The other day a male acquaintance from my MBA program, a soon-to-be father, said that he’d had enough of working in finance in the big city. He was rethinking his goals, looking to work like a dog over the next five to ten years so that he could move to a tropical paradise and drop out of the insanity.
Of course, this resonated with me because it is the quintessential working mother’s fantasy. Going someplace where you can live a simpler life, spend ample time with your children, not worry about office politics and getting ahead. In fact, I suspect it’s the dream many mothers think they are buying into when they drop out of the workforce.
For many — if not most — mothers, work and peace feel mutually exclusive. It was interesting to hear this future father, someone who didn’t even have a child yet, voice some of the same angst I hear from women all the time. But I would challenge him with the same question I ask women who want to drop out: is there no way to find true happiness in work? Do you have to abandon the corporate world and move to a tropical island to find fulfillment?
Perhaps even more depressing, this is a person who could be an ally. He could stay in the workforce and make it better for himself and us all. But instead, like so many women in the same position, he plans to opt out. That’s a sad state of affairs for those of us who know that corporate culture will only truly change when men are as engaged in the desire for change as women. When the private equity guys show they care about living real lives as much as their wives.
I imagine that many in the corporate world would argue that achieving at the office requires a certain level of misery — paying dues. I fundamentally disagree. It’s one thing if you hate your industry, then you need to find a new calling. But I sense that lots of people like their industry, but hate the corporate politics, the punishing drive for short-term profit over long-term sustainability, and the grinding hours wasted on useless meetings and tasks.
Can we recalibrate our corporate environments to build institutions that don’t force people to choose between working and fulfillment? Places where great jobs and progressive career movement don’t require forfeiting peace, leisure and family? We can, but the people who care have to stay in the system, making it better for themselves and others as they gradually take the reins from the previous generation. In other words, we have to find our tropical islands in our own backyards.