All career success guides say that to successfully climb the corporate ladder, one must stretch oneself and always put in more hours, be better than others, show that one is always there for the company. I am referring to articles like this one: http://www.blackenterprise.com/career/push-it-to-the-limit-how-to-become-the-mvp-of-your-company/

As a new manager, I consider myself very successful, but the path ahead seems more and more time-consuming. In my company, it quite obviously looks like those who have no life outside work have an unfair advantage, as they can invest (or sacrifice) nearly all their time for work.

Not only am I neglecting my personal relationships; I feel that my health is starting to suffer too. I am part disabled with a muscle-skeleton condition. It is not visible (someone who doesn't know me will see me as a normal healthy person), but I feel it every day as chronic pain. The only way to alleviate it is to engage in physical activity every day, spend time outdoors and ideally never be stressed - I feel that I am failing at all three.

I have never told my company about my condition, out of fear that it might sound like an excuse to not overachieve, but I am considering whether I should, so they might be more lenient in their expectations from me.

So the question that torments me is: Can I (and if yes, how) continue climbing the corporate ladder without sacrificing so much time?

And I would appreciate any advice on alternatives.


A quick anecdote: many years ago we had a new department head show up and we are getting ready for a make or break business meeting the very next day. Everyone is working late frantically when all of a sudden he gets up and says: "It's story time. Every day I read my son a bedtime story so I will go home now. I can come back later or conference in from home but story time is not negotiable". So he left. Today the same guy is a highly respected president and CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation.

So it is possible to climb the ladder and maintain some healthy work life balance, but it is not easy:

  1. First: be clear, open and honest to yourself about what you want from life and what your priorities are. Why do you want to climb the ladder? Money, recognition, fame, felling of being more productive? Same for life: family, health, relationships, hobbies, kids, art etc. You can't have it all, at least not to the same extent. Prioritizing will help you getting the things that are really important to you. You just have to be clear about what they are.
  2. Communicate your priorities and your goals. The more the people around you know about your goals, the more they can help to achieve this. I personally love it when one of my guys come to me and says:"Hey I really want your job in three years, how can I get there?" or "the research department is working on a really cool project that I want to participate, can you help make this happen?". I don't travel if I have a gig with my band. My boss knows that and is perfectly okay with it.
  3. Be consistent and true to yourself. There will be plenty of times where two of your goals are in conflict with each other. Look at your priority list and make the call from there. This may create short term pain and conflict but in the long run everyone will respect you for it and you will be happier as a person.
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it quite obviously looks like those who have no life outside work have an unfair advantage, as they can invest (or sacrifice) nearly all their time for work.

You are absolutely right. If someone is able to contribute more positive benefit to their company because they have different life priorities, then they will be more valuable to the company, and be prioritized over others.

People who dedicate more time to things tend to have more success with them. Whether career, exercise, their marriage, or whatever.

And I would appreciate any advice on alternatives.

You need to do a few things.

Big picture

  1. Figure out your life priorities and goals. What are you living for? When you are 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, etc - what do you want to look back and think of your life?
  2. How does your career factor into this? Most people never bother to stop and think, "how does my career and where I spend 40-60 hours a week affect my life?" Most people view it as a means to make money and so the goal is to make the most money. This is bullshit. We spend a quarter of our lives (much higher of waking life) at work. Ideally, you find a job which enables you in fulfillment of your life goals and matches your priorities and pays great. But when you can't find that perfect job, you need to do the next step.
  3. Determine what life tradeoffs you want to make. Are you willing to say, "I would rather have a great marriage than make $100k+ a year?" Perhaps, "I am ok working 60+ hours a week for a few years to establish myself in my company and allow me to save money so I can travel the world for a year!" etc. The problem is most people never do this, never figure out the next step, and as a result get consumed with their job and wonder "what happened to me"
  4. Set boundaries. No one's going to care about the above except you. Your company or boss probably won't spend time to really dig into your life and make sure you are fulfilled on a personal level. So you need to figure out the above and then fight for them.

How to

Once you do this, the implementation part becomes more important. If you have clear life goals and a plan to execute them, if career is a "not number one priority" type thing, the following become important:

  • Be damn good at your job (this is more important the lower career is on your priority list as the better you are at your job, the more options you have). Always strive to work smarter, not harder/longer.
  • Look for opportunities for your priorities to synergize. Such as:
    • Make some of your meetings walking meetings
    • Take jobs/responsibilities at work which help grow skills/enable your personal life goals.
  • Learn the 80/20 principle and ruthlessly apply it to your life
  • Care about visibility to maximize your current efforts
  • Be honest with yourself, your family, your boss.

Ultimately you need to figure out what matters most to you in life and figure out a plan to do it.

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  • 3
    +1 for "work smarter, not harder." Even on a job where you feel pressure to work long hours, there is going to be some unavoidable down-time. Capture this time thinking about, researching, and implementing ways to make yourself more effective. For example, you may find that changing your folder structure so that folders you access often are closer together will save you 1-2 minutes every time you need to go from one to another. Over time, this adds up to hours. Use those hours to learn to be even more efficient. – Amy Blankenship Oct 19 '13 at 20:18

When you say "the corporate ladder", I suspect your thinking might be too constrained.

Certainly many businesses want leaders that devote significant time and energy to the company. Certainly some business involves sedentary work. Some businesses are inside. And many businesses are stressful. But not all!

There are "ladders" which involve physical activity, time outdoors, and perhaps low stress. If these are important factors in your life (and it sounds like you believe they are), then you need to put yourself in a position to maximize those attributes in your work life.

And then there are folks who are self-employed. They get to decide for themselves what their work life is like. They can craft their work to meet their individual needs exactly.

I have never told my company about my condition, out of fear that it might sound like an excuse to not overachieve, but I am considering whether I should, so they might be more lenient in their expectations from me.

I'm not sure what you are expecting your company to do here. Are you expecting that they will say "Oh, you have this condition? Then, we'll let you climb the ladder without working as hard as others on the same ladder."? While many companies can easily accommodate all sorts of individual needs, that doesn't mean everything will be equal career-wise. What you deliver for the company is typically most important. If you can still deliver top performance despite your condition, then you will likely be in good shape. If you cannot (for whatever reason), then you can't expect to be rewarded as if you could.

That doesn't mean just because another manager works 60 hours per week, that you must also work 60 hours. Perhaps you can perform equally well on just 45 hours (because you work smarter). There are many ways to achieve your results.

Can I (and if yes, how) continue climbing the corporate ladder without sacrificing so much time?

It sounds like, in your current company and in your current position, you haven't yet found a way to do so. So, while there might be ways (perhaps by adjusting your definitions of "continue climbing" and "so much time"), it isn't clear that you can.

In my current company, at a certain level, you are expected to sacrifice a lot of your personal life for the company needs. For example, some of the senior folks spend the entire week away from their families, and only return home on the weekend. That's not something I would ever do, but they are rewarded well, and it seems to work out well for their families. Everyone is different.

Perhaps if you like your company, you need to re-think your goals a bit. All of us eventually settle into a work-life balance that meets our needs. Some of us work more, some of us work less. Some accept a lot of stress, others not so much. The key is to get to a place where you are happy with what you are doing and the rewards you get back.

Don't feel that you need to be the top "ladder climber" at your company. Perhaps you are better off climbing less or climbing more slowly, and receiving better personal relationships and health in return.

Or perhaps you need to find a different situation that better balances your work-life needs. Only you can decide.

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