August 8, 2011

Continuing to ponder the work-life balance

Last week, I wrote one of my most honest posts to date, on how I’m feeling about the relationships in my life. I was surprised to find a lot of empathy from others – I guess this is something that is pretty common after all! Since no one ran me out of the blogosphere with nastiness for my last post, I’m going to try to stop censoring and start writing what’s really on my mind.

When I wrote that last post about relationships, an anonymous commenter wrote an eye-opening reply suggesting that perhaps this isn’t the job for me. Shortly after receiving that comment, I read Sarah Pekkanen’s fabulous novel, The Opposite of Me, about a woman in her late twenties who goes from a high-powered career to a more modest job that she loves. It’s a tough call that we have to make at this age. No matter how hard I try, I can’t do everything, and it comes down to prioritization and what I want more.

This weekend, I was in my hometown of Albany, NY, for the wedding of one of my college friends. On the way back to New York, I shared a ride with two other college friends who have similarly demanding careers, and they expressed a lot of the same concerns I have. They don’t want to stay in New York City for the long term, but they’re concerned about their job prospects when they eventually get married and move to the suburbs. All of us agree that we don’t want to raise our kids in the suburbs of New York (i.e., New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, or Westchester), but if you decide to move elsewhere, there just aren’t the same job opportunities that there are here – at least without changing fields. Would I make that sacrifice if I had a husband and kids? Absolutely. But will I make it if that doesn’t happen? I’m not so sure what happens then.

I have long said that my goal in life is not to be a C-suite executive, but to have wonderful and close meaningful relationships. One of those, of course, is finding my dream guy to marry and be my best friend and live happily ever after with. That’s what I really want, but I’m also logical/realistic enough to know that you can’t force that; some people are lucky enough to find it, but some people don’t. So I set the “career woman” goal as my secondary consolation prize if I don’t end up meeting the right guy. I can still get fulfillment from my relationships with other people, but I wouldn’t be putting all my eggs in one basket by assuming that I’ll find my other half at a specific point in my life. In the meantime, I could focus on what I can control: my career.

I used to think that it’s only the relationship with a significant other/children that would be impacted by my work. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that my relationships across the board are suffering, and that maybe going for the proverbial corner office is going to really hurt my chances at happiness. Already it’s a daily struggle to keep my health up while working long hours and wining and dining my clients. I don’t want to have to fight weight gain and other unhealthy symptoms for the rest of my life – it’s exhausting just thinking about it.

I’ve also realized that New York is a pretty insular community in that we all work long hours (a 50 hour week is a light week for me) and get so caught up in our jobs that we don’t even realize that maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to do that. In the past, when friends and family who aren’t in finance/consulting/etc made incredulous comments about me checking my work email on a weekend or bringing my work laptop to do a few things on vacation, I dismissed them as people who just “didn’t get it.” But maybe it’s me who doesn’t get it. Maybe there’s another way to achieve success without spinning around and around on the hamster wheel of stress, just trying to keep up with my equally hardworking coworkers on the hamster wheels next to me.

Still no answers to any of this, but it seems like we make a lot of progress the more we open up and discuss what we’re doing instead of tiptoeing around the subject like we’re the only ones with issues. Let’s keep the discussion going!


15 thoughts on “Continuing to ponder the work-life balance”

  1. I 100% can relate. I always used to think my friends in other cities didn’t ‘get’ it. Ultimately though I’ve decided (mainly now since I do have the love of my life) that I want this so I can work my not so little tail off and eventually retire a lot earlier with a nicer hunk of change than some of my other friends. That’s the conscious choice I’ve made.

    BUT that being said. It’s hard. 50 hrs a week is a light week for me too. It’s exhausting and I miss out on a lot of ‘life’ and ‘resting’. Happens, right?

  2. Great post Laura. My boss said something to me once that has stuck with me for the last year. She said we should find fulfillment in our work but ALL our fulfillment shouldn’t come from our work. Whenever work is bringing me down I think about that. I find my fulfillment from running, blogging, cooking, baking, having fun with friends etc. It’s OK for work to get in the way of that SOMETIMES but I can’t let it happen all the time. Luckily I work at a really great office where work/life balance is HUGELY promoted and important so I’ve never had too many issues!

    All that being said, it can be hard to find that balance and also be highly compensated. I don’t make as much money as some of my friends who have much more intense schedules than me but that’s OK because I like my job and having more money but less time doesn’t equal happiness for me!

    Again, great thought-provoking post!! Have you considered doing a bit of job searching to see what you come up with?

  3. I think it’s always hard to think about practical solutions to a work-life balance problem, but especially now with the economy being so uncertain. Right after I started my current job (where I struggle with some balance issues similar to yours), my father was laid off and I had to face the possibility that he could be out of work for a long time. I was still in the “proving” period at work and the thought of being out of work at a time my family needed me was very scary. It definitely makes it harder to think about the bigger picture!

  4. I think this is definitely something that all of us are wondering at this phase in life. Here in the south, very few people have the kind of demanding jobs that I think that NYers consider as the norm. I’m pretty adamant about only working 40 hours a week, and that’s at a non-profit where I know deep down they’d love for me to do more.

    Even with my personal commitment to only work 40 hours a week, I still find that I struggle sometimes to balance all of the relationships that matter to me. Sometimes my friends and I have ample time outside of work, but we all have so many important relationships as well as extracurricular interests that it can be hard to coordinate schedules.

    At the end of the day, I think that it’s important to determine what YOU need. For me, that means I’m not reading work email unless I’m AT work. And it’s also finding time to see the people that matter to me, and if I’m dating someone I prioritize that relationship because I do want to figure out if it’s “the one” or not, and that takes time.

  5. I just wrote you a novel and lost it!

    Anyways, I couldn’t do what you do. When I was at my old firm (your current firm) my 3-5 weeks of travel per year was enough. Still, my normal hours were crazy and I never felt like I had enough “me” time. Leaving was the best decision I ever made. I have a job I love, that challenges me (same field, other side, now I’m the client!) and I get paid more to work less. Sure there are some 9-10PM nights but it’s 2-3 times per quarter not every week!

    PS if you are around this weekend I am going to do Summer Streets on Saturday morning! I need to do 7-8 miles and will prob be at a 12-13 min pace!

  6. Oh, I totally get what you mean! I don’t live/work in NY, but near Seattle. I have a desk job where I am on the fast track to management – and I am not entirely sure that is what I want. Last year I also took on a part time business just as my own personal challenge. That part time job is starting to become more and more of a priority as it is starting to replace my current salary from my desk job. I started with no expectations and now it is turning into my answer for everything – to work or not work when I have kids? I can work part time from home and still earn what I am making sitting at a desk 40 hours a week. What if I want to move? I can do this job from anywhere in the world – I just need a phone and internet. Saving for retirement? Done, residual income is awesome! and the best part is that it is FUN…I literally get paid to have a social life and talk to people. Don’t give up…there are jobs out there that allow for a great work/life balance!

  7. Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about you from reading your blog:

    (1) You tend to push yourself. You have this habit of setting outrageous goals and are pretty tenacious about achieving them.

    (2) You’re systematic and organized. You develop long term plans to achieve your goals and also revisit them for tweaks.

    (3) You carry out your plans. Lots of people are good at making the plans, but they stall when it comes to actually carrying them out. You pick up the phone and make the necessary phone call. You have the meeting. You read the document. You follow up.

    (4) You’re young. What are you? 25? 26? You’ve got tons of potential. You haven’t even begun to hit your stride yet.

    (5) You have a family that loves you very much.

    (6) According to this post, you aspire to leave the corporate world and focus on being an excellent wife and mother.

    So, you’ve demonstrated great strength of character in many ways and will only become a stronger person in the coming years. Obviously your company recognizes that and so they’re giving you increasing amounts of responsiblity. You make them lots of money.

    I would hate to see you live your life pushing yourself and sacrificing your happiness time and again to complete difficult, stressful work projects…all so that your company can have more money. What a waste of a unique young woman.

    With your talent, potential, and family support, this seems to me to be an excellent time for a change in careers. Or better, to find a position doing something that makes you happy and fulfilled and also has the additional benefit of a paycheck and insurance.

    You’ve done a lot in envisioning the life you would like to live. Now it’s time to (again) make a plan to make that ideal a reality…kind of your specialty.

    I understand that you’re wired to hate “giving up” on things–like a career. But you’re not so much saying no a job as you are saying “yes” to your own personal happiness.

    Is it frightening to think of it? Yes, but with points 1-6 above, how can you fail?


  8. I’m there with you. I used to live in NYC and had a finance job. I now live in a smaller city, doing a job I hate (that I’m overqualified for, because I can’t find something even close to what i used to do), making less money but in a city that costs much less overall, and I’m very close geographically to my family. I am still not sure if this is the best decision for me, but I have realized that I put too much emphasis and validation on my job. (Having a job I hate really doesn’t help.) I miss a lot of things about my old NYC lifestyle but like you, I didn’t see myself there long-term and I didn’t have the best relationships there. I don’t have the answers either…just chiming in to say I relate and I sympathize.

  9. When I was in my 20s, my career was on a fast track. I was getting raises and promotions regularly. In my early 30s, I reached a point where I had to between engineering and management as a future career track. I chose to remain in engineering. I knew I could make more money in management, but I would work longer hours and have more stress. I found engineering more interesting and fulfulling, so I chose to turn down management opportunities.

    When I was in my late 30s, I started pursuing outside interests that required a large time committment. I knew I couldn’t continue working full-time with a long commute and also achieve my other goals, so I cut back to working part-time. Now I work a 30 hour week, and make 75% of what my salary would be if I was full time.

    It’s a tough choice to give up income for free time, but I’ve never had any regrets. I’ve come to realize that I value my free time more than I value maximizing my income.

    I’m not suggesting that you should do the same. Only you can decide what your priorities should be. I just wanted to point out that everything in life is a trade-off. Ultimately, you have to decide what will make you happiest.

  10. I was watching the Oprah show a number of years ago and the following question was posed: what will you be thinking about when you are on your death bed? Everyone agreed that no one will be thinking about work or wishing that they had spent more time at the office. I really found that question eye opening, because when you pose that question to yourself, the answers really put things into perspective. As you get older, your priorities change. The prestigious NYC job becomes less important, and surrounding yourself with friends and family becomes more important, because no one is keeping score except you.

    As for NYC being insular, it really doesn’t have to be. There are so many vibrant communities in NYC where people truly care about each other. However, people in Manhattan tend to have more money, and the more money people have, the more isolated they become, because they take taxis, rather than public transportation, live in fancy doorman buildings or big houses with fences, rather walk-ups or smaller houses, buy takeout, rather than cooking dinner and eating with friends and family.

    I have managed to find a community of caring people in NYC – people who invite me into their homes for seder dinner (I am not Jewish), share food they cooked, call me when I am sick and see if I need anything, etc. Often I feel like I live in a small town, rather than a big city.

    You can find the same thing too in NYC. But as the saying goes: you have to give to get.

  11. As someone who’s fortunate enough to have known you for two decades, I think these sorts of thought processes were always inevitable for you. I’ve seen you go through this so many times over the years, in one incarnation or another, and it always leads to something amazing.

    I’m not sure if you know this, but I focused a lot of my graduate study on the concept of work/life balance, and the funny thing we’re learning is that there’s really no such thing. Work and life are not two separate entities that exist independently of one another and can thus be balanced on some sort of cosmic scale. Nothing exists in a vacuum; the choices we make in work affect the flexibility we have in life, and vice versa.

    Career blogger Penelope Trunk has always referred to work and life as an “intersection,” and I think this is a more accurate analogy. “Work” and “Life” cross paths all the time, in monumental ways (like having to choose between a taxing career and growing a family) and also on the micro level (such as the choice to work late versus hitting the gym). As you grow and change, your priorities will naturally shift, and the intersection of work and life should adjust on its own.

    I highly recommend you check out Penelope Trunk’s blog. She’s sort of a nut and she’s not always right, but she asks interesting questions and she’s not afraid to eschew the party line. And keep doing what you’re doing, because I think you’re doing it right.

  12. I left my job in consulting (HR/Labor relations) to teach at a university. The pay was considerably less, but a university environment afforded me lots of free activities. I found that my work/life balance improved substantially and became much, much happier. I hope that you find your kind of “happy”!

  13. I feel like I have conversations like this with my friends pretty frequently. It’s tough to not get wrapped up in the rat race! Your job sounds absolutely hectic, and definitely not one that I could personally do. So hats off to you! My best friend was a paralegal at a huge law firm for 2 years, and would routinely work 70-80 hour work weeks…and she was absolutely miserable. She just put in her 2 weeks notice and is looking to move to Europe and go to culinary school. That’s a little extreme, but I really admire her for doing that!

    And you have a really good view on life/love. It really will happen when you least expect it, and I did the same exact thing. I was really focused on work, and then along came someone almost immediately after I stopped actively looking.

    Sidenote, we should try to hang out sometime with some other NYC bloggers! You seem awesome 🙂

  14. One of my friends recently “retired” at 40 from a very high level position in the pharmaceutical field (after her company was bought out and the workload which was quite cumbersome became unbearable).

    She said it was the best decision ever. She now consults a bit, enjoys life with her children and leads a simpler life.

    It does take a lot of introspection and courage to do this. But I think there are many options out there. Life is what you make of it and as another commenter has suggested people are unlikely to remember you for your work/business contributions.

    Good luck!

  15. I can totally relate to what you are saying. Please keep us ( your readers) updated on this topic. After just finishing my MBA n now going through another certification for work I too have set my sights for career woman as plan b of compared to plan a of marrying and making compromises. I also wonder if men have this same dilehma going on in their minds or if its just a girl thing?

    However it’s tough to think that i will put myself through so much school, work, etc… Just to have to compromise myself later and settle for a lower job. Except the sacrifices may be worth it, I just haven’t gotten there in my life yet.

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