Fast Company

Get a Life

If you're so "successful," why aren't you having more fun? If you're so "together," why are your days so chaotic? "Getting a life" means getting control.

It's hard to be satisfied with material success if you don't like the work you do. Or if you like your work but not the people you work with. Or if you like your work and your colleagues - but spend so much time with them that there's little time for anything else.

No wonder so many of us are asking the same tough questions: If I'm so "successful," why aren't I having more fun? If I'm so "together," why do I feel so out of control? And no wonder so many of us are reaching the same conclusion: I gotta get a life!

Annette Phillips, 34, finally got a life five years ago. Back in 1985, she left her hometown of Dallas for the challenges of New York City. She was determined to become financially independent, professionally accomplished - in short, a success. She pursued studies in accounting and became an auditor at Ernst & Young. She threw herself into client work, the first step on the road to partner. She didn't mind the travel, she didn't mind the clients - she just didn't love the work.

"I wanted to do more than bring in revenue," Phillips says. "I wanted to have an impact on the people in the firm. I wanted to make their lives better."

Making an impact meant taking a radical step. In 1993, Phillips stepped off the partnership track - and into human resources. Her colleagues said she was crazy: "That's not how you get ahead." Her father warned her: "It's no way to make partner." But those opinions didn't dissuade Phillips. "I made a fundamental decision," she explains. "I decided it wasn't that crucial to make partner. Status is less important than liking what you do."

Today, as director of global mobility for Ernst & Young International, Phillips is having the kind of impact she'd hoped for. She helps globally minded E&Y employees move among the firm's offices around the world. She works with senior partners in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. She finds her work genuinely satisfying - even though she's not on track to make partner.

Franc Casey got a life too - but used a different strategy. Casey, 46, is proprietor of Wood Boats Inc., based in East Norwalk, Connecticut. He is an undisputed master of his craft: wooden-boat restoration. His customers include some of the wealthiest figures on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. His projects cost as much as $500,000. But Casey is the first to admit that his company, which he founded with his brother 25 years ago, is much smaller than it could be - not because he needs more customers but because he's so particular about those he takes on.

"I've done all the projects I've ever wanted to do," he says. "I've reframed, replanked, and redesigned. I've gutted boats, installed new interiors - you name it. All I'm really concerned about now is who I work with."

Casey has decided that he won't work with jerks. "We grew the company from 2 people to 15 people," he says, "and we could have grown it much bigger. But rather than grow the business, we shrank it back down to 2. My customers aren't just required to drop off a check. They have to show a commitment to the process. I work only with people who are willing to hold up their end."

When Bill Galston got a life, official Washington got a wake-up call. Back in 1993, Galston, now 52, was a professor at the University of Maryland. Then he got the offer of a lifetime - to become deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. He knew what awaited him - that the high-impact, high-pressure assignment would mean long workdays as well as nights away from home.

But after a year on the job - and after relishing every moment of it - he began to understand the real toll the assignment was taking. Galston got a letter from his nine-year-old son, Ezra. The letter described some of Ezra's proudest moments in baseball - moments that were important to him, moments that Galston had missed because of work. "Baseball's not fun when there's no one there to applaud you," the letter concluded.

It took Galston six months to work up the nerve to walk into the Oval Office, meet with the president, and walk away from his job. His decision became big news inside the Beltway, and beyond. Political reporters looked for backroom intrigue. Career pundits looked for deeper meaning. Three years later, Galston has no regrets. Last spring, he spent many afternoons traveling around Washington, DC to watch his son play baseball - something he couldn't even have dreamed about in his White House days.

"I had spent years thinking about what I would do if I got a job like the one I had," he says. "It wasn't as if I were giving up something I didn't care about. But I was giving it up in favor of something I cared about even more. Fatherhood is the prism through which I see the world. Nothing else is even a close second."

What's extraordinary about these stories is that they're, well, so extraordinary. Phillips, Casey, and Galston had to reckon with the fallout from success. They faced personal challenges of the sort faced by millions of other people. But they took simple, decisive measures to create a new kind of success - one that's more satisfying and more sustainable. They vowed to get a life - and did.

Can you make the same claim?

"Maintaining a complicated life is a great way to avoid changing it," argues simplicity guru Elaine St. James, whose how-to books have sold more than 1.4 million copies - and have helped shape a growing movement. "As long as our work is so vital that we can't slow down, we don't have to look at our own lives: a marriage that isn't working, a career that isn't satisfying, children we're out of touch with, friendships we've outgrown. There's nothing more 'dangerous' than having a little time on your hands." (See the companion article, "Keep It Simple," page 152.)

Personal-productivity guru David Allen, 52, who coaches and trains executives at Microsoft, L.L. Bean, the U.S. Navy, and other high-performance organizations, is equally direct: "Change - even change meant to improve our lives - creates stress. That's why we avoid new experiences and tough choices. They're outside our comfort zone. We get comfortable with our problems."

So get ready to get uncomfortable - and get a life!

You Can't Love Your Life If You Hate Your Work

In an age when work is more personal than ever - when who you are is what you do - work is a deeper source of personal satisfaction than ever. And it's not just about discovering some inner truth. It's about solving a math problem. William B. Gartner, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, offers this simple calculation: Say (conservatively) that you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 50 years. That's 100,000 working hours over the course of a career. Do any of us want to spend 100,000 hours on work that we don't find satisfying?

"You have one thing of value, and that's your time," argues Gartner. "This is one of the first challenges I pose to my students: 'You have 100,000 hours. What are you going to do with them?' That is the one real limitation that all people face. Not money - time. Too many people underestimate the opportunity cost of their time."

Or they underestimate their ability to change how they spend it. A recent Wall Street Journal /ABC News poll reported that half of all Americans would choose a new line of work if they had the chance. The obvious follow-up question: What's holding them back from taking the chance? The just-as-obvious response: If it were an easy question, more people would have the answer. Experts write books on the subject. Professors teach courses on it.

"This is complicated," says Robin Hirschberg, a faculty member at New York University and the founder of Not So New Age Consulting. Hirschberg, a former director of training at Lehman Brothers in London, coaches executives who want to redirect their careers. "People tend to confuse their purpose (What do I love to do?), their ideals (How am I comfortable behaving?), and their desired results (What can I achieve?). If you untangle those questions, and compare the answers with your natural talents and abilities, you'll start down the path to success. It takes experimentation. You don't know the answers until you know the answers."

Deborah Lee, a social psychologist based in San Francisco and the author of Having It All/Having Enough (Amacom, 1997), is less forgiving: "Lots of people don't want to sit down and look themselves in the eye, because then they'll feel a responsibility to act on what they learn. And that can be very frightening." Atlanta-based career counselor Bob McDonald is even tougher: "People have more options than they think they do. But most people spend more time planning their vacations than thinking about what they want to do with their lives."

No one would lodge that charge against Larry Smith, 62, who teaches public management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Smith has led an accomplished and wide-ranging career. He's served as counselor to two secretaries of defense and to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He's managed political campaigns, and helped design Gary Hart's run for president in 1984. He's taught college. He's painted houses.

"I think there is a 'sweet spot' that each of us has," he says. "It's the kind of work we want to perform, the kind of work that makes us proud. But finding that sweet spot requires deep self-knowledge. You start by looking at the work you're drawn to. You try it, you evaluate the experience, and you evolve as you discover more about it. I think of this process as developmental self-interrogation. You're working on a mental model of yourself - always."

Sometimes the answer is staring you in the face - literally. At the beginning of her career at Ernst & Young, Annette Phillips was meeting with an HR staffer when she faced the most dreaded of interview questions: What do you want to be doing in five years? Her honest answer (which she kept to herself): "I want to be doing what you're doing."

Indeed, it took Phillips about five years to move from her original path - the conventional road to partner - to the more rewarding path that she's on now. And as Deborah Lee would point out, it required some direct action. Phillips stayed close to the people in HR and kept dropping hints that she liked what she saw in the department. Then came the break she had been looking for. HR needed a stand-in for an ill staffer who was scheduled to make an important recruiting trip. Phillips volunteered, and did well. She was sent on more recruiting trips. Eventually everyone agreed that she had a chance to be a star in HR.

"Today I'm able to match what I want to do with what I'm good at, in an organization I want to be part of," Phillips says. "I'm doing what I love to do, rather than what I'm 'supposed' to do."

Unfortunately, most answers aren't that apparent. So how do you find them? One way, simple as it sounds, is to ask the people who know you best. That's what Don Hutcheson did. Eight years ago, Hutcheson was running a $60 million advertising agency and enjoying a degree of professional success that he had worked his entire career to achieve. "I felt blessed," he says. "I had always done what I thought was the right thing, and I had managed to get where I wanted to go. But when I got there, it didn't feel like enough."

Hutcheson, now 51, just wasn't enjoying his work as much as he thought he would. He launched a personal initiative to rethink his career priorities. He even gave it a name: Project New Vision. "I had a little freedom and a little money, so I took the opportunity to figure out what I really wanted."

First, as Larry Smith would suggest, he interrogated himself. He wrote a set of personal guidelines - 11 qualities that described the kind of work he wanted to do. "Balance was a big one," he says. "I wanted an enterprise where I didn't have to be the interface with clients all the time. I wanted to work with really bright people. And I wanted my work to be something that gave back some of my learning and experience, that made the world a little better."

Then Hutcheson invited half a dozen of his closest friends to a series of dinners. He asked them to help him refine his goals. "I wanted to get feedback from people who cared about me," he says. "I already had an internal perspective. Now I wanted an external perspective."

Deborah Lee endorses this approach. "It's really important to talk to other people," she says. "That's the only way to find out which issues are internal - which ones are you - and which are the influences and distractions around you that make it tough to figure out what you want. It's great when you discover that issues you thought were unique to you are shared by lots of the people around you. It validates your feelings."

That's what happened to Hutcheson. One of the friends he brought into Project New Vision was psychologist and counselor Bob McDonald. The two men had known each other since their days in the army, where they had worked as Russian linguists. Hutcheson's search started McDonald, now 51, on one of his own. Eventually the friends joined forces. Hutcheson sold his agency, and he and McDonald cofounded the Highlands Program, based in Atlanta. Highlands is a career-counseling service that - surprise! - helps people discover what they want to do with their lives. Almost 7,000 people - from blue-chip companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Northwestern Mutual Life - have been through the program. Hutcheson and McDonald have also written a book, The Lemming Conspiracy: How to Redirect Your Life from Stress to Balance (Longstreet Press, 1997).

"Without some kind of personal vision, you have no direction," Hutcheson says. "You follow the herd. And you may not find out until it's too late that the herd is leading you right off a cliff."

You Can't Love Your Work If You Work with Jerks

Unhappy with your job? maybe the problem isn't what you're working on. Maybe it's whom you're working with. "People often overlook their environmental constraints," says Deborah Lee. "They tell themselves, 'If I just get more organized, if I strike a balance between work and home, I'll feel better.' But you can't ignore the people around you. Not only can't we control how other people behave - we can't control our emotional responses to their behavior. If you want more satisfaction from your work, you have to negotiate better relationships with the people you work with."

Most everyone has suffered from an arrogant boss or a duplicitous colleague. That's not the issue here. It's something deeper: Do you have the confidence to make choices - about the company you work for, about the projects you work on - based on the caliber of the people you'll be working with? Do you have the discipline to turn down a plum assignment if it would mean working with jerks?

Larry Smith, whose years of service in Washington required navigating lots of jerk-filled waters, argues that it's impossible to define satisfying work without considering the people you do it with. "A big part of succeeding is teaming," he says. "Any work that creates satisfaction requires partnering with someone else. That's why I establish filters for who I work with. That's not arrogance. It's confidence. If you've found the sweet spot in your work, you're good at it. And if you're good at it, you have the freedom to decide who you want to do it with."

Of course, freedom means making choices, and making choices means saying no. "I worked my way through graduate school as a house painter," Smith says. "When my wife and I arrived in Washington, I said to her, 'Let's put my brushes in the basement. If the people I'm working with don't like my counsel, or if I don't like what they become, I know I can always go paint a house.' That attitude has allowed me to work free of fear."

Unlike Larry Smith, Franc Casey doesn't advise politicians about military strategy or matters of state. But like Smith, he refuses to work with jerks. Casey had always worked for people who were wealthy and successful. Those were the people who could afford his talents. But back in the '70s, when he started, they were also real sailors. They cared about their boats and appreciated the quality of Casey's work.

Then the '70s became the '80s - and more and more of Casey's customers saw their boats as a possession rather than as a passion. "I just hated coming to work," he says. "I was either going to shut down my business or work only for people I liked working with. It was a simple choice, really. I decided to tell potential customers up front how I do business and what their involvement has to be. If they agree, I'm happy to work with them. If they disagree, there are plenty of other companies for them to do business with."

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

Maybe you love you work. maybe you respect the people you work with. Still, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Consider this cautionary statement: "No one on their deathbed ever wished they'd spent more time at the office." We know what you're thinking: "If I see that line one more time, my deathbed's gonna look pretty good." In fact, in the last year alone, these notable figures have all uttered this all-too-familiar phrase: time-management guru Stephen Covey, personal-success guru Tony Robbins, President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton - the list goes on.

Question: If so many famous people are promoting this corrective to professional excess, why are so few of us listening? Why are we moving ever closer to our deathbeds with ever more regrets about how we spend our time? Because we're just businesspeople who can't say no - especially at work.

That's what David Nadler realized seven years ago. Nadler, 49, is one of the most influential management consultants in the world. He formed Delta Consulting Group in 1980. Since then, the firm has worked with senior managers at big-name companies such as Chase Manhattan, Xerox, and Lucent Technologies. Nadler has written or edited more than a dozen books on business and change. Business Week has labeled him "one of management's new gurus."

Nadler understands that success has its costs. "It's all-consuming to create a company," he says. "It's not just that you're always working. It's that you feel guilty if you're not working." But as Nadler got more and more successful, the costs seemed more and more severe. He built a thriving firm - at the expense of virtually all other activities. He was divorced twice. "I like the work I do," Nadler says. "I like the clients I work with. But gradually I realized that I had to put some balance in my life."

Creating balance meant saying no. First Nadler designed a new management structure at Delta, one that made the firm less dependent on him. Then he simply started working less. "I realized that a 10% difference in how much work I did was not the difference between success and failure," he says. Indeed, Nadler now says no at least 8 weeks out of every 52: "I sit down at the beginning of the year and block out 8 or 9 weeks of time away from the office."

To his credit, Nadler understood that there is a difference between changing your attitude about work and changing your personality. He is, to put it mildly, a driven guy. And he still allows himself to be driven - but by sailing as well as by work.

Nadler attended the Annapolis Sailing School, where he took courses in cruising, piloting, and navigation. He worked his way up to bigger boats and longer cruises, sailing around the British Virgin Islands and Tahiti. He became as committed to nautical success as he is to professional success. "But it wasn't work," he says. "I find navigation satisfying. In consulting, it's not always clear what impact you're having - you work with lots of people on very complex tasks. Navigation is not ambiguous - you get there or you don't."

Talk with Nadler about his time away from his company, and you won't detect an ounce of regret. The same goes for former Clinton official Bill Galston, whose professional sacrifice was much more dramatic. Galston was at a high point in his career, with tremendous influence on the nation's domestic policy, when he chose to walk away: "If I had stayed in that very demanding job for another few years, while my son became a teenager, I would have missed some very important years to be with him. I told the president that he could replace me - my son couldn't."

Today Galston talks more excitedly about his son's bar mitzvah than about his days in the White House. "There were almost 250 people there, including family members from Israel and South Africa," he says. "It was a magnificent occasion." And it would have been a very different occasion had Galston been in his old job. "I would have been a spectator at my son's bar mitzvah. Instead, I was able to help put it together and participate."

And that, says USC professor William Gartner, is what it means to get a life: "One of the great lies of organizational life is that jobs can be as big as the people who fill them. It's not true. Teams can never be as big as our families. Colleagues can never be as big as our friends. Companies can never be as rich, as wonderful, as the people in them. We are bigger than our organizations. We just are."

Michael Warshaw mwarshaw@fastcompany.com is a Fast Company senior editor.

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