It’s easy to say you care about your spouse and children, but words are empty compared to actions. Earlier this year, a California multimillionaire was forced to decide what was most important to him in life.
Mohamed El-Erian was CEO of a $2-trillion investment firm called PIMCO. He’s a very successful and hard-driving businessman who has made a lot of money. In 2011 alone, his income was $200 million. But he shocked the financial world in January when he quit his job — not to jump to a rival firm, but to spend time with his wife and daughter.
We can all learn something from his choice.
El-Erian was forced to decide what was most important to him — his family or his income — because his daughter challenged him. Writing for Worth magazine in May, El-Erian explained his crisis of values.
He said he asked his daughter to do something — which he recalls as brushing her teeth — and the two ended up arguing about her lack of compliance. He reminded her that she had always been quick to obey him, but she asked him to wait a minute, then she disappeared briefly to get a piece of paper from her room.
“It was a list that she had compiled of her important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments,” El-Erian wrote. “The list contained 22 items, from her first day at school and first soccer match of the season to a parent-teacher meeting and a Halloween parade.
“I felt awful and got defensive: I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call, sudden to-do. But it dawned on me that I was missing an infinitely more important point. As much as I could rationalize it — as I had rationalized it — my work-life balance had gotten way out of whack, and the imbalance was hurting my very special relationship with my daughter. I was not making nearly enough time for her.”
After he realized this and thought about it, El-Erian made a decision. He quit his job to restructure his life and spend time with his family.
“Earlier this year, I left behind the privilege and intellectual stimulation of working with extremely talented colleagues and friends at PIMCO and instead opted for a portfolio of part-time jobs that requires a lot less travel and offers a ton more flexibility — enough, I hope, to allow me to experience with my daughter more of those big and little moments that make up each day,” El-Erian wrote.
Today, El-Erian says he and his wife alternate days waking their daughter up, preparing her breakfast and taking her to school. He says the decision was the right one for him.
It’s easy to look at someone such as El-Erian and think it would be easy to make such a decision when faced with a clear alternative, especially for someone who already has millions of dollars in the bank. It’s easy to make excuses about why we wouldn’t have the luxury of making that decision. What’s more, it’s easy to make excuses that our lives are “in balance” when we don’t have a young child presenting her list of things we’ve missed in her life.
El-Erian faced one big moment of decision, but for most of us, it’s never one big decision. It’s a series of hundreds or thousands of small decisions.
It’s the decision that spending time at work is more important than being home to put your child to bed. It’s the decision that it’s more important to have a higher-paying job that requires you to spend time out of town while your child wakes up in the morning with just one parent. It’s the decision that being at your child’s baseball game isn’t that big a deal. It’s the decision that it’s more important to spend time with friends than to spend time with your spouse and children.
Each time you make such a decision, it’s justifiable. You have to make a living. You want to succeed and make money in order to take care of your family. You work hard, so you deserve “play time” with your friends. Every one of the decisions makes sense on some level. It’s all a trade-off. Your spouse must understand. In time, your children will understand. Right?
In his book, “Investment Biker,” Wall Street guru Jim Rogers discussed the tradeoffs involved in pursuing the things you want in life.
“Most of us don’t have the discipline to stay focused on a single goal for five, 10 or 20 years, giving up everything to bring it off, but that’s what’s necessary to become an Olympic champion, a world-class surgeon, or a Kirov ballerina,” Rogers wrote. “Even then, of course, it may be all in vain. You may make a single mistake that wipes out all the work. It may ruin the sweet, lovable self you were at 17. That old adage is true: You can do anything in life, you just can’t do everything. That’s what Bacon meant when he said a wife and children were hostages to fortune. If you put them first, you probably won’t run the three-and-a-half-minute-mile, make your first $10 million, write the great American novel or go around the world on a motorcycle. Such goals take complete dedication.”
I love Rogers’ quote, but I apply it in a very different way than many people do. To most people, it means that you should pursue your goal single-handedly instead of being tied down to a spouse and children. That’s a very valid conclusion if you have a goal that’s more important than the love of your family, but I have a different way of looking at it.
If you want a family — and if you claim they’re important to you — don’t pursue some goal that requires giving up so much of your time and effort. You can’t reasonably have both. You have to decide which is really important.
There are some big things I’d love to pursue and there have been times in my life when I thought they were important. But I’ve realized that nothing matters more to me than having the love of a wife and children. I want time with them. I want my children to grow up spending constant time with me and to know that I love them just as much as their mother does.
That limits my options, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s simply a test of my values. Do I value a life of success and money more than I value my family? Or are the people I love hold the position of importance in my life?
I need a wife who agrees with me that it’s worth having a more modest life — if necessary — in order for us both to spend time with each other and our children. That’s what is most important to me. If money or some other goal is more important to you, there’s nothing wrong with that, but understand you almost certainly can’t be the parent you need to be if you’re maximizing your income through that kind of career success.
Either choice is acceptable, but understand that it’s a choice. It’s a trade-off. If you try to have both, you’re not going to be very good at either one.
I know which sacrifices I’m willing to make for my future family — because I never want to face a child handing me an accusing list of things I’ve missed in her life.