Career versus family

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, except in the summer when I sometimes cut it down to 30 or less.  Many Fridays, I cut out of work early to spend extra time with my family.  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 and they play tackle the daddy.  I take them sledding in the winter and swimming 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 to some, as a recent comment did on my hierarchy of values post, that I rate my career higher in value than my family.

Let me explain why.

To me, my career is not just my current job.  My career is a long-term productive interest that culminates in my central purpose in life.  It is something that motivates me to get up in the morning and challenges throughout the day.  In 2003, I decide after many months of introspection and research, that I wanted a career as an academic.  I made this decision before I had children or even knew my wife.  Shortly after I met my soon to be wife, I informed her that my career path was going to take me far away from St. Louis.  It was unlikely that I would be accepted to a grad program in St. Louis or that I would find an academic position near there.  However much I loved her and wanted to marry her, I did not and could not give up that part of me.  I was fully willing to manage a long distance relationship, if that was the our path, but I certainly wanted her with me.  A month before I left for grad school, we were married and I was fortunate enough that she came with me.

After 4 years of grad school, three multi-state moves, and 3 kids later, we are now comfortably living in Michigan.  Throughout that period, I managed 40 hour work weeks (for the most part) in study, research, teaching, and other jobs.  I rarely budged on that practice because my career was that important to me.  However, after that 40 hours of often times intense work, I want to spend a good chunk of the remainder of my time with my family.

Two common objections to choosing career over family center on the needs and wants of others (namely your spouse and/or kids) or the possibility of emergencies demanding a change in careers.  What would I do if my wife wanted to pursue her career goals?  What would I do if my kids' school play was at the same time as an important meeting?  What if my wife became deathly ill?  And my answer would be without hesitation to support her decision, to foster my children's dreams, and to care for her, regardless of the effects on my job.  The difference is that I do not equate my job with my career.  Certainly, my career entails various jobs, but my job is not synonymous with my career.  I can change jobs, rearrange schedules, and take a leave of absence.  If my wife chose a career that carried us to a different city, I would continue my career in that city. If my wife wanted to go back to school, I would wholeheartedly support her even if that meant spending more time at home caring for the kids.  If one of my kids was in a play that conflicted with my work, I would put the child first.  If my wife became ill, I would take as much time off of work that was necessary to care for her.  My career is amendable and can even be put on hold.  And while I have many ambitions, they can wait (and often do have to wait as I have far more possible projects that I could pursue than time in a day.)  

What I would not do is continue down a path where that I could no longer pursue my passions.  If my wife wanted to move to a remote jungle forest, I would not follow.  If my kids demanded I stay home or that I follow (or drive) them everywhere, I would tell them no.  Not only for the immediate practical concern of income, but from the personal satisfaction I get from working.  This job makes me happy.  I will not give it up.  While my family makes me happy as well, they are individuals who want to pursue their own values.  I let them and they let me.  We share our successes and commiserate our failures.  While we do things for each other and with each other, its our productive passions that drive us as adults.  Anything less is unacceptable.

Ultimately, I see the two values of career and family as complimentary, not conflicting, but our careers are the primary driver of happiness.   Living a life doing something other than this career would be a life half lived.  My wife and to some extent my kids understand how important my career is for me and do not ask me to give it up for their sake.  I would certainly not ask them too.  My wife, whose current career is taking care of our children, may choose to pursue another career in a few years.  When she does, we will negotiate a means of caring for the children, caring for our house, and caring for each other in such a way that we can both achieve our ends and still be happy.  While there may be changes, delays, postponements, temporary set-backs, and even emergencies, pursuing our passions must come first.  Approaching life with reason allows us to overcome issues in time and resource management.

And this, my friends, is how I apply Ayn Rand's conception of rational selfishness.  We should all strive to be happy in our lives.  And having an appropriate hierarchy of values allows happiness to flourish.


  1. Thanks, John. Very beautifully put.

    I remember, from my musician days, when saying "You love your music more than you love me" was considered to be the worst thing a romantic partner could do to you. It always happened in a relationship that was dysfunctional in many ways, and people who put up with it were never successful in either music or relationships.

    What such partners never understood, or didn't want to accept, was that if the music didn't come first there wouldn't be anybody "there" to have a relationship with. Once the passion got put down, a musician would eventually turn into a gray shell of a person and life with him would be empty, hostile and boring. If you loved a musician, you had to love his music; that wasn't a threat--it was an acknowledgment of who the musician really was. Any partner who didn't understand that didn't understand relationships and had no business being in one, not with anybody.

  2. Thank you, Kelleyn. I believe you are right - the person who says "You love your work more than you love me" probably shouldn't be in the relationship to begin with. If a significant other does not understand or not willing to find out their partner's passions, then they should not be partners.

  3. Hey, John. Interesting post. Here is one point, though. You have described the conflict where your family would hypothetically demand you to give up your career. You have not examined the parallel situation where you career demanded that you gave up having a family. Are you really more willing to do the latter than the former?

    The truth is, I don't believe your thesis. I think, you have identified the role of a family in a man's life (similar to the way Ayn Rand does), but you have not convinced me that your career is a higher value. I would guess that the two take separate spaces in a man's life and should not be in conflict if he has a rational setup all-around.

    That said, I have chosen to put my career on hold to raise my 2 (and 1 more coming) children. I am looking forward to continuing my professional passion once they are older and miss it with no regrets, if you know what I mean.


  4. Kate, very thought provoking question. I respond this way - my career is what I make of it, nothing more and nothing less. It can make no demands except the demands I place on it. So there are no "demands" from my career to give up my family. It would be only me demanding I give up my family. But I would never demand that because they obviously have much value to me. The values do not conflict, they are complementary.

    I did however address several ways in which my career comes first. First, I noted that my decision to become an academic outweighed my desire to get married and have children. If for some reason, my wife did not want me to be an academic, I would have ended the relationship before we got married. I also noted that I moved multiple times in the past three years to pursue my career - dragging my family along with me. If I truly placed them first, I would have stayed where I was rather than subject them to 3 multi-state moves. Something I did not mention in the post, but is also proof of the importance of my career, my contract runs for 8 months. My income is more than sufficient during those 8 months to live comfortably for 12. Yet, I continue to do uncompensated research and curriculum development during the summer months instead of chilling with the family.

    There is much more I could say about how my hierarchy of values are used in a day to day basis, but I do not have time today.

  5. While you were in school, how did you schedule 40 hour weeks? Did you have a daily routine? Did it just work out that way? I'll be in those shoes in about 7 years and I'm sure time with my family will be as important to me then as it is now, so being prepared will probably help a lot.

  6. Curtis,

    Yes. One of the keys to my success was to treat my PhD as a job. I had an office at school where I would go and stay 9-5 every day of the week. Its very, very tempting to take afternoons off (especially on beautiful days), but it inevitably leads to procrastination, cramming, and a quagmire of poor study habits. Once home, it was difficult to maintain productivity, especially with kids to care for. My wife, who worked as a manager at a retail store, had erratic schedules. So a couple nights a week and often on the weekend, I was the sole care-giver until the kids went to bed or Brenda came home. Since Thomas was born in the first year of my program and Tara 16 months later, they required significant care. If your kids are older, you may not need to work away from home (they'll hopefully be much less noisy and "needy"). But I found, as have others, that scheduling work time to be very important for success in a PhD program.

  7. Mindy Newton11:20 PM

    A 40-hour work-week is pretty lightweight for someone pursuing a career. I seem to judge things as Kate did in her post.

  8. John,

    Interesting post. I would like to get back to the Kate's post. Suppose your family would not want to move with you at any cost. Then you would have an option either to give up your family and move by yourself, or give up the move. Since you place your career first, you would probably choose to give up your family. Is this really the case?

    1. Michael,
      This is a complex answer, in part because I believe there are usually solutions that can work if we take the time to find them. And because a career often means more than just a "job", and moving does not have to be permanent. I know people in the military that do that all the time. The solder will be stationed overseas for a year or two, while the family stays in the States. Even jobs far away can be managed to accommodate the family and career. For example, I meet a CIO that worked in Ann Arbor, MI but his family lived in Kentucky. Every week he would fly to MI, and every weekend he would fly home. I also know a professor in my department who is trying to bring his wife, who is just finishing her PhD, to the area to work. The nearest university that is hiring is 2 hours away. So he's exploring options so that they both can continue their respective careers.

      But if I did choose a career that required me to move *right now* and my family refused to go, then yes, I would still go. But consider this. How often do careers demand a *right now* decision? Rarely. How often do careers demand permanently moving to a different area? Rarely. How often can a compromise be found to help everyone reach there values? Often.

      How would I handle it personally? Well, right now my career is as researcher and teacher of web success. That's a career I could pursue just about anywhere. Let's say over time, my career evolves into wanting to lead universities in online education (not likely, but plausible). In this new career, I realize that the chances of me ever achieving this goals are remote with my current university. Which means, I will have to find a position at another university if I want to achieve it. But now that my mother-in-law has moved locally, my wife refuses to move. What would I do? Well, if I couldn't find anything in driving distance. I might explore other alternatives, like starting my own university or writing books or editing a journal on the topic or working remotely or even moving without her. There are numerous ways to achieve that career. Since my family is a high priority to me, I would do everything in my power to keep them near me. But career is part of who I am. So I will not just give up a piece of me. I would be less of a man. I would lose self-esteem. And so I answer your question the way I do.