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To Build A Happy Life, Young Women Must Learn To Play The Long Game

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Image CreditClay Banks/Unsplash

Young women, whether they know if they’ll step out of the workforce someday or not, should plan ahead for doing so.


On Dec. 12, 2023, Julia Roberts was interviewed on “CBS Sunday Morning” with Gayle King, where King played a clip from an interview Roberts gave more than 30 years ago for her 1988 film, “Mystic Pizza.” Roberts was 21, and when the interviewer asked about her future plans, Roberts said, “I think for now I’m just working really hard until that day, when it comes, when I’ll be able to enjoy a more normal life and distance myself from the business a little more and not be forgotten about.”

When King pointed out that Roberts was successful in her goal, Roberts said, “It’s interesting. I’m speaking in such a way of such kind of … the long game of life at such a young age. Well done, me!”

Julia Roberts is a rare breed, not just for Hollywood but for American women in general. By planning ahead for leaning out of her career, she got the best of both worlds: a successful career and a successful family. Roberts disappeared from acting for a long time after having her three children. Now that they’re older, we’re seeing a bit more of her.

When it comes to building a happy life, the secret is to play the long game. Being as intentional about your personal life as you are about your professional life when you’re young offers the best chance at being successful in all areas of life, not just your career.

Despite what the culture teaches, our twenties aren’t years to squander. “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty,” writes Meg Jay in The Defining Decade.

This is true for both sexes, but it is especially true for women, who, due to their biology, have a foreshortened time frame in which to map out their lives. The professional, relational, and financial choices women make in their twenties will either set them up for success or set them up for having fewer choices, and a more difficult time of it, down the line.

That’s why young women, whether they know if they’ll step out of the workforce someday or not, should plan ahead for doing so.

Lean Out Long Before You Actually Do

In 2011, former Facebook (or Meta) COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered the commencement address at Barnard College, an all-girls school. During her speech, Sandberg assured the graduates that women have a long way to go to achieve equality and told them to “lean in” to their careers until the last possible moment.

“Do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision.” That decision is, of course, whether or not to leave the workforce to raise your babies.

This is awful advice and the exact opposite of what young women should do. Planning in advance to step out of the workforce is essential to building a happy, well-rounded life. Unfortunately, today’s women are groomed to build lives with careers at the center and receive zero guidance on how to be successful in the other, arguably more important domain: marriage and family.

To wit, the only women who appear to know how to date with purpose and build a life that will allow them to stay home with their babies are those who had freethinking, countercultural parents. Most parents don’t teach their children to reject what the media and their mentors teach: that marriage doesn’t matter and that staying home with one’s children for a season is a pipe dream because two-income families are a must in today’s world.

As a result, women are at a loss about how to build the kind of life that will ultimately make them happy. When most women hit 30, their nesting instinct kicks in, and they feel hopelessly stuck. They don’t know how to (a) find a marriageable man, (b) step back from their career, or (c) live on less since they were encouraged to “go all in” on education and career and to rely on debt to do so.

Yes, There Is a Better Way

All of this suffering was, and is, avoidable. There’s a completely different way for women to do life, and it begins with this premise: Whom you marry, and how that marriage fares, will have more effect on your happiness and well-being than anything else you do. Nothing else even comes close.

To be sure, this applies to both sexes. But it’s especially important for women since they are the sex that gets pregnant, the sex that breastfeeds, and the sex that becomes literally attached to their babies and, as a result, becomes attuned to their needs in a unique and primal way. This is something to celebrate, not something to dismiss as irrelevant.

A much smarter and more effective life plan for women is to think as early as possible about what kind of life they want to live. Their early twenties is ideal, but earlier is even better.

Forget about money and career for a moment. What kind of lifestyle do you envision for yourself 10 or 20 years from now? If you want to be married, you must date with purpose today. If you date exclusively for fun, with no direction or end goal in mind, you will likely not find a match. You’ll just become proficient in ending relationships, which does nothing to help prepare you for building a strong marriage.

Planning ahead for leaning out of the workforce also changes the way women date. If you know you plan to do this, it feels reasonable — not backward, as women are told — to pay attention to a man’s career path. He doesn’t need to be rich, but he does need to be on a solid growth track. He must have found his purpose. Too many women mistakenly assume they’ll always be in the workforce and thus overlook a man’s earning potential. Most come to regret this.

Finally, how many kids do you want, and how do you want to raise them? Will you be the one doing the mothering, or will you outsource that work to family or hired help? Knowing this in advance will help you choose the right career for you.

I always advise women who don’t know what they want to err on the side that they will want to stay home, not that they won’t. That way they’ll have options when the time comes, which is super important since most mothers find they don’t want to leave their babies once they have them.

Aim for Meaning Rather Than Success

“I don’t understand for the life of me,” notes Ben Shapiro in a 2018 speech, “why we’re telling women that their best and greatest superpower, creating another human from their own body, is somehow less important than working as an associate law clerk — that working 2,100 billable hours and checking footnotes is somehow more important than raising the next generation of human beings that you made with your own body.”

I don’t either.

The starting point for building a better life or, if you’re older, for rebuilding it is to shift our priorities and begin with the premise that marriage matters more than career. When you do this, new choices open up because now you’re operating with a different set of assumptions. If you’re looking for a husband, it will change the way you date. If you want a family-centered life, it will change the way you think about which career to pursue.

It is never too late to shift your priorities and change your life. It simply begins with a mindset shift that’s rooted in 4 truths:

  1.  Whom you marry is the single greatest decision you’ll ever make.
  2.  Career success alone will not make you happy.
  3.  The biological differences between men and women are real, and they’re hardwired.
  4.  You can “have it all,” just not all at once.

The good news is, no matter where you are in life’s journey, you can embrace these truths and do a U-turn. When you do, you will have begun your journey toward building a better life.

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