Listen to My Wife
New York Times, May 25, 2005
Indispensable guidance from the Unreasonable Woman
he reasonable man adapts himself to the world," wrote George Bernard Shaw. "The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Or maybe on the unreasonable woman. Take my wife.
Jodyand I mean this in a sweet and not a clinical wayhas been in a state of perpetual schizophrenia since our daughter was born. She used to run a company, but she loves being a mom. So she's settled on a string of part-time roles that (in my view, at least) call on a fraction of the skills corporate America spent two decades helping her develop.
Maybe you know a woman (or a few million) like her. It's hardly news that the issue vexing talented people is the struggle to balance their professional lives with time for fulfilling lives outside of work. The shock is that after decades of wrestling with these tradeoffs, the obvious answer is the one everyone has been too skeptical or afraid to explore: changing the way top jobs are structured.
In a world where most people are struggling, the search for "balance" in high-powered jobs has to be counted a luxury. Still, there is something telling (if not downright dysfunctional) when a society's most talented people feel they have to sacrifice the meaningful relationships every human craves as the price of exercising their talent.
Nowhere is there a greater gulf between the frustration people feel over a dilemma central to their lives and their equally powerful sense that there's nothing to be done. As a result, talented people throw up their hands. Women are "opting out" after deciding that professional success isn't worth the price. Ambitious folks of both sexes "do what they have to," sure there is no other way. That's just life.
My unreasonable wife rejects this choice. If the most interesting and powerful jobs are too consuming, Jody says, then why don't we re-engineer these jobsand the firms and the culture that sustain themto make possible the blend of love and work that everyone knows is the true gauge of "success"? As scholars have asked, why should we be the only elites in human history that don't set things up to get what we want?
When your wife declaims like this daily for a decade, the effect can be surprising. For years I listened politely but inadequately, to judge from Jody's grumbling. Now, thanks to her persistence and my exhaustion, I've discovered I'm a feminist ("humanist," Jody corrects). They say spouses come to look like each other; maybe their convictions do, too. In any event, now that I've internalized this, I can help other men avoid my agonizing learning curve.
Here's the deal: this isn't a "women's" problem; it's a human problem. Yet for 30 years women have tried to crack this largely on their own, and one thing is clear: if the fight isn't joined by men (like me) who want a life, too, any solutions become "women's" solutions. A broader drive to redesign work will take a union-style consciousness that makes it safe for men who secretly want balance to say so.
Today talented people live in fear of sounding anything less than 24/7. Tell your boss you have to deal with a drinking problem and you'll be fine; say you want more time with your family and you're on the endangered species list. As a result, my wife says, we're being led by a class of people who made choices (because there was no alternative) that are alien to what most of us want.
Some call this "whining." Others like working 24/7. Still others assert that you can never change the nature of work near the top. But our corporate experience persuades us that change is inevitable. In a globalizing world, many senior jobs are already impossibly big. If they need to be restructured anyway (we're working on how), why not do so in ways that give folks the option to have a life? Skeptics should recall that everyone once "knew" that a weekend or a minimum wage would spell economic ruin, too.
The first step in any tough transformation is what A.A. famously teaches: admit that we're powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable. It's time workaholic males took up this cause, because top jobs will never change unless we do. Jody even has an incentive plan.
In Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata," the women withhold their charms until the men agree to stop making war. Jody thinks that's a promising model. Talk about unreasonable.