Stop Juggling Too Much and ‘Drop the Ball,’ Says The Cru Founder Tiffany Dufu
For years we’ve been told that if we want to succeed, we need to learn how to lean in. No one explained that “having it all” as a parent with a full-time career would actually mean “doing it all” without much help or support. When I interviewed Tiffany Dufu a few years ago about her book Drop The Ball, I found it incredibly refreshing when she said if we want to succeed, we need to learn how to let go.
What we really need to learn is how to let go, which means dropping some of the (many) balls we’re juggling, in the many roles we occupy in our lives.
What does it mean to “drop the ball?” If you’re driven by career and success, how do you find a way to “do it all” when we’re often told that it’s not possible? Here’s another question: When you’re stuck and struggling to navigate all of your critical roles in the world, how do you soothe your overwhelmed brain? What takes priority?
In this article, we’re going to provide some strategies to help you navigate these obstacles with a little help from Tiffany Dufu. She’s the founder and CEO of The Cru, a peer coaching platform for women looking to accelerate their professional and personal growth. Plus, she’s the author of “Drop the Ball,” an inspiring memoir and manifesto about how she found the space she needed to flourish at work and develop deeper relationships at home.
Tiffany’s life’s work is to help women and girls cultivate the single skill they really need to thrive: the ability to let go. To understand how she got clear on what matters most, I talked to Tiffany about what and how to change if you’re overworked and exhausted, how she enlisted the power of community to build her support network and what “dropping the ball” really enables women to accomplish.
Dropping guilt and pre-set expectations that hold definitions hostage of what it means to succeed
How did we get to a place where women are expected to do it all? “Social conditioning,” says Tiffany. “It’s our culture.” Before each of us takes our first breath in the world, the construct of gender is thrust upon us, deciding how we’ll play the roles we’re assigned based on our sex –– long before we can choose for ourselves.
As we assume these roles as sons and daughters, friends, lovers and family members, they’re defined by early experiences — like swaddling babies in pink or blue blankets and sorting toys by gender — which also shapes how we perceive ourselves as being “good” in them.
When we become wives and mothers, especially, we absorb expectations from advertising (“Choosy moms choose Jif!”), TV shows, and even our own mothers. They all permeate our perspective of what it means to succeed in these roles.
“In my conversations with so many women, I’ve discovered we all have these invisible job descriptions that are almost identical for all of our roles, even though we’re born in different parts of the world, with different values,” explains Tiffany.
Unbeknownst to her, Tiffany created this job description as a child watching “The Cosby Show.” She was captivated by its portrayal of a loving, successful family, partly led by the inspiring Clair Huxtable — a lawyer, mom and wife who seemed to balance these roles easily, with perfectly coiffed hair and stylish clothes as well.
Raised in the church as a preacher’s kid, Tiffany recalls deciding she, too, would be like Clair. However, job descriptions that say a good husband is a tireless breadwinner, while a good mother never misses her child’s first steps, aren’t realistic.
While there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be an extraordinary spouse or parent, Tiffany says “our current definition for excellence is faulty, and it’s based on nonsense; on very old-school expectations that no person in today’s world could possibly meet.”
“Our current definition for excellence is faulty, and it’s based on nonsense. It’s based on very old-school expectations that no person in today’s world could possibly meet.” —Tiffany Dufu
One solution Tiffany shares in her book is to create a new job description for your family role that defines success based on what matters most to you. Tiffany prioritizes raising conscious global citizens. So she engages her kids in meaningful conversations every day, aiming to develop positive relationships with themselves and the world around them.
“Now, does that mean that on any given day, I was supposed to have packed a certain lunch, or made Halloween costumes, or done all of these other things?” she asks. Absolutely.
But because she’s achieved the task at the top of her job description, she can drop the ball in other places and still feel confident that she’s an extraordinary mother. “It’s about redefining what success is, and what our roles are, so we can be gentler on ourselves –– and so we can get rid of the G-word.” (Guilt!)
Disrupt the status quo of parental roles and expectations—create new relationship roles and and renegotiate relationship dynamics
Before the realities of being a working mom blindsided her, Tiffany dubbed herself a “flawless Stepford wife on autopilot” as well as a high-functioning executive and leader who assumed having a baby would be just one more thing on her plate.
Unfortunately, her first day back to work after maternity leave became a “literal disaster” when she didn’t pump in the middle of a long day of meetings — only remembering that she’d forgotten when milk seeped through her blouse. That’s when Tiffany discovered she couldn’t live up to the pile of expectations facing her.
Later that evening, she had what she describes as a surreal moment. As she listened to the sounds of her husband coming home from work, she observed the normalcy she helped provide –– and realized how little had changed for him post-baby. “I started to feel a sense of resentment and anger I’d never experienced before, and figured out very quickly that I had to do something about it,” she explains.
Tiffany notes that we all contribute to gender norms. “One of my dirty feminist secrets was that publicly, I advocated for the disruption of gender stereotypes and rules in the public sphere and in the workplace,” she admits. “But at home, I didn’t do a very good job of disrupting them.”
In “Drop the Ball,” Tiffany talks about internalizing these gender stereotypes and shares practical tools, advice and strategies she used to reshape her relationship with her partner. Before she initiated discussions with her husband, “I really had to have conversations with myself,” says Tiffany, “and that’s why the book is called ‘Drop the Ball,’ not how to get other people to pick up the ball.”
Through those internal conversations, Tiffany focused on two issues: imaginary delegation and the stories she told herself. “The stories we tell ourselves inform our realities, and one of the most important things we can do to shift our realities is to disrupt the stories we’re telling,” she says. That meant she had to tell a different story than the one in which her husband was useless, always working and incapable of managing the home. She also had to get to a place where she could delegate with joy rather than expect her husband to complete a task she’d never verbalized, which led to irritation and disappointment when he didn’t get the job done.
If it doesn’t start off equitably, how do you have conversations about renegotiating the terms of your relationship? Tiffany tapped into the communication skills she seamlessly used at work and applied them to her personal life. “My first real delegating-with-joy conversation with my husband started with me scheduling time with him, just like I would with someone at work,” she says. Then she explained everything she needed to keep their lives running smoothly.
We need community support to help us drop the ball.
Tiffany emphasizes that parents were never meant to “lean in” alone: “All of us need scaffolding,” she says. If you’re a parent who hasn’t figured out what matters most to you yet, she encourages you to begin by taking at least three deep breaths in and out. Then reach out to someone you love and trust. However, she recognizes that if you have a full plate with little to no support, asking (and allowing) others to pick up your slack may create more anxiety.
A good place to start is with this script she provides: “I know I’m calling you out of the blue, but I need help. I’m really stressed and feeling a lot of anxiety right now, but something compelled me to reach out and let you know I need help.” Community-building has significantly impacted Tiffany’s ability to achieve success, so she commits to supporting others and speaks of the importance of investing in them.
“Because I’m the cumulative investment of a lot of people who have opened doors for me, I feel an enormous responsibility to keep those doors open for others. But also, I’ve reaped the benefits. It’s one way I’ve been able to drop the ball.”
With a community — the second-most important investment she’s ever made — Tiffany can achieve more by doing less. She shares strategies in her book for all women who want to build ecosystems of their own, including those who aren’t sure how they should execute their purpose and mission in the world. It’s time-consuming, but it’s a key that unlocks possibilities mothers tend to leave behind when they try to balance every ball rather than drop a few. Reaching new career heights is often one of them.
“We need diversity to innovate new solutions to the very complex problems we have,” says Tiffany, who’s spent the bulk of her career trying to get more women in roles of leadership. That’s why for her, dropping the ball is about more than having more time on her hands. “I want women to drop the ball because I want them to pursue the highest level of leadership they possibly can,” says Tiffany.
A rallying cry for women who aim for more in their promising careers but get stuck at the confluence of responsibilities both at home and work, “Drop the Ball” is a community in itself. With it, you can figure out what really matters to you, freeing you to “create a life you’re passionate about,” Tiffany says. “But more importantly, for the entire world –– so we can benefit from your ingenuity and creativity at the highest level possible.”
This article is based on Episode #028 of The Startup Parent Podcast, a podcast for working parents and entrepreneurs who are invested in changing what parenting can look like in all its iterations.
- Gender roles define us long before we can define ourselves. Author of “Drop the Ball” Tiffany Dufu says pre-set expectations muddy our view of succeeding as wives and mothers. She explains that our current definition for excellence is based on “old-school expectations” that aren’t realistic today. So she encourages them to “drop the ball” by focusing only on what really matters to them.
- Tiffany realized the hardships of being a working mom on her first day back to work after maternity leave, when forgetting to pump meant a breastmilk leak at the office. She began to focus on disrupting internalized and externalized gender stereotypes around motherhood.
- “Dropping the ball” isn’t just about having more time on your hands, says Tiffany. She wants women to “pursue the highest level of leadership that they possibly can” while still prioritizing their families.
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Sarah K Peck
Founder, Startup Parent
Sarah Peck is a writer, startup advisor, and yoga teacher based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Parent, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family. She hosts the weekly Startup Parent Podcast and Let's Talk, her second podcast. Previously, she worked at Y Combinator backed One Month, Inc, a company that teaches people to code in 30 days, and before that she was a writing and communications consultant.
She’s a 20-time All-American swimmer who successfully swam the Escape from Alcatraz nine separate times, once wearing only a swim cap and goggles to raise $33k for charity: water. She’s written for more than 75 different web publications and and has delivered speeches and workshops at Penn, UVA, Berkeley, Harvard, Craft & Commerce, WDS, and more.