Juliet's School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities

Juliet's School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities

by Laura Vanderkam


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A charming, life-changing fable that will help you rethink your whole approach to time, priorities, and possibilities.

Riley Jenkins is in trouble. An ambitious, hardworking consultant in her late twenties, she's used to a lifetime of nearly perfect evaluations - until she gets a terrible performance review from her boss. How is that possible when Riley does everything her clients want - including answering emails 24/7 - faster than they expect it?

That's precisely the problem: she's spread too thin. Despite her insane hours and attention to detail, Riley can't produce the thoughtful work her clients expect. Now she's been given thirty days to close a major deal, or she's out. Meanwhile, her personal life is also on the edge of disaster, with her boyfriend and close friends losing patience with her chronic unavailability.

The last thing Riley wants, at a stressful time like this, is to attend a women's leadership retreat with some of her colleagues. But she can't get out of her commitment: a weekend in New Jersey at some silly-sounding place called Juliet's School of Possibilities.

Yet before long, Riley is surprised to find herself intrigued by Juliet, the lifestyle maven who hosts the conference. How does a single mother of two run a successful business while acting as if she has all the time in the world? The answer may lie in one of Juliet's Zen-like comments: "Expectations are infinite. Time is finite. You are always choosing. Choose well."

By the end of this story, you'll join Riley in rethinking the balance between your present and your future, between the things you have to do and the things you want to do. Like Riley, you can free yourself from feeling overwhelmed and pursue your highest possibilities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525538943
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Laura Vanderkam is the bestselling author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and Off The Clock, among others. Her 2016 TED talk, "How to Gain Control of Your Free Time," has been viewed more than 5 million times. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, and other publications. She is the host of the “Before Breakfast” podcast, which has over 1 million downloads. She lives with her husband and their four children outside Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2

  Her phone rang before she managed to cut back into the right lane. Neil. As the call log popped up—it seemed he’d tried her several times in the last twenty-four hours—she remembered: They had in fact made plans for that night. She recalled a flurry of emails on Tuesday, or possibly Thursday. Her mind ransacked the mess of her calendar. Dinner? A movie? In the rush of concocting that doomed proposal for Elsa, she realized, she hadn’t  told him that she was going to the retreat instead of staying in the city to work.
She supposed she needed to tell him now. “Hey, Neil,” she said. “I’m really glad to hear your voice.” It was true. He was a calm presence amid the MB frenzy—the only person she’d dared confide in, albeit by text message, about her dismal performance review. “I saw you called and I meant to call you earlier but . . .”

“I’m glad to hear your voice because it means you actually picked up the phone.” He spoke carefully—like Jean in that conference room, as she thought about it—but his voice had an edge. It wasn’t a tone Riley had heard from him before. She felt her stomach clench with an unease about where this conversation was headed. She tried to compose herself. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been so busy. My horrible evaluation has got me . . .”

“You know I’m busy too. Everyone’s busy, Riley.”

“Neil . . .” Something was definitely wrong. What had she done? She recalled from one of his messages that he’d just closed a second round of funding for his health data app, a thought that suddenly pained Riley; he had wanted to get together that night to toast the accomplishment, but she’d said she didn’t have time. Was that it? She thought back to another toast—the April night they’d met. He had struck up a conversation with her at a bar where she was celebrating with her MB colleagues after winning a project with a major retail chain. The client had contracted for months of work. She was giddy with the promise of it—even more when this handsome and cerebral man had introduced himself. Rather than getting her number and texting to ask her out, he’d simply asked her to dinner the next night. In person. Did people even do that anymore?
Then her mind whirled to all that had failed in implemen- tation. Of the retail work and with her attempts to spend time with Neil too. Challenges.

“Yet oddly, I manage to pick up when you call. And I show up when we have plans.”

“I’m so sorry.” How many times could she say that? “I meant to tell you . . . I really want to see you, but I’m actually on the way to Maris on the Jersey Shore for that retreat I told you about. I was crashing on a proposal and I just forgot I hadn’t told you . . .”

“Oh, you’re canceling our plans tonight too? I was talking about last night.”

“Last night? What are you talking about?” He must have emailed her; she must have lost the note amid everything else. “We were supposed to go out last night?”

“Remember, I got tickets for that Chekhov play. You said you wanted to go. So, since I respect your time and care about you, I wrapped up my work in time to meet you there. I tried calling you several times, but I figured out by intermission that you weren’t coming. At least I got to see the second half.”

And as he was sitting outside the theater by himself, Riley thought, she had been juggling two conference calls that achieved nothing and frantically finishing a proposal Elsa wanted nothing to do with. “Neil, I’m—I just had to work and . . .”

“You don’t have to do anything, Riley. You don’t have to leap at whatever is blinking in front of you. You don’t have to rip up everything for whatever seems urgent.” He coughed. Then, methodically, the blow: “Waiting for you last night gave me some time to think. I realized that while you are an abso- lutely amazing woman, I am not interested in being treated like this. A satisfying relationship requires a certain  quantity  of time and respect for the other person. Neither of which seems  to be a priority for you at the moment.”

Riley caught her breath. “Are you . . . breaking up with me?” “I guess that’s what it is. I wish we could have this conversation in person, but you keep canceling our plans. Or not showing up. Of course, if I was able to talk with you in person, we wouldn’t be having this conversation . . .”
“Neil . . .”

“Trust me, I’m not happy about it. But we’re not twenty years old. It’s not fair to you or me to string this along if it’s not going anywhere.”

“I didn’t think it wasn’t going anywhere.” In a moment, the various semi-plans Riley had daydreamed about dissipated. Future vacations. Idly looking at real estate listings together. This destruction of her envisioned future was so disorienting she felt more shocked than sad. “We’d talked about visiting your parents for Thanksgiving . . .”

“And you and I both know you’d get a request for a proposal from a European client that would be due on Friday, since they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and you’d cancel your plans to meet my family for that.” Riley didn’t answer. Was this a hypothetical? The truth is, she had done just that to her last boyfriend the Thanksgiving before. Did Neil know about that? Did Skip tell him? The idea that her best friend might be warning people about her history shot Riley down a rabbit hole of worry. Then, as with Elsa, she noticed Neil’s voice soft- ening. “Enjoy your retreat, OK? Try to relax. I think you could use it.”

And then he was gone too. Riley bit her lip. She clenched her fists and tried to keep calm as Neil’s curt words—and Elsa’s as well—whirled around in her mind. How was this possible? Was there anyone important in her life that she wasn’t disappointing?

As if on cue, her phone rang again. Skip. Riley’s voice shook as she told her phone to answer. Since they’d met as freshmen at IU—a strange late-night encounter after  Riley used the dorm fire extinguisher to douse a blaze caused by some idiot putting a cigarette in the recycling bin—they’d been close. Skip had always been the idealistic one. After a few miser- able years in corporate communications, she had started a nonprofit serving middle school girls in a not-yet-gentrified corner of Brooklyn. Almost overnight, she was reawakened to life, even if the work itself was keep-you-up-all-night stressful. Riley wanted to be a good friend to Skip. She wanted to listen when Skip called in tears because one of her girls did some stupid teenage thing, and because the world gave these girls few breaks, a promising life would now be marked. But there was always something else to do. She would be on the phone making en- couraging noises to Skip, and she’d be deleting emails as they came in.

As Riley heard Skip’s voice, she realized that yes, there was one more person to disappoint. “Hi, Skip, I . . .”

“Listen, Riley, we’ve got to talk. I was trying you all yesterday.”

“I know, I know . . . I’m sorry I didn’t return your call. My team was working all day to get this proposal in and . . .”

“Riley, I’ve been trying to get you all week. I told you I have a meeting with this potential funder early next week. I can’t say who, but it would be a huge corporate connection.”

“That’s great, Skip . . .”

“Yeah—I met her at that party a few months ago. That NYC parks benefit I convinced my old boss to give us tickets for? You left early to fly to Frankfurt—remember? That was that meeting you found out was canceled while you were taxiing on the runway . . .”

“Yes, Skip, I remember.” Even worse: It had been an internal meeting. That part of the MB lifestyle seldom made it into the recruiting pitches.

“She said she only wants to fund something innovative. I thought you were going to talk through ideas with me.”

“Yes, I planned to and . . .”

“And your assistant—not you, your assistant—called me to cancel lunch on Friday.” Her voice was even angrier than Elsa’s.
“Skip . . .” Now Riley could feel the tears she had managed not to start shedding with Neil. “I so wanted to meet you—Oh, Skip, you have great ideas anyway. You don’t need me . . .”

“Well, I have ideas, but I need help making the numbers look like someone with an MBA has thought through them.”

“Skip, I’m sorry, I can’t do anything right. Neil just called.”

“Oh . . .” Riley was slightly ashamed of this transparent attempt to shift the conversation. Skip couldn’t stay furious if Riley was miserable, could she? She glanced in the rearview mirror at her red eyes and smearing makeup. “He broke up with me.”

“He did? By phone?”

“Because I forgot I had plans with him last night. Can you believe that?”
Silence. Riley imagined that Skip could hear her anguish, and wanted to console her about being dumped. But on the other hand, her own anger simmered, and was about to bubble over.

“Well . . . I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but yes, I can believe that.”


“He’s a great guy. I know I’m your friend but . . . nobody has infinite patience.”

“Skip.” That hurt. “Well, to seal my fate, I hadn’t mentioned I was gone today with that retreat I told you about. You know, Juliet’s School of Possibilities? On the Jersey Shore?”

“Your retreat . . . So you’re not coming over to help me think about ideas now, are you?”

“I have the next fifteen minutes by phone. Wait, did I miss my turn?”

“Forget it, Riley. You’re busy.” Skip coughed.

“I’ll figure something out. I’m just . . .” She paused.

“I value our friendship. I’m also upset that I seem to be so low on the priority list for you.”

“You’re not low on the list, it’s just . . .”

But there was no other way to explain it, and now nothing she could do except watch her GPS recalculate a route through the back roads toward the beach. She drove through swampland, cedars, and over a stone bridge next to a historic courthouse ringed by a fence covered in crimson vines. The leaves blazed even brighter here off the highway. In the distance, a white lighthouse shone against a small grove of poplars. This fall glory commanded Riley’s attention. She pulled over, grabbed her phone, and snapped a few photos of the lighthouse and the trees. For a moment she forgot everything weighing on her.  

But only for a moment. She looked at her inbox—356 unread messages. The familiar knot in her stomach  tightened. And then this thought: How could she be so in demand from people she didn’t care about when the people she actually liked had given up on her?

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