Many years ago, I knew a woman who was a total rockstar at the office and on track for a major promotion -- her second in just four years with this particular company. She had been on maternity leave earlier that year, but knew that wouldn't be a consideration. After all, the company encouraged and valued women -- the CEO was a female with her own family, and this woman's direct boss was a working mother who herself had been promoted to partner while on maternity leave.
The woman I'm speaking of had returned to the office from maternity leave many months prior to the promotion window, and had been working her tail off since. Plus, while the other working moms only spent three days in the office (including her boss who had made partner while on maternity leave), this woman purposefully chose to work four days in the office and one day "off" (if you're a working mother, insert hysterical laughing here), knowing that this would help secure her promotion. She felt certain that her rockstar performance, continued dedication, extra day in the office, and just plain hard work were sufficient to demonstrate that the promotion would be hers. Plus, everyone really "liked" her.
As the promotion and review period came, she sat down with her bosses (yes, including the part-time working mother partner too) to hear the good news. When it was not delivered and, worse than that, she realized a man in the office had been promoted instead, devastation set in. Like too many other instances leading up to that point in her academic and professional life, she had been one-upped by a man.
That woman was me.
It has been years since I revisited the dreaded promotion incident. But, recently, I was lucky enough to stumble upon Mika Brzezinski's Know Your Value movement and selected by her to compete for a Grow Your Value bonus. Once selected, I immediately ran out to get her book (I had never read it before -- our secret) and the promotion incident popped right back into my mind more than a decade later.
Here's what I discovered.
I made a big mistake with regard to the promotion incident. I failed to communicate to anyone that I thought I should be promoted. I sat at my desk (working my ass off -- late nights, early mornings, all nighters in some cases -- with a teeny tiny baby at home), knowing that, by simple demonstration of my sheer brilliance and hard work, the promotion would be MINE. What did the guy who got promoted do? He went around to all the decision makers in the office and made it very clear why he thought he should be promoted. And, I think he made it home for dinner most nights while doing so. Right there, my mistake.
In hindsight, over my past 39 years, what I've truly discovered is that it took a breast cancer diagnosis for me to actually realize my own value and my own worth. Here's the most important lesson I've learned so far:
Knowing your value means knowing what you value most. It's really about where you place your own worth -- not where others think you should place it -- and standing up for that, owning it -- and knowing its marketplace value, too.
Upon hearing those dreadful words -- you've got cancer, for the first time in my life, I truly advocated for myself. I raised my hand. I spoke up at the table. Granted, it was a doctor's examining table, but there I was with a crap ton of questions, demands and my own research. Because the thing I valued most -- simply to be alive long enough to grow old with the man who supports me unconditionally, to walk my kids to their first days of kindergarten, to celebrate their graduations and weddings, and to rock my grandchildren to sleep -- all of those things that were stolen from my own mother because of this same disease, were suddenly in their hands. But, I realized, they were in my hands too.
I grew up during a time when one fundamental premise was instilled in us as girls -- YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL! But, the truth was, having it all was killing me -- quite literally. My body could not handle the constant stress and exhaustion of balancing a fast-paced career and a growing family, now with two little guys and one big one at home.
HAVING IT ALL sucked. Instead, I needed to HAVE MY ALL. Where I define what is important to me and from where I draw my personal worth, all the while knowing full well how the market defines that worth and acknowledging that they may differ.
And, most days, that's what I have. MY ALL. It's not always roses and sunshine. Sometimes, I fail. Often, I struggle. Sometimes, I'm unhappy. Sometimes, I'm grumpy. But, I know from where I derive my own self worth and the value placed on it. I know those things that are most important to me. I have a voice and I use it.
So, why am I telling you this? NEWSFLASH: Don't wait until your mortality is staring you in the face to discover what it is most important to you and makes you whole. Think hard about what having your all means to you. Then, go get it with intention. Once you do, your own value -- as a friend, a wife, a mother, a sister, a professional -- will be obvious and you will live it every single day.
P.S. Yes, I did get that promotion. The very next promotion period after the "incident," when it was glaringly obvious to EVERYONE that I wanted it. I've also walked both my little boys to their first days of kindergarten. Check. Check.
This column originally appeared on the Huffington Post.