Future imperfect

Gen-Xers and Millennials unite! As journalist Barbara Kelley ’70 shows in the book she co-authored with her daughter, you have nothing to lose but your angst over not having it all.

In the emails she regularly receives from her former students giving her updates on where life has taken them lately, SCU Journalism Professor Barbara Kelley ’70 noticed a particular trend a few years back: Many of the women who wrote her were saying the same thing—that while they might have an interesting job and they might be living in a cool city, they were still unhappy.

It wasn’t just her students, either. She heard it about her friends’ kids and from her daughter’s friends. Women in their 20s and 30s had the ability to choose from an endless number of careers—and they were unhappy because of it.

Barbara first wrote about the topic for a 2008 article in the Christian Science Monitor that also appeared as an AfterWords essay in Santa Clara Magazine. With some prodding from her daughter Shannon Kelley—a journalist in Santa Barbara—the pair teamed up to expand on that 800-word article with extensive research, interviews with dozens of women, and a blog to help capture their thoughts and find new sources. That has yielded the book Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Right Career—and Life—That’s Right for You, published in 2011 by Seal Press.


Undecided makes the case that women in the post-feminist generation have been told they can be and do anything they want, but that has led to an “analysis paralysis” whereby women are often overwhelmed by the limitless options and become miserable as a result. “Adults in their 20s and early 30s were raised by parents to be superstars—parents making decisions every step of the way,” Barbara Kelley says. “Especially with women, who tend to be hard-wired to please, they get into a position where they can’t make their own decisions and are completely flummoxed. Failure becomes even more terrifying.”

One of the primary arguments the Kelleys make in the book (and in defending it) is that this is largely a women’s issue, though their writing has something to offer men as well. Men in young adulthood—this author included—can feel the same anxiety and unease about decisions made, doors closed, and roads not taken. So what’s different for women and men here? The Kelleys say it’s generational.

“Men have been raised for generations to go, seek, and conquer,” they write in Undecided. “For the first time, we women have the world at our fingertips but no one’s gone before us to blaze this particular trail.”

Undecided book cover


Barbara never intended to write a book like Undecided. That all changed after a hike with her daughter. They were at the tail end of a family vacation at Stinson Beach and, as they walked the woods along California’s rugged coast, they started discussing Barbara’s Christian Science Monitorarticle. “This is so juicy and on so many levels—I think it’s a book,” Shannon told her mother.

That night, the conversation continued over wine. A night of brilliant brainstorming led to ideas that still held up in the light of morning. “The next day she was into it,” Shannon says.

Before adding “mother-daughter writing team” to their résumés, the Kelley family was already somewhat unique in their career choices. Barbara is a journalist and director of the journalism emphasis in the Department of Communication at Santa Clara. Her husband, Tom, is an attorney. Their daughter Shannon is the writer; daughter Colleen is the attorney.

Barbara insists this was not by design. She said her husband would “never in a million years” push anyone toward law, and she didn’t do likewise with her daughter-turned-reporter, either. Shannon even shunned journalism as a career choice while in college, not wanting to follow her mother. But after a couple of years’ work in public relations, she changed her mind. Now she writes for the Santa Barbara Independent.

“Adults in their 20s and early 30s were raised by parents to be superstars—parents making decisions every step of the way.” —Barbara Kelley

Barbara and Shannon hadn’t written together before they started the book, but both said fights were kept to a minimum. They divided up writing the chapters, emailing drafts back and forth for editing. “Writing a book is pretty intense,” Shannon says. “But I think if you’re going to write a book with anybody, maybe it’s a good idea that they will still have to love you at the end of it.”

Barbara, who has taught at Santa Clara since 1997, says she wouldn’t have been as interested in the project had Shannon not jumped on board. “The fact that she said, ‘Let’s do it together’—I thought, That’ll be fun, and it’ll be great to do something with my daughter.”

Since Undecided was published last April, the pair has done numerous interviews for print and broadcast, with book readings up and down the West Coast (including a signing at SCU’s Grand Reunion in October). They continue to blog and have their work published by the Huffington Post and Slate.


Undecided weaves anecdotes from numerous characters into a well-researched account about what the authors call a “grass is greener” syndrome. Some of the younger characters, who often jump from career to career, are former Santa Clara students of Barbara’s. “Molly” is a recent SCU grad, a near 4.0 student, who landed a job in New York with a big magazine. It wasn’t right for her. After struggling with the decision, she quit and went back to grad school at New York University.

Portraits show women going through numerous trials and tribulations before finding the right path—or maybe not. “Lori” has had numerous careers: a poet with an MFA, a grantwriter, a reporter, a teacher. The Kelleys talk to her as she’s pregnant with her first child, and she’s worried that her career will suffer for it.

With a message sure to bring an Amen! from many couples, the Kelleys write that corporate structures have not caught up to the idea of two working parents. It’s no secret that child-care responsibilities still often fall to the mother first. But then, pursuing a career might mean giving up dreams of a perfect pound cake—as well as much loftier aspirations.

Two themes are interwoven throughout the book: that it’s simply not possible to “have it all,” and that taking risks and failing is okay. Both tend to go against what Gen-Xers and the Millennials have been taught from an early age.

“The best thing is to accept the reality that everything won’t be perfect,” Shannon says. “You can’t have it all, and that is not a statement of resignation. It’s the truth, and if you can look at it that way, and take it for what it is, then it’s actually kind of a helpful sentiment.”

It’s part of the winnowing process that might lead to understanding—and pursuing—what matters most.

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