Last year, in my junior-level management class, I showed Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, in which she presents the main ideas from her book Lean In. Aside from the fact that very few of my business undergrads knew who she was (seriously? Grrr), it was a great class experience. We had an in-depth discussion about gender and career choices.
We discussed Sandberg’s now-famous observation that many young women choose fields, employers, and career paths with less upside in terms of financial rewards and advancement opportunities because they are thinking ahead about lifestyle. Even though most are still 10-15 years away from marriage and children, they make choices with an eye to leaving room in their lives for their future families.
By doing so, Sandberg argues, they limit their abilities to earn or to rise to positions of leadership – and ironically, many fail to establish the career trajectory that would allow them to better control their work lives.
I believe Sandberg is right. Many of the 19-year-old female business students I have taught have made their future families a major driver of their career plans. Most end up in pretty good jobs, but I wonder whether, by “leaning out,” these talented young women are unnecessarily settling for lower career trajectories. And in our class discussion, it also became clear to me that most of my male 19-year-old business students hadn’t spent five minutes thinking about their future families when deciding on majors and careers. The vast majority were looking at financial success and advancement potential as their key considerations.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a lucrative path, but I wondered if these young men were setting themselves up for work-family conflict and other challenges later in their lives.
It seems to me that it is just as important that young men learn to appreciate the truth that so many women spot early: that, once one commits to excelling in a demanding career, it becomes hard to scale back without jeopardizing all that one has worked and sacrificed for. Partner tracks and corporate ladders are not known for accommodating those who try to revise the deal. Big-time income also often means financial commitments to such expenditures as private schools or jumbo mortgages on houses requiring upkeep and landscaping. It is easy to get stuck on auto-pilot and continue pursuing a track, even after our lives change and it is no longer what is best.
So, while it is true that neither young men nor young women should close themselves off to certain career paths prematurely, it is equally true that neither should fall unthinkingly into careers that make it far more difficult to pursue other life goals.
As I realized that all my students would benefit from a balanced approach to initial career planning, I also recognized that the need wasn’t limited to them. The rest of us, too, would benefit from a balanced approach to the ongoing management of our careers. Whether it’s the first major step on the career path or the tenth, we should think about the implications for all the factors that have to balance out for a successful life, and whether those in fact need recalibrating. Making a move in light of the full range of considerations would mean thinking about:
- Short- and long-term earning potential
- The location of the job and whether relocation or a long commute is required
- Opportunities for skill development
- Career networking opportunities
- How psychologically motivating the work is (e.g., does it offer autonomy, meaningfulness, and challenges)
- Job security and benefits
- Schedule flexibility and reasonable time demands
- The match with one’s talents and interests
- How personally fulfilling the work is
These last two may be the most important of all, and the most neglected. In fact, during my class discussion of career choices, the idea that one should look for the best match with one’s talents, interests, and sources of personal fulfillment was simply not raised (until I brought it up, towards the end). Of course, smart students know that they can’t eat fulfillment, and financial considerations are important. But many of us would be happier, perform better, attain more career success, and have a more well-balanced life if we were working in a career that we felt more passionately about and that brought us more fulfillment.
So talk to the young people in your life about the need to lean in, but also about the need to have their eyes open, as they embark on certain paths, to what they are signing on for. And keep thinking, too, about your own choices. Spend an hour or two every six months to take stock of your career and how it enhances or strains the rest of your life. Evaluate where you are, and start making conscious career decisions. Don’t let the sheer force of momentum to keep you on a path that no longer leads to the life you will love most.