The Work-Life Strategies that Really Matter by Joel Peterson
Every year for the last decade, I’ve spoken to MBA graduates returning for their one-year reunions. As predictable as the annual return of swallows to San Juan Capistrano, graduates who flock back to campus bring with them real-world anxiety over three things:
1) Work – doing meaningful work;
2) Companionship – finding a life partner, or figuring out life with their partner; and
3) Balance – dividing time and energy between work and family
This weekend, my own business school class marks its 40-year reunion, and the issues won’t have changed much. While for many of us, life’s ups and downs may have rounded off the sharp edges on those same apprehensions, they remain the struggles of our lives.
If any of us in the class of ‘73 has had success in four decades of dealing with these existential concerns, it’s because we recognized the truth of the following:
You can’t do it all yourself. Those who’ve done well will likely have one significant quality in common: They’ll have joined (or formed) the right teams. After picking the best players, they’ll have shared their own successes, and celebrated the successes of others. As Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson advised a young and wildly-talented Michael Jordan, “Let the game come to you.” After Jordan committed to being a team player (though not always as the nice-guy), the Bulls won six NBA World Championships. In the same way, realizing that both business and family life are “team sports” will help with finding a team-centered life.
Life is a marathon. A meteoric rise right after grad school is impressive, but long-term success is far more satisfying. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Quick success sometimes goes to people’s heads – and makes them forget everyone who helped them get where they are. In the 1980s, after good fortune and good times made many folks wealthy, real estate markets collapsed. Some panicked; others dug in — and dug out. It turned out that no one was as smart as they thought on the way up (or quite as dumb as others thought on the way down). But steadfast efforts when the chips were down revealed character not apparent when things were going well.
Bouncing back is key. Scanning reunions for grads once deemed “most likely to succeed” may not reveal the ones who did. Brains and ambition help, but it’s a never-say-die resiliency that allows people to move forward through life’s inevitable setbacks. “Most Likely To Bounce Back After A Fall” might have been a better yearbook category.
Give before you get. Real friends give without calculating a return on their friendship. So do spouses. Even salespeople first give information and authentic assurances in order to make sales. And while children require that you give, give, and give some more, they can return something far more valuable than you ever gave them — the chance to pass on the best of what you know, and the best of who you are, to the next generation. We end up caring about things for which we sacrifice. So, finding opportunities for giving goes a long way to relieving personal and career anxieties – which can be rooted in the desire to get before we give.
Don’t underestimate refuge and recovery. I’ve never met a career-driven person who’s found peace in work alone. You need a space for refuge – a way to be alone, to recreate, and to recover; or things can go south. Letdowns are inevitable; so make sure you meditate, pray, stay active, or have a close friend in whom you can confide. Making sure you have the time and place and support for recovery is not selfish. It’s essential.
Wealth, power, fame and influence – perhaps all well and good – don’t reliably deliver satisfaction or meaning in life. I submit that meaning comes from the ability to look back with pride, and to look forward with peace, knowing that those we’ve worked with and cared for are better off for having known us. If recent graduates could be sure of these, they might choose to live with their team in mind.