Lucy Kellaway: Encouraging unreachable goals is downright irresponsible

Inspiring? More like the mother lode of tripe in Angela Ahrendts’s ‘letter’ to her daughters

Angela Ahrendts last week sat down to write an open letter to her daughters, Sommer and Angelina, and posted the result on LinkedIn for all to see. Most people liked it a lot. Inspiring! Beautiful! Fabulous! Empowering! They were the verdicts on Twitter.

On reading it I was also filled with wonder, but mainly at how another professional, white woman, born less than a year after me, could view motherhood quite so differently.

The Apple executive and ex-Burberry boss begins: “I’ve always tried to lead by example when we are together, so I will do the same in this letter by reminding you of a few thoughts that will help you navigate your incredible life journey ahead.”

Before she has even got going, she and I have parted company. As my children are grown up, I do not see myself as leading them at all. Neither do I believe that a few thoughts from me will help them much on their incredible life journey. Indeed, I refuse to see their lives as a journey, incredible or otherwise. I reserve that word for something that involves going from A to B, preferably with a ticket.


Ahrendts’s first tip is to be present: “I’ve always tried to be present for you,” she writes. This mindfulness jargon strikes me as a cop-out when used by working parents. It has been scientifically proven that you cannot be in two places at once, and so if you are present at work, you are not present at home. To tell oneself otherwise assuages the guilt a bit, but does not change the reality.

Serious disagreement

“I wanted you to know that I am always there for you spiritually, emotionally and digitally,” she goes on. Digitally? What does that mean? That you can be present when you are absent?

“You know I am on 24/7 for advice, love, or just to share a funny filtered photo, bitmoji or laugh.”

By contrast, I have always made it clear to my children that I am on 16/7 max; they can wake me only at night for emergencies and never for a laugh or a bitmoji. I am not sure what the latter is, but now that I think about it, I doubt if I am on for that during the day either.

I think of my own mother who was not there for me digitally, but did teach me how to knit and how to write, both of which have proved jolly useful.

So far, our disagreement may be merely that Ahrendts is American and I am British, and to her it makes sense to write about how much she loves her children on LinkedIn. To me, less so. Yet reading on, a more serious disagreement emerges. “Don’t let anyone persuade you to do anything that doesn’t feel natural or isn’t aligned with your values or God-given gifts,” she urges her daughters.

Not only do I disagree with this, I totally disapprove. This sort of advice is the reason that millennials are so disparaged. If they have been told by their mothers never to do anything that does not feel natural or aligned with their God-given gifts, how can they be anything other than insufferable brats when they join the workforce?

Unreachable goals

Instead, I warn my daughters (and sons) that almost all work feels unnatural at first and is often a bit boring, but if you stick at it, it gets better, and with luck can be rather interesting.

Ahrendts's letter is better than a similar one written to his daughter by Eric Sprunk, chief operating officer of Nike, as part of the same Leaders and Daughters campaign organised by recruitment firm Egon Zehnder. "I want you to know you can be an incredible business leader, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, godparent, friend and wife all at the same time," he writes.

This is downright irresponsible. I doubt if there is a single woman alive who has done all that, and by setting unreachable goals he is setting poor Sprunk up for certain failure.

From my British point of view, what I want for my sons and daughters alike is for them to be decent human beings, economically independent and happy-ish. I think of my own mother who was not there for me digitally, but did teach me how to knit and how to write, both of which have proved jolly useful.

As for what I have taught mine, 10 days ago I sat on a stage in London with one of my daughters at an event, also organised by Egon Zehnder.

She pointed out that having a loud-mouthed columnist for a mother was a mixed blessing. However, she went on to say one thing that made me very happy indeed: that I have taught her how to spot bullshit at 50 paces.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017