A few months ago I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook. The book has been a huge best seller. I agree with a lot of what Sandberg says–probably 90% of it, especially as she talks about how women need to have more confidence and women are able to do anything a man can do. No arguments there. But there was one page of the book that drove me a bit crazy with regards to parenting. She cites a study that states:
Exclusive maternal care was not related to better or worse outcomes for children. There is, thus, no reason for mothers to feel as though they are harming their children if they decide to work.
Sandberg then goes on to say this:
Children absolutely need parental involvement, love, care, time, and attention. But parents who work outside the home are still capable of giving their children a loving and secure childhood. Some data even suggest that having two parents working outside the home can be advantageous to a child’s development, particularly for girls.
Although I know the data and understand intellectually that my career is not harming my children, there are times when I still feel anxious about my choices.
In fairness, Sandberg doesn’t appear to be saying parental involvement doesn’t matter, but it would be easy for someone looking for that message to get it from Sandberg’s book. It offers a balm to the conscience for those who have chosen to spend time at work instead of with their children and feel guilty about it. Some of us are looking for ways to comfort our consciences when we work late, work weekends, and stay glued to our phones when in the presence of our children. Sandberg’s book provides this relief, and even takes it a step further by making it sound as though perhaps we’re actually helping our children by spending less time with them.
What if this message is wrong?
Studies, especially social studies, tend to be subject to bias, error, and update. When it is said “Exclusive maternal care was not related to better or worse outcomes for children,” we have to ask who decided what the outcomes being measured were, how data was collected, and over what period of time. What if the outcomes measured were merely academic or professional? What if the outcome was based on answers from adult children of working professionals? What if the data was collected over a 30 year period, but after 60 years you would get significantly different data? It’s not my point to debunk this or any other particular study, but to ask whether any social study can answer the question for you or for me when we ask ourselves “Would my kids be better off if I were home less, or more?”
The work many do in their professions is undeniably important. The work Sandberg and Zuckerberg are doing is changing the world. But when it comes to questions of what is good, what is better, and what is best, what’s most important? Not that anyone who works outside the home is automatically failing as a parent, and many of us simply don’t have that option, but what if in the long term it’s more important for Sandberg and Zuckerberg to be good parents than to do everything Facebook is doing? These aren’t mutually exclusive choices, but as soon as we justify any work as taking priority over time with children it seems it’s a slippery slope to the father who leaves his children at 7 am, doesn’t see them again until 7 pm, and is then glued to his smartphone until they go to bed. Can we believe this father engages in this behavior at no cost to himself or his children? Is it any wonder this father would praise himself when he spends token “high-quality” time with his kids and latch on to any research that justifies his behavior?
You might agree that the above behavior is harmful. You might be seeking ways to spend more time with your kids, rather than less. You might be the dad who has breakfast with his kids before school and work, is home with them for dinner, and is focused on them whenever together. But what if even the standard 8-hour day is harmful to children and families? We accept it because it’s the norm, because everyone is doing it, because psychologists and other authority figures tell us it’s ok and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it, but what if they’re wrong? Many studies focus on academic results, but academic impact is one facet of life amongst many others.What if the results that really matter don’t show up in standardized exams? What if the real results take decades to be measured accurately Or what if the results that really matter aren’t being measured at all and there is no data you can rely on? What if the larger problem in our societies isn’t that we don’t have enough women working, but that we have too many fathers working? Maybe women don’t need to lean in so much as we all need to lean back.
Is full employment all it’s cooked up to be?
Politicians, economists, and pundits pay close attention to unemployment levels, as though unemployment were always a bad thing. 200 years ago we had full employment. Every man, woman, and child worked all the time, with the average frontier household spending perhaps 300 hours per week working. What did our ancestors get for their 300 hours per week of work? A small log cabin with a dirt floor, a subsistence lifestyle, and the constant threat of disease and death. That was the norm. Today our middle-class and even the vast majority of those living in “poverty” in the United States live far better than this. A single parent living at the poverty line may still have access to healthcare, Social Security, central heating, Facebook, and time to spend with friends. Heck, just imagine trying to explain to a farmer from New York in 1800 that the day would come when even those who are unemployed would get a paycheck. Today an American family categorized as “poor” lives better than most European kings did 800 years ago.
The point isn’t to say that anyone, especially those living in poverty, should stop complaining and be glad for what they’ve got. It’s to show that perhaps many of us, especially those in the middle-class to wealth tiers, don’t need everything we think we need to be happy. Maybe full employment as a country or as a household can’t buy us what we really want. We assume we need to have at least one person in a typical family working a standard 40-hour week, if not two people working 60-hour weeks. We do this because we feel we have to in order to “get by.” But for many getting by includes multiple cars, a large house, private schools for the kids, expensive vacations, flat screen TVs in every room, smartphones for everyone, Netflix, and so on. Does all this stuff produce the outcomes we want for our families? Are we chasing full employment for ourselves to get what we want, or to get what corporate and government interest groups have convinced us we need through clever slogans and mass advertising campaigns? (as a marketer I’m shooting myself in the foot here…)
What could be more arbitrary than an 8 hour work day? Why not a 4 hour work day? Why 5 days a week? Why not 4, or 3? We used to work 6 days a week–7 days if there was an emergency, as there frequently was what with the ox getting in the mire and such. Economic efficiency, brought to us thanks to technology and specialization, means we get more while working less. With developments in robotics and artificial intelligence it’s not unthinkable that the day may come when nobody needs to work to have the basic necessities of life. The thing is, we’re already much of the way there, but we keep filling up our time with more work.
This isn’t just a first world or middle class problem. For those of us who make up the middle-class, materialism may harm our relationships within our families, but our kids will still go to a good school and sleep safely with full stomachs. For the poor, giving into messages telling them to spend money on things that don’t matter can result in the same relationship problems plus serious challenges with regards to health and education, leading to a negative cycle.
A better way?
Despite studies that say it’s ok to work more and outsource childrearing to third parties, many working parents are coming to the realization that something is missing. Parents, and non-parents as well, are finding that jobs and careers, while rewarding and important, aren’t the end-all, be-all of life. In Sweden the country at large is experimenting with a 6-hour work day. In other places companies have a 4-day work week. Yesterday I met a father who’s taking a year to travel the world with his wife and four kids. Each month they move to a different country. They’re currently in Hong Kong. Last month they were in Italy. How does he do it? He didn’t earn millions and then retire, he runs a small online business doing drop shipping. He “buys” stuff but never takes possession of it, then sells it to someone else for more than he bought it for. The people he buys from ship the products directly to his customers. He’s not making a fortune, but he’s making enough to live the lifestyle he wants to live. This is an income model espoused in the best-seller The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss.
I’ve been running a business since 1999. I used to work 80+ hours per week. I had a nice office. I got rid of the office and the 80 hour work week in 2007. Now I work about 4 days a week, rarely more than 40 hours in a week, and I make better money, live on a sub-tropical island in Hong Kong, and work from home and am able to spend lots of time with my kids. I’m seeing them grow up firsthand rather than hearing reports about it. This morning at 9 am instead of being at the office or commuting there I was getting my makeup done by my 7-year old daughter.
I have nothing against women in the workplace, no more than I have anything against men in the workplace. I think we have too much of both. We don’t need more men or women showing us how to be powerful executives who work hard and change the world, we need more men and women who recognize the family as the fundamental unit of society, happy children as the most important KPI, the 5-day, 40-hour work week as an outdated relic, and who are willing to take the risk of ditching the career they think they need for something more important. For some, it might mean making financial sacrifices or other lifestyle changes. For others, it may be a complete shift in how they think about the world. But smart, creative people are figuring out everyday how to work less and have more of everything, including financial benefits. There’s no reason you can’t be one of them.
“But I don’t like being at home. I like being at work. I’m fine seeing my kids for an hour or two each night, and I don’t think that’s bad, I think they’ll turn out fine.” Then this blog post isn’t for you. It’s for those who feel there’s something wrong when they, as parents, only see their kids for an hour or two each day, if that. It’s for the parent who says “I work all the time, my daughter is going to be 18 in a few years and leave home, I’m not sure she’ll even really know me, and weekends aren’t enough. Something has to change.”
Among these parents who want change, there are some households making a combined income of $250,000 per year with $500,000 in the bank who can say “You know what? I’m tired of this, let’s quit our jobs and start raising our own children!” and they can just do it. There are Internet entrepreneurs out there who may not be that well off, but they’re able to make ends meet and work from anywhere, anytime. I get it, it’s easy for them, but they’re the 1%–what about the rest of us who would love to spend more time at home with our kids but can’t see how that’s remotely possible? Having dad at home more sounds like a great idea, but doesn’t do much for the single mom making $12,000 per year trying to raise 4 kids.
I don’t know of a single formula that will allow anyone under any circumstances to suddenly start working 20 hours per week and get by just fine. I do know some things that won’t work.
- The solution is not a higher minimum wage–nobody will ever be able to live the lifestyle I’m advocating on any sort of minimum wage. Trying to make a living off a minimum wage is a losing strategy, although taking a minimum wage job as a temporary step towards something better may be a winning strategy, although still probably not one I would advocate.
- The solution is not more formal education. You know those studies that show that people who go to college make more money? They’re rubbish. It’s a clear case of selection bias. The people who go to college would make more money than those who don’t regardless of going to college or not. Yes, education is a huge part of the solution, but don’t confuse time spent inside school or a degree for an education.
- The solution is not affordable day care programs. If someone is planning on working their way slowly up a ladder at their job, or going to school for a few years to get a better job, then I can see why they might think they need daycare in order to make time for these other activities that will give them a leg up. But this is simply the wrong mentality to have for anyone who wants to ever work less than 40 hours a week.
Too many of us are too dependent on others. If there’s any formula for winning in this game, it’s to take control rather than being controlled. Here’s a simple test to determine whether you’re ready to take control of your life or not. Which thoughts do you immediately identify more strongly with, A or B?
A: A job is something someone gives me.
B: A job is something I create.
A: When I work, I should get paid.
B: When I create value, I get paid.
A: Making money takes time.
B: There are ways to disconnect making money from time.
A: I can’t get a good job without a degree.
B: The kind of job I want respects value, not a degree.
A: Without going to college I’m not smart enough to get a good job.
B: I’m smart enough for any job, but I feel like I’m missing critical knowledge or tools for the job I want.
A: In life you have to pay your dues.
B: There are a lot of ways to get what I want in life.
A: You need experience to be successful.
B: Experience can be helpful, but results are what matter.
A: I want to change my life, but I don’t have enough time. I need more time.
B: I want to change my life and I need to figure out how to do it with the time I have.
A: Success comes from working hard.
B: Success comes from working smart.
A: Most people who are successful are dishonest.
B: Some people who are successful are dishonest. Some are lucky. Most have figured out some sort of recipe.
If you answered mostly A, you’re stuck in a false, self-defeating way of thinking about the world. A higher minimum wage, more time in college, and more day care won’t solve your problems. You’re allowing others to control your life instead of taking control of it. If you change your thinking you won’t change everything in your life in one day, but it will change your life. The person who sees a job as something that can be created, money as something that is received when value is provided, and time as independent of money making, sees the world as something that can be controlled, at least in part, to produce desired outcomes. College becomes a way to acquire critical knowledge or tools, and if it doesn’t provide what’s needed to accomplish the objective then it gets skipped. Life becomes more mathematical, and success a matter of figuring out a formula. The person who says “I need more time to get ahead, therefore I need to lobby the government to provide more affordable day care,” doesn’t have an “in-control” mindset and will likely go through life frustrated with everyone around them and feeling they’ve been dealt a bad hand. The person who says “I don’t have a lot of time, how can I make more or what can I do with the time I have?” is in control. This person is more likely to find success, however he or she defines it.
Once you start seeing the world as within your control you’ll start learning about those who are successful in the way you want to be successful. It might be a minute here or a minute there, or it might just be that you start noticing things you didn’t notice before. You might start thinking thoughts you didn’t think before. You might do this while commuting or working. It may not take any of your time or money. Then, one day, you recognize an opportunity and you jump on it. If you hadn’t changed your perspective on the world, you never would have seen the opportunity at all. You will make things happen, rather than waiting for them to happen to you. Even if you’re a single mom without a high school degree and with 4 kids and two jobs you can do this. Other in similar situations have, see here, here, and here. Why not you?
“But wait, I thought you wanted people to work less, not more? These successful women entrepreneurs are talking about working at all hours of the day. What gives?”
Good point. If these single mothers climb their way out of poverty to become millionaires and get stories written about them in business magazines, but ignore their children as a result, what good does it do? Again, not that it’s an either-or scenario. My point is that if one of these entrepreneurs worked 80 hours per week to start a business that ends up doing $3M per year, could you figure out how to do it by working 40 hours per week? Could you figure out how to create a $1M business working 20 hours per week? Or a $100K business working 10 hours per week? Maybe it would take a year of working 80 hours per week to figure it out. My question is what’s your goal? If you’re working hard in order to not have to work so hard and spend more time with your kids, that’s one thing. If you’re not even thinking of spending more time with your kids because you’ve convinced yourself it doesn’t matter whether you spend 2 hours per week with them or 20, then that’s another. And again, I’m not that worried about moms. There’s enough guilt for working moms to go around. I’m worried about the dads who think nothing of working 80 hour weeks because society has taught them that’s what dads do. If there’s a single thing I want to accomplish with this post, it’s for fathers to reflect upon whether there’s any good reason for them to be away from their children any more so than mothers.
If this has you thinking and you want more, here is some reading you may enjoy:
- The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. The go-to book on controlling your life to get what you want.
- Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. A great example of the kind of thinking that holds people back from their true potential.
- Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. How the world really works when it comes to money.
- The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. Learn how to control your finances so they don’t control you.
- Smartcuts by Shane Snow. Work smarter, not harder.
- Goals! by Brian Tracy. What would you do today if you knew 100% it would work out?
- Getting Things Done by David Allen. Basic productivity and organization tips.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. A classic for the ages.
- The One Thing by Gary Keller. The power of focus.
- Getting More by Stuart Diamond. You want more? Here’s how to get more of whatever you want.
- Choose Yourself by James Altucher. Keep an idea journal and other great ideas. From a guy who made millions, lost it all, and made it again.
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Maybe the solution is to want less.
- The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Got a problem? That’s a good thing.
- The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. Streamline your life. Get rid of clutter, physical or otherwise.
Got any to add to this list? I’d love to read them!
Note: This blog post represents some of my thoughts on this matter. I’m open to considering others. I’d love to hear what you think and have a conversation with you. Please comment below and let’s talk.
Update 2-Dec-2015: Noticed this ad today on Forbes. Apparently companies are seeing this topic as something worth targeting.
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