A while back, I did a post titled Work:Life Balance – It’s a Perspective Thing in which I talked about my belief that everyone needs to find their own version of balance and that biasing that balance to the work end of the spectrum is not a bad thing. That post turned out to be one of the most widely read posts that I have ever written (thanks to both my readers for reading it) and I got a load of email asking more questions. I’m afraid I’m just now getting back to it.
I suppose that this topic is more personal than most, so people are less comfortable spilling their guts in the comment section of someone else’s blog. Understandable, of course. Since it’s my blog, though, let’s see if I can address the questions I received by sharing some aspects of my own situation. Keep in mind that I’m certainly no expert at this. I can just call ’em as I see ’em and tell you what worked for me.
For most of my career, I was sure I hadn’t figured it out and I was screwing it up. I loved my work and I sacrificed most other aspects of my life to excel at it (or, at least, to try to excel at it). Sure, there were times that I longed for a life outside of work and even dabbled at it once in a while. Although, infrequently and mostly when my wife made me. My relationship with my kids is what really hung over my head. My dad wasn’t around much when I was growing up and as my kids got older, I saw that they were getting the same experience (or lack thereof) that I had. That thought haunted me constantly.
I had a tape of Harry Chapin’s Cat’s In a Cradle running in my head for years:
“… when you coming home dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son, I know we’ll have a good time then.”
Fortunately, I’m married to a wonderful woman that I met after already finding my heavily biased balance. She knew what she was getting into and, for the most part, made her balance fit with mine – she, being the better person, made more concessions than me. She is a fabulous mom and did everything she could to fill in for my parental absence. My kids were born into a world with limited access to their dad so they thought dinner without him was the way all kids lived their lives. For sure, I still coached soccer and baseball teams once in a while, attended plays and recitals (frequently running into the auditorium late) and attempted to help with homework, but these activities were secondary. When you’re on the road 100+ nights a year for business and working until double-digit hours every night, there’s just not much time for anything other than sleep. None of that rationalization relieved the guilt or anxiety about not being around though.
OK, I think you get the idea. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar situation . . .
So, here’s how I now see things. Keep in mind that I’m a 47 year old guy who has been “retired” for more than four years now. My kids are thinking about college and my wife has gone back to school. Funny, it turns out that I’m the only one at home any more. Strange how things change.
As I see it, kids and marriages are both pretty resilient, to a point. There are no absolutes and there’s no rule book or even a guide book for relationships at any level. For the most part, though, people want to make things work. Even kids. I think there is some point with every relationship that is sorta like a point of no return. If you cross that line, or cross it frequently enough, you can’t recoup what you had before. At the very least, it’s fairly difficult. If you’re going to burn the candle at both ends (and maybe in the middle at the same time), you need to have a total understanding of where that point lies. You can push the accelerator until the needle almost hits it, but the cost of the ticket for exceeding it is more than you can afford.
That was my governor for balance. I thought I knew what was important to my wife in terms of showing up at home and I felt comfortable, as naive as it sounds, reading my kids emotions and body language about my choices. And then one day about five years ago it hit me. I had run out of runway. I had used up all the slack in my family relationships. It became time to make a major change before my kids moved out of the house without knowing me. As much as I had thought I had known about where everything stood, I really didn’t (isn’t that a shock) and I went into a sort of panic about it.
At the time, I was running a public company, Innoveda (Nasdaq: INOV), and jumping ship out of the blue almost never goes over well (unless you’re Ken Lay, I suppose). I worked to transfer a bunch of my responsibilities to others, but it didn’t really help. It’s just not in me to make a Fred Flintstone-like departure from work when the virtual whistle sounds at 5:00. Within the next year, and mostly unrelated to my desire to spend time with my family, we stoked the fires of some potential acquisitions and one ignited, resulting in the sale of the company. When I half-heartedly offered to stay through the transition, I was given my leave 6 days after the deal closed. I was really lucky – all around.
I knew I wanted to be with my family, but that didn’t mean I was comfortably in applying the brakes after traveling at full speed for so long. I was worried that I’d be lost and drift right back into something intensely entrepreneurial within a few months. Surprisingly, I discovered that I actually liked other stuff. It’s not that I could relax, which I can’t, but I like doing lots of other stuff – some geeky, some mentoring, some physical, but all pretty fun. Of course, I have to be the best at everything (yeah, I know, I should see someone about it). Most of all, I do a lot of math homework with my kids. I’m pretty sure that they don’t like it, but I’m lovin’ it.
I realize, of course, that not everyone has the opportunity to make such a black-and-white move like I did. Most people can make changes that accomplish much of the same goal, though. I don’t want to make it sound like anything I did was part of a plan or was thought through in any sense. I slammed into a brick wall and was fortunate enough to get out of the burning wreck before it exploded. For most healthy people (I’m not among them), life is more analog than digital. The 2-Speed moniker on this blog is indicative of the digital way I run my life and, therefore, is indicative of how unqualified I am to make any real determination between the right and wrong ways of doing things. There are actually shades of gray that can be modulated over time so that a desperate change doesn’t have to happen at mid-life.
When I was younger, I saw the 1938 movie, Holiday in which Cary Grant “retires” right after graduating from college with the goal of working only later in life. His philosophy was something like: why should I wait until I’m too old to have fun to retire? I’ll “retire” now and have a blast while I’m young and take a job later when I’m too old to really enjoy myself. That fantasy was attractive to me on and off through my career, but having done it my way, it isn’t so much any more. Sure, it’s an interesting idea and might work for some, but my way has been worked out for me . . . so far.
I told my wife I was writing this post and she suggested that it might be fair if I included a rebuttal from my kids. As she insinuates, I’m sure my kids look back on the ride and sometimes wonder if life wouldn’t have been better if dad stuck with the whole 24/7 work thing. My view is that they have more years than me to address their issues in therapy. In the mean time, I no longer have that 8-track tape of Harry Chapin running through my head and I’m way happier for it.
Disclaimer: I’m just ahead of Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson in the qualified-to-give-advice queue. You shouldn’t listen to me – it’s just one very lucky guy’s story. I only know what I know. Good luck with your adventure.