to just pick up and go in the name of ascension. “We've all had to do it,” these men say. Is it a test of my mettle and commitment (am I as dedicated as they are?) or truly required to develop the necessary skills? Hard to say.
And so I find myself at a crossroads. This may be my Come to Jesus moment when I reckon with my deeply competitive nature that hasn't always served me well, but does in ways that have mattered to me. It landed me on the women's national gymnastics team for almost a decade in the 1980s. It also contributed to my anorexia as a teen and prompted me to work on a failing body to achieve those berths in the later part of my career. It drove me to where I am today at work, slotted as the Vice President of Worldwide Marketing for LS&Co. It also causes me some degree of guilt because I can't pick my kids up from school every day. My husband ensures that typically maternal duty is executed. It got me a book deal. And a pretty profound sense that I will never do all there is to do. There is always more to do. More, more, more.
In addition to competitiveness, honesty is another significant and driving force in my life. Despite the compulsion to tell it like it is, I decided NOT to tell my fearless leaders that it is unlikely I will ever want to live in Shanghai or Mumbai or Hong Kong or even Brussels. Because my kids like San Francisco, because my family lives here. I held back the honest answer and said: maybe some day. I didn't want to limit my choices, to have them not consider me dedicated by way of something that might not even matter in the long run.
But I am prepared to tell them NO. No I will not move. My life here matters more. My kids matter more. I want to win, but not like that. Send someone else. A man or woman with no other considerations than getting the higher title in the shortest possible amount of time.
I won't have given up in telling them that I won't move. I will find another way. That's the competitor in me. If I can't climb over the wall, I go around. I broke my femur in 1985 and won the title of US gymnastics champ a year later. I took the long way around the wall, but I got to the other side just the same. Mumbai won't be my home any time soon. But I just may find myself a Senior Vice President, despite that fact. And if not, I'll have won regardless. Because I will have followed the path for me, not the one that someone else laid out.