Reflecting on priorities of family & work
I was hardwired (by my mom) to be an achiever. My identity was wrapped up in the achievements I garnered in school and then in work and liked being viewed as an over-achieving go-getter who would knock down walls (which I literally had to do as a principal) in order to get things done. BCE (Before Children Era), I could spend more than 80% of my time on my career, progressing up a proverbial ladder and the rest of my time on relationships and myself.
Until I met my wife*, greater than 80%, even 95% of my energy would be work. Working with kids in a school makes it easy to immerse yourself in that kind of lifestyle as the stakes are high and the work rewarding. My wife, being the achiever that she is, would equally immerse herself in her career and with our common orientation, things just worked.
When my kids were born, I was a high school principal with the promise of a promotion to Chief Academic Officer on the horizon. I was in the middle of my doctoral program at USC (Fight on!) and plotting my next career steps even before I assumed my next position. I had a 10 year plan. Three years later, with a doctorate under my belt, I accepted what seemed like the next logical step in my career as the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute – a great organization which married my two passions of educational equity and science education. Still, it seemed like I was missing something, but I didn’t know what.
During my time there I was immersed in the Silicon Valley, start-up culture. I even participated and won a Start-up Weekend, making a brief go of running the edtech company from our win. I may blog in the future about why I decided not to make a real go of the start-up, even though I had some seed funding and a slate of potential users. It did seem like the next step on the ladder – run something I came up with on my own. But something gnawed at me. If I was running a nonprofit and an edtech start-up at the same time, something must have been missing in my career. I was missing something, just not in my career.
I feared I would wake up three years later, my kids 10 or 11 years old, and me having missed all of it living the start-up lifestyle working to make the company a success. That’s when it all clicked. Truth be told, it wasn’t a click – it was a multi-year, reflective journey to come to know what I wanted. I wanted to spend more time with my kids. I l stopped thinking about what my next job would be or the job beyond that. I looked for and found a role in a mission-driven organization that would challenge me, but that would allow me to first and foremost be a dad when i was home and be home as much as I could to do that.
The hardest part was fielding questions from my friends, family, and colleagues on why i would be “taking a step back”. In truth, they never asked it in that way and maybe didn’t even think it. I felt it though, whether real or perceived as I was still a little wrapped up in the over-achiever mindset. This was me taking a step forward as a father. I was also taking a step forward in my thinking, being able to re-frame my achiever mindset to be happy in a support role in my career where I receive little or no recognition externally for the work of our organization, but rather set up other people to get that recognition.
In the meantime, I took all of my start-up energy and launched a local chapter of Curiosity Hacked – a Maker club for kids. In this way, I’ve been able to scratch the itch of always wanting to start something new and getting to spend quality time with my kids.
I love my job. I’m not sure how long I’ll be there or what I might do next. Not thinking about it at all is liberating. What I do know is that I’ve been able to apply that energy to planning things with my kids and have been having a great time of it all. I haven’t been able to kick the over-achiever mentality completely, but now apply it to being the best dad I can be.
*Note: My wife made this choice before our kids were even born. We’re fortunate that now she has a full-time job she’s allowed to and capable of completing in 32 hours, largely because she’s working a level or two down of what she’s capable of. It seemed more socially acceptable and expected for her to do this as a mom, but I understand it was no less difficult as she too is an over-achiever – and an amazing mom. I could not be able to be the father that I am without her placing our kids at the top of her prioritization list. I have no doubt she would be a partner at a large consulting firm if she/we chose not to have kids. I thank her for showing me the way.
Are you an over-achiever? How does that impact your prioritization of work and family? Is it harder for dads?