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.

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