The three G&Ts buzzed me enough to dig in and buzzed Jason enough to drop his executive polish and open up. "I commute three hours round trip and spend 10 hours in mindless meetings," my old b-school friend confessed. "I try to make storytime, but the kids are usually asleep by the time I get home." This was no small admission for Jason who, at 36, fast-tracked his way into a VP gig for a Fortune 5000 company. "I spend most Saturdays in the office and most Sundays drinking Heinekens, watching the Patriots and dreading Monday. I can't remember the last time Karen and I...," he over-shared. "Maybe our anniversary?"
Everything Jason and many of my other MIT 2011 MBA classmates were experiencing was predicted by the Oracle, Clayton Christensen. He's the father of Disruptive Innovation theory, a New York Times best-selling author, professor at Harvard Business School, and one of the Nine Wise Men who shaped my life deeply after meeting with him several years ago. (I'm writing a 10 part series about the Nine Wise Men who taught me to put my life ahead of my startup.)
It was like Christensen had a crystal ball for Jason's life. Let's use Christensen's words, and Jason's name: Before we began our MBA program at MIT, Jason "had written entrance essays on [his] dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Periodically, as we were all considering our postgraduation plans, we'd try to keep ourselves honest, challenging each other: 'What about doing something important, or something you really love? Isn't that why you came here?' 'Don't worry,' came back the answer. 'This is just for a couple of years. I'll pay off my loans, get myself in a good financial position, then I'll go chase my real dreams.' It was not an unreasonable argument. The pressures we all face-- providing for our families, meeting our own expectations and those of our parents and friends, and, for some of us, keeping up with our neighbors-- are tough." Jason's story matched 1:1 with Christensen's description.
Does this sound familiar? It's the story of countless hyper-talented classmates of mine. In the spring of 2011, weeks before graduation, Jason succumbed to his standing offer at McKinsey. "It's just for two years to pay off the student loans," he explained sheepishly. Student loan payments in 2012 and 2013 gave way to McMansion mortgage payments, German car leases, and resort vacations in 2014, '15, and '16. Before you take out the world's smallest violin for Jason's first world problems, remember that this guy is miserable, enslaved by his salary and lifestyle, and doesn't see how to break free.
I'm much less talented than Jason and also owed MIT $180,000 of student loans in 2011 but I avoided salary slavery by reading How Will You Measure Your Life and asking myself three questions.
Question 1: What did my 10-year-old self dream of?
Christensen writes, "When you were 10 years old and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, anything seemed possible. Astronaut. Archaeologist. Fireman. The first female president of the United States. Your answers then were guided simply by what you thought would make you really happy.... But for many of us, as the years go by, we allow our dreams to be peeled away. We pick our jobs for the wrong reasons and then we settle for them."
I read this while sitting in Manhattan's High Line Park in the summer after I had graduated b-school, started an edtech company, failed to raise VC, and "broke up" with my co-founder. That month, I owed $1,300 to MIT student loans, $2,000 to my slumlord, had zero income, and $65 in my bank account. I was sleeping on an air mattress and bicycling home from bars blackout drunk. What should've been the greatest summer of my life was my worst.
I was considering joining my high-salary friends "just for a little while" but 10-year-old Slava had dreamed of being an inventor and I couldn't give up on that dream. Inspired and re-motivated, I tucked my tail between my legs, put my loans on hardship deferment, and moved into my mom's house in suburban Boston. My WW2-surviving, Soviet educated grandfather, Dedula, asked me, "You have three degrees and you can't get a job?" My temper tantrum response didn't win any confidence.
Dedula's $5,000 Bar Mitzvah gift bonds and mom's cooking bought me 10 months of startup runway. In 2012, I launched a bike company and a real estate startup. If you're thinking, "Easy for him to say. He doesn't have mortgage payments and mouths to feed" then you're right. Taking big risks as a bachelor is indeed simpler. But I have other friends who tightened their family budgets, downsized their houses, traded Audis for Accords, supported their families on one income, and bought themselves 12 months to pursue their passion.
They figured, what would be the WORST that could happen in 12 months? For most people, the answer is budget vacations, downsized cars, and stunted savings.
But what would happen if they didn't at least give it a shot? I'll let Steve Jobs answer that one: "The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."
Question 2: What kind of spouse, parent, and friend do I want to be?
Jason sacrificed fulfilling work and family time for high salary and prestige. This was never his plan, so how did he get here? Christensen explains, "The danger for high-achieving people is that they'll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments." Indeed, our spouses will forgive us for missing a date night and kids can get used to Saturdays without us, at least in the short term. "Investing time and energy in relationships doesn't offer them that same immediate sense of achievement that a fast-track career does," Christensen explains. "It's really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, 'We raised good kids.'"
We know that strategy is more than all-day whiteboard brainstorming, PowerPoint presentations, and giving marching orders to your team. "Real strategy--in companies and in our lives--is created through hundreds of everyday decisions about where we spend our resources," Christensen explains.
The same is true in our personal lives. The small, daily decisions are the most critical. I've focused on these everyday resource allocations as a way of changing my behavior to fit with the kind of person I want to be. My team knows I leave the office at 5:30 p.m., leave my laptop in the car, and leave email off my iPhone. All of this so I can focus my evening energy on my family. It's a constant willpower battle and I don't always win, but I'm getting better every week with every small decision.
Question 3: What do I stand for?
Christensen believes in prioritizing his family and faith without sacrificing his career. He shared a story in one of the lectures about working at Boston Consulting Group. Most of his colleagues ate dinner at their desks and worked weekends, while young Clayton bounced every day explaining, "I have to make the 6 o'clock train." He didn't offer that there was a 7 or 8 o'clock option. When a boss asked the whole team to come into work on Saturday, Christensen said, "I'm sorry but I can't. I promised Saturdays to my family." The frustrated boss rearranged everyone's schedule for Sunday but Christensen politely refused again, explaining, "Sunday is my day for God." Exacerbated, the boss rearranged the meeting a third time and stormed back to Christensen and exclaimed, "Well, do you work Mondays!?"
If Christensen compromised his belief system and stayed late "just this once," it would become a slippery slope. "Decide what you stand for. And stand for it all the time."
In reading his book, I decided I stood for life, liberty, and the pursuit of passion, happiness, and adventure. In the last five years, I've built a real estate startup and groomed a leadership team that allows me to follow my passion while taking multi-month adventures. I write this while my wife drives our campervan to the next Utah national park. My business grows slower with me working half-time half of the year, but it's worth it to me. It's what I stand for.
What do you stand for? What sacrifices have you made to pursue your passion? Can you share any tricks for untethering from work and devoting time to your loved ones? Please share what you've learned in the comments section.