Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has suggested our careers may be more like a jungle gym than a ladder. Metaphorically, we also hear about work-life balance as if we’re supposed to magically be like Olympian Gabby Douglas. No, that metaphor doesn’t work for me as I’m clumsy and jungle gyms can be downright scary.
I used to say a see-saw described my work-life relationship in that my “work hard, play hard” style meant I could be maximizing one side of the see-saw at any one time. But, lately, the childhood metaphor that works for me is the sandbox, a place where experimentation and making often occurred. And, a place where there were boundaries. You knew when you were in the sandbox, you could get dirty, make mud pies, build sand castles, and frolic frenetically. But, when you left the sandbox, life on the other side was a little different.
Well, I’m about to see what life on the other side is like. Last Friday, we announced that I would be stepping away from a day-to-day operating role at Airbnb and shifting into a strategic advisor role to the founders. While this may have been a surprise externally, it wasn’t within the company. I was approaching my four-year anniversary of what was supposed to be 15 hours a week but turned into 15 hours a day. During the holiday season a year ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would make better boundaries in my life.
So, early in 2016, I learned everything I could about boundaries from experts like Brené Brown, Cheryl Richardson and TEDx presenter Sarri Gilman. I particularly appreciated this post by coach Lauren Laiten, which explains why boundaries make more sense than balance. I like something Brené said, that creating boundaries helps me to stay in my integrity, which allows me to be more generous in all my relationships. I realized I didn’t have a sandbox. I had a full beach of sand stretched in way too many directions. While I’d lived most of my life “out of the box,” it was time to start creating some new sandboxes so I could give full attention to something when I was in that particular box.
I knew that creating boundaries wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, I realized it was going to be short-term pain for long-term gain as, often, it meant I had to disappoint someone. I ended a consulting agreement with a development project I’d been helping for four years because I didn’t have time to properly assist. I put a boundary between myself and someone close to me, as the relationship had become toxic. As much as I love Fest300, it would have been easy to try and operate the business when my co-founder Art Gimble died unexpectedly in 2015, but I created a boundary for the start-up that allowed me to be supportive without getting too immersed. And I started the process of boundary-creation with Airbnb by going part-time in the late spring of last year, knowing I would move into this advisory role now.
While there’s been quite a lot written on boundaries, here are the rules I’ve learned in the past year, as I’m calling 2017 my “Year of Living Deliciously” after too many “Years of Living Dangerously”:
1. Get clear - personally first and then with others - about how you’re defining your sandbox. When you’re in the sandbox, be there. But know that, when you step out of the sandbox, you’ve created some freedom for yourself. If others aren’t willing to give you that freedom, because they want you in an expanded sandbox, look for a compromise solution or take your toys and play elsewhere.
2. Create a space or time where you love to be outside the sandbox. And protect this with your life. For some, it means they don’t do work on the sabbath or weekends. For others, it means having a weekend getaway spot or a place in the house that you can call your own. Baja became my boundary. It was the place I felt most naturally boundary-less and in a state of “joie de vivre” only hours by plane from San Francisco. And, because it was across the Mexican border and in a relatively rural place, people gave me space while I was there and were less likely to call or email me (or at least they weren’t expecting my normal quick response time). I now have a beach home in Baja that will be my expanded sandbox.
3. Assemble your own special agents who help protect your boundaries. My assistants have always done this for me as I tend to make myself hyper-accessible, which got more tiring when you have an Airbnb host and guest community as large as ours (and my email address is well-known in the community). I also chose to hire my sister Anne, who was nearly a quarter-century veteran Joie de Vivre employee, to come to work for me full-time as my business manager. Truly, you don’t just need special agents to protect your privacy and accessibility, you also need trusted and experienced managers to help take some of the load if you’re going to shrink your number of sandboxes.
It’s ironic that my last post was about the “Untethered Traveler” with no boundaries, and here I am talking about creating personal boundaries. They say “good fences create good neighbors.” Well, good boundaries create a good life. I’m already feeling it. Ironically, the announcement of my transition at Airbnb occurred on the day I arrived at the Ice Hotel in far north Sweden, a place on my Hotelier Bucket List. Creating my Airbnb boundaries gives me freedom in other parts of my life.
I’ve loved my fully-immersive role helping Airbnb democratize hospitality and look forward to this new, smaller sandbox where I will focus solely on advising the founders. The company continues to be a phenomenon and two new books will be coming out in the next month if you want to learn more about Airbnb: Leigh Gallagher’s, The Airbnb Story, and Brad Stone’s, The Upstarts. There’s an excerpt of Leigh’s book in the cover story issue of Fortune magazine that includes a generous part about my role in the company.
As a “modern elder,” I know that life is meant to get more curious and fascinating as we age. So, that’s part of the reason I’m taking up a whole variety of new skills as a beginner: Spanish, surfing, cooking, yoga (learning to love it as I’ve been doing it for awhile with clenched teeth), and parenting.
I’ll finish with this quote from William Maxwell’s book on Sylvia Townsend Warner, as it’s a great ode to seeking discomfort and authenticity in attempting the new after age 50:
“I think as one grows older, one is appallingly exposed to wearing life instead of living it. Habit, physical deterioration and a slower digestion of our experiences, all tend to make one look on one’s dear life as a garment, a dressing gown, a raincoat, a uniform, buttoned on with recurrent daily (tasks)….for myself I found one remedy, and that is to undertake something difficult, something new, to re-root myself in my own true faculties….for in such moments, life is not just a thing one wears, it is a thing ones does and is.”
Here’s to life in all of its sandboxes,