On Prioritizing Time and Money: “Ten years ago I turned my head for a moment and it became my life”

This article was republished at the Good Men Project online men’s magazine.  Follow this link to the article. It was also republished at the Dads Round Table.

Poet David Whyte wrote a great book, “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America” aimed at helping people find meaning and balance in their careers (and here I thought poets just lived in their mom’s basements while pulling a few shifts at a hipster coffee shop).  There is a one-line poem in his book that, 18 years ago, led me to reassess my professional goals:

“Ten years ago, I turned my head for a moment and it became my life.”

Today, this poem makes me think about our roles as fathers and providers, and the needs of those who depend on us.  Not what they want, but what they need.  Here’s my stab at a priority list (in order):

  1. Baseline providing– e.g., food, a decent house/apartment, safe neighborhood, schools, basic stuff, basic fun stuff, too
  2. Time with you
  3. Better stuff– e.g., fancier clothes, new toys, video games, new bike
  4. Extra stuff for you– e.g., new cars, a big house, fancy vacations

How much of #2 do we sacrifice for #3 and #4, without even realizing it?  I contend that, when we pursue priorities 3 and 4 above, we sometimes fail to think through the opportunity costs (the economic concept that basically means that the time, money or other resources you spend on one goal can no longer be used to pursue another goal).  If we thought about this more, many of us might reconsider how we spend our time.

Another great book, “Why Men Earn More” by Warren Farrell looks at factors that cause certain careers, industries and jobs pay more than others.  Farrell explains that, among other things, jobs that require or strongly encourage extensive travel, long commutes, long work weeks, bringing work and/or performance-related stress home, and being on call when away from the office earn significantly more than jobs that are more stable, have more regular and reasonable hours, and do not make such time-based or psychological demands.

In contrast, jobs with lower earning potential may not make us “richer” financially, but often have other non-financial benefits- more satisfying work, better work-life balance, less stress and more free time.  In short, jobs that give us lots of 2 usually represent a tradeoff on priorities 3 and 4, and jobs that provide us the means to pursue 3 and 4 usually represent a tradeoff on priority 2.

If you have a demanding career, it is extremely hard to scale back or downshift without jeopardizing all you’ve worked and sacrificed for.  Partner tracks and corporate ladders are not exactly forgiving if you try to revise the deal.  Big-time income also often means financial commitments to such expenditures as private schools or jumbo mortgages on houses requiring upkeep and landscaping. It is seductively easy to get stuck on auto-pilot and continue on a fast track, even if it is no longer what is best for us or our families.

There is nothing wrong with working hard and earning a lucrative paycheck.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t have nice things if we can afford to.  After all, providing our children with the financial resources to make their lives easier is part of our very important role as provider.

I’m just suggesting we first think through the tradeoffs involved, and then choose what’s best for us and for our families.  And if we do that, I think more of us may realize that priority 2 should come before priorities 3 and 4.  As much as our families appreciate having really nice things, they need YOU far more.

The top regret expressed on one’s deathbed is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”  I hope that none of my friends and readers to look back and say, “Ten years ago I turned my head for a moment and it became my life”.

How have you grappled with these issues?  Let’s discuss in the comments section.

29 thoughts on “On Prioritizing Time and Money: “Ten years ago I turned my head for a moment and it became my life”

  1. You are really speaking to me with this post, Scott. It’s been eight years since I gave up what I love in order to take advantage of lucrative opportunities. Two years, and I’ll make it to the ten you mention in this blog.

  2. I know of a CEO who would intentionally trap his managers by getting them to take mortgages that were too big, spend a lot of money on cars and clothes, put their children into private schools, and tie them into golf club memberships. He would convince them that they needed to have a new car, a huge house, have their kids in the right school, and belong to the right golf club so that they would be a more effective manager for the company by presenting themselves as successes and being in the right social networks to make deals for the company. Once the managers were firmly embedded in huge amounts of debt, he would demand that they engage in illegal activities. If the manager balked, the CEO would point out that they will lose everything they have, their spouses will leave them, their kids will be mad at them for pulling them out of their schools and away from their friends, and they will be ostracized by their colleagues within the industry.

    Whyte’s book is just fantastic. It was the course textbook for my PhD Pedagogy course. There is a section where he discusses the concept of ‘via negativa’ that holds a lot of meaning for me (page 135). ‘Via Negativa is the discipline of saying no when we are not clear about that to which we can say yes. In the unvarying utterance of no, there is the deep conviction that the yes will appear.’

    I walked away from corporate life back in 1995 to go into academia. I have yet to reach the annual income I had back then but I am far richer and better off in so many ways. When I was leaving my previous career, I had a lot of people tell me that they wished they had the courage to change their lives and not just accept the life as it is.

  3. “I’m just suggesting we first think through the tradeoffs involved…” We need to encourage this as an exercise. Once caught in the money trap and the fast pace of work demands, the quiet reflection time is lost, even though many would agree that time trumps money/income and they are *willing* to make the trade-offs. What would those trade-offs look like? How to implement them? How much impact would there be on career and finances? What are the work-arounds to blend time and income needs on the way there? Would it just be for a season for a life stage or long-term. Yes, there’s a lot to “think through.”

    • Thanks, Kate! You are absolutely right that taking my advice here is far easier said than done. It needs to be implemented, perhaps in steps, over a period of time, to develop the “work-arounds” that you mention. Do you have any more tangible advice?

      • A practical place to start is with the family budget. With a wise handle on finances, e.g., focus on getting or staying debt-free, there’s more liberty to choose among work-life options, such as shared care or working four days a week. Finding ways to cut expenses is an exercise in trade-offs and will make for lively family discussion! Here’s an example where finances foiled flexibility: http://www.workoptions.com/finances-foiling-flexibility Enjoy! Pat K.

  4. This post spoke to me as well. Eight years ago I left my job at a large pharmaceutical company for many reasons; an important one was simply to have a better quality of life (not measured by what I could afford to buy, but by how happy and satisfied I was with my life). Despite struggling to live off a modest stipend for five years in my PhD program, I have not regretted my decision for one moment. I really don’t care if I get to buy a fancy new car or live in a super deluxe house. What I do care about is having time to play with my kids, spending a relaxing evening with my wife, and enjoying a good book (right now it’s “Howards End”). Yet everything is a balancing act — would I be as content if I worked in a job that paid me half as much? Not likely. Finding that “sweet spot” is challenging and probably unique to each person. As you said, ultimately it’s a question of priorities.

    • Agreed. The “sweet spot” can be very hard to find, especially without a clear idea of what you want and how to get there. I would like to explore this theme more in future posts. Again, thanks for the great comments and for following the blog!

  5. Scott, Great post once again!

    I remember when I left the military academy and was a Lieutenant in the Army. My monthly take home was about $1600 and I thought I was rich when I received my first PayDay. I owned my own car, my rent was $200 a month and I had a nice apartment with a bunch of friends from school.
    I had all the money I needed in the world and was on cloud nine. I could even afford a cell phone (A cool Motorola STAR TAC)

    Your blog helps me reflect on the difference between military life and civilian life back in the day. In the corporate world, it is easy to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses and living for your Jumbo mortgage. In the Army, it wasn’t all about my home, since I was going to move soon enough. Sure, I was just 22 so my priorities were much different. However, my cost structure was so low, that I really didn’t realize that my salary put me well into the 99% (I don’t think Occupy Enterprise Alabama would have gotten me anywhere anyways).

    The American dream really needs to be re-assessed. Our huge mortgages and the fear of losing health care insurance place enormous stresses on the family structure in the U.S. The ability to pay for your housing and your health care, without living pay check to pay check or relying on your corporate job should be a barometer of the new American Dream.

    Unless we own our homes outright, we are probably sitting on at least a 3:1 levered position when buying a home in suburban America. Any blip in the housing market may wipe away our down payment and leave us on a pile of debt…This makes the corporate trap even the more frightening. The thought of not having a health care plan and the need to work every day of your life just to keep up with the housing costs is far from a dream. This is not wealth creation for our families.

    My discussion with a physician about the stresses in suburbia about 4 years ago helped shape my beliefs. This physician was a psychiatrist from Europe and claimed that life in America is significantly more stressful than life in Europe. In Europe, she claimed that most people do not own their homes and the housing payments do not represent as significant a portion of their costs as they do here in America. Also, since medicine is socialized, there is really no concern for losing one’s job and not being able to support the health care needs of your family in Europe. In the U.S., she claimed that losing one’s home and health care benefits are enormous sources of stress to both husbands and wives. The thought of a layoff or a bad performance review are frightening to most corporate employees. What will I do? Where will we go? Do we need to move? Do my kids need to change schools? and then the other questions, What will we tell our friends? How could this happen to us after all our work?, etc..Quality of life is fragile when egos are attached to careers.

    According to this doctor, the points above represent an underlying stress that has a hugely detrimental impact literally on the health of our society.

    The American Dream has changed. In my mind, the American Dream is your ability to realize your goals, give back, enjoy this great country we live in with our families, and prepare for the future of our families. One caveat — -You must achieve these by avoiding the stresses mentioned above.

    My comments may sound somewhat socialistic but I think that this underscores the powerful impact of health care and housing on societies as a whole.

    To those corporate chieftains out there, one may argue that the corporate world pigeon holes us into a communist state of life. Your performance review dictates your role in life, your role in life dictates your social standing, your social standing dictates a cost structure, your cost structure prevents social mobility. Ultimately, your corporate job results in a lack of freedom.

    When I was 29 the Dean of my business school heard a business idea I had and told me to quit my job and do it full-time. I thought he was so flippant, “just quit your job and go for it…No big deal”. I told him I had bills, I had a mortgage, I had school loans. He just laughed at me.
    Now I know why he was laughing. It just took me 11 years to figure it out.

    Thanks again to Scott and your friends (Annie, Martin, Pat, and Mark) for the powerful discussion on an important topic.

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