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Tiffany Dufu: Drop the Ball Instead of Trying to Do It All

About this talk

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 all—be the perfect woman, mother, wife, mentor, and author. In this talk, Dufu shares her manifesto on how doing less allowed her to feel more fulfilled. Her hard-won insights include observing where unrealistic expectations for our work and personal lives are rooted, why we need to ditch the to-do list and why the key to delegating is clear communication

Tiffany Dufu, Author

Tiffany Dufu is a catalyst-at-large in the world of women’s leadership and the author of Drop the Ball, a memoir and manifesto on how to cultivate the single skill you really need in order to thrive: the ability to let go. Tiffany helped launch Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative, and recently served as Chief Leadership Officer to millennial professional network Levo.

Dufu serves on the board of Girls Who Code and Simmons College and has raised nearly $20 million toward for women and girls worldwide.

Full Transcript

You look awesome. Last year I released a book, Drop the Ball, Achieving More By Doing Less. And, I racked up about 200,000 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—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 mom is not here and I don’t have time to get you guys ready.’”

To which I responded, “They can do that?” 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 have always been someone who has 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 we get to the highest levels of leadership—this is across every industry—there’s about 18 or 19% 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. 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 every day you retrieved 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 going to have to deal with it?

I especially felt that, if you had to get yourself and two kids ready in the morning, 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—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 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 going to 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 going to 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 this scenario where we start dropping the balls. But, long story short, Armageddon never really hit, so one of the realizations another of 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 going to 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 re-appropriate 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. There are three balls that I had to figure out how to drop, that I encourage everyone to really question and drop. And I want to 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 want to 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 sisters’ text messages within two minutes, like literally there are two probably right now that say I need $100.00. 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.” 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 going to 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 going to start walking and it will have meant that she’s a very bad mother. 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 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 bread winner 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 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, she got a lot of things done.” 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 going to 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, write that down. If you have 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 list 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. 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 was 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. 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 was able to engage and delegate successfully too, was my husband. And obviously, I’ve learned a lot about how to get things done through him.

This is my mom, Brenda. My mom found out that she was pregnant with me when she 19 years old. My family was from Watts. Her and my dad were in Watts, L.A. 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. Oh, I got some whistles! Thank you.

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 GI Bill, became a PhD 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 going to 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.

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