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):
- Baseline providing– e.g., food, a decent house/apartment, safe neighborhood, schools, basic stuff, basic fun stuff, too
- Time with you
- Better stuff– e.g., fancier clothes, new toys, video games, new bike
- 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.