Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What balance?

Disclaimer: All references to success in the following post refer only to professional/financial success. Obviously, there are several ways to be successful in life, many of which do not come with financial rewards.

Two of my favorite bloggers, Fred Wilson and Brad Feld, weigh in on the concept of work/life balance this week. Now, I don't know either of them, but each of them is a GP at a VC fund, which is no easy thing. They also speak about their families in their blog, especially Fred, and even through their posts, it's obvious that their families are important parts of their lives.

So, successful, with strong families - these two must have it all figured out right? Well, looking at their narratives, maybe that's not the whole story.

Brad reminisces:
I started my first company when I was 19 and in college at MIT. I was obsessive, worked incredibly hard, and - while I generally had a lot of fun - was almost always maxed out. This manifested itself in many ways, including always being overcommitted, regularly being exhausted, having a failed marriage when I was 24, and physically changing - according to one of my best friends - from "skinny Brad" to FOB ("fat older Brad").

During this time, I was very successful at the work I did. I created a company - Feld Technologies - which was acquired by a public company. I helped start and/or finance a number of other companies which went on to be acquired or go public. I helped create a venture capital firm. I was well known and respected within the entrepreneurial community - both for what I had accomplished and what I was working on.

In a similar vein, Fred says:
Although I didn't know it at the time, it was an issue that I was really struggling with, having just started Flatiron, wanting badly to prove myself to my partners and investors, and also struggling with a family - three young kids and a wife.

Both of these posts follow a pattern I've seen in every discussion of work/life balance. A successful executive talks about how they were completely driven and single-minded for a long time, had varying degrees of difficulties in their personal life, and then finally came to the realization that they needed to have more balance in their life. While this always makes for an inspiring story, the one part that is never mentioned is how much of their professional success was a direct result of their single-minded focus.

For better or worse, we are often judged professionally, not only on how much we have accomplished, but by how quickly we have accomplished it. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that it is much harder to prove oneself at the beginning of a career, than to maintain a developed reputation. By no means am I saying that either one of them is "coasting" on their reputation, but both of these men have achieved a certain professional status. With that status comes the expectation, at least from most people, that these guys know what they are talking about. In most cases, meeting, or even exceeding these positive expectations does not require the type of all-consuming dedication that building that reputation in the first place does.

The simple fact is, some things are hard, and require a 100% commitment. To be the most successful in several fields, this kind of focus is a pre-requisite, at least early in your career. This kind of commitment is not limited to the business world - sports, acting, music - all require a single-minded focus (not to mention a little luck) to rise to the top. I say this, not to denigrate the importance of family or a personal life, but to highlight the reality of the situation - balancing a personal life with a career will inevitably lead to forgoing some advancement in the latter. Whether or not this is a worthwhile cost/benefit, is something that each person has to decide for themselves, but I think it's important to acknowledge that "Balance" is sometimes about choosing between the two, and not just a matter of juggling better to have it all.

If I could ask Brad and Fred a question it would be - do you think you would have risen to GP as quickly had you had more balance in your life early in your career? Looking back, would you have been willing to delay that accomplishment by 5 years to have more balance? How about 10 years? Would you have been willing to pursue another (presumably less interesting) career altogether, if that is what it took to achieve the balance you have now?