Member Profile: Author Hana Schank Shares Inspiration Behind Her New Book, "The Ambition Decisions"

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BCL is home to a variety of members, including non-profits, architects, small business owners, and many writers. Hana Schank, a part-time BCL Member has recently authored a book, The Ambition DecisionsWhat Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life, so we decided to pick her brain regarding the inspiration behind this book, life as a working mother, and why she decided to work at BCL. 

"Over the last sixty years, women's lives have transformed radically from generation to generation. Without a template to follow--a way to peek into the future to catch a glimpse of what leaving this job or marrying that person might mean to us decades from now--women make important decisions blindly, groping for a way forward, winging it, and hoping it all works out." -The Ambition Decisions

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the book, The Ambition Decisions.

A: The book really grew out of a midlife crisis, as many great things do. I reached a point in my life where I recently turned 40 and was feeling stuck in my career and in my personal life. I felt like I wanted to achieve more than I had, but I was also looking back at the decisions that I made and felt like I don't know what other choices I could have made. I wondered why is this all so hard? It just feels more difficult than I thought it would be.

I remember I was in spin class reflecting back on this conversation that I had with my college friends where we talked about how we're all going to have jobs in the future administration and all of the great things that we're going to accomplish. I had fallen out of touch with a lot of them, and I wondered what had become of them; they were all really ambitious smart women. I felt like if I couldn't do it, maybe one of them could do it, maybe one of them had this great success and figured out what the answer was to life. I thought maybe there was some mythic woman who had it all figured out, so I reached out to a college friend of mine who had been in those early conversations and who also lived nearby, my friend, Liz. We started talking and she was actually in a similar place. We decided to start tracking down some of the women who had been in that initial conversation and talk to them about their lives. Those conversations were so interesting that we just kept going and it turned into a book, The Ambition Decisions, What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life.

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Q: What do you hope to accomplish with the book?

A: We started doing these interviews and at some point, we realized that we had all of this data around the decisions that women made and how they played out. There's no model for women on what our lives should look like, in part because the way that women's lives look have changed so quickly from generation to generation that the way that your mother's life looked, or the way that your grandmother's life looked isn't a good model typically for most women.

We wanted to provide some models for women to say, "Here's what real women's lives look like," and use these models to help inform your own life and to help you make decisions. We started to see that these decisions aren't without predictable outcomes. If you decide to do X, then we can predictably say, "Here's probably what's gonna happen to you down the road." We wanted to arm women with that information to help them make better decisions.

Q: What's your biggest personal takeaway from writing and gathering the data to tell this story?

A: This project was really life-changing for me. In the book, we talked about three different trajectories that our friends fell into. One is the high achiever which is your traditional, very successful career-focused path. There was the opt-out, the women who after they had children decided to stay home. Then there's the flex-lifer, the women who sort of straddle two areas; they're typically women who might have a full-time job or might be full-time freelancers, but they really value flexibility in their lives. They don't see a career as the sole thing that they're channeling all of their energy into. Whether it's ensuring they have time to meet their children at the school bus or they want to compete in trail running marathons, or whatever it is. 

When I started doing this project, I firmly categorized myself as a flex-lifer. I was running a company that let me work from home so I could be with my kids and have a very flexible schedule. Even though it meant that my career was sort of not this superstar career, it gave me a lifestyle that worked for me. The first thing that this project did was help me set that in context and say, it's not that I suck at moving my career forward, it's actually that I've made conscious choices and trade-off to create this kind of lifestyle. Turns out, the majority of our friends and the majority of women out there who fall into this socio-economic group choose to be flex-lifers.

However, when we interviewed these high achievers, I found myself really impressed with them and a little bit jealous of the way that they talked about their lives and their careers. They seemed very focused, very clear on their goals and what they wanted to achieve, and they really seemed to thrive from getting respect and recognition at work. I started to feel like I wanted to know what that was like. So, I actually ended up changing my career and taking a job in a different city so that I could move my career forward. I spent some time really focused on moving into the high achiever category.

Q: Where did you move to and did the change reveal anything new about yourself?

A: I took a job in Washington, DC, working for the White House in the previous administration, which was kind of crazy. I commuted back and forth and it was an amazing experience. After that, I thought I was prepared to move to Washington and take a job with the next administration but things didn't work out that way. Now, I have a DC job but I still live in Brooklyn. At the time, when the transition was happening, I felt like, "Oh, but I just wanna have, like, another really hard driving job and I wanna be in an office." But the job that I ended up getting allowed me to work from home and set my own hours, which has been wonderful. At first, I was like, "But where's my hard driving job?" then I started to think, "Well, actually, maybe this is really the thing that works best for me." I get to do a lot of the things that I love and feel like I'm working for good in the world, I get to be engaged in all these intellectual conversations, and I also go to new yoga. 

Q: You recently wrote an article for The Atlantic, When 'Love What You Do' Pushes Women to Quit." In it, you asked, "Should a career be a sort of manifestation of one's passions and deeply held beliefs or should a job primarily function to pay the bills?" How do you approach this topic in your book? 

A: In the book, we talk a lot about how our culture is so focused on this idea of doing what you love, to the degree that it is even the tagline for WeWork. Actually, we had an event at WeWork and I saw the "Do What You Love" slogan all over the place and I thought, really? Does everybody in this office, like, really... Like, every single person comes in here and is like, "Yes, I love what I do." That is such a huge burden to place on the thing that you're doing to pay the bills and feed yourself and your family. So, we talk in the book about how in some ways that burden falls more heavily on women because a lot of women view their jobs as a luxury; it becomes a trade-off. When women do the childcare cost calculus, they only think about the cost of the childcare as coming out of their salary. So, women will say things like, "I didn't earn enough to cover the cost of childcare so I stayed at home," when in reality, that calculation doesn't make any sense. Why isn't the cost of childcare being factored into the entire household income?

One of the things we talked about in the book, is to look at childcare as an investment. Even if it may not seem like it makes financial sense in the beginning, it pays off a lot down the road once you make more money 5 or 10 years from now, and enables you to keep a foot in and move up in your career as opposed to totally stepping back and taking yourself out. So, we really felt like it was very important to discuss the idea of passion versus paying the bills. What we found was that our friends who looked at their work as not an extravagance, or not something they were doing to feed their inner soul, but as a way to make money - those were the women who continued to work. This may sound obvious, except for the fact that not all women look at their jobs that way. 

So, for women who chose careers where it was harder to earn a living like wanting to be an opera singer or wanting to be a screenwriter, they often ended up opting out because they felt like they didn't earn enough to justify continuing to work, as opposed to the women who very purposely chose careers that would support them. For instance, one woman who chose to become a dentist talked about how she wasn't passionate about being a dentist but it was a good job, it afforded her the lifestyle that she wanted, made her feel financially secure and kept her financially independent. So, the women who took those kinds of jobs stayed there.

Q: Why did you decide to become a BCL member? 

A: I have worked from home for, like, 15 years and when I took a job in DC, I found that I loved being in an office and the change of scenery. I don't like to come in and sit in one place for eight hours. I live a solid 25-minute walk from BCL, so I thought that it would be a good way to break up the day, to spend some of the day in my office and then some of the day at BCL. I have a part-time membership and I like having few days a week where I can just stop and take a nice long walk, do a few hours of work and then take another nice long walk to come home.

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