The opposite is also true in some firms. If the founders see the firm as a lifestyle vehicle and tend to forgo business ambition in favor of personal priorities, it will be difficult for employees to believe they can aggressively pursue their professional ambitions. There are certainly many firms where the younger professionals are frustrated that their careers are not moving fast enough because the owners and leaders are not very dedicated to growing the business or running it with any discipline.

Leaders always have to be cognizant of the example they set and be keenly aware that the example will define the culture of the firm in a powerful way. The example has to be intentional, and the leaders have to be cognizant of its impact. Unfortunately, in many firms the leaders are in their 50s and perhaps early 60s, when their family commitments are not very demanding. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I would say that many of the CEOs disappointed by the work ethic of younger colleagues have children who are adults and forget what it was like to have to juggle the responsibilities that the parents of 5-year-olds do.

As A Professional, Be Realistic
While firms need to be more explicit and more open with their expectations, professionals have to be more aware of the reality of their careers. I work out at Seattle’s Arcaro Boxing Gym, where I go two or three times a week and spend an hour in training. It is a great and quite exhausting workout, and if I get very ambitious I might go three or four times a week. It is hard for me to imagine working out more often; I am in good shape, but the workouts really beat me up. The gym trains amateur and professional boxers, and at times I see their workouts posted on the wall—they run for hours every morning and then train and spar for hours every single day. It’s fine to be a casual gym-goer, but if you want to be a competitive athlete you may need to go beyond what you consider to be “normal.”

Professionals have to be realistic. If you are in a firm that has the culture of an Olympic team, you should expect to work hard. Also, if you want to have the success (and income) of a star athlete, you have to match that level of effort. You are both unlikely to change the culture of your firm and you are also unlikely to achieve lofty professional goals without the time and effort required.

Balance Is Two-Sided
Balance does not always mean comfort. Take two very heavy dumbbells and carry one in each hand. You are perfectly balanced, but you are still crushed by the weight. You can create a schedule and a pattern that is high-achieving in both your personal and professional lives and still find yourself struggling to survive. You may need to lower your ambition in both—both slow down your career and also perhaps be careful with what obligations you take on personally.

I coached my son’s soccer team for a few years but I also had to let that go and realize that I am just not available enough to be a coach. I have also missed many school plays and many science fairs with the realization that I can’t always be there. That does not mean that you stop being a parent or aspiring to be a good parent. It is simply being realistic about what you can and can’t commit to. This may seem like a gloomy statement, but the good news is that the worst friction between career and personal life is temporary.

The Career Stages
The worst life balance issues in your career will only last a few years. If you break a career down into four parts, you find the worst problems arise only in the “growth” stage.

Reflecting on my own career, early on I mostly had to follow the standard work hours. I was an entry level professional and there were no expectations that I would manage or develop new business. A 9 to 5 schedule was quite sufficient, and while leaving early was not appreciated at my firm, it was not a career crime. Frankly, no one thought much of my career at that time anyway. It is the privilege of not really being noticed.

It was not until later that the firm started expecting more of me. Now there were conversations about my career progression. This meant I needed to do more and participate in more activities, and the demands on my time started to grow. This was the first time I felt torn between obligations at work and home.

Then came the worst—I was about to “make partner,” which meant I had to prove myself to the firm. Not only did expectations grow, but so did the level of scrutiny. I had to develop new business. Travel. Manage people. Handle a lot of clients. The list was long and the expectations crushing. I remember coming back from a weeklong business trip; after getting only three hours at home, I had to leave again for a new partner training meeting for another four days. I missed a lot of soccer games and school plays in those days.

Thankfully though, this period only lasts a few years. Things settle down. It becomes easier to manage clients as you get more experienced and more productive and get more help from your team. Business development becomes more efficient and more productive as your reputation matures and your ability to generate opportunities grows. Management responsibilities settle down. You feel less anxiety about being in every committee and you find the right way to contribute to the firm.

Consider Slowing It Down
The amazing novelist Terry Pratchett writes in one of his books that “if you are good at digging ditches, they give you a bigger shovel.” That is also what happens in your professional life—the better you get, the more you have to do. Unfortunately, the only advice I can give about those tough years is “tough it out!” There is really no way around it. Marathon runners know about this—miles 20 to 25 are always painful and tough. There is no way around it and there is no way to avoid it. All you can do is tell yourself to keep going and know things will be fine.

When you’re running a marathon, slowing down is not only an option but it may very well be the best strategy. One of the worst mistakes is trying to go too fast. The same goes for a career. When I became a partner at Moss Adams, I joined 30 other new partners. Some had been named after eight or nine years at the firm and some had spent 14 or 15 years there. All of them were great professionals, accomplished and successful. You don’t have to rush your career—after all, slowing down may allow you to enjoy it more.

The worst mistake business owners make in considering the balance of life is that they “walk on eggshells”—they feel that their expectations for employees are warranted but cannot be openly stated. You must be willing to state what you expect and yet also be able to examine those expectations. You then must decide whether you want to train for the Olympics, and decide if those ambitious goals must come with some significant sacrifices.

I am still searching for the perfect answer myself. After all, I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon.

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