Last June, I lost my job as managing editor of this magazine. Fast Company was moving from Boston to New York, and I had decided not to make the trip. That decision had a lot to do with what came next. On July 15, my wife, Heather, gave birth to our first child, Abigail.
It made for an exhilarating but wrenching summer. I was learning to be a father even as I tried to figure out what to make of my derailed career. Some freelance work for a top consulting firm led to a full-time job offer. Around that time, an intriguing startup invited me to sign on as employee number five.
I didn’t know what to do. The consultancy was filled with smart, accomplished people who treated me warmly and made me laugh. The startup looked like it might go places, and I thought its founder was inspired. So why did I turn down both? At the time, I only knew that I was facing a dramatic turning point, and that it was time to stop following a passive, if lucky, career path. As I searched for the right path, though, some priorities became clear.
Have a dream. Your dream. At the consulting firm, I came to understand an important distinction, which you can make by answering this question: When you go to work, whose dream are you making a reality? My colleagues there did work I sometimes found boring. But they loved it and did it well. They worked as hard as they did, I think, because they believed their work mattered. Same story with the startup: In our few meetings, it was easy for me to get caught up in the promise and energy of building something new. I discovered, though, that building their something wasn’t that important to me.
Don’t hide behind the kid. I was lucky–my wife and I had saved a little money, and she was going back to work three days a week. We could get by without my regular paycheck. But the guilt over being a jobless dad was awful. For some time, while seesawing on the consultancy job, I told myself I would take it for Abigail. But it dawned on me that Abby could become a reasonable excuse for any “prudent” decision. A friend who was pushing me to turn down both jobs asked this: “What kind of example do you want to set for your daughter?” Good question.
Embrace risk. A few years ago, a colleague in his fifties mentioned a TV program in which old people were asked to reflect on their lives. Many expressed regret that they had not taken more risks. My friend muttered that it was too late for him to do anything wild. I tucked this weird, sad moment away: Reverse-engineer your life, I told myself. Try to imagine that you’ll be interviewed in 50 years and asked, “Any regrets?” The real risk, I came to realize, was that I wasn’t taking enough risk.
And so I spend these workdays in a basement study. I do some freelance writing–but mostly, I’m pursuing some big ideas that I hope will see the light of day. There are, of course, times when I find myself wondering what’s going on over at the consultancy, or how that startup is faring; it’s easy to miss what I turned down. But those moments don’t last; the urge to work toward a dream does.
Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:
Nate Nickerson explains his rationale behind a common dilemma successful businesspeople face: whether to concentrate on their career or family. Connect with co-workers who have had to make this choice and discuss how they handled it, concentrating on any creative solutions people have developed. Former Fast Company feature subject Po Bronson (and current contributor) also addresses this very dilemma. Bronson’s piece might make a useful parallel read.