A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote. In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.
Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”
Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.
But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.
What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.
Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.
Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.
Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.
Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.
Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.
If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.
Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.
Begin forwarded message:
Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?