There is Only 100 Percent – Lessons From Being Serena

career advice, serena williams, black motherhood, tough decisions, only 100 percent

This post is brought to you by a year’s worth of procrastination and the finale of Being Serena on HBO. You see, last spring I attended an event at Duke University where Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Valerie Ashby, gave a talk on overcoming Impostor Syndrome. You pour your self-worth into your work. You feel as if you shouldn’t be occupying the space you’re in. Much of what she said resonated with me and many of the emotions I’ve felt during searching for jobs, researching potential graduate schools, pursuing tech post-grad, and seeking freelance work. The one thing that has stayed with me is the notion of “there is only 100 percent to give.” While I was watching Serena Williams struggle with returning to the court and balancing family and motherhood, I was instantly reminded of that quote.

Being a woman in America is tough. Being black in America is also tough. Add the two and you find yourself navigating interesting spaces and facing unique experiences that only other black women can relate to. Although I will never be the greatest athlete of all time or a tennis pro, the unique experience of black womanhood in America pulled me in as I watched Being Serena. To watch her attempt to be all, do all, and have all and not wrap it in a pretty bow of girl power was refreshing. The visibility of struggle was good because it was relatable. You see her fighting to give 100 percent, which wasn’t enough and the realization of if you want to give it more, you have to let something else go.

Where Does the Extra Come From?

I’ve found too often we are told to give 110 percent or 150 percent or whatever random number we feel is going above and beyond our norm or for someone like Serena and many black American women, it is the norm. Sure you’re giving your new job 125 percent, but where exactly is the extra 25 percent coming from? It does not magically appear out of thin air. Go back to elementary school and remember in order to get a number larger than 100, you have to borrow. So ask yourself, where is the added boost in your life coming from?

For Serena Williams, the extra she was putting into motherhood and married life was coming from tennis. Staying stateside instead of going overseas to her coach’s academy, so her husband could be closer to their baby meant she wasn’t training at the level she should have been. Making the choice to breastfeed longer, meant she was at a heavier weight and had loose joints, thus making her slower on the court. That extra taken from tennis had consequences. She wasn’t winning slams; she wasn’t at her pre-pregnancy weight, and she wasn’t beating opponents she could easily before. She wasn’t 100 percent.

Go back to elementary school and remember in order to get a number larger than 100, you have to borrow. So ask yourself, where is the added boost in your life coming from? Click To Tweet

There is nothing wrong with choosing to put family and motherhood first, especially if you’re a black woman. It is something that has been robbed from us historically. It is something that is still threatened due to systematic racism and implicit bias. Those with the privilege to take long maternity leaves and spend their time nurturing their little ones should do just that. It warmed my heart seeing Serena stay home – another luxury black women haven’t been afforded historically due to financial reasons – and offer such love and care to her baby girl. Seeing a motherhood narrative that is normally relegated to white women in pop culture was captivating.

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As a good friend of my mine said, “birth and postpartum can fuck you up” and we do not see how black women deal with those challenges in such an intimate way. Being Serena gave us the internal pulls to that exist to spend more time with her baby, but also the urge to be #1 and not #453 on the court again. We saw Serena try to find the extra as she transitioned out of that honeymoon phase ,because tennis wasn’t her whole world as it been before when she had taken leave for medical reasons and come back in beast mode.

When you’ve worked so hard to get to a certain point in your career, you want to take time to enjoy new milestone in your life such as motherhood and marriage. At the same time, you don’t want your career to regress. You don’t want to be gone too long and see others surpass you or put yourself in a situation where you cannot go back to what you once had. That is the struggle we saw in Being Serena. But knowing she had the options and the agency to even consider alternatives was powerful because there is strength and beauty in asserting your agency , and I think that is something we can all relate to as women.

You’re killing it at your new job, but is your social life suffering? Maybe you’re being the greatest significant other in the world, but have you begun to neglect your side hustle?  When you find the source you’re taking this extra time, extra energy and/or extra resources from you must ask yourself: is it worth it? Are you willing to live with the outcomes of this? Missing the birthday of a beloved grandparent. Foregoing a girls trip to celebrate a friend’s divorce. Not starting your business you’ve been planning since college.  Can you wait?

You Have to Accept Hard Truths

One of the things that created a lot of buzz on Twitter was the brutal honesty delivered by Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, about the changes she would have to make in order to get back to her pre-pregnancy greatness and win slams 24 and 25. He told her the family would have to adapt to tennis and not the other way around. He told her the breastfeeding would have to stop. While some declared no man who isn’t your doctor, should police your body and Mouratoglou was wrong for his words, context matters here.

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When we want to achieve certain milestones, it is easy to get lost in the clouds in regards to how much we can do or how much of ourselves we can give. You might need someone to give it to you straight no chaser. someone who is not going to encourage your fairytales and fantasies, but break it down to you no matter how blunt or rude or hard the truth is. For Serena, that person is her coach. That is why she hired him. She admitted in her docu-series, she knew the breastfeeding had to stop because it was holding her back, but she craved that connection with her baby. That craving caused her to push logic aside until she had to hear it from someone else.

We all need at least one person  in our lives to encourage us along the way but to remind us sacrifices will be made to accomplish our goals Click To Tweet

We all need at least one person like that in our lives. The one who is going to encourage us along the way and to remind us sacrifices will be made. Someone to remind us that our expectations need to change to get the desired end result. For Serena, it meant less time with her husband and giving up breastfeeding, and the emotional connection which comes with the act, to get back to where she needed to be mentally and physically. For you, it may be giving up your monthly book club because that time needs to go into a big project at work so you can get a raise, even though the time with your peers brings you joy.  It could be moving across the country for a great graduate program, leaving your significant other and family behind. May it is delaying having kids until you have a flexible job with enough money saved to do so comfortably.

For Serena, balancing motherhood and tennis wasn’t the same as balancing a fashion line and tennis, which she had done effortlessly in the past. Being #1 tennis player meant giving up aspects that made her #1 mom and wife by her standards. That was a tough pill to swallow,but that was a choice she made because she had privilege and agency to do so. Having to sit yourself and maybe your spouse down to weigh the options is not easy. Having to hear, if you want this one thing in life, you have to leave a person behind can bring forth emotional turmoil.  Is it just these choices have to be made? No. Is it fair men typically don’t have to jump through as many hoops at women? No. Is it right white/ white adjacent people have to put forth less effort for the same recognition? No. But until we fix these things, we take our realities and the ugliness that comes with it and do all we can to ensure we get what we want. That includes the plain and honest truths that come along with it if you want to have it all.

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You Can Have it All, but Not All at Once

And know, you can have it all, but not at all once. You can have the corner office and the six-figure job, but you might have to wait on the kids. You’ll be able to travel all of Europe and Asia, but you might have to wait until you finish earning your graduate degree. You can pay for your entire family to go on vacation, but that may have to come after you’ve missed several birthdays, graduations, and funerals to start wealth building. You can have a seven-figure net worth, but you’ll have to pass on fancy car and house in a super zip code for a bit. Even with all the privileges, you could ever hope to have in order to live your version of comfortable and accomplished, there will always be a trade-off. Something will suffer at some point.

When you shift your mindset to include delayed gratification in obtaining all that you want, you can plan accordingly. This may mean restructuring your schedule to include weekly video chats with a loved one. Mentally preparing yourself to stay in a crappy housing situation so you can afford your dream home. Looking for ways to build meaningful relationships with godchildren or nieces and nephews until you can have your own.

This shifted mindset includes having honest conversations with the people in your life. You’re an adult so open your mouth and use your words. Let them know how much you care about them, even if you can’t be there physically. Explain to them why you’re making the choices you are, what they can do to help if they are so inclined. Don’t ghost them and leave them in the dark. When you are forced to make those tough decision and give something up, you need your support system the most to make it to the other end.

serena williams and husband, royal wedding, meghan markle, prince harry

Once you have given yourself the permission to borrow from other aspects of your life and place your energy into one or two other areas, you can truly nourish them and hone those skills. Once you’ve reached and surpassed whatever bar of success you’ve placed for that section of your life, move that excess time to the next thing or return it to its home. Allow yourself to enjoy your downtime and the privileges that come with your accomplishments: take those vacations, buy those luxury items, have those babies, host those weekly meals. You and your 100 percent earned it.

Have you found yourself struggling to have it all? How did you manage to accomplish your goals? Are you still trying to figure it all out? Did you watch Being Serena on HBO? Drop me a link or tweet me and let me know your thoughts. 


Aitza B