I used to be an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Babson and lecture on entrepreneurship. One of my most popular anecdotes was something I entitled with only minimal exaggeration “My Mother Isn’t So Proud of Me Anymore.” It is a tale of ever-descending brand equity of my employers, from Morgan Stanley, to Wells Fargo, to Exodus (who?), to working for myself, and sliding on down to owning a share of a Five Guys burger franchise. My mother used to measure vacations by the quality of the motel (eventually hotel) rooms in which we stayed and how low she could crank the air conditioning. So, for her, my devoting time, money and energy to serving better French fries to a medium-sized county in Massachusetts was something less than a dream come true.
“You didn’t go to Duke and Stanford so that you could work in a hamburger restaurant,” she told me.
“Well, I’m an owner, that’s different,” I tried to explain.
She paused to consider this, trying to absorb that each person in line was about to make a very small contribution to our income. Then she asked me a question.
“But isn’t your office actually in the back of the restaurant?”
“So,” she pointed out, “you do work in a hamburger restaurant.”
I bring this up in a blog nominally about being a Sandwich Generation father because the balance of career and family is something that I have burned a lot of energy thinking about. It’s a new phenomenon that men even think about this; even millenials are considering it, although I’m sure in a “of course I can have it all” kind of way. More relevant to me is someone like Max Schireson, who was CEO of a tech company and quit because he felt he couldn’t do that and be a good father; his story is outlined in this great article in the New Republic.
Now that I am between full-time roles, I am considering this anew before I just jump into another extremely demanding executive role in a fast-growing business. My past job had so much about it I loved, but keeping things balanced was a high-wire act (see: The Juggling) that I am sure at times got the best of me. There are two main questions I am starting to really think about.
First, what does “career” even mean?
My father sometimes introduces me as “the ex-millionaire”. For a brief blip in time, my stock in my employer (Exodus – I know, “who?”) was worth over $6 million on paper. I still remember him calling me at work solely to inform me of that. Even then I knew that it would not last; before long, the Internet bubble burst and we were done in by too few customers and too much debt. Exodus actually went bankrupt twice, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Anyway, I did not cash in millions. Part of me wonders whether my father somehow enjoys that fact, as his professional path was completely different.
For decades, he made a living as a one-man consultant in the Cable TV industry. He would pile complex signal testing instrumentation into his faux wood paneled station wagon and drive hundreds or thousands of miles to television reception towers on the outskirts of small towns in Alabama or West Virginia or Michigan. Once he had a project in Guam. Then he would drive back home and with my mother’s help, quickly compile a lengthy report and FedEx it.
His worn and oversized office desk and chair now sit in his apartment; my brother and I couldn’t bear to move him without them. They define him.
If we are the products of our parents, I have these two people on either shoulder. Sandwiched between them, if you will. One is saying “get a nice safe job at a big company that puts you up in nice hotels”. The other is saying “screw it, you don’t need anybody, just be a one-man consultant.” They can’t both be right.
Then, there is the question of what “balance” means.
In the midst of that parental cacophony, I hear two other voices. The first voice, which sounds a lot like my own, says, “you should have achieved more by now. You’re 45 years old! Time is running out!” And then another voice, which sounds suspiciously like Nova’s, chimes in with “What are you talking about? Focus on what actually matters to you and make work fit into that.”
In other words, you cannot have it all. You cannot drive yourself to accept nothing less than complete devotion to company or career, and simultaneously be present for your family and your community. You have to choose. Specifically, I have to choose.
A few weeks ago, I got another surprising data point for this internal debate. I was helping my father do some math around his finances. The arithmetic was pretty shocking as it says that he is likely to outlive his money. This was a real jolt for him. He always has worried about money; he was raised in the Depression in Hungary after all. He and my mother had epic screaming matches about the quality of the roadside motels we’d spend our summer vacations in. That’s an argument he was going to win either way, if you get my meaning.
But this time, he paused briefly, and in a quieter tone than usual, he noted the irony of having money and suddenly not being able to go anywhere, do anything, or otherwise use it. I could almost see him cataloging the things my mother asked for that he’d said no to, that maybe he wished he hadn’t. Somewhere deep in his mind I think he was apologizing to her.
To me, he was saying that I should invest more time, and therefore more money, to make a thoughtful decision.
So I am lucky enough right now to have a first-world ex-millionaire situation: looking for my next venture or job that balances “career”, whatever that actually means beyond quieting restless Type A self-doubt, with my more meaningful obligations as a husband and a Sandwich Generation dad with 12 year-olds who still love me and a 91 year-old father who is still razor sharp. The clock is ticking on both of those, I know.
Maybe I could tweak my mother one last time beyond the grave by ditching the whole thing and becoming a full-time self-employed blogger. Stranger things have happened.