I hadn’t seen Jim in two years. When we reconnected recently, I was shocked. The handsome, dapper professional I knew had gained 30 pounds and started smoking. Bursting with nervous energy, he told me about his business travails — work so busy he was staying regularly until 10 at night, and a billionaire client sapping his energy and causing him grief. But the project with the billionaire would soon be over, he declared. “That’s great!” I said. “So you won’t have to deal with him again.” Well, Jim allowed, there might be another contract with him in the works.
It wasn’t about money. We were standing in the middle of his vacation home, enjoying prime mountain views. Business was booming; he only wished it were possible to spend more time up here at his dream home, and perhaps to start dating and meet someone. But, of course, it was possible. For some reason, he was choosing not to — and Jim’s not the only one.
As Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen described in his mega-bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life? (with Karen Dillon and James Allworth), the ROI of work is immediately apparent. You get instant feedback and, oftentimes, instant gratification in the form of raises, promotions, new contracts, or general approbation. The arc of family life is different. In the moment, it can be banal, boring, or discouraging.
Harvard happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert has shown that children don’t increase parents’ short-term happiness; in fact, on a day-to-day basis, parents prefer almost anything (from watching television to exercising) to spending time with their kids. Work is certainly one societally sanctioned excuse. Yet, says Christensen, many professionals are dismayed to wake up in midlife and discover frayed relationships, divorces, and alienation from their family. We have to grasp the difference between the short and long-term rewards of work and our personal lives.
Another challenge, says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, is that we misunderstand the relationship between happiness and success. We assume that professional triumph comes first: I’ll be happy when I make SVP! I’ll be happy when I get into the right graduate school! I’ll be happy when I make the 40 Under 40 list! But that’s actually backward. Instead, he writes, “Happiness is…the precursor to greater success. Every single relationship, business and educational outcome improves when the brain is positive first.” In other words, success is a result of happiness, not the other way around. And yet, so many executives work tirelessly, questing for a goal — happiness — that doesn’t come from professional achievement.
For many top performers, the idea of dialing back on work is also disturbing because they fear it will torpedo their career. Partly, of course, this anxiety is exaggerated. Since humans fear loss more than they covet gain, it’s easy to frame any deceleration as the loss of our career potential and a potentially disastrous mistake. But to complicate matters, in some particularly competitive fields like investment banking or corporate law, long hours truly are mandatory. And, culturally, we’re regaled with examples like Tesla’s Elon Musk, a twice-divorced father of five who took one vacation during a four-year period.
Even when it’s not all about us, the pressure to keep working full-tilt can be intense. As one successful consultant friend told me, “There are a lot of people that depend on me — the people who report to me, the people I mentor, and my clients. It’s very hard to turn away from them and let them down.” Indeed, when he recently cut back his travel schedule due to several family health crises, he got significant pushback from his colleagues. “I get emails and phone calls every day: we missed you at the meeting.” Grappling with divided loyalties can be challenging. “It hurts because some of them can sound scolding,” he says, “but I have to stick to my plan.”
Even when we know working to excess isn’t good for us, it’s hard to cut back. Most of us aren’t as extreme as the investment bank intern who died in London after allegedly working 72 hours straight to impress his bosses. But according to Christensen, we may not be that different, either: it’s a matter of degree, and timing. Overwork may not kill us tomorrow, but — if left unaddressed — it may kill our most important relationships in 10 or 20 years.
How do we strike a balance, particularly when work itself can be so gratifying? (My consultant friend says his intense schedule is the result of his desire to “make a difference in people’s lives, and I am good at it. That is very hard to give up and it keeps a lot of people happy.”) True success means recognizing our real, individual priorities and, as best we can, living them out today instead of pinning our hopes on some mythical future state of “I’ll be happy when…”
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and speaker for clients such as Google, Yale University, Microsoft, and the World Bank. She is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dorieclark.