Dr Bella Cavalieri is an Intensive Care Registrar currently working in a tertiary centre in Melbourne.
When I hear the phrase “having it all” it’s accompanied in my mind with the image of a character I don’t identify with. Enter the millennial in me. I see an instagram reel filled with sigma bros who wake up at 4:05 am in black satin sheets and emerge into a dull but shiny kitchen (void of evidence of ever being cooked in), chug some pre-workout and auto-play the latest Joe Rogan podcast while doing pushups facing their window overlooking Central Park. Their captions read any variation of the following: Grindset or I don’t seek attention, I seek truth or #AmericanPsychoInspo (or am I exaggerating that last one?), followed by a hyperlink to their latest high-protein recipe.
The image projected is one of the following. It implies that if you want to have it all, you should adopt this obscene lifestyle utterly void of anything that would bring any reasonable person satisfaction or joy. It’s been coined the sigma grindset and is a far more extreme, toxic and lonely version of its less-destructive predecessor the hustle mindset. This brings me to the second way that we see the phrase “have it all” expressed, and it comes with an implication that it’s impossible to ever have it all. This has been concocted as a clever corporate marketing scheme which promotes the hustle culture above all else. You can’t have it all, they say, because sacrifice is the only path to success. It aims to justify an emptiness which may be felt if one considers too closely the cost of their career drive.
When I hear it used in this way, my mind is immediately cast back to The Triangle. The Triangle is that well-used diagram which is thrown at us all rather dramatically (typically in university or college), and acts as a visual representation of what the creators may have believed to be fundamental elements of life: good grades, a social life, and sleep. At the centre of the Triangle lies any rendition of the following: “choose two”, implying that success within two of these realms requires sacrifice of the third.
My issues with The Triangle are (briefly) as follows. There is a blinding absence of other fundamentally important aspects of life (satisfaction, health, happiness, creativity, freedom, rest, excitement). It implies an inflexible and rigid hierarchy of priorities, without acknowledging the reality that priorities fluctuate across time. And finally, it implies that productivity must come at the expense of health and wellbeing or connectedness.
And thus here we are - fresh, impressionable sponges - conditioned to believe that the depth of our lives has been predetermined. We begin our studying and training guided by those who come before us, who, from their perspective, tell us what's possible and what’s simply not. And while much of this may come with good intentions, we can’t deny that the advice we receive from others can (at times - not always) be a subconscious attempt for them to justify, or make peace with, the choices they made when they were at a comparable life stage.
Luckily, I actually don’t think that the above descriptions are relevant to my workplace culture at all. I’m working in a time which is rejecting these old doctrines and welcoming the cultural change driven by our increasing value in quality of life and in health and wellbeing. Sometimes; however, it feels that this has brought with it a whole new standard by which we measure “the successful individual”. The successful individual is likeable, they’re a valuable member of the team, they’re interesting and centred and grounded. They have hobbies. They have friends. And they’re probably going to get that job. These people seem to “have it all”.
And yet, there’s still something about that phrase, even when attached to the image of a likeable and respectable person, that sits uneasily. Now, it invites us to become the victims of comparison. We’ve met this likeable and respectable person, and may now be drawn into a thought pattern something along the lines of “how did they and how can I”. They are, in essence, a role-model. And a role-model they should stay. A problem arises when we allow our view of them to distort beyond that of a role-model and into some immovable pillar of success. And we all know why we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other people in a way that might draw incorrect conclusions about our intrinsic value.
I’m situated at a very early stage of my career, and I’ve been telling myself that it’s completely within my control what sort of life I have. Is this pure naivety? Surely it is. A belief that mindset is the only barrier to the “dream life” is the sort of privileged view that fails to acknowledge the persistence of many problematic social, political and personal prejudices which prevent many from pursuing their version of the “dream life”. I’ve been telling myself that I want a life of diversity and contrast. I get this icky feeling when people characterise me on the basis of my career path. Lately, however, my attempts to continue to put energy into the maintenance of a varied and colourful life make me wonder whether I’m diverse or whether I'm just blatantly indecisive.
Ultimately it seems impossible to answer the question “is having it all achievable?”, without assuming a character who holds a concrete view of what it even means. People should hold their own view of what it means to “have it all”. I do suggest that people don’t go looking for their own answer from bros on the internet, and that they don’t become totally intoxicated by phrases like rise and grind or grindset and that they don’t let triangles flatten horizons. And, those who feel like they do “have it all” should reflect on whether this now affords them a platform from which they can assist others to achieve the same - in their own way.