If you were to take any time to watch me throughout my day, you would probably think that I am a typical family man. I average 40 hour work weeks. On the weekends, I spend a large amount of time with my family. We go to sport practices and play in the backyard. We go on bike rides together. I read them books every night before bed. I play Sorry, Battleship, Candyland, Stratego, and UNO with them. I take them sledding in the winter and camping in the summer. We make dinner a family meal every evening. I cherish the time I spend with my wife and kids. So it may come as a surprise that I consider my career as more important than my family.
Let me explain why.
To me, a career is not just a job. A job is simply the current employment opportunity for which someone is paid. Many jobs can make up a career. Then again, many jobs can just be many jobs, leading to no career. A career, on the other hand, is a long-term productive occupation that culminates in a central purpose in life. It is one’s life work. It is the ultimate source of value creation in a profession of one’s choosing. And because you choose it, it represents the profession you are most passionate about pursuing. It is something that motivates us to get up in the morning and challenges throughout the day.
Family, on the other hand, is where you celebrate our achievements and commiserate in our failures. It’s the place where we can share successes, support each other when floundering, and cling to in times of deep sadness. Family can provide the emotional fuel to keep going when the going gets tough. But there must be something going on outside of the family, some career, for there to be a need for this support (okay, I know some families that create more stress then help alleviate it, but let’s leave that aside). While family is not essential for success and happiness, it certainly makes success special by providing us a place to share our achievements.
In 2003, I decided after many months of introspection and research, that I wanted a career as an academic. I made this decision before I knew my wife or had children. Shortly after I met my soon to be wife, I informed her that my career path was going to take me far away from our hometown of St. Louis. The probability of finding a grad program, and later, an academic position in the St. Louis area were slim. However much I loved her and wanted to marry her, I did not and could not give up my dream. I was fully willing to manage a long distance relationship, if that was the our path, but I was certainly moving away. A month before I left for grad school, we were married and I was fortunate enough that she came with me. My career came first.
You might say “that is fine for you, but not for me.” So why do I say that your career should come first?
The primary reason is because happiness comes from value creation. You can hardly be happy, even if snuggled with the ones you love, if you’re in a mud hut, sick and starving, with no hope of improvement. It is likewise difficult to build enthusiasm for a job at McDonald’s as a fry cook. While earning money can in a meaningful sense buy happiness, as evidenced by studies showing a correlation between happiness and income up to $75,000, is it just the money? Perhaps, but think about the types of people who earn more than $75,000 per year. Most of them are in their mid to late careers. These people discovered a profession they love, worked hard at that profession, and established a career in that field. In the same study mentioned above, higher earning incomes did correlate with a deeper sense of achievement with life. Careers allow individuals to focus intensely on one specialty to develop ever greater values, achieving things that they could scarcely imagine in their 20s. It isn’t the money that’s creating the happiness, but the known value creation as evidenced by other people valuing your output by offering you larger sums of money.
Family, as wonderful as they are, cannot give you that deep sense of achievement. The reason – people have free will. So no matter how much time and effort you put into creating strong, healthy relationships, they are ultimately responsible for their own lives and their own achievements. They can choose to love you or reject you. They can choose to make the most out of their lives or choose not to. Even if you do everything right, it is their lives to live. Your sense of achievement in cultivating that relationship will always be mediated by that fact. No matter how awesome your kids, spouse, parents, or loved ones become because of your help, you can never claim their achievements for yourself.
Certainly, raising children can provide a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Mine do. And many stay-at-home moms and dads can attest to the pleasures (and pains) in raising kids. We can share many joys and values within our loving relationships. And I am very proud to see my kids exhibiting the principles I’ve worked so hard to instill in them. But much of that pleasure comes from our shared creation of values, of small scale achievements, with people we love.
If you truly do make your family your highest value, you end up living your life for their sake, succumbing to the trappings of altruism. Why is altruism so dangerous? Consider a problem so prevalent, that it even has its own name – “Empty nest syndrome.” Wikipedia suggests that people “whose identity was based on being a parent” are susceptible to empty nest syndrome – resulting in depressions, loss of purpose, and feelings of rejection when children leave home to start out on their own. These people truly have made their family their highest value. When their kids grow up and out, parents can find themselves without that highest value, without a career, and without a clear sense of self. It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way, as Ayn Rand so eloquently showed in Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness.
My wife and kids bring me an immense amount of joy. I would not give them up and would fight with all of my might to protect and care for them. My wife and to some extent my kids understand how I feel about them. They also understand how important my career is to me and do not ask me to give it up for their sake. I would certainly not ask them to do so for me. While there may be changes, delays, postponements, temporary set-backs, and even emergencies, pursuing our passions must come first. Our happiness depends on it.