Imagine the “sorcerer’s apprentice” scene in the movie Fantasia, fully remade for modern times. No longer would Mickey Mouse confront those fast-multiplying brooms as they splashed water everywhere. Instead, the onslaught would have a new-economy twist. Torrents of email would come pouring out of a computer. Fresh projects would be announced on ever-tighter deadlines. And all sorts of people — bosses, customers, and recent hires in search of a mentor — would march into the picture, each pleading for immediate attention and declaring: “You’re the only person we trust to do this right.”
Ridiculous? No, reality.
For countless workers and managers at startups or at revitalized older companies, the excitement of rewriting the rules of business — and the elation of building high-performance organizations in record time — is accompanied by a dark side. There just aren’t enough hours in the day or enough days in the week to get everything done. Important projects pile up at such a rate that they can’t all be finished by 6 PM Friday. As such tasks spill further and further into evenings and weekends, something deeply troubling starts to happen. Friendships with people outside work begin to disappear. Cherished side interests — such as training for a marathon or photographing a favorite beach — become distant memories. Family rapport suffers. A question looms: If I’m so smart, why am I not enjoying my life more?
A year or two ago, true believers seldom worried openly about such tensions. The payoffs from a little more hard work seemed so immense, and the rewards seemed so close, that it was easy to believe that only the halfhearted or the lazy needed to pause for breath. How times have changed. Suddenly, even well-run Internet companies realize that they can’t change the world in a matter of months. They and the people in them must pace themselves for a multiyear struggle to achieve their goals. And the shakeout in the financial markets means that personal sacrifices can’t be papered over by the notion that you don’t have to worry about how hard you’re working now, since you’ll be in a position to retire wealthy in three years anyway.
Indeed, at its worst, the new economy’s fast track has become nothing more than a road to exhaustion and disappointment — a journey to nowhere. But the opportunities before us are so great, and our expectations of what we can do from within our companies are so high, that sitting passively on the side of the road is not an option either. That’s why a new question faces millions of ambitious people who still want to do great work but who don’t want to lose themselves in the process: Am I on the right track?
Listen carefully, and you can hear that question being debated at all levels of your organization, your neighborhood, your family, and your social circle. As people search for answers to that simple six-word question, they must step back and ask a series of other soul-searching questions. What are my priorities? Who are the people that matter most to me, and what should I be doing to strengthen those ties? Do I know how to say no — and if not, is there a way to learn how? Do I know how to say yes and make it count? Most fundamentally, what am I really trying to accomplish?
It’s tempting to argue that there are no winning strategies, only a long line of barely tolerable trade-offs. By that line of thinking, you can check email at 6:30 AM or help make your children’s breakfast, but you can’t do both. You can rush to the airport for a hastily called client meeting in Chicago or linger over a romantic dinner with your spouse — but there’s no way to be in both places at the same time. And if you want to be part of an exciting new project, say good-bye to weekends that might have been spent backpacking, volunteering, or simply relaxing.
Yet some people are extricating themselves from the worst aspects of the fast track — to get on the right track. In Los Angeles, an aspiring doctor has carved out blocks of time during more than a decade of medical training so she could become an Olympic athlete as well. In Springdale, Arkansas, one of the Internet’s most successful merchants has learned how to prevent overwork from wrecking his family life. And in San Francisco, two high-powered consultants have redefined their jobs so that they can be successful parents too.
It’s worth noting that these people are in the middle of their careers and are struggling right now to find answers to the question of how to do great work and still live lives of which they’re proud. It’s much easier to talk philosophically about balance, trade-offs, and life choices after you’ve made your millions: “Oh, I gave up so much to get here. If I had it to do over again, I’d spend more time with my kids, my church, and with community groups.” Really? Such sentiment is easier to express in retrospect than it is to live in real time.
As each of those people tries to get the balance right, lessons big and small emerge from their experiences. Simple edicts play an important role. (“Don’t check voice mail on weekends.”) So does hard thinking about what’s not essential at work. And at the highest level, three main strategies provide steady guidance.
One, when there simply isn’t time to do it all right now, think about what might be called “the time-release career.” Use each stage of life to center on different goals — so that work enjoys top billing for long stretches but gives way to other priorities. Two, spell out your own definition of success, so that you can aim for your targets instead of constantly being dependent on the shifting demands of others. Three, find or create a supportive setting. If colleagues, bosses, and clients understand that work is merely a part of an overall picture, there’s hope. If not, the burdens of the fast track can be endless.
Can You Chase Two Dreams at Once?
Barely a teenager, Dorothy “Dot” Richardson would draw crowds to watch her play fast-pitch softball. In the early 1980s, she was a scholarship athlete at UCLA compiling a career batting average of .367 and smacking extra-base hits with abandon. The moment when the afternoon games were finished, Richardson’s most frantic dash began. Still dressed in her blue and gold uniform, she would race one and a half miles to the organic-chemistry lab. Arriving anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes late, she would then scramble to her workbench — and begin two to four hours of chemical synthesis as part of her pre-med training.
Teammates thought that she was nuts. One of her coaches, Sue Enquist, watched bemusedly as this shortstop with light-brown hair chased goals in two distinctly different worlds: sports and medicine. “She was a blur all through college,” Enquist recalls. “I don’t think I ever saw her slow down. And she had this unshakable belief that everything was going to work out great.”
For the next 17 years, Richardson made headlines with her softball skills while quietly inching her way toward a lifelong career as a doctor. There were delays and detours, including a dismal stretch in Florida right after college when the only job that Richardson could get was delivering pizza. Eventually, though, she put all the pieces together, becoming both a fully trained orthopedic surgeon and a gold-medal-winning Olympic athlete.
How Dot Richardson juggled those two goals is every bit as interesting as what she accomplished. Each of her callings had intensely busy periods that demanded total concentration, with success or failure hanging in the balance. Yet she gradually learned to space those high-intensity bursts so that medicine and softball took turns and collided as little as possible. She also got steadily better at finding friends and mentors who wanted her to succeed in both worlds — not just the one that they knew best.
Richardson’s story is rich with parallels for anyone trying to excel both at work and at a special side interest. Lose control and you end up with two sets of friends, two sets of promises — and a never-ending sense that you’re in the wrong city, wasting time on the wrong project at any given moment. Yet as Richardson puts it, it’s unthinkable to lop off half your identity forever and to pretend that it never really mattered. “All you can do is focus as hard as you can on one thing at a time,” she says. “That’s what we’re taught to do as surgeons.”
At first, Richardson couldn’t get the balance right. In 1983, after four years of college, she had exhausted her softball eligibility but still needed a few more credits to graduate from UCLA. “I’d planned to do nothing but concentrate on classwork,” she recalls. “That way I could get my grades up for applying to med school.” Nice plan, but it went haywire when she was offered a chance to play basketball for UCLA. She took it, had a great time, and kept her grades up in advanced-science classes. But when she sent out med-school applications, she had missed several deadlines and was accepted nowhere.
For the next four years, Richardson played at the highest level of amateur softball — and labored to shore up her medical résumé. She took classes to be an emergency medical technician in Florida and got a master’s degree in health from Adelphi University. She helped run a rehab program for heart patients. In 1988, she reapplied to medical schools and won a place at the University of Louisville.
Suddenly, medicine became all-consuming. “Those first two years were all about memorizing, memorizing,” Richardson recalls. “I lost my ability to talk to people. It was like being stuck in a dark tunnel, just reviewing anatomy and molecular-biology textbooks. That was a very tough transition for me.” Occasionally, she played catch with her boyfriend, but other than that, she recalls, “I couldn’t even practice softball. There was no time.”
When Richardson took her medical board exams at the end of her second year, to her dismay, she fell two points short of passing. She knew that she could press ahead — and try to pass a retest in a month or two — but faculty members encouraged her to think about repeating her second-year coursework instead. That wasn’t a glamorous choice, but before long, she decided that it was the right choice.
This time, Richardson aced her courses. That cleared the way in 1991 for her to start third-year instruction, when med students get to see patients. She thrived — and it was vindication for faculty members who had recommended her admission. “She had this absolutely infectious enthusiasm,” recalls faculty member Steve Nettleton.
Meanwhile, Richardson figured out how to keep her pro-softball career alive. In the summer, she would wrap up medical school on Friday afternoons, catch a flight to New York and then drive up to Connecticut to take the field as a member of the Raybestos Brakettes. To save time, she would change into her uniform en route. Even then, she sometimes didn’t arrive until the second inning of a game. But her coach at the Brakettes, Ralph Raymond, would get her into the lineup at once.
She had taken it for granted at the time, but now Richardson sees Raymond as having played a special role. He was the first in a series of mentors who really wanted her to succeed in both worlds. Yes, she was late to games, in a league where most other players had dull day jobs that they chose mainly because such work wouldn’t interfere with softball. But instead of being annoyed at her tardiness, he was proud. “I remember Coach Raymond telling me: ‘Dot, be different. Go and do something else with your life beyond softball. Don’t let softball get in the way of your profession as a doctor,'” she recalls.
At first, there wasn’t anyone comparable in Richardson’s other world. Becoming a doctor was so intense that no one was about to give her any extra slack. But when she started her residency training at the University of Southern California in 1993, things changed. She had decided to specialize in orthopedics. Some of the faculty doctors either were former athletes themselves or had meaningful sports-medicine practices. They wouldn’t let her cut corners, but they would help adjust her schedule so that she could remind the world what Dr. Shortstop could do with a bat as well as with a scalpel.
David Thordarson, head of the USC orthopedic-residency program, remembers the crucial moment coming a year before the 1996 Olympics, when softball for the first time would be an Olympic sport. USC gave Richardson a year off — and told her to come back with a medal, if she could, in August 1996. “We had an extra resident that year, so it wasn’t a burden on us,” Thordarson recalls.
Richardson did even better. She hit the first home run in the opening round of the Atlanta Olympics and then hit the game-winning homer in the finals. When she came back to USC, she faced a mob scene of reporters, hospital workers, patients — all wanting to see Dr. Dot and her gold medal. “She was surprisingly down-to-earth about it and eager to get back to work,” Thordarson recalls.
Before long, though, the celebration was over. It was time for more tough choices. In early 1998, Richardson was doing an all day – all night rotation in the trauma unit just before tryouts for the U.S. national softball team. She had planned to finish at the hospital at 8 AM and then catch a short flight to San Diego for the tryouts. But just before her 24-hour shift ended, she realized that a patient with a broken leg and other serious internal injuries was doing poorly and was in danger of crashing. Should she stay or should she go?
“There wasn’t any question in my mind,” Richardson says. She ignored her official quitting time and stayed at the hospital until the patient was stabilized. She had missed her flight, but she decided that if she drove fast, she still could get to tryouts on time. Partway through the drive, she asked herself, Why am I doing this? “I decided that if I needed to pull over and sleep, it was just God’s way of telling me, Enough,” Richardson recalls.
At 12:30 PM, after 30 sleepless hours, Richardson made it to the tryouts. Picked once again for the U.S. national team, she decided to train afresh for the 2000 Olympics. By now, she was a half-generation older than many of the other top U.S. players. She was still a standout, still good enough to bat leadoff. But it was time for her to move over to second base and relinquish the shortstop position to a dazzling new player, 21-year-old Crystl Bustos.
At the Olympics in Sydney, Richardson turned in a bittersweet performance. She batted just .179 and had a dreadful preliminary-round game against Japan, making two 11th-inning errors that cost the United States the game. But she drove in the winning run in a medal-round, 1-0 victory against host Australia. Then, when the U.S. team played Japan again for the gold medal, she wheedled a walk to set up the game-winning run. At a press conference afterward, she said that she “cherished every second” of the Olympics.
While her softball days were nearing their end, Richardson’s medical career was taking off in spectacular fashion. After USC, she landed a fellowship at the prestigious Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, where she put the finishing touches on her skills as an orthopedic surgeon. There was a small competition, in fact, among leading clinics in California and Alabama that were trying to recruit her to their fellowship programs.
Once she started, partners at Kerlan-Jobe decided that they liked what they saw. “She was good with her hands,” veteran orthopedist Neal ElAttrache observes. “Technical ability in the operating room was not an issue. And her interpersonal skills were outstanding. She could relate to young people, to elderly people — to anyone.”
Partway through her fellowship year, in fact, Richardson’s two careers finally joined for a moment. She and ElAttrache were asked to operate on UCLA’s best young softball player, Julie Adams. Something in Adams’s shoulder just wasn’t right. X-rays showed a tiny tip of a needle, broken off from a previous surgery. It was floating in the midst of Adams’s shoulder. Extracting it wouldn’t be easy. But everyone felt that it was Adams’s best hope for a full recovery.
Waiting anxiously outside the operating room was Sue Enquist, still the UCLA softball coach. Finally the doors opened. Out came Richardson, dressed in green surgical scrubs. “Sue!” she exclaimed. “We got the needle out! She’s going to be all right.” At that moment, Enquist remembers tears forming, partly out of joy that her best young player would finally be healed, but just as much to behold what Richardson had become. The sweet-hitting shortstop of 17 seasons earlier was now a big-league surgeon — and maybe even an all-star.