Home » Caroline Flanagan: Babyproof Your Career @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Caroline Flanagan: Babyproof Your Career @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of speaker, bestselling author and coach Caroline Flanagan’s presentation: Babyproof Your Career @ Talks at Google conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

CAROLINE FLANAGAN: I want to start by telling you what it’s like to be at boarding school and get a parcel in the post. Now this is not something that happened to me very often.

So when at the age of 15, a small package arrived with my name on it, it was literally the most exciting thing of the year. I remember it so clearly, the box, the brown box with my name on it. Half a dozen or so of my best friends, all really excited. We’re still in our pajamas because the post arrived after breakfast, everyone jumping on the bed, “Open it, open it!” because they were sure there’d be sweets, there’d be chocolates for everybody to share.

So there I was. I turned over the box ready to break the seal, but something stopped me. The writing on the back looked cold, unfamiliar I read it with despair. Her Majesty’s Prison Service, Holloway, London Anxiety choking me, I tentatively opened the box and a pile of letters cascaded to the floor, all with this same familiar handwriting on it, my handwriting, all addressed to one person—Mum.

Is there anything more devastating when the moment when something you’ve been trying to hide and hide from reveals itself for all to see? There was a letter inside. Dear Caroline, your mother is no longer in our custody, so we’re returning your letters to you. Yours sincerely. Devastating.

According to the children’s charity Barnardo, the UK charity, children of offending parents, parents who spent time in prison, are twice as likely to have mental and misconduct problems. They consistently underperform at school, and they’re three times as likely to end up being offenders themselves.

Growing up as a black kid, as a daughter to a mother who was barely there, to parents who never lived together, let alone were married. As the sister to siblings who themselves were constantly arrested, to a sister who had a teenage pregnancy, all her children taken into foster care. Being cousin and niece to relatives who valued teenage pregnancy and state dependency more than they valued achievements, education. Aspiring to succeed, to do well, to be secure, to be free in that environment was a battle of extraordinarily difficult odds.

My name is Caroline Flanagan. As you’ve heard, I’m a coach, I’m a speaker, and I’m an author. But I am extremely passionate about empowering people to fight and win battles they think they have no way of achieving.

That day I opened the box, I discovered a secret, the secret to toppling giants, to winning battles that you think you have no chance of winning. And it’s the single most important factor in my journey to date and every success I’ve achieved.

Getting used to scrolling down here because the clicker isn’t working. It’s also the single most important factor in helping me to succeed as a mother of four fantastic boys. This picture is amazing. Not just because it shows my lovely boys, but to have all four of them in the same picture, still for long enough to take the picture and actually looking at the camera and smiling, is nothing short of a miracle: Dylan, Noah, Luca, and Maxwell.

Today I want to share with you the secret to fighting difficult battles and winning. That secret is this: No matter how hard the challenge, how strong your opponent, or how daunting the circumstances, you can win that battle if you do one thing– if you focus only on what you can control. Focus your attention on what you can control. Balance is definitely a battle.

It’s hard. It’s so hard, in fact, we almost don’t even talk about it anymore. I find when I go in to meetings and I talk to my clients about balance– and particularly corporate clients, they say no, no. It’s work-life integration, working agility. No one’s talking about balance anymore.

I feel like, have we killed it off? Is it something that’s so hard to achieve you decided to just brush it under the carpet? Just for fun, I did a Google search on work-life balance is dead — 56 million results. I didn’t look at them all, but certainly the first page was all about the end of work-life balance. It’s a battle of extraordinary odds. Why is that? The way I see it, there are three reasons.

The first one is that work-life balance is quite difficult to define. Can anyone give me a quick definition of balance, work-life balance? You don’t have to prove me right. If you’ve got the perfect definition, then please come forth with it. Anyone? Anything come to mind immediately?

AUDIENCE: To find an equilibrium between two forces.

CAROLINE FLANAGAN: To find an equilibrium between two forces. Brilliant Balance, in other words. But what does that mean in real life?

AUDIENCE: To spend as much time on your personal life as going to work.

CAROLINE FLANAGAN: To spend as much time– for those of you who didn’t hear– on your personal life as you do on your work life. Thank you for that. What’s your name?


CAROLINE FLANAGAN: Al, thanks for that. That’s pretty good, pretty clear. Yes?

AUDIENCE: Meeting your work and your own goals.

CAROLINE FLANAGAN: Meeting your work and your own goals. Excellent, thank you. What’s your name?


CAROLINE FLANAGAN: Neru? Thank you, Neru. This is a snapshot of a conversation I had with a client early on this year. So you want better balance, better work-life balance. What does that mean to you? What does it look like? My client– well, I want my life to be balanced. So I’ll feel much more balanced Me– OK, so let’s dig a little bit deeper.

What does it actually look like? On a day-to-day basis, what are you doing? Client– well, at home, I’m doing all the stuff that makes me feel balanced. And work– yeah, work’s balanced. Yeah, I know I’ve got work-life balance because I’ll feel balanced. That conversation is surprisingly typical with my clients. It’s quite hard to define, and I think Al and Neru did a very good job of coming close.

Now this is a problem because as research shows– as you would have almost certainly have heard– if you want to achieve goals, it really helps if they’re smart goals. So they’re specific, they’re measurable. They are achievable, they’re realistic, they’re time bound. Research shows that that increases your chances of succeeding in achieving a goal. And it also shows that if you can write down what your goal is, you can articulate it, that increases your chances of succeeding even more. When was the last time you sat down, you wrote down your specific goals for having work-life balance? Lady in the pink who answered the question first ever? Anybody ever do that? It’s hard to define, and that makes it even harder to achieve. The myth of work-life balance.

The second reason why it’s so hard to achieve, no one size fits all. What works for me just might not work for you. You may prefer to work from home five days a week, but perhaps your preference is actually to be in the office those five days, get all the work done so that you’re much freer when you’re at home. And just to complicate things more, if you have children, what works for you when your children are really young won’t necessarily work when they’re older, when they’re teenagers.

So what does this mean? It means we have to create our own personal solution. We can gather together all the different components, the productivity apps and the time management strategies, and the well-being routines. But the important bit is how we bring all of these together. And there’s no universal blueprint for that. You have to find our own way.

So the third reason why balance is difficult, and arguably the biggest, it’s just the nature of the world we live in and the way we work today. All those wonderful technological advances that have brought so much freedom, connected us in ways we could never have dreamed of, even 50 years ago. They’ve all come at a price, haven’t they? We are always on, always connected, constantly working, constantly moving. And of course, the demands of our working environment, competitive, the importance of performing or proving your value, competing against our peers. And add to that what’s going on internally. This is the battle, the second battle. This is the two fronts, what’s going on on the outside with work environment, but also internally, our inability to restrict, control how much we use technology. We’ve become slaves to it.

And add to that, even our feelings of I’m an impostor, impostor syndrome, perhaps. Or just your innate need to achieve, to progress, your innate ambition. All of this conspires to make it very hard to walk out of the office, switch off completely, and enjoy the bits of your life that don’t involve work.

I want to tell you three stories that underline my message about how you can win this battle for balance, a battle which, as I’ve just explained, is a difficult one. It’s a battle against the odds. It’s the 28th of August, 1963 Martin Luther King, leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in America, he’s standing on the new Lincoln Memorial.

There are 250,000 civil rights supporters there in the crowds. And he delivers this iconic speech: I have a dream. For those of you who don’t know or recall what that dream was, it was a dream for equality. It was a dream for a day when the children of black slaves and the children of black slave owners would be able to go to school together, be treated equally. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging battle than the one they faced at that time.

This was the period of Jim Crow, of state-sponsored discrimination and aggression. It was the time of lynchings, of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the time when segregation in hospitals, on transport, in schools was completely normal. And yet, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. And although discrimination continues today, the battle for equality goes on, particularly in America.

There is no doubt that those two bits of legislation, which made it illegal for people to be treated differently because of the color of their skin, they were iconic victories, defining moments, and an incredibly important battle. How did they do it? How did they win? Four things stand out for me.

First of all, they had a vision. That’s what’s so powerful about this speech, the I Have a Dream speech. It was rousing, it was motivating. It didn’t focus on how difficult and impossible that vision was or that dream was. It focused on what that dream would look like. And I urge you to go back and watch the footage of that speech, and I challenge you not to be completely inspired by it. So the vision was there.

The second thing that stands out for me is they were prepared. So they had a strategy of how they would do this. And this involved non-violent protests in the form of marches, sit-ins on public transport. Non-violent protest was only ever going to be met with violence. And that’s the key to their strategy, was actually saying not just this is what we want, this is how we plan to get it, but anticipating what the challenges would be, what obstacles they would face. And those obstacles were really very real– violence, being thrown in jail.

Martin Luther King was arrested 29 times. They were ready for that. In fact, they actually trained in how to cope with violent aggression and how to stay peaceful. In other words, they were prepared and they practiced the skills that they would need to further their cause. And they kept on. Every time they were arrested and then released, they would continue their fight.

The second story I want to share with you is a story from childhood, the story of David and Goliath. Is everyone familiar with that story? Hands up if you’re not familiar with the story of David and Goliath. Great, so you all remember the story of David and Goliath. It’s from the Book of Samuel. And it’s the story about this fierce giant, Goliath, and how David, a small, innocent shepherd boy with a single slingshot was able to topple, to kill this terrifying warrior. And so win the battle for his people against the Philistines.

Now it’s hard to imagine a more intimidating foe or daunting prospect. How in the world did David do that? What was his secret? Was he just lucky, really? With one slingshot? This is the subject of a fantastic book called “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell. And in it, Gladwell seeks to challenge our perception of what makes us strong, what makes us weak. People and things we think would give an advantage, and those things that we think make us disadvantaged.

And what’s wonderful about the David and Goliath story, if you read behind the headlines, is David, that small, weak shepherd boy, he knew exactly what he was doing when he went to face Goliath. He knew that Goliath was this big warrior, that he would be decked out from head to toe in armor.

On the day in question, he carried a spear. Goliath carried a spear, he had a sword, he had a shield. He was there in all his glory. David knew this. He knew that Goliath would be slow because his armor was heavy. He also knew that Goliath was short sighted because Goliath had said, where are you? Where are you? Show yourself to me. Show yourself to me.

The other thing that David knew was that he was an excellent slingshot. He was very good at his skill. This is a skill he used everyday to protect his sheep against predators. He knew that that skill perfected was enough in one shot to topple the giant. That’s what happened.

The third and final story I want to share with you is the story of Victor Frankl. Victor Frankl is a Holocaust survivor. He died a few years ago. But he wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, and I highly recommend you read it. It tells the story of his experience in concentration camps and his fight for survival.

It’s hard to imagine circumstances that could weigh more heavily against you, the torment, the horror, the misery of being in a concentration camp. How did Victor Frankl and the very few that managed to survive when millions didn’t, how did he do that? What made the difference between those who kept fighting, fighting to stay alive, and those who didn’t make it? And this question, answering this question, is the subject of Frankl’s book. And he came up with one thing.

Despite everything that was taken away, everything physical, the emotional torment, there was one thing he discovered that could not be taken. And that was his attitude, his mindset. He realized the power of his thoughts, thoughts that he could control no matter what happened on the outside. He would always remain in control of those. And that is what he attributes to his and many of the others survival in those awful circumstances.

So those three stories have the following in common. They are all examples of people who faced extraordinary odds, people who wanted to fight the battle. They are stories of people who won against those odds because they focused not on the impossibility of the task, how powerful and overwhelming were the odds against them. They focused on what they could control. Focus your attention on what you can control.

I’ve already explained to you that that was an instrumental factor in my journey from then to now. There’s just one small problem, small blip in that journey. If only I’d remembered that lesson, that lesson that I learned all those years ago when I was a working parent. When I returned to Cleary Gottlieb, which is the law firm I was working in when my first son was born. Dylan was six months old.

And I returned full of enthusiasm, positive, determined to make a success of balancing my career and my new family. Wow, that was. The first year of being a working parent was the hardest year I’ve ever had. I struggled. The demanding hours, the competition, the air of competition, the culture of presenteeism.

That awful feeling is the only non-partner, non-male who was there, who had a child, who had to leave the office and run and be there for her child. That feeling when I got home, despite being exhausted, despite having to log on and keep going with my work and all the pressure I was under at work. The feeling at home and had to learn the ropes coming to grips with being a mother for the first time. And I was doing everything at home.

My husband– who I’m happy to say is much better trained now– at the time, his career, his life remained surprisingly unimpacted by the arrival of our new baby boy. It was the hardest year of my life. I fought very hard, but I struggled.

What was my strategy in those circumstances, in that really hard battle? I had no strategy. I was just too blind to be able to even spot the things I might be able to control, let alone focus my attention on those things.

I went from day to day, my head in a spin, putting out fires. That’s what I did. I had a year of just putting out fires, always exhausted, always stressed, always worried that I’d forgotten something, that I was underperforming in all these different areas.

Is it any wonder that that battle ended in failure? When my second son was born, I walked away from a career I had been leading up to, spent my whole life building, for all the reasons that I hinted at at the beginning of this. It took a lot for me to walk away.

I thought I was powerless. Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author and poet, and she said, “The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I know I felt completely powerless when I was trying to juggle my legal career and getting used to being a parent. But it turns out, I wasn’t powerless at all.

The book that many of you are holding in your hands, I wrote that because I wanted others to learn from my failure. My failure was to become your success. And the whole purpose was to show you that you are powerful, that if you focus your attention on the things you can control, you can succeed. I was at a lunch, a business awards lunch a few weeks ago. And I found myself sitting next to a partner.

She’s a partner at KPMG. And it turns out, she’s been playing rugby for the England rugby team for about 15 years now, but she’s recently retired. And we got onto this subject of where you focus your attention, how people succeed, what holds people back. And she said, yeah, of course. She goes, that’s absolutely right. Control the controllables. What? She said, control the controllables. That was our mantra the whole time I was in the England team. That’s what we did.

We knew we could do nothing about the size, the reputation of the opposition. We couldn’t do anything about the weather, about the pitch, even about the mood of the fans. So we put our head down. We focused on our training, our attitude, our mindset, our preparation. And that’s how we went into our matches. And that’s how we won.

Control the controllables. Don’t you just love that? I wish it hadn’t been the mantra of the English women’s rugby team because then I could’ve had it as mine. But it sums it up just beautifully. And that’s exactly what I’m doing now, what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. I am controlling the controllables in my life.

From the time I wake up in the morning and what I do when I wake up in the morning– to how I get to work, what I do on my way to work– to what I say yes to, what I say no to, who I say yes to, who I say no to. What I think about at the beginning of the day, what I think about at the end of the day. There are an infinite number of controllables in your life. And your only job is to control them. And that’s how I’m winning.

I’m not winning very well at scrolling down on my laptop, so bear with me. What does this mean for you? How is that useful? How can this be practical? I want to introduce you to The Babyproof Method. Just adds suspense. It’s disappeared and hopefully it will come back again. The Babyproof Method is quite simply a framework that I’ve created to help my clients do exactly that.

Know where to focus their attention, know what the controllables are, and what they can do, how they can control those in a way that helps them win the battle for balance.

There are four steps involved. Step number one is all about the picture. Remember I started talking about defining balance, knowing what that was? Have a really clear picture in your mind about what balance looks like. It’s not enough to call it balance. It’s not even enough to say it’s an equilibrium. It’s not even enough to say it’s the same amount of time at work or at home.

What is your ideal version of balance right now, for you? Until you are able to answer that question, the best tips in the world are not going help you get there. Remember Martin Luther King’s vision, his dream. You need to dream in a vision of that intensity if you have any chance of succeeding.

But it’s not just about the dream, it’s also about making that dream come alive. So if you’re living your ideal version of balance, you are there for three out of four of your child’s school activities. You are leaving work at five o’clock at least two days of the week. You down tools, turn your phones or technology off always at eight o’clock. Whatever your version of balance is right now, you also have to have, in your mind’s eye, what might get in the way of that.

What are the obstacles you might face? And crucially, how can you prepare for those? How can you prepare to meet them? Which is step number two in The Babyproof Method, is to prepare. Preparing is all about asking yourself, what can I do now, what can I build now that I will need when the time comes, that I will need later?

The best way of describing this is, I often use the metaphor of running a marathon. Nobody wakes up one day and says, I’m going to run a marathon today. What they do is they say, I’m going to run the London Marathon in April. And they probably say, wow, OK, I’m going to have to do a lot of stuff. That’s quite daunting. Oh, that’s quite a big task. But they know. And if they do the right training, they get the right support, and they practice, by the time that day comes, they’re going to be prepared not just to succeed, but actually to enjoy it if they’ve done the work. And this is what The Babyproof Method is all about.

Having that picture I talked about, seeing yourself running that race if you were running a marathon, running that race and enjoying it. The preparation is the bit, whose support are you going to need? And it’s the same with the battle for balance. Whose support do you need to get better balance? Is it your partner? Is it the support of your boss or your manager? Is it the support of your friends, of your mother-in-law? Whose support will you need, and how will you get it?

The third step in The Babyproof Method is to practice the skills. Think of David. He didn’t show up to face Goliath ready to throw a slingshot for the first time. It takes practice to become an expert. And the good thing is, if you do practice, you will become an expert. So the practice step is all about looking at, what skills am I going to need? Very simple. I’m going to need to be extremely organized. I’m going to need to be very good at knowing what to say yes to and what to say no to.

I’m going to need to be very good at looking after myself. What’s my strategy for keeping myself healthy– mentally, physically? All really specific, very tangible skills, things that you can be doing that make all the difference in the battle for balance that require practice. They require you to get good at them.

And in the fourth and final step in The Babyproof Method is perseverance. How do you persevere? How will you keep going? When, not if, when you reach a point that you want to give up, when things seem like they’re too hard, that inevitable moment– Martin Luther King, the 29th time he’s arrested, how does he convince himself to keep going, to keep trying? Victor Frankl, how does he, despite everyday all the evidence to the contrary, convince himself that it’s worth fighting for, to keep going? Picture, practice, prepare.

Picture, prepare, practice, persevere. This is something I do with my clients. And I’ve created an online course to take that all over the world, so people can access this process that is so empowering in a way that fits in with their lifestyle and really easy. And I’m really excited that Google is going to be piloting this course sometime in the new year. And I think Kristi’s going to talk a little bit about that at the end. She’s disappeared, but she’ll be back to do that.

But back to the present. What can I give you? What can I leave you with that you can start doing right from the moment you leave this office? So I’ve got one suggestion for you. It’s just one controllable that I want you to experiment with. Getting up early. What time do you all get up? What time do you get up? What time do you get up? You’re all having a nice chuckle. What time do you get up?


CAROLINE FLANAGAN: 7:15. What time do you get up?


CAROLINE FLANAGAN: Six o’clock. What time do you get up?


AUDIENCE: When my daughter gets up, which could be five or four o’clock.

CAROLINE FLANAGAN: Five o’clock. Five o’clock, four o’clock Anyone else?


CAROLINE FLANAGAN: 5:30. It’s a competition now. 5:30, 5:00, 4:30.

AUDIENCE: Eight o’clock.

CAROLINE FLANAGAN: Eight o’clock. Whatever time that you ordinarily start your day, I want you to get up one hour earlier. This is the goal. We’re going to start with a smaller challenge. We’ll start with a smaller challenge and explain that in a moment. Getting up early, I love it because everybody gets up.

We all make a decision about what time we set our alarm for. We all make a decision about how many times we press snooze. How many snoozers? Raise your hand if you’re a snoozer. Are you sure? Are you being honest? Hands up if you’re a snoozer. Yeah. At least 50%.

I wrote a blog about getting up early. It has been undoubtedly the most successful blog I’ve ever written. It has so many downloads, it’s unbelievable, which shows me it’s touching a nerve. And I called the blog when I first posted it, “Never Press Snooze, Ever.” And it had such a brilliant, and in some cases, quite strident reaction to it. But it got people thinking because right from the moment you start the day, it gives you that sense of making a decision, making a decision about what time you get up.

Getting up early is a controllable for everybody. Let me tell you just three of the many reasons why for me, it’s one of the most important controllables in my life. The first one is it gives me time. That essential time at a time in the day– in fact, the only time in the day over which I could have control. It means even if that me time is 10 minutes, 15 minutes, I have time to think about myself in a way that prepares and allows me to be available for everybody else for the rest of the day. It is a me time that is so sacred, that on the odd occasion where I think, oh, I’ll lie in tomorrow, that voice in my head says, how could you do that to me? How could you take away the most important bit of my day?

You can ask my husband, it drives him mad. I have got to the point where it’s so beneficial to me, I’m almost incapable of lying in. It is so powerful and important to me.

The second reason is it’s a moment in the day, everyday, where I can have perspective on that day, on my week. I can look with some distance and say, what’s working? What am I doing today? What have I been doing in the last few weeks that’s working well for me, that’s making me feel good like I’m in control? And what’s not working? What is it that I need to change? And it gives me that moment of reflection to come up with solutions, to come up with different things to try. And trust me, you create the space for solutions and ideas. Hey, that’s what you guys do here, we create space for ideas for innovation. You will come up with solutions, different things to try.

And the third and final reason, it helps to keep me connected with the big picture. So hard to remember the big picture when you’re busy all the time, completely working hard, overwhelmed, being stretched from one task to the next.

The big picture is just the why. Why are you doing this? Why do you have a family? Why do you care? Why are you still working when you know that you would also like to be with your family? What does work give you? And connecting with that on a regular basis makes all the difference when I turn around to my six-year-old and I say, I can’t come to this event today because mommy’s got to go and do this piece of work. But don’t worry, when I see you at the weekend, we’ll do X, Y, and Z.

And I do not feel guilty about the number of things that I say no to, because in my head always is a compass, is the big picture, is the life I want for my children, for my family, and for myself. There are just three of many reasons why getting up early is such a powerful controllable feeling. And I want you to experiment with it yourself. So I want to set you a challenge I’ve called it The 30:30 Challenge. Super easy.

Whatever time you get up, even if it is four o’clock, set your alarm to get up 30 minutes earlier. But there are rules– no work. This is not a license to extend your working day. That is worse than lying in bed until the last minute and pressing snooze. No one, no devices, no news. Sounds so simple, very hard to do. But it’s a skill. Practice 30 minutes earlier for 30 days, the next 30 days.

This is my challenge to you. What will you do with that time? Look at the big picture. Think about the week you’ve got coming up. What’s working, what isn’t working? What could you change? What could you do differently? Controllables every step of the way. Good luck and let me know how it goes.