There’s a certain cliche that has been on my mind ever since I put together a slide show last week of work/life balance myths that deserve to die. You’ve probably heard it before: “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’” The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a line of bull. In fact, it seems quite possible to me that on my deathbed I will in fact regret not spending more time at the office.
The expression seems to come from beloved Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, who decided not to run for reelection when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1984. And it’s a lovely thought: Hey, workaholic, you’ll feel better about your life in the end if you spend time with your family. The thing is, if you’re an ambitious person and/or you think you have something to contribute to the world, why is it so impossible to imagine you’d look back on your professional life and think, “I could have done more”?
The deathbed cliche essentially says that at some point we will all reach a nirvana state where we realize that work is meaningless. Work is meaningless for a lot of people, or at least its only meaning is providing them with the means to be happy with their families. That’s OK. But for a lot of us, work is meaningful. We have a sense of what we’re capable of, and we have goals we’d like to achieve. If we slack off as the years go by, we’ll be acutely aware of the road not taken.
The deathbed cliche swoops in to give us an excuse to step back from work, to go part-time, to stay home, to step away, to not send in that pitch, to put aside that resume, to not reach out to a mentor, to not ask for a raise, to not go back to school, to not start that business … in short, to do anything but spend time with your family, a near-holy pursuit that can never, ever be questioned. (For what it’s worth, a study of adults last year found that 12% named a career issue as their top regret in life.)
I interviewed career expert Shannon Kelley last year about why the idea of “having it all” is a myth. In that conversation, she used the example of a working mom asked to make cupcakes for her child’s classroom. “Whether you go into a choice consciously or not, there’s a tradeoff. So look at your choices. Consciously say, if I’m going to stay up late to bake cupcakes for my kid’s school, this is the tradeoff. And then just really think about it: What’s this worth?” she said. “Stop looking at the cupcakes as representing love for your child. You can be an awesome mom, but does that necessarily mean you must bake cupcakes?”
Using the cupcake example, why it it necessary that the only thing in life I’d regret is not making the cupcakes? What if the trade-off for the cupcakes is not prepping for a big presentation, and then I stumble my way through that, and eventually miss out on a promotion that I know should’ve been able to nail?
In fact, I’m hardly on my deathbed (knock on wood), but I already have plenty of professional regrets. And some of them have to do with acting on the kind of sloppy sentimentalism that flows from the deathbed cliche. In my early 20s, I dated a guy who lived a long subway ride away from my office. There were several times when I declined optional evening assignments and social gatherings where I’d have a chance to hobknob with older, successful writers and writers. And why? To relax with my boyfriend. Hey, you’ll never regret spending time with people you like, right? Well, I regret that. I regret the missed opportunities.
Long-time newsman Mike Wallace died at 93 this weekend, and a lot of news outlets quoted a recent interview that his son, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, gave about his father before he died:
He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions ’60 Minutes.’ It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family — me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.
At first glance, that reads as a variation on the deathbed regret cliche, but I don’t see it that way. There’s no reason to think Mike Wallace regretted his lifetime of hard work. It was a life filled with excitement and accomplishment, a life to be proud of. He was right to spend so much time at the office.