Tiffany Dufu is a force of nature. A passionate advocate for women and girls, she tells a story of embracing imperfection that energized all of us lucky enough to hear her speak at a recent Women Empowered luncheon. At first glance, imperfection is the last thing you’d associate with Dufu. As an activist and author, she has shaped her career around empowering women and has led companies and served on boards. She’s married and raising two young children. The question she gets asked most often is how she does it all.

Her answer is simple: She doesn’t – anymore.

Dufu is author of “Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less,” a paean to letting go of unrealistic expectations and also re-engaging others in our journeys. What balls did Dufu drop? Endless to-do lists. Rigid instructions for household tasks like folding towels. The trappings of perfection that feel important yet often distract us from what really matters. In their place, Dufu channeled her considerable energy to clarifying what matters most to her, personally and professionally, and then doubling down on it. That recalibration is an essential part of her message.

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(From left to right: Alan Alper, VP Corporate Marketing/Editorial Director, Thought Leadership Programs; Chell Smith, SVP, Consulting; Tiffany Dufu, speaker and author; John Maguire, SVP, Sales; Feather Hickox, AVP Marketing, Cognizant Digital Business & Executive Sponsor, Women Empowered)

“The challenge is figuring out what our highest and best use is, and achieving what matters most,” she says. “What do I do really well with little effort? And what are the things that only I can do, that don’t make sense to delegate? That’s what I should focus on first, and then figure out what to do with the rest.” In Dufu’s case, what matters is advancing women and girls, nurturing a healthy partnership with her husband and raising global citizens. 

Everyone’s choices will be different. Yet Dufu hopes one outcome of the reconfiguration of priorities will be the addition of more women in leadership roles. “Women are really, really busy,” she points out. And it’s not just working moms. It’s young women who are first-generation college graduates and help support their families. Women who manage caregiving for elderly parents. Women who have not started families of their own but who often end up shouldering more family responsibilities than anyone. It’s also not just women. Dufu says she’s starting to hear from more men that they, too, need to drop the ball. She hopes pausing to identify what matters most will be the first step for each of us to finding time for it.

Inspired to Focus on What Matters

Since the luncheon, it’s occurred to me how my own experiences have shaped my expectations about the division of labor in my home, as well as how I prioritize my personal and work lives. Raised by bohemian parents and encouraged to be fiercely independent, especially financially, I held jobs – good jobs – all through high school and college. My dream wasn’t to have a husband and kids and a white picket fence but to be in business, and to be involved in communications, media and advertising. (In high school I went to bed with a stack of Communication Arts magazines on my nightstand.)

Today, I’m married to a wonderful man, and we have two beautiful kids. Despite having a very equitable partnership with my husband, I do find myself having to “drop the ball.” The reality is that the world is full of obligations, opportunities and challenges. Keeping focused on what’s most important – and having an agreement with ourselves about what we’re willing to drop – allows us the capacity to do the work that really matters.

I sometimes say that the modern workday has no beginning and end, meaning that clocking in at 8 AM and out at 5 PM is increasingly rare. Most of us take our work home with us. We stay connected. Similarly, I see the idea of “having it all” as a fading myth. The great career and comfy home life, making dinner for the kids every night, not to mention going to yoga class and reading a book a week – seriously, who has that?

In reality, our lives require us to understand the tradeoffs and manage them. Dufu’s message is that doing so gives us the power to achieve great things. Dropping the ball, it turns out, frees us. Bring on the opportunities.

Feather Hickox

Feather Hickox

Feather Hickox is AVP Marketing within Cognizant’s Digital Business practice, and also serves as the Executive Sponsor for Cognizant Women Empowered, a... Read more