Three Career Lessons I Learned From My Family
Being a good writer is synonymous with being a lousy father. That’s the takeaway from James Wood’s recent essay in The New Yorker about the awful parenting skills of some of 20th century America’s greatest authors – Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud and William Styron.
“Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?” Wood asks. “The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.”
And yet I know of many outstanding writers whose track records with their families are excellent. My guess: If you ask them at the right time – not, for example, when a juice box is exploding in their face – they’ll tell you that having a family has been great for their career. It can be for you, too, regardless of your profession.
I’ll leave it up to my wife and kids to rate my skills as a family man, perhaps after bribing them with a spa package and a hamster, respectively. But there’s no question that my own career has benefited greatly from their presence.
Before marriage and kids, I had loads of free time, so much that I literally didn’t know what to do with it. And so I spent 7 or 8 unfocused years slogging through a career that left me uninspired. Then we learned our first child was on the way. Suddenly I found time to conduct a job search, change careers and buy a house, all in about three months. Why? Because the reality of pending fatherhood instantly created focus. Busier than ever after my son was born and getting by on maybe five hours of sleep a night, I also launched what has become a rewarding side career as an essayist, blogger and author.
Career Lesson: Know that you’re capable of much more than you typically imagine (unless you’re a great novelist who drinks four hours for every one that you write).
I’m an introvert, which means I like to be left alone with my thoughts – which, pre-family, were usually about my favorite subject – me. Seeing things from somebody else’s perspective wasn’t necessarily something I resisted. It just never really crossed my selfish little mind. Then suddenly, I had kids and they had needs that could not be ignored, like diapers that cried for changing, and powerful means of bringing their views to my attention, like relentless shrieking in the middle of the night. I learned that we all got along better – and rested far more comfortably – when I took their opinions into account instead of simply assuming my way was best, or the only way.
Career Lesson: Ponder things from the viewpoint of your clients and colleagues now and then, unless you’re a great novelist who knows everything anyway.
Before kids, I was a fragile high-achieving type whose worst fear was failure. So I rarely took many chances, cautiously advancing into my 30s like an old lady edging into a parking space at the grocery store. But parenthood is a laboratory of failure. It’s impossible to get through the day without screwing up at least a dozen things, hopefully not your kids’ entire lives. You experiment, you make mistakes, you learn, you adjust.
Career Lesson: Have the humility to befriend failure. It means you tried to stretch yourself, and that’s the only way to grow. Even great novelists might agree.