The Sandra Bullock Trade: Partner or Career?

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David Brooks had an interesting op ed in the New York Times last week entitled "The Sandra Bullock Trade." It starts out as a description of how the actress has experienced what many would consider one of life's ultimate career highs (winning an Academy Award) and one of life's pretty awful lows (finding out your husband is cheating in a big way) in a very short span of time. But the column isn't really about Ms. Bullock - she's just the hook to get readers to take notice. It's about what brings the most happiness - a stellar career or a stellar partnership.

Anyone care to guess?

Surely you answered correctly that it is a great partnership that brings far more overall happiness. As Brooks says, "Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn't matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn't matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled." 

Yet, in our culture, even though we may know better, we're primed to pick the career time and again. This is true not only in fairly obvious ways, such as typical male choosing a job with an enormous commute or tons of travel when he's got young children or a wife he won't see much as a result (but, by God, he'll have a crack at that Global Vice President position), but also in much, much more subtle ways. For example, couples choose who stays home and who works primarily by who has the career or job that stands to net the biggest paycheck. Or we simply pick our careers by their salary prowess or their "importance" (which can then bring better and better opportunities with bigger pay down the road).

Brooks addresses this.  He says: "...most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives." No matter if a family nets $50,000/year or $500,000/year, most people often still make important decisions by the compass of money. And collectively, we so rarely choose a lower paying road that brings us more time for our relationships instead. ESP and other simple living lifestyles turn this around - now we can choose to mostly make decisions based on relationship nurturing (happily and knowingly), and only secondarily based on money.

Brooks also tells us: "People aren't happiest during the years when they are winning the most promotions. Instead, people are happy in their 20's, dip in middle age and then, on average, hit peak happiness just after retirement at age 65." It sure seems that, if we assume that most people work at least full time (and probably far more) in those dip years, maybe we could even out this life curve if we evened out the career piece. I'm not saying we have full evidence here, but it sure works that way for me. I'd much rather work a longer career with enough hours to have time for all the other pieces of life that matter - not least of which is my relationship with Marc - than retire early, yet miss out on something far more precious that I can't get back.