Slowing Down

People who want to succeed put themselves at the beck and call of their employers and are rewarded for doing so, muddying the waters as to when to take a step back and still maintain a successful career.
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A few weeks ago, I was berating one of my favorite people, Adi, for allowing work to monopolize his life. He is brilliant, so working ever so slightly less will not ruin his career, and I firmly believe that if you ignore the social realm too long, it may not be around when you are ready to build a life for yourself. Adi brought up a fair defense: People in glass houses should not throw stones. We lived in Boston at the same time for almost two years, and we barely saw each other, in good part because I was usually at the office or with work-related people.

The problem is that we, along with a good percentage of doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and other Type-A professionals, were brought up to throw ourselves into our educations and careers. This is not an inherently bad approach. Doing well in school opens doors and working hard during graduate school and the early years of a career can have a dramatic influence on one's long-term career trajectory. The ambiguous desire to be "successful" drives us to prioritize career over most things until one day we find ourselves pondering when, precisely, our careers are secure enough to allow for life to sneak back in.

At some point, having a world outside of the office is not leaving chips on the table, merely allocating them to other worthwhile life goals. Unfortunately, this is not looked upon fondly by firms or investments banks. One is expected to be available when the work needs to be done, which is the client's or market's schedule. People who want to succeed put themselves at the beck and call of their employers and are rewarded for doing so. These promotions and bonuses exacerbate the need to be the best, muddying the waters as to when it is possible to take a step back and still maintain a successful career.

In addition, career can become a crutch. Leaving aside, for the moment, complicated issues such as whether it is socially accepted for women to choose career over family, it is difficult for parents, friends, or colleagues to criticize us for wanting to do well at our jobs. As a result, if we are not ready to buy a house, get married, have children, or even pick a single city to live in for the next several years, there is a built-in excuse. For some, that excuse becomes permanent.

Then, one day, when we are telling ourselves that we will get around to our personal lives after this deal closes, or once we have made partner, or when the economy is more stable, the decision is made for us. We get laid-off.

For many of us, the day we lose our jobs is the first day that we slow down -- ever. I cannot adequately express how terrifying that is. Imagine that you are in your 26th floor office and the rug, floor, building, and city are pulled out from beneath you. I certainly was not prepared to stop, so I filled the gap as long as I could by searching for a job at a frenetic pace, but that is not sustainable. Eventually, life stalls.

It feels like time has stopped and you are not entirely sure how to start it again.

Yet, it does start again. The forced reevaluation process tends to result in the sudden establishment of a robust life outside of designated career-related activities. All of those friends who have fallen to the wayside? Time to schedule a visit. Canceling dates at the last minute? Thing of the past. Forgot to call Mom for the last two years? Pick up the phone, she misses you.

The interesting question is whether this newfound respect for activities outside of the work sphere will remain once we are able to return to an office. It is possible that the fear of returning to an unemployed state will result in some of us throwing ourselves even more obsessively into our work. However, I suspect that, for most of us, a somewhat healthier balance will persist. This is in part because the jobs currently available tend to be in government agencies and companies, instead of firms, which have always boasted friendlier hours (and smaller paychecks). More than that, though, is that once you establish an adult life, it is extremely difficult to walk away from it. I am genuinely unsure whether it is necessary to forsake all others to succeed in a firm or investment bank, but I think that this generation of young attorneys and bankers, so many of whom have been laid-off, are going to find out.