Do You Want a Family or a Calling?

From the "Personal Life" section of Ralph Nader's Wikipedia page:

Nader has never married. Karen Croft, a writer who worked for Nader in the late 1970s at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, once asked him if he had ever considered getting married. "He said that at a certain point he had to decide whether to have a family or to have a career, that he couldn't have both," Croft recalled. "That's the kind of person he is. He couldn't have a wife — he's up all night reading the Congressional Record.

I would say the choice is between a family and a calling.

First, let's review Michael Lewis's distinction between a "career" and a "calling":

A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.

If you have a job / career you have plenty of time and energy for your own family, but it's maybe harder to change the world with your professional work. If you want a calling, you don't have time for a family.

To me "family" means kids. If you are parenting children, it's virtually impossible to have a professional calling as Lewis defines it. "Family" can also mean having a spouse who's pursuing his or her professional calling — then, even without kids, it's impossible for you to do the same. (Power couples rarely work out.)

People who start a company and work obsessively to make it go are usual suspects for following a "calling." And how many of them have children or a spouse who's also doing something equally immersive? Few.

I believe the unvarnished reality about work-life-balance is this: the only people who successfully follow an all-consuming, high-impact professional calling are: a) either single or married to a someone who has a "career" (or less) and not a "calling" and, b) do not have kids.

The most effective men and women of this variety tend to be married to a comparatively passive partner (this does not mean objectively passive) because marriage boosts happiness, and do not have kids.

Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but that's what they are: exceptions. Yes, Lewis's distinction is too rigid, but it's to make a point.

Many men, including some of Silicon Valley's most famous, do their "calling" early in life and then "career" later in life with kids. Men have the luck of being able to organize their lives in a way that this can work. Women, not so much. Damn biological clock.

Of course, what do I know? I don't have kids, and I don't have much experience with either career or calling, and I'm not backing these claims with data. I could tick off examples of people I know or have observed, but I don't want to publicly characterize their family or spousal arrangements. So for now I offer only Ralph Nader's candor and my intuitions based on observing people in the world.


A male reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog writes:

When I came to LA, I left behind a wonderful relationship with a woman who was much too good for me. In the intervening four years, I've gotten on a path towards a high-earning career. However, I have also felt more emotional pain than in the rest of my life combined.  I've hardly even had a date since working 70-80 hours a week. I recently tried crawling back to my old girlfriend, but she wanted nothing to do with me.

I don't want to address any specific person whose email you printed, because maybe some of them have encountered legitimate sexism – which does exist. But, while women have a lot of avenues to address potential earnings gaps, men like me have no means to seek recompense for the emotional toll taken out on us by the expected focus on our careers.

The general point of the email is that the emotional needs of men are mostly ignored. Especially around this business of careers and family.

59 comments on “Do You Want a Family or a Calling?
  • As a friend said of an old boss of mine (whom I adored and still do), “Who told him he could have a start-up AND a kid?” His wife was/is in a high pressure tech role and also singlehandedly sold their house, did all the admin/legwork buying a new one and moving the family, and raised their kid (who was 4 at the time). It made me sad. Great guy, superb father when there, but so absent. It takes a toll. Children
    of people who are high-intensity parents when present (grand gestures, constant togetherness for those brief periods, very demonstrative) are traumatized in a very real way by the sudden, frequent absences and just as sudden, intense presence. They usually cannot connect to others or experience true intimacy in later life.

    I’ve felt a calling before but ultimately, my calling is to be a good mother and wife. I don’t want to do anything as much as that, though I’d like to sideline study to be a substance abuse counselor and do that when my kid(s) are grown. It’s old fashioned and took me until very recently to admit this to myself. Serving a calling/career while raising kids seems neglectful and selfish to me, whether it’s the father or mother. Something’s gotta give and if your calling means that much to you, don’t wreck little humans just to feel like you “have it all”.

  • In the end, there are only so many hours in the day. You have to choose how to spend those hours, and live with the consequences of those choices.

    If other people don’t agree with the choices you make, f–k them, since they don’t get to live your life.

  • Yes. One of the parents will have to be focused on family, if the other chooses to pursue his/her calling.

    @Jackie – Not all children of high intensity, so absent parents always feel traumatized and insecure; I guess some of them would learn to deal with solitude so well that they go to be all the more independent and smart kids. I know some of those myself.

  • Insightful article Ben.

    One thing that I want to add is that family and career choice does not have to be mutually exclusive.

    In a fast-paced world, it may look like there is no choice but there are enough people who have found that elusive “balance” between family and career.

    One approach to consider is to consciously build “valuable assets” along the way you build your career. Soon enough these assets will add the additional capacity to perform thus giving you time for your own.


  • If you want a family and a calling, I think it would be smart to do them at seperate times. Before you have kids, start you business and then once it’s up and running, back off the hours a bit to pursue your family life. Thus allowing you to fully engage in each—and get the best of both worlds.

  • Is there a rule in the universe that says “you have to work 16h/day on x, otherwise it will fail”? If so, where does it come from?

    Granted, other people might be working 16h on x and be competing with you. But it also depends on the activity you choose.

    For example suppose you are writing a novel. Other people are maybe pouring more hours into writing a novel, but that doesn’t automatically imply their novel will be better or more successful.

  • Seriously, this is nonsense. It’s based on the assumption that you need to work long hours to fulfill your calling. For some callings, this is true, but for others, not true at all.

    I’m an Internet startup guy. i make a lot of money so don’t need (to justify myself to) investors. I’ve just had my first baby daughter at 33. As a result I’ve been working no more than 30 hours/week for the past 6 months, often less. Still, in that time I’ve taken a brand new project from zero to beta, and it’s now picking up traction at an incredible rate.

    Sure, it’s frustrating at times, but by keeping focused on the target, it’s completely doable. So: if you want a family and a calling, you’ve just got to pick your calling carefully.

  • In one of the Jack and Suzie Welch podcasts, they talked about work/life balance as something that is framed wrong. It’s not about balance — it’s about choices. I’ve found it a helpful way to think about things. I’m left with the same issues of “do this vs. that”, but it takes away the assumptions of there being some intrinsic best way to make those choices. It’s about my responsibilities and what I judge to be important.

  • I can’t help but note the passive construction of your last two sentences: “the emotional needs of men are mostly ignored. Especially around this business of careers and family.”

    “Are ignored.” Who is doing the ignoring? Women have certainly argued for many decades now that men ignore both their own emotional needs and those — wives, girlfriends, children, family — whose emotional needs they pledge to nurture.

    You can make this kind of argument without data, but it doesn’t help. Everyone knows counter-examples, and calling them “exceptions to the rule” is just another opinion — there is no rule. And Michael Lewis’s opinion simply doesn’t hold water: if you “organize your entire self around your calling” that means, by definition, that you don’t value anything outside of your calling. There is no “outside” to be detrimentally affected. Outside, in that case, matters only to people outside you — for example, the women who fall in love with you and complain that you’re emotionally unavailable because you’re a workaholic.

    This is the point that Twyla Tharp makes in her memoir. She made a very deliberate choice to not get married or have children so that she could focus her entire self on her work. She doesn’t see that as having affected her life outside her work detrimentally because she defined what’s important to her to exclude that which is outside her work.

    One problematic aspect of all this is that our society is very deliberately creating a “culture of passion,” in which being passionate about your work is viewed as an essential component of happiness. This kind of talk is endemic in Blogland. I can’t detect a distinction between Blogland’s idea of “passion” and “calling.” I think Tim Ferriss has very much the right perspective about this.

    If I were your age and I had access to the resources you have access to, I would focus less on overarching ideas and principles like “having a calling and having a family are incompatible,” and spend as much time as possible seeking out role models for the kind of life that attracts you.

    I also sense the influence of Penelope in this post. She’s written persuasively about the kind of full-time hired help that’s required for high-earning, high-achieving business professionals to pursue their careers when they have kids. For men, she calls that help a “wife.” For single moms, she calls that help a “house manager” and “full-time nanny.” I think she draws too sharply a line between the emotional needs of parents and the practical needs of parents. I also think her severe Aspbergers makes it very, very problematic to generalize from her experience.

    I also agree with Chris Yeh about this, but I’d go further: people fail to appreciate just how wrong other people’s advice is for them, and unless the person who’s giving you advice has a stake in YOUR outcome, I’d ignore it. There’s no value in paying personally for the mistakes of others.

  • I can think of exceptions but I would have to agree that: “Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but that’s what they are: exceptions.” In general I think you are right Ben.

    My question is: does having a calling dvelop obsession in a person or is it really just that obsessive people find a calling as an outlet to their obsessive impulses?

    If you have a naturally obsessive person and the object of their obsession is not family (which probably wouldn’t be healthy anyway), then the nature of the way they operate would seem to suggest anything aside from their obsession is going to suffer.

  • “One approach to consider is to consciously build ‘valuable assets’ along the way you build your career.”

    Elaborate please. This is vague.

  • Dan, with respect, I find myself not nodding vigorously to this comment, as I sometimes do with your comments.

    First, you’re conflating the second section of this post (separated by ###) which is an excerpt from an email on Andrew Sullivan’s blog with the first part. You talk about the emotional needs of men, and say “You can make this kind of argument without data, but it doesn’t help” and “exceptions not rule” etc etc which were remarks about calling vs. career, not emotional needs of men.

    Second, I agree passion and happiness are often conflated — to use the word again.

    Third, I agree it’s helpful to spend time around role models, but I also believe it’s helpful to think at a high level about ways to organize your life. As I’ve written elsewhere, as a child of parents most of the adults you know early on are your parents’ friends (who are usually parents themselves). The models you have in your head are of being parents. Add to this general media influences and it takes some zooming out to understand that not having kids is an option.

    Fourth, Penelope didn’t cross my mind when writing this, but I agree with your summary (which lends credence to my point) except for your Asperbergs comment. We don’t know how “severe” it is. I don’t think it’s “very, very problematic” to learn general lessons from her life. Surely, if people thought this, no one would read her.

    Fifth, I’ve written about advice elsewhere, but the problem with someone who has a stake in YOUR outcome is that they have an element of self-interest. A therapist has no stake in your outcome and they are often seen to give the most objective advice.

  • I am not sure how much of an exception Sammy is, he just doesn’t fit the standard Silicon Valley mythopoeia that if you take money from a VC you have to sacrifice your family and any outside interests to earn them a maximum return. In fact you have to make this sacrifice before you take money to demonstrate your commitment. We don’t want surgeon’s operating 16 hours a day–or ditch diggers for that matter–why do we think that other kinds of work can be done at that level.

  • “If you are parenting children, it’s virtually impossible to have a professional calling as Lewis defines it.” — I find this bogus based on my own experience…

    I’ve devoted my life to my mission of creating a superhuman thinking machine … published a dozen books and 100 papers … started 3 AI companies and currently lead 2 … no one could accuse ME of not having a calling and pursuing it full steam ahead

    But I have 3 kids, now aged 20, 16 and 13. I’m 43 years old. I’ve been a highly participant parent; and since getting divorced 6 years ago, I have 50-50 custody, so half the week I’m a single parent and the other half I do a lot of business travel. I have home schooled my kids at various times, also.

    I’ve also had an active relationship life, with a second marriage for a while after divorcing the kids’ mom…

    My “secret”? My mind rarely stops churning! Having fun with my kids doesn’t mean my brain stops generating and analyzing AI ideas, or mulling business problems. Sometimes I need to halt the neural work-machine and just be in-the-moment with my family, but quite often my brain parallel processes. So much great AI thinking has gotten done while chauffeuring my kids from one place to another in the good old minivan….

    Of course it’s less straightforward balancing kids and a calling. But if you have passion for both, and some mental flexibility, you can make it work…. I certainly have, and still am…

    Ben Goertzel, PhD
    CEO, Novamente LLC and Biomind LLC
    Vice Chairman, Humanity+
    Director of Applied Research, Singularity Institute for AI
    External Research Professor, Xiamen University, China
    Leader, OpenCog Project
    Proud Parent, Zarathustra, Zebulon and Scheherazade

  • (my main point is on Ben’s facebook page, but also…) plus of course, telling someone you’d love to get involved but can’t because, “I have a calling, babe…” would be a very effective way to keep them at emotional arm’s length- while making one look like an insufferably pompous ass 😉

  • Boy, this seems more true every day. I bet the normal-life trappings calling-pursuers have to renounce or put off indefinitely extend even beyond kids and such, though. Show me someone with a calling who spends a lot of time dreaming about pensions and home ownership, for instance.

  • and another one!- you can change the world by joining a world-changing project, and working for it part-time. Your definition of “calling” is about satisfying one’s own compulsion, not changing the world.

  • I agree with this sentiment, Rich. I’ve also used the word “tension” instead of “balance”. I have the mental picture of holding a leash in each hand with a large dog pulling me as hard as it can in that direction. If I just give up and go with the flow, one of the dogs is going to pull harder, and I’ll look up a while later and be surprised how far I’ve moved. You have to choose, and know that you are constantly having to make those choices, though there is usually momentum going one way or the other at different times.

  • I think the calling vs. kids thing is particularly true in the case of activists. Now that I’m 27, I’m starting to see women who were anarchists/anti-capitalists completely give up their counterculture lifestyle in favor for the standard suburban house-and-2-kids deal. Meanwhile, others deliberately choose not to have kids because it would curtail their political activities. Then, there’s my crazy aunt who kept taking her kids to Communist rallies even though they complained of being tired and wanted to go home. Not great for their development, I’m sure.

  • Ben – first of all – thanks for your insightful blog. I’ve read for years and I’m impressed by your curiosity and wisdom. Have you seen the David Brooks NYT article “The Sandra Bullock Trade”. Relevant and right on in my opinion.

  • You’re doing exactly the thing with Sammy Johnson that I’m advising against: you’re fitting the data to suit your belief. Here is someone who’s telling you that he’s pursuing a calling in 30 hours a week while having a satisfying family life, and you’re telling him that it’s still not possible.

    What’s important to understand is that, while there are constraints and considerations about this, there is no rule. There’s a great deal of complexity under the surface here: are high achievers who fail to achieve happiness outside of work using work to avoid practicing difficult, frustrating skills that are necessary to achieve happiness outside of work?

  • Of course not having kids is an option. Is that what you’re getting at with this post? Are you using the difficulty that some high achievers have in achieving a happy family life to justify not having kids? I think that’s hardly necessary.

    But the fact is that there are high achievers who do both, and if you want that life for yourself you’d be well-advised to find them and study them. There are a wide array of choices around these issues out there — I think you’re unlikely to encounter people who think creatively about those choices in the general media. We lionize workaholic high-achievers in this culture, and look askance at people who pursue a different model. Exhibit A: the vitriol directed at Ferriss.

  • I’m a big believer in therapy, although my experience has been that therapists tend not to give advice, especially when you ask them for it. That’s not, in my opinion or my experience, the purpose of therapy or its value. But, of course, they more than your friends have a vested interest in your outcome, because you’re paying them, and that is certainly one of the factors that gives therapy its value.

  • From reading Penelope’s blog, it’s clear to me that her Aspberger’s cripples in her many situations and prevents her from managing some of the most straightforward tasks of everyday living, whether it’s having a conversation with her child’s teacher or renewing her driver’s license at the DMV. I can’t read her posts on those two subjects without concluding that her Aspberger’s is severe. But you’re right, I have no way of really knowing.

  • I have to say that the way the whole discussion of work and family is framed in general is very problematic for me. Too often a very traditional model of both spheres of life are pitted against each other, and, as though by some natural law, it’s concluded that “you can’t have both.” It can be fun to have this kind of argument — in fact, I can remember exactly how fun it was to talk for hours and hours about this in college when I had neither a job nor a family — but the pain that this kind of limited thinking causes is lived out in too many people’s lives. This fellow who posted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: just his use of the phrase “a woman who was much too good for me” tells me that there’s a whole lot more going on there than just a choice between a career and a family.

  • Actually work (even if it is a “calling”) is much easier and less demanding (generally) than your post assumes. In fact – the more of a calling the easier it is. Hard work is two jobs on a factory floor, easy work is senior management where the perks are lavish and the control over one;s life significant. (Plus white collar wok is way more easy than people pretend. The people who get those jobs are generally smart and well educated and can do what is needed very well with their big toes leaving them all the time they want for family. The real question is what do they want?

  • Hardly. I'm just stating my opinion that Sammy's life is an aberration from
    the norm as I view it. You disagree that there's any batching / sorting you
    can do at a high level. That's fine.

  • Trauma isn’t necessarily something one is aware if having experienced; in fact, it frequently is not. Sure, there can be upsides to the experiences that have traumatized us – increased safety due to rarely leaving the house (in the case of mugging victims, for example), the perks of perceived “independence” constructed to mask a very real need for intimacy – but not recognizing the trauma or the coping mechanisms used to protect oneself is limiting to those who have suffered the trauma.

    Sure, if you isolate yourself and use the isolation as a catalyst for study, you’ll perhaps (but certainly not necessarily) learn more. But the fact is that these experiences are most definitely traumatizing, and not learning about it does oneself a huge disservice.

    As a first step, I had to ask myself why I was totally opposed to exploring my trauma. That then gave me the intellectual curiosity to start studying trauma in earnest. I’ve been doing it for three years and am not by any stretch of the imagination any sort of expert, but I’m extremely wary of those of the “Well, my parents [performed neglectful/abusive act] and it didn’t hurt me!” variety. There is a slim chance that could be true, but it’s so rare as to trigger a curiosity in me as to why they are so opposed to knowing themselves.

  • Ben, I’m sure you’re a great dad. I’d be interested in your perspective on how your two divorces impacted your children, and how (if at all) your work played a part in those events. Seems like a glaring thing not to deem worthy of recognition or discussion.

  • The vast majority of therapists are trained not to criticize and not to give advice. This is why most therapists suck. There are those out there who can and will criticize (in a way that can certainly hurt, as all criticism can, but in the spirit of helping the patient move forward) and give practical advice. They’re worth their weight in gold, which is good since their time is not cheap.

  • Having thought about this for the past couple of days, a couple of other points came to me.

    1) Sometimes, fed up with life and not finding myself in work that I absolutely love, I will tell my therapist that I just want to be a mom and wife and leave business behind. His response: “When you’re with the right partner, you’ll feel more energized about work and want to strive more in that area. Take a big picture view.” My ideal has morphed into a situation where priorities are as follows: having a healthy marriage, raising happy kids, finding fulfillment outside of the home. I have a lot of friends who have done an incredible job raising great kids, and they all seem to have something – even just a few hours per week – outside the home that keeps them engaged with other adults and gives them a personal goal. This is usually volunteer work.

    2) I was wrong to say that being a good wife and mom is my only calling. (I allow for the possibility that I’ll have kids and then hate being a mother, but I doubt that will happen.) My real calling isn’t a business-oriented goal, but can help in achieving them. I love connecting with interesting people, by which I mean achieving that level of understanding where you really “get” the other person and can be of the greatest service to them. I have always done this in work, and now do it in extracurricular activities such as volunteer work. I hope to incorporate this into my life as a substance abuse counselor someday, but the “calling” part of it can be (and is) used in everyday life just as easily. So I’m more fortunate than I’d realized.

    How many people’s real “callings” are specific career goals, and how many are an underlying motivator that may be pursued via any number of work and non-work activities?

  • Jackie, I think you’re getting at something important with the idea of skills or moral motivators being callings. We shouldn’t be saying that it is a calling to achieve Level X of a career- it’s the good you do once there, that matters, and is the calling. There’s a bad bug in the American work ethic, which treats all success as good per se, and allows people to justify achieving power they may well abuse- but we still admire them for their sacrifices and their success. When in fact, any egomaniac will be *happy* to dump on their family, friends and values, in order to get into the position they’re seeking.

    I’m not sure what Ben means by “non traditional work callings”, or how it relates to your comment. I would say the point of the calling is not the job title, or success-level, but whatever you’re going to do with it that’s truly, objectively good: for the world, outside of yourself (crucially!)

    Also, you’re right that great mothers nearly always do something else too- to be a great mom, you need to be happy and fulfilled in your life. Kids don’t benefit as much from depressed, self-sacrifial mothering. I don’t think there is another job/role where the rule of self-care as a primary requirement applies as powerfully as in mothering (not even fathering, which is less physically demanding.)It’s the reason why some moms really are better off getting a lot of outside help- emotional inability to cope otherwise. I’ve met fairly high-powered moms who didn’t have the emotional resilience to parent full-time. The office was less demanding, and actually recharged them. (How few people realise that we have an emotional “muscle” for this work, and that it can be consciously developed…)

    (Apologies for going further off topic.)

  • What are you trying to do, Ben Goertzel, God love you, make every man over forty years old who reads this blog feel inadequate?

    If I can wake up without a hangover, get some work done, and pop a nut, it’s a great day.

    Kids aren’t in the picture for me, so what a surprise to discover that the best things in my life come from being a godfather.

    I was thinking of how you can create a family, you know, how you can make your own loving family when the only one you ever knew was toxic and the human dynamics were destructive:

    Once I was sitting at a tiki hut somewhere and the guy across the bar from me looked eerily familiar, like a younger version of myself.

    The logistics of time, location, and wild oats once sown made paternity a possibility.

    I didn’t care for his haircut, his clothes, or the particular tattoo he had chosen to adorn himself.

    I didn’t even like his accent, but he was undeniably an excellent physical specimen.

    I considered striking up a conversation, to get a feel for the kind of person he might be, but when he started raving about the one rock band on earth I most despise, I thought better of it.

    It was like finding out the long-lost buddy you hadn’t seen in ages was a Fred Durst fan.

    It just wouldn’t work.

    By the way, who the hell does Dan Owen think he is, Vince Williams? 😉

  • Alice, this is where I come out as deeply suspicious of those who aim for a very specific, usually title-oriented career goal or affiliation. It screams of an unrestrained ego and I tend to stay away from those who talk early and often of their affiliations (ditto colleges). One of the things I absolutely adore about the guy I’m with is that he STILL – some time into our relationship – hasn’t mentioned the fact that he has three degrees from two of the world’s most prestigious universities. Even though lots of my friends went to one of them, even though we talk about both having lived in/around the city where the university is, it’s nothing he’s fussed about. Modesty – about accomplishments and in goal-making – is the most underrated virtue in my eyes.

  • I hope I’m making a more nuanced point than that.

    This is one of those arguments in which “the norm as I view it” is very problematic. I think you’re seeing what you expect to see because you’re not looking for what you don’t expect to see, and the culture and media strongly reinforce that. Nassim Taleb gives many examples of this kind of perception bias in Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. It isn’t that I’m not willing to generalize, it’s that I’m not willing to generalize from this particular sample set, which I think is particularly corrupted by perception bias.

    Also, to be frank, I feel like you’re weighing career and family and giving up on family on the basis of an idea you have about their incompatibility. This is, granted, a big and probably unwarranted leap, but there’s some other subtext in your writing about this subject that I can’t quite put my finger on.

  • In the post, Michael Lewis defines “calling” as “an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it”

    This is a very problematic definition: if you pursue something outside of that activity, it threatens your selfhood. But that may explain why many high achievers have such limited lives: they’re protecting their self hood.

    I think it’s valuable to talk about motherhood as a calling in this context, because the fact is that pursuing raising children — which is how Ben is defining “family” — to the exclusion of an intellectual or social pursuit seems just as unhealthy to me as pursuing a career to the exclusion of emotional intimacy or a family or social connectedness. Sacrificing yourself for your kids, though, doesn’t carry any of the cultural censure that working 100 hours a week on your path to law partner does.

  • I could not agree more. It’s the most underrated virtue of our times, too. But the meek will probably inherit the earth this time round, if only because no-one else has noticed! Go you! 😀

  • Dan, I was a full time SAHM for nearly 10 years, and the job was generally very much considered to be about social pursuit- one attended some group of other SAH parents & offspring (increasingly dads are included, these days) almost every day, and was expected to network and connect.

    Intellectual pursuit, on the other hand, is extra to parenting- but not dependent on input from other adults. One can easily develop one’s intellect by immersing in the culture- books, studying, learning about the culture are all accessible to people whose lives are based around home rather than offices (including older people, for example).

    As for selfhood- I don’t think we should define our selves just by our primary work. Human beings are at the very least, responsible for evolving the growth of knowledge and improving life on the planet. That’s a bigger identity than one’s job, because it’s about how you live and influence others, 24/7. Sometimes postal workers or teachers or street-cleaners are actually better people than presidents or big biz moguls. Maybe they have callings to do good in this world, in simple ways Donald Trump hasn’t dreamed of, and maybe they do more good- how would we know?

    You raise the issue of exclusivity, and I entirely agree with you that it is unhealthy and wrong to consider excluding things as some kind of pathway to success. People only ever make this claim to justify their failures and their losses. The most a successful narrowly-living person could ever say would have to be, “Maybe, if I had become a kindergarten teacher instead, I would have met my soul-mate.” There is no way anyone can ever know that for sure.

    Modesty is an underrated virtue, as Jackie said.

  • Ralph Nader is an excellent public speaker, and I’m glad that he chose his ‘calling’ over family to perform his useful public service– writing Unsafe At Any Speed, for example, but he comes off as a total prig and a rank megalomaniac.

    Barack and Michelle Obama are one power couple that made their relationship work– these two very ambitious, focused, career-driven people seem to have done a good job of pursuing their calling and making a family.

    Yet I wonder if a dynamo like Michelle Obama feels stifled in her auxiliary role as First Lady.

    The whole concept and title seem a little bizarre, and certainly outdated, anyway. Think of the absurd and demeaning traditional media fascination with the First Lady’s clothes and hair.

    I don’t know of any corresponding role for the spouses of female heads of state in other countries, the very idea would seem ridiculous.

    You don’t read in the news about the trivial doings or symbolic ceremonial trappings of Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s husband, quantum chemist and professor of physical and theoretical chemistry, a pretty high-powered guy himself.

    This “First Lady” business is a symptom of the pathological state of the cultural climate in the US.

    It’s an archaic relic of the old repressive order that should be disposed of if we’re ever to have social parity for women.

  • People who studied “social dynamics” in order to benefit on the “singles-market” (read: finding partners), have indeed come to the conclusion (pretty much in “unisono”) that that’s exactly what a man has to do in order to impress women.

    – emotionally unavailable, but willing to change that when the woman in question is able to “impress” THEM (the longer this process takes, the “sexier” the man)

    – emotionally unavailable, as in having many partners

    – “linearly” following their “calling”, being unaffected by the often bi-polar emotional nature of women (compared to that of said men) they are with

    – superiority complex

    – being egocentric

    So while the culture of “Black Swans” may exist somewhere out there, the truth is, that this is not only the model which was dominant throughout history of mankind, but also one which is based on our “nature”.

    If you end up working 90-100 hours/week, as a rule, you are doing something wrong. Frankly, the brute force approach exposes one’s weakness.
    If you can’t organize your job or learn enough, so that you can do your job in 40hours/week, find something else, something easier.

    NBA players do not practice 16 hours a day. A lot of practice/work/experience doesn’t lead to perfection. PERFECT practice leads to great progress though.
    Mahmoud Abdul Rauf may have been the greatest of all times at the free throw line, because he was obsessed with it, but Michael Jordan won the championship rings. lol

  • You’re hanging out with the wrong people. There are plenty of dedicated, freakishly successful people who have lives and families. Far too many to be written of as exceptions. Obsession is a choice, not a prerequisite for success.

  • dear ben casnocha i am your friend from cyprus believe me its true this one my company is growing very much but i am still single and i am thinking that if i had a spouse i will not have succesfull operation but now i want to build family -how can i do it when the operation taking a lots of my social life i dont know can you help me best regards from cyprus

  • Hmmmmm. I am struck by how different the thesis of this article feels from my experience. Most of the folks I know who are following their “calling” have done so knowing that it may or may not come with significant financial rewards. In doing so, they free themselves to truly organize their lives around their passion. Some end up doing very well financially and some not so much, but many have kids with whom they share their passion. I think if by “calling” you mean significant public recognition of your endeavors (whether through a presidential appointment or an IPO), then the thesis of this discussion may be accurate. But if you mean a passionate and abiding love of teaching, medicine, fighting poverty, protecting the enviroment, music or art, then I would say that sharing that passion with a partner and kids certainly is not an exception among the folks I know.

  • Hi Ben,

    Count me among the skeptics. To be sure, there is a profound distinction between a career and a “calling,” and there are also certain jobs/activities that can be all-consuming at times, but I have to say that your bold-type conclusion above doesn’t resonate with me *at all.* I know plenty of people who believe deeply in what they do, who have enormous ambition and profound success, and who also have rich family lives. The two are simply not mutually exclusive.

    True, a lot of ambitious people work nonstop in their 20s and early-30s and then work fewer hours once they have a family. Are all those people giving up their calling in order to have a family? By no means. Is family-Bruce Springsteen less dedicated to his music than single-Bruce was? Is Daddy-Barack Obama less committed to his ambitions and ideals than he was before kids? Of course not. I’ve been a father for 13 years and love my kids as deeply as any Dad, but I’m not one whit less serious or less-ambitious as a writer than I was before having kids. (Whatever anyone thinks of my work, there’s no question that my best work has come since I’ve been a father.) In fact, I think it’s quite clear that having children and an active, time-consuming family life often enriches the life *and* work of many, many people. (To be clear: I am not arguing the reverse, that you can’t have a rich life and worklife without kids).

    Ralph Nader has chosen a path for himself, and that’s fine. Other ambitious people have had kids but then neglected them in order to fulfill their ambition. But there’s another world of people out there: fiercely ambitious, as dedicated to their calling as one could imagine, but also living a vibrant family life. In my world, this isn’t the exception; it’s the rule.

    – David Shenk

  • As a Gen X woman I thing this a tough lesson for us to learn as we were told growing up we could “have it all.” Only turns out you can’t not really.

    Something always suffers and it sucks when it’s the kids.

  • I think a lot of people here, especially those mentioning Tim Ferriss, raise a key point: if you want certain things in life, there are more efficient ways of getting that than others. I’m sure it’s possible to a few million dollars and still be a present, attentive parent. Now, that sounds pretty good to me even if it’s not a “calling” as Lewis describes it.

    I think Lewis’s definition is too narrow and risks being circular: it is something you dedicate your entire life around. It sounds like a form of glorified servitude. It doesn’t have room for someone who is out there achieving their goals, even big ones, and still enjoying a multifaceted life.

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