By Rob Cross | Harvard Business Review | May 13, 2020
“I had a business trip cancelled and free time out of nowhere. I went home on a beautiful summer day and as I pulled into my driveway realized my family was scattered doing their things and that I had no friends to reach out to or hobbies that I had once loved. I sat in the car for more than an hour thinking about how I had gotten to that point.”
This comment from a well-regarded software executive reflects a pattern I’ve seen in my work with hundreds of successful executives. Leaving college with a range of interests and friends they choose a career that optimizes money, status, and sometimes a sense of impact. Work ramps up quickly to 12+ hour days, commute and travel result in less exercise fewer social events, and a general narrowing of their world to work and a few select friends. Buying a home and starting a family follows, further limiting social interaction and increasing financial pressures, thus making work even more central.
At this point, these executives double down and move to a bigger home, better neighborhood, or into a school district that feels like a natural extension of what good providers do. Sometimes they upgrade twice. In any case, this is the step that leads them into an echo chamber, where there’s no time for friends (sometimes family) and work defines their entire existence for 5-8 years. They fall out of the final groups and activities that helped them cope with the stress they’ve put themselves under. If the activities were skill-related like tennis or running with a group, it becomes almost impossible to catch back up with those who stayed with it.
If they are lucky they wake up in an epiphany moment like my Silicon Valley friend. Many are not, and end up burning out, divorced, and in crisis.
As my colleagues and I have studied these people for over two decades, we’ve noticed that there’s a select group that doesn’t fall prey to this vicious cycle. These are people in the high-performance category of their organization who also score high on measures of well-being. So we’ve spent time identifying what makes them able to manage a successful career while maintaining those critical social activities that create happiness.