Making Work Personal and Bringing Personal Life to Work with Sarah K Peck
© Melanie Duerkopp 2015
Sarah Kathleen Peck is not a name you'll be forgetting. She is a writer, yoga teacher, startup advisor, and founder and executive director to Startup Pregnant, a media company supporting women's family and career. On top of the many roles she holds, "Mom" is one that's given her a new phase in life and career. On Sarah K Peck, she publishes essays and and hosts workshops for tech startups. Today, we chatted with Sarah about her experiences as all of these roles.
We’ve recently made a blog post on changing careers. You haven’t exactly changed your career, but you’ve definitely worked on multiple projects in different areas, such as exercise, entrepreneurship, and now, pregnancy and motherhood. Tell us, how were you able to make all these different career choices?
We live in a world where work is no longer linear and straightforward. Gone is the era of work that 'took care of you,' where you could have a career last 40 years, with pensions, retirements, and leadership paths paved in front of you. I think it’s a bit of a shock for a lot of people to realize that everything has changed so quickly, especially when this narrative is baked into our culture and our parent’s generation. In addition, to add a bit more complexity, we also have a lot longer to work as life expectancy increases, which means we can embrace a life that’s filled with constant learning and iteration. Instead, I like to look at work as a collection of projects, and a call to continue to learn, grow, and change alongside the world around you.
A better way to think of your career is as having chapters or phases. I like to view each decade as a new 10-year period of study, and I embrace these ideas in my pursuit of work: rather than one “place” or “career” story as my identity, I want to pursue what Pam Slim calls a “Body of Work.” I work on interesting projects and I work with incredible people and I feel lucky to be able to do so.
One of the things I’m most grateful for is that early on, my parents taught me how to work and how to save. I held my first job at age 14 (although I’d had several unofficial neighborhood businesses long before that), and opened up savings and retirement accounts in high school. By the time I left for college, I’d saved $2,000 in my retirement account and continued saving significantly throughout my twenties, even when I was just starting out and had piles of student loans.
I coupled this drive to save money and value work with the search for freedom: what would it mean to build a life where you didn’t have to work? What, exactly, was freedom? Why were so many people in jobs they didn’t love and why did so many people complain about work?
What is freedom?
Freedom, to me, is the ability to choose how to spend your time and energy. I realized in my mid-20s that buying things—the traditional consumer model of pursuong new things in an endless chase of consumption—kept me stuck inside the need to earn more money. Spending money was the thing that kept me in debt to work.
So throughout my twenties, I decided to reduce as much as I could, finding ways to move down into smaller apartments, working extra jobs in the evenings as a math tutor and a swimming instructor, teaching myself to do design work online as a freelancer, and slowly paying off $60,000 of student loan debt. Over the course of a long four years, I paid off my debt, spent a year without buying any new clothes, invested my time in learning to understand money, and saved a significant portion of emergency savings and retirement savings. Today, my husband and I choose to live moderately, and we rent instead of own; we try to reduce all unnecessary costs, and we buy things that last a long time rather than flash fashion. I love the perfect dress that fits a ton of occasions (like the ones that Mitera offers!) over trying to buy tons of stuff that doesn’t work.
To me, time freedom is more important than anything else. The richest thing we have is time, and the more we can keep to ourselves, through working less (on projects we don’t want to work on), spending less, or earning more, the more freedom we’ll have.
How was I able to do this? Great question. And a lot of this was possible because I was born with racial, economic, and social privileges in this country, so I was building on top of a great foundation. There’s too much inequality in our country that makes “The American Dream” an impossible scenario for people, and I don’t want to tell my story and assume that it’s possible for everyone. We have a lot of work to do in our country, and I start from a place of asking questions about what we really need, and how to live more simply and purposefully.
© Melanie Duerkopp 2015
What were some of the challenges you faced when taking on new projects?
In my previous life, I had a tremendous amount of energy for side projects. Being pregnant IS a side project, and then some. I found that I had to drop a ton of extracurriculars and focus mainly on my work and my body. Anything above and beyond that was too taxing.
It helped that I’d worked on projects before that required a lot of focus, so I knew that shuttering down and focusing in for a period of time (9 months of pregnancy, and about the first year of my baby’s life) wasn’t a forever way of being; it’s a short time when you think about it. Some people put everything on hold to write a book, or train for a triathlon or a marathon. It felt the same to me, except with making a baby and the early years of new parenting.
From your “About” page on your website, we were able to learn a lot about you and your endeavors. We also see the connections you have with your work. Why make work so personal?
We are only here for so long. Why wait to show who you are? I think the concept of a business self and a personal self to be very strange. It does mean that I show up a little “closer” than people might be comfortable with — I’m extremely comfortable talking about things that maybe other people haven’t thought about or don’t bring up in their [everyday] life.
One example? I sweat. I’m a human, I work hard, I exercise as often as I can, and you might see me on stage with some sweaty armpits or a few sweat drops on my brow. To me it means that I’m working hard and enjoying myself. Maybe I’m a throwback to the 1970s, but I can’t stand to think of all the time and energy we waste, especially as women, on things that just shouldn’t matter. I’d rather be wearing crappy jeans and worn-out tennis shoes and sweating and be in the ring, working hard, building something that matters—whether that’s clean water for the global water crisis, or technology access for millions of people to access the internet, or rethinking how we get more women on stage and in leadership positions—than worrying about what makeup I wear or whether or not I’m perfectly polished.
It also says on your website that you are a teacher, and that you’ve helped students achieve success with coding, yoga-“grams”, and “Grace & Gratitude”. Can you tell us about the process of making these happen? What were some of the inspirations, goals, and surprises?
I love teaching, and the inspiration for teaching comes to me when I realize I’ve learned something and I want to share it. I learn as much through teaching as I do through doing.
My practices of yoga, of gratitude journaling, and in learning how to build my own business online were transformational for me. Becoming a yoga teacher actually taught me more about what it means to be a yoga student, and now I can help other people learn to be comfortable and confident in their bodies.
Gratitude practices can actually shift your psychology. When we stop to pay attention to the things that are right in our worlds, we change our mindset.
And in building my own business, which I run at sarahkpeck.com, SKP media, I’ve learned how to write, teach, build, market, connect, craft, and so much more. It’s like an ongoing pursuit of learning, and having these projects keeps me questioning and yearning.
© Geneticboi 2015
You had already made so many accomplishments and a lot of projects by the time you became a mother. Why did you decide to incorporate motherhood into your work? What was the beginning of Startup Pregnant like? Can you tell us a little bit more about the book?
I feel called to teach and change things when I think that there’s information or stories missing. The experience of going through pregnancy and becoming a mother was a huge eye-opener about how little we are sharing about what actually happens.
Women’s bodies are so amazing, so powerful, and so incredible—yet I wasn’t prepared for how difficult the transformation would be, at times. I grappled with understanding the major shift that was happening in my identity: when my body slowed down, didn’t work the way it used to, how I needed to change my exercise habit, how I learned to heal and grow as a mother, the dialog we have around motherhood and how that needs to change, — I realized, I need to start sharing these stories. I must.
How was being a pregnant in a traditionally male-dominated tech startup culture? What unique perspectives did you gain?
I could write a book as an answer to this question! (And I am — the book is called Startup Pregnant, fittingly: www.startuppregnant.com). One of the toughest parts was how hard it was to go through such a profound identity transformation and feel so alone: there weren’t any other pregnant women that I could see, and there were only two other women in the entire company; both were younger than me. I felt like I was carving out a path that hadn’t been worn before, and there were definitely times I wished there was someone who could guide me and tell me what to do.
The biggest A-ha moment for me, however, came through understanding how pregnancy could actually shed a lens on how to do business better. At first I thought that my unique needs and circumstances — drinking lots of water, taking frequent breaks, napping in the afternoon, being more flexible on some days with my body — I thought that these were burdens on the business, or that I wasn’t doing enough by “always racing, always being on." Then I realized that this might actually be beneficial for everyone. Our CEO bought an Ostrich Pillow and we definitely established a culture where taking naps and meditating in the common rooms or the outdoor bench was normal. There are plenty of moments where I had to lie down to rest before returning to work. And—I have an even stronger opinion about this today, as a mother: if you’re working yourself so hard that you have no time to rest, you’re actually suffering from a lack of focus and priority. The person who ‘hustles’ at all times has a bad strategy. I firmly believe that.
How was your transition into motherhood? Did it change you in any way and if so how?
Motherhood is powerfully transformative. You’re an entirely new person. You weren’t a mother—and now you are. You were two people (or one, or many), and now you’ve added an additional human to the mix. Every single relationship changes. Just like the team changes in a startup with each new hire, the new family of, say, three (from two) now has a set of seven relationships to negotiate, from three.
If I break that down: you have your relationship with yourself and with your partner, in a partnership. That’s a total of three relationships (you, them, together). When you add a child, you have three (3) people’s individual self relationships, three (3) dyads, and then the one (1) composite of all three together — that’s a total of seven permutations of relationships to navigate.
It gets more complicated, for sure! And I think relationships are, in some respects, giant growth machines. They’re constantly asking you to examine yourself, your communication skills, your beliefs and wants and desires, and to articulate them to each other. When you add so many new relationships to the mix, everything changes.
© Luce Photography 2016
Do you have any other ideas you’d like to pursue in your career and/or life?
In my life, I want to learn to sing well, enough to record something or play down in the NYC subway; I want to become a phenomenal public speaker and learn to do improv and acting; I want to train to become a master yogi and meditator through thousands of hours of practice; I want to create safe spaces and projects that serve women and children, especially those caught in poverty; I want to teach everything I know — there’s so much I’m working on doing. And I’d like to publish a dozen or more books. It’s a long list, and every year I add another project or two to the mix.
How would you define modern motherhood?
Modern motherhood is a new challenge to explore and unpack. It’s not being done the way it’s been done in the past, and we need to carve out a new model of community and care that asks honest questions about what it means to have two working parents; what it means to be a single mother (a hugely growing population); what it means to want to be a mother and have a choice about becoming a parent; and how to create new communities of women and parents that help and support each other.
What does a brand like Mitera mean to you?
It means not losing your identity as a woman and person—we are complex and intricate and powerful, and being a mother is all-encompassing, yet, paradoxically, not all that we are or all that we do.
It’s not about some false narrative of “having it all,” but rather, about being wise and deciding what you stand for, what your greatest dreams are, and choosing what matters most to you. And knowing that every woman will decide for themselves, their own story, and that all of our stories, in all of their complexities, matter.
© Noa Griffel 2015
Just For Fun:
What is a typical day like in the life of Sarah Kathleen Peck?
We wake up around 5:30 in the morning. I’ve always been an early riser (from my college swimming days), but my kid is a super early riser so we’ve changed our schedule to match his. Wake up, change diapers, nurse, play in the living room (I lift weights for 10 minutes around my kid), feed the kid, pack for daycare, get mom dressed for work, make tea, drop the kid at daycare at 8am. I do all the morning drop-offs and my partner does all the evening pick-ups.
Then, my workday looks something like this: 8am-9am is “warmups” (email, quick errands, things I can fire off fast), by 9am I’ve got to start the “big work,” which gets three hours: 9am-12pm. I take a midday lunch or yoga break from 12pm-1pm, and then from 1pm-3pm it’s back to “big work” or “client work” depending on the day, 3pm meditation or walking break, 3pm-5pm I’m on calls, 4:45pm I start prepping dinner and picking up the house, 5:20pm my kid and husband walk in the door, 6pm we eat dinner together, 7pm is bedtime for the kid, 7:30-8:30pm my husband and I work a bit more or take care of household projects, 8:30pm we get in bed and spend an hour talking, journaling, and unwinding. Some nights we watch a show, like Master of None or Atlanta, and then try to get to sleep by 9:30pm most nights.
What would you do if you had an extra hour a day?
Get a massage, go on a date with my husband, sleep.
I would not leave home without _____________
Water or my Moleskine journal.
People think I am ____________ but I am really __________________
Poised and confident, but I’m really open to learning as I go and making mistakes in public.
If I were not writing a book, I would be doing ___________________
Writing my next book.
SARAH K PECK is an author, startup advisor, and yoga teacher based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Pregnant, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family. She and her partner in life and work are the instigators behind More Women’s Voices, a website that promotes women speakers and entrepreneurs. She’s a registered yoga teacher (RYT-200), a 20-time All-American swimmer, and enjoys the art of explaining things clearly to people. Her essay on The Art of Asking was a viral hit and has been used across tech companies and product teams to train teams in clear communications. She’s currently writing a memoir of working in the tech startup world while pregnant with her first kid.