Tiffany Dufu on Why It’s More than Okay to ‘Drop the Ball’

We often hear that women can have it all — just not at the same time. Women account for nearly 47 percent of today’s workforce, and millions of them struggle to perfect the balance between careers, household responsibilities, and social activities.

Women’s leadership expert Tiffany Dufu advocates a slightly unusual approach — dropping the ball, and letting go of the unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves. According to Tiffany, author of the book “Drop the Ball,” this may be the most effective way women can come close to achieving that elusive work-life balance. We recently visited with Tiffany at the Adobe & Women Leadership Summit, where she shared what it means to ‘drop the ball,’ and offered advice on how to prioritize what really matters most.

Why do you think women have to juggle so many responsibilities? Why do we have all these balls to drop in the first place?

We have gender stereotypes about who should take care of what. This is part of the reason women, more often, need to have careers that are very much fueled by their passion and their purpose — because they need a reason to justify sacrificing. Yet, to admit that means we’re not modern. So it’s really challenging. We’ve grown up with these societal expectations placed on us, and now we have to figure out how we can empower ourselves, and develop the tools and techniques to create lives we’re passionate about.

How can women feel more comfortable dropping all the balls they carry?

The first thing, is to be intentional about dropping the ball, and to meaningfully engage others in the process. It doesn’t work to just start dropping balls without telling anybody.

You need to be strategic about the areas where you can achieve clarity about what matters most to you, and think, “How can I figure out my highest and best uses?” Then think about how you can communicate this to the people you feel are best equipped to support you in your leadership journey — whether it’s a manager, a co-worker, or your partner or spouse.

In my book, I talk about how I’ve engaged neighbors, babysitters, and people in my network. They all play important roles, but the challenge is to get over this vulnerability that we often feel will jeopardize us. We have to get comfortable asking for help, which is really tough.

When you’re engaging people to help, how do you properly set expectations?

The first thing is that you need to align the expectations. One of the the most freeing experiences of my whole ‘drop the ball’ journey was learning that the expectations other people had for me were way lower than the ones I had for myself.  

Imagine a balloon. The balloon is really tight, but as soon as you start having meaningful, intentional conversations with people about their expectations for you, it’s like inserting a pin that deflates it a little bit. That gives you some bandwidth to be able to devote time to doing some work for you.

In a lot of cases, women can feel guilty for not being everywhere at all times, and doing everything — whether it’s in their professional career or with their family. How can they overcome this?

It took three years to undo all of the conditioning, and allow myself to be able to live my life unencumbered by the impositions of others.

One of the most important mental exercises is to start to separate your values from the behaviors that society attaches to them. For example, my daughter’s piano teacher told me that it would be great for me to come to her piano lessons, and that this would help her get to the next level. Well, the lessons are at 4 p.m., and I very confidently explained to him that since I’m earning the money to pay for the lessons, I can’t come to the lessons, too. Though I felt guilt because he told me other parents were coming, I realized there isn’t a connection to me being there, and my daughter getting to the next level, so it was okay to drop the ball.

There are many things you can do to invest in your child. There are many things you can do to have a strong work ethic. There are many things you can do to be a good friend and foster great relationships, or whatever is important to you, but we have to get into the habit of really questioning, “Does the behavior that I am associating with this bring that value? Does it belong there? Are there a different set of expectations that I should be focused on?”

What do you think must happen in our society for men to feel comfortable “dropping the ball?”

About 50 years ago, women entered the workforce in droves. Now, companies are benefitting from the talent, creativity, and ingenuity of women, and we’re seeing the positive impact they bring to the workplace. Unfortunately, we didn’t have another revolution in which more men started running the Parent Teacher Association at the same rate that more women were entering the workforce. So, our homes are not benefitting from the diversity that our workplaces do.

One of the ironies of my personal ‘drop the ball’ journey is that I’m a diversity and inclusion practitioner. But at home, I didn’t believe in innovative solutions. I only believed in solutions. I didn’t give enough bandwidth and space for everyone in my home to be able to contribute. What’s really important for us to do, to truly unleash one’s humanity, is to create an environment in which men are given permission to be human. I think one of the most powerful things that male executive leaders can do is to take their paternity leaves, to take their caregiving leaves, to talk about their personal lives, and to demystify and destigmatize what it means for a man to have responsibilities, both in the workplace, at home, and in other parts of their lives.

Overall, how can women create more balanced lives?

If you want something that you’ve never had before, you’re going to have to do something that you’ve never done before to get it.

So, this should be hard work — really getting clear about who you are, what should matter most, what you should be focused on, and creating a filter for drowning out the noise of our life. It should feel messy, it should feel difficult and murky, and there should probably be some tears and some anger along the way. If there isn’t, you’re probably not digging deep enough. So embrace the conflict. That’s when the breakthrough happens.

The Adobe & Women Leadership Summit is one of the ways we’re working to drive greater diversity and inclusion worldwide. Learn more about our diversity initiatives here.