Last month I spent two weeks in Asia for work. I attended some technical meetings with customers in Taiwan for a week, and then I went to Japan to oversee a production trial for one of our new products. By pure coincidence, I was in Japan exactly during sakura (cherry blossom) season, which was pretty awesome. I snuck off to local parks whenever I had some free time to participate in “hanami”, which consists of sitting under the sakura, admiring its beauty, and drinking.
It is not unusual for me to travel for work, and at least half of my trips are international. When I was single, I didn’t mind traveling at all. It was a way to see the world for free, and it broke the monotony of being in a lab 40 hours a week. When I started dating Mrs. BF, I became less enthusiastic about traveling. She has always been supportive of me doing what is necessary for my career, but of course she would rather I be home, given a choice.
This trip was different, though. It was my first time traveling since the birth of our daughter. I had been apprehensive about leaving my wife alone ever since the prospect of this trip had arisen. She also works full-time, so it would require her to do everything while I was gone. Getting up earlier, food prep, daycare duties, bedtime routine- all without my help. I definitely felt some guilt as I headed off to the airport.
During my stay in Taiwan, I went out to dinner with one of our VP’s who also happened to be in town. Let’s call him Joe. Joe is a veteran of our industry, and has held C-suite positions at a number of different companies over the years. He travels to Asia almost every month, and is on the road probably 80% of the year. He wears his Global Services status like a badge of honor. Joe also enjoys talking about himself. “Modesty” somehow found its way out of his vocabulary.
After the fourth or fifth glass of wine, Joe started talking about his family. He has a wife of 25 years back at home in the Boston area. His son is starting graduate school in the fall, and his daughter is deciding which ballet school to attend later this year. He is obviously proud of them. So how does he reconcile spending so much time away from his family? Here is his justification:
“At some point in your life, you realize that everything you do from this point forward is for them. You are living for your children.”
Taken on its surface, this is a beautiful statement. I can picture this being in the epilogue of some Hallmark Channel movie. It would have been a moving moment for all, except for the context. This piece of soliloquy was uttered by a drunk, pompous prick who was literally as far as humanly possible from his family at the moment, by his own choice.
You know what I was doing while Joe was trying to garner our pity? I was scrolling through pictures of my daughter on my phone. It had only been three days, but I wanted nothing more than to be home again with my family. And listening to this guy lament about the “sacrifice” he makes for this family solidified it even more for me. This will not be my future.
Your Career or Your Life
Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of people have to sacrifice time away from their families to feed, shelter and provide for the ones they love. I have complete understanding and respect for men and women that have to do this for the wellbeing of those they love. It is an unfortunate necessity for many.
What I’m talking about is pretending that your family is your priority when it clearly is not. Joe is an egomaniac. He had enough money to retire decades ago, if that’s what he really wanted to do. But it isn’t. He lives for himself, and his personal accolades will come before any of his children’s achievements.
I have seen this time and time again in my (relatively short) career. I work alongside people in their fifties and sixties who have spent a large percentage of their working years in airports and hotels on the other side of the earth. They have missed birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and everything in between. I have experienced firsthand the toll that this takes on their relationships with their spouses and children. It hurts. It often causes resentment, and irreparable damage.
Again, I’m talking about people who have a choice. The coworkers I’m referring to have been earning six-figure salaries for a long time. I’ve heard some brag that they could retire today if they wanted to. But for whatever reason, they still choose to jet set every month. To each his own. Just don’t complain to me that your kid hates you, or your wife has filed for divorce.
Choosing My Own Path
Early on in my career, I was very ambitious. I would jump at any opportunity to make a positive impression on my supervisors. This ambition led to more responsibility over the years. It also meant more evenings at work, conference calls with Asia in the middle of the night, and weekends spent writing papers and reports. And of course, more travel. At my peak, I was on the road approximately 25% of the time. I believed it to be something I had to do, to further my career and fulfill everyone’s expectations of me.
Then I discovered financial independence.
Ever since I became aware of this alternative, my attitude has changed. I no longer jump at any opportunity to pad my resume. In fact, a few years ago I engineered a lateral move from a management position to one that had no direct reports and also little-to-no travel. The last two years have been quite low-stress for me: partially because my position is less demanding, partly because I just don’t care as much any more.
Whenever something happens at work that pisses me off, I merely think about the impermanence of my position and the fact that this is not the rest of my life. I still have stress at work. I still have occasional business trips, and late night calls to Taiwan. Somehow, I recently ended up managing junior researchers again. But I will never wear these burdens like a badge. If it ever becomes too much, I will find another position, or change companies.