Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? Redefining Success — Subtle Prestige

The story in Lisa Belkin’s Life’s Work column in Sunday’s New York Times about the late Eugene O’Kelly, chairman of KPMG hit a nerve with me. During my vacation, I struggled to honor my pledge not to work at all. That experience forced me to revisit the question that I come back to often: How much of our work+life fit conflict is our own doing? In other words, are we often our own worst enemy when it comes to setting (or rather not setting) boundaries around our work and life? It’s an important question if we hope to effectively combine work and life in the 21st century. Because the answer will require more actively managing the expectations and pressures we put on ourselves everyday.

Mr. O’Kelly’s story in Lisa Belkin’s column exemplifies perfectly how a company can do everything to help employees achieve “balance,” but unless an individual’s personal definition of success and expectations change, it will have no effect. Perhaps, until it’s too late. She talks about Mr. O’Kelly’s book called, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life published after his death. He was the chairman and chief executive of KPMG, one of the country’s largest accounting firms, when he learned last May that he had an inoperable brain tumor.

During his tenure at KPMG, Mr. O’Kelly actively promoted a work/life “balance” strategy that made KPMG one of the recognized leaders in this area. But as Ms. Belkin writes, “one of the first lessons taught by his illness was that he wasn’t terribly good at practicing what he preached.” Mr. O’Kelly explains how the subtle pressures and expectations he put upon himself kept him from taking advantage of the very culture he was trying to create, “My sensibilities about work and accomplishment, about consistency and continuity and commitment were so ingrained in me that I couldn’t imagine not applying them…” He continues, “Where had I found the nerve to press so hard for our firm to rework its culture encouraging our partners and employees to live more balanced lives when my own was out of balance?” Upon his death four months after his diagnosis, thankfully he had redefined success and found the “fit” that was right for him.

I can relate to Mr. O’Kelly’s struggle, as I’m sure many other high-achieving, self-motivated people can. Prior to leaving for vacation, I’d made a conscious decision NOT to work at all. During previous vacations, I’d responded to voicemail and email periodically. This time I decided to leave a message with my cell phone number in case of critical emergencies, but if I didn’t hear from anyone, then I wasn’t going to “check in.”
I was fine for the first couple of days, but then it began to get hard, “What if a client is trying to reach me?” “What if a colleague needed help?” “What if…what if….?” I found that I had to consistently remind myself that if people really needed me, they had my number. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to work! Remember, I work for myself so there is no one I can blame for this pressure and discomfort but me. The excuse, “they expect it” doesn’t work because I am they, and I still found it hard because of my personal expectations about how I “should” work.

I am happy to report that in spite of the discomfort, I stuck by my pledge and devoted 100% to my family, and guess what? When I got home, I did have emails and voicemails from clients and colleagues, but they all said it was fine to speak with them when I returned. Now, what would have happened if I’d checked in? I would have called them and they would have gladly taken my calls and responded to my emails because the message I would have sent by my behavior was, “Go ahead, I don’t mind working on vacation.” But, because I didn’t, they responded in kind.
I’m not alone in this struggle. Here are a couple of other recent conversations I’ve had with individuals who are challenging their subtle expectations of success that get them into work+life “fit” conflict:

• Charlotte is an executive who is currently on maternity leave with her third child. In the four years since her last maternity leave, not only has her level of responsibility increased but her ability to stay connected to work has increased, “It’s amazing with my blackberry and conference calling, how I can really be involved at work while on leave.” I asked her if that’s what she wanted. She said, “You know it’s funny, everyone is glad to hear from me and is happy to fill me in but no one expects it. So really it’s up to me to decide what I want to do. But it’s hard to know I can, but then to force myself not to, but this is my last baby and I want time with him.”• And, it’s not just individuals who work for pay who struggle. Oftentimes, volunteering obligations can become overwhelming. Maddie, a very philanthropic stay-at-home mom, recently explained to me, “I’m beginning to see how feeling burned out by all of my volunteer work is partially my fault. I have to admit that there’s a part of me that likes to be the “go to” person, and I get worried what will happen if I don’t say yes. What if it doesn’t get done? What if they don’t ask me to do anything again? I know it’s crazy but it’s true. I have to figure out what I am willing and able to do, and still stay sane, and then stick with it. They are going to keep calling.”

I’ve seen the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve these often arbitrary personal goals of subtle prestige expressed in countless ways: “I’m the last one to leave,” “I’m the first one in,” “I always answer every call even if someone else could handle it,” “I answer every email within 15 seconds of receiving it—day or night,” “I’m happy to delay or cancel a vacation,” “I say ‘yes’ to every project no matter how time consuming, and never challenge the timeframe or process for getting it done.” Interestingly, these expectations are usually never concretely mandated by anyone (“They expect it” even though no one can say for sure whom they is). And, they are often not mission-critical to achieving the objectives of a job.

Why is it such a problem today? My theory is that, back in the Industrial Age, the more flagrant expression of this subtle personal success-related pressure was held in check by outside forces. Organizations set clear boundaries around work (e.g. work 9-to-5, in the office, Monday through Friday), and we didn’t have technology to keep us connected to work 24/7. But, today those corporate-dictated boundaries are gone and they are never coming back. If we let ourselves, technology would allow us to work every minute of every day. As a result, these pressures have more freedom run amuck, unless we figure out how to strategically manage our work+life fit boundaries in a way that meets our needs as well as the needs of the business (the REAL needs, not the imagined needs).

Does this mean that I will never work again over vacation? No, because as with everything related to work+life fit, it’s contextual—based upon your current work and personal realities at the time. In fact, while I didn’t work, my husband did one day because of an unusual circumstance at his company.

It only means that everyday we consciously determine whether the pressure we put on ourselves is working for us or against us. That we aren’t our own worst enemy, and that we are effectively redefining success to match the work+life fit we want to achieve. Always making the necessary adjustments—often very small—even if it feels scary and uncomfortable the first, second or even the third time we try. Because, as Mr. O’Kelly’s story shows, someday it may just be too late.

Personal Work+Life “Fit” Innovation – Kathleen and Tom’s Story

How managing their “fit” actually helped their careers…
This week Kathleen, a senior manager at an international investment bank, shares her story of how she and her husband adjusted their fit in order to manage the challenging transition of having a third child. And, how it helped both of their careers:

Both my husband and I found ourselves at a critical point–juggling the demands of a growing family (I was pregnant with our third child), challenging jobs (which required both frequent travel for him, and very long hours for me), and realizing that life was moving way too quickly. My husband made the choice to pursue his second passion, teaching, and become a high school teacher. This allowed him to not only pursue that interest, but also gave him the flexibility to be home more for the family. He loves it, the kids love it and I love the combination of the two.

I was very happy for him, but realized that I too needed to figure out what my fit was. I loved what I did, but also wanted to be home more. Events happened at work that made me wonder if I should just give up the New York paced job for more time with my family as I didn’t think, given the job I had and my work environment, that I could have both. After speaking with Cali, she convinced me that it didn’t have to be all or nothing, that I shouldn’t give up working. In other words, I didn’t have to give up something I loved to get the fit I was looking for. What followed? I proposed a four day work week with one of those days working from home, as often as possible. I can’t tell you how surprised I was when the response was a solid “Yes.” That was three years ago.

I think back and am glad I took the path I did. And it’s important to point out that my arrangement in no way held me back professionally, nor was there a perception at my job that work was no longer important. In fact, I recently was presented with a position with even more responsibility – which I accepted. The “fit” is still a challenge at times – but in the back of my mind, I always know it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

Join me Tuesday, March 7th for the Work+Life “Fit” Blog

  • Why Work+Life “Fit” is an “Everyone” Issue, Part II
  • Another Personal Work+Life “Fit” Innovation…

One thought on “Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? Redefining Success — Subtle Prestige

  1. I agree that ultimately, it is up to us to say No to work-spillover into our non-work time. However, that perspective doesn’t do justice to the pressures that DO exist on us to work continually. We didn’t all just “get this way” out of nowhere — there are tons of cultural messages in our environment that tell us that we should be working more/all of the time to be worthwhile.

    My husband and I have both made choices that may be career-limiting, from some perspectives, for the sake of fit. And while we feel good about our decisions and wouldn’t do anything differently by choice, it isn’t always easy. I consult as an executive coach and freelance OD/training consultant, which means that my schedule and income is quite variable. He works literally from 9-5pm, and “makes up the difference” in the late evenings at home, so that he can see our 3 wonderful children during the week. As it is, with commuting, he only sees them from 7:15-8am, and 6:30-8pm. More than once, however, he has gotten messages that he is not putting in quite enough “face” time at work, e.g., coworkers who make jokes when he is there earlier than 9am. While he has been promoted and progressed in his career there, it probably isn’t what he could have done if he was working as visibly and continually as others.

    That’s on the personal level. Here’s a subtle mixed-message from the general work environment: The company regularly profiles high-level employees who have also achieved significant outside prominence (e.g., Juilliard-trained pianist who continues to give concerts, someone who holds a significant leadership position at a charity organization, etc.) Note that no one is profiled for going home and spending time with their children! I think the message is pretty clear about what is valued about fit, and what isn’t. Sure, you can have fit, as long as it involves significant public acclaim (and thus added vicarious prestige to the company.) In any case, while we are both sensitive to some of the costs of our choices, we are both also confident that they are the right thing for us and our kids, both short- and long-term.

    So if anyone is finding it hard to stand up to the pressure to work all the time, I’d say, take it easy on yourself, don’t add that to the list of stressors in your life, because there are a lot of messages coming at you that you may not even be aware of telling you to feel exactly the way you do. It takes a tremendous amount of clarity and conviction to go for the fit you find worthwhile — good for you, for doing it!

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