Sheryl Sandberg, Jane Austen, and the Queen of Versailles

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I reviewed back in May, continues to be on the New York Times bestseller list. At least one of my friends in business says that the book has been an inspiration to her and that she has applied for some bigger jobs as a consequence of reading the first half of the book (one of the things people learn at top B-schools, apparently, is that business best-sellers need not be finished!).

Separately, I watched The Queen of Versailles where the protagonist talks about her days as an engineer at IBM. One day she asked her manager why he had a clock counting down. The manager said that it was showing him the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until he could retire. Why did he care? “Because that is the moment when I can start living,” was what the guy said. As a result of this conversation, the Queen of Versailles quit her engineering job and took up fashion modeling in Manhattan. Then she devoted herself to being the wife of a rich guy and mother to seven children.

Sandberg’s advice is apparently inspiring, but even someone as successful as Sandberg cannot figure out a way to put more hours into a day or more days into a year. For most people, a bigger career means fewer children. As the Queen of Versailles found, even some of the better jobs in our society, e.g., engineering manager at IBM, are not very satisfying. According to various studies (see Forbes, for example), only a minority of American workers are at least “somewhat satisfied” with their jobs. Even for those who are satisfied, if you asked them, at age 70, “Would you rather have had thirty percent more career success and one fewer child?” I wonder how many would say “Cut me back to 1 kid from 2 and make my final title two rungs up higher in the bureaucracy.”

One of the original English-language authors who provided advice and inspiration to young women is Jane Austen. She been in the news this summer due to a controversy over Austen replacing Charles Darwin on an English banknote (example story). She more quietly inspires individuals (implicitly; explicitly). Austen spends a lot of ink describing women who marry for money, e.g., in Mansfield Park:

First page: About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.

[Regarding Maria’s proposed loveless marriage to the rich blockhead Rushworth, Mary Crawford says] “Oh yes I know it is. I was merely joking. She has done no more than what every young woman would do; and I have no doubt of her being extremely happy.”

[Upon the father returning from the Caribbean and giving his daughter the opportunity to escape the loveless marriage… ] He had expected a very different son-in-law; and beginning to feel grave on Maria’s account, tried to understand her feelings. Little observation there was necessary to tell him that indifference was the most favourable state they could be in. Her behaviour to Mr. Rushworth was careless and cold. She could not, did not like him. Sir Thomas resolved to speak seriously to her. Advantageous as would be the alliance, and long standing and public as was the engagement, her happiness must not be sacrificed to it. Mr. Rushworth had, perhaps, been accepted on too short an acquaintance, and, on knowing him better, she was repenting.

With solemn kindness Sir Thomas addressed her: told her his fears, inquired into her wishes, entreated her to be open and sincere, and assured her that every inconvenience should be braved, and the connexion entirely given up, if she felt herself unhappy in the prospect of it. He would act for her and release her. Maria had a moment’s struggle as she listened, and only a moment’s: when her father ceased, she was able to give her answer immediately, decidedly, and with no apparent agitation. She thanked him for his great attention, his paternal kindness, but he was quite mistaken in supposing she had the smallest desire of breaking through her engagement, or was sensible of any change of opinion or inclination since her forming it. She had the highest esteem for Mr. Rushworth’s character and disposition, and could not have a doubt of her happiness with him.

[Later in the book, Mary Crawford points out..] “I mean to be too rich to lament or to feel anything of the sort. A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

Austen’s world is alive and well at Harvard College today. I remember one undergraduate saying “I used to think that I wanted to be an investment banker, but then I realized that I could just marry an investment banker.”

A woman friend of mine observed that the modern world is in some ways friendlier to women seeking their fortune through romance or marriage. “A woman used to have to stay married, possibly to someone that she had never loved, in order to retain access to the money, the house, and the title,” she pointed out, “but now she can get most of that from a quick marriage and a divorce.”

A couple of recent New York City tabloid articles (News; Post) reinforce my friend’s point. It seems that Liza Ghorbani, a New York Times reporter, was having an affair with a married British man. Ghorbani is the mother of a healthy 8-month-old baby, apparently a result of the affair. In Austen’s day she would be trying to hide the facts both of the affair and the child. Today, however, there is apparently insufficient social stigma to discourage the filing of a public $3 million child support lawsuit.

[Note that if the New York Times pays her $100,000 per year (source), a decent salary for a journalist, Ghorbani’s compensation from working would be at most $65,000 after federal, state, and city income taxes. The $3 million that she stands to collect, tax-free, as a result of having a child, therefore, would equal approximately 46 years of after-tax income. For a reporter on the Bureau of Labor Statistics median pay of $36,000 per year, the $3 million would be closer to 100 years of after-tax income.]

In case there are young people reading this blog, my personal experience supports a position somewhere in between the Queen of Versailles’s perspective and Sheryl Sandberg’s (Austen, like Shakespeare, wrote about a lot of different characters and therefore I would hesitate to ascribe a position to Austen herself). I worked 80 hours per week on some computer-aided engineering software back in the 1980s. It was all written in Common Lisp and very little of my original code, if any, is in use today. I remember that customers were happy with the system, but the memories of being thanked by those customers are vague. I am an inventor on three patents, but nobody ever had the money or energy to chase after infringers and two out of three cover technologies that are now irrelevant. In the 1990s I co-developed a popular free and open source toolkit for building Internet applications. I was proud at the time of the roughly 10,000 sites worldwide that adopted the software but today it is usually considered “legacy code” and companies, such as Zipcar, are investing money and effort to replace it with newer software. I have taught a lot of students, e.g., at MIT, and they have gone on to have good careers, e.g., at Google. But the 300+ students taken together do not call me as often as I call my parents and from this I infer that an adult child would be more of a comfort in old age than a career’s worth of students. [Note to self: spend the next few weeks calling/emailing my former teachers!] The textbooks that I’ve written, and made available for free via the Web, and the online community that Rajeev Surati, Jin Choi, and I  nurtured continue to be useful to others and, therefore, continue to provide me with some career satisfaction. So while on the one hand I am glad that I “Leaned In” to finish those textbooks and keep the server refreshed with new content and software and may sometimes smile when receiving an email from a grateful reader, I experienced a lot more joy last Tuesday afternoon taking my almost-four-year-old daughter to her first feature-length movie (“Planes”; lacking an adult vocabulary, after the movie was over, Greta referred to the aircraft carrier as “the airport in the middle of the water”).

Sandberg doesn’t talk a lot about money, but there is a financial subtext in her book. The bigger jobs pay more and the parents about whom Sandberg is writing use some of that money to hire household and child care help, typically for just one or two children. The happiness researchers have found that money beyond an upper middle-class level of income does not yield too much additional happiness (Forbes has a recent article describing a challenge to this finding, thus providing more evidence that John Ioannidis is the only correct researcher). My personal experience is that my overall mood has not been strongly correlated with my income or wealth, despite wide swings over the past 30 years (from an engineering grad student stipend of about $32,000/year in today’s dollars up to a maximum of about $300,000/year). I have gotten a lot more happiness from spending time with a child than from reflecting on the fact that my income was higher in Year X than it had been the previous year. Thus I would say that it is not rational to take on a bigger job in order to make more money if that means that one will end up with fewer children.

This idea of giving more priority to children than to career, at least for a portion of their working lives, seems to be prevalent among my friends. I spent yesterday with a woman at the very top of American credentialism. She has an MD and a PhD in engineering. She has been the author of textbooks for medical students. For the moment, however, she has done the opposite of what Sandberg recommended. She has scaled back her career so that she can work part-time from home and spend more time with her husband and three children (youngest is almost 4 years old). Even though the youngest child was being a little difficult at the time (a crisis developed over the question of which chair she would occupy at dinner), my friend answered without hesitation that she was much happier with that third child than she would be with additional career advancement. Her husband is a work-from-home entrepreneur and could have been advancing the products that he is designing on the day that I visited. There were three other adults who could have watched the four total children. But he spent the whole day playing with the kids instead.

The older people that I’ve met are more in agreement with the Queen of Versailles than they are with Sandberg. I recently spent a couple of days in Maine with three generations of one family. The grandparents had five children and now have seven grandchildren. The grandparents had been productive workers when they were of working age, but certainly they were much more interested in present projects and activities than reliving career achievements.

Perhaps there is some level of career success that is in fact more rewarding than having an additional child. Let’s assume that this is true at the Nobel Prize level. The Nobel Prize has been awarded to 835 people in the past 111 years (source). Let’s assume that for every Nobelist there are an additional 10 people who accomplished something comparable. That brings up the total about 8000, enough to include people who have been spectacularly successful as business managers, such as Sandberg, all of the rest of the world’s 1426 billionaires (Forbes), and folks who have achieved in other areas that don’t fit into Nobel categories. Over the relevant period of time perhaps roughly 8 billion people have been alive on the planet (chart) but let’s say that only 4 billion were old enough for their accomplishments to have been noticed. Thus the probability of that level of success is about 0.000002 or 2 in 1 million. Success is not random, of course, and a person might have some inkling that he or she is above-average, e.g., Sandberg graduated from Harvard University with a clutch of important connections, notably Larry Summers. But the average Harvard graduate earns less than a California state prison guard (Wall Street Journal) and we can assume that the career success is commensurate to some extent with the salary. So let’s say that elite credentials and connections early in adulthood can increase one’s probability of spectacular success by a factor of 100. That’s still only a 2 in 10,000 chance of saving the world, writing the perfect poem, bottling dark energy so that it can be sold in Safeway for mixing into pina coladas, curing cancer, amassing billions, or whatever. Would you be willing to take your life savings into a Las Vegas casino and bet it all on “Lucky 17” in roulette? You’d have a 1 in 38 chance of winning. If not, why forgo having children in favor of pursuing a career dream that has an approximately 2 in 10,000 chance (less than 2 in 1 million if you have only average education and connections) of being more rewarding in the long run than those children?

21 thoughts on “Sheryl Sandberg, Jane Austen, and the Queen of Versailles

  1. Phil,
    I think this may be one of your most thoughtful posts ever. Being about 25 years into an engineering career and not as advanced as I had hoped, I think about stuff like this a lot. You’ve quantified some of my qualitative thoughts and also reinforced my choice to have a family of 3.
    It’s difficult to quantify what portion of success is luck, but it struck me in Queen of Versailles that she never would have had the opportunity she had to marry up if she were not attractive.

  2. I, for one, am grateful for…oh, hell, at least HALF of the stuff you’ve done in public over the course of your professional life to date. Which is more than enough to qualify me as a fan of yours. (If you dispute that this qualifies me as a fan, consider how much money you’ve spent on both things and experiences you knew in advance would possess what some other people would consider deal-killing faults, and then written about it in public.) My life is better because of the stuff you’ve done.

    But if you seriously thought that, even if you were somehow to receive it, the combined appreciation of _everyone in the entire world who could honestly say the same_ would be worth anything _remotely_ comparable to what time with your kid is worth? Well, then I’d be forced to say that you had some seriously screwed-up priorities.

    Anyone who finds this choice shocking or even surprising is part of the problem.

  3. Well said. It’s sad that the Zeitgeist celebrates career achievement and denigrates parenthood and family life, and that many or most of today’s best and brightest women will discover too late that their priorities were misbegotten. The men have more time to figure it out, of course, but too late for women comes all too soon.

  4. Your daughter is in my favorite age (3-5), where life is full of joy, mystery and discovery. As she ages, school and friends will define her reality to a greater extent which not be quite as rosy and rewarding for you. She will go through a self-indulgent and selfish phase in her teen years that will have you wondering if you were ever that obtuse (probably, yeah, we all were). So parenting may be significantly more rewarding and satisfying long term than a career however a balance must be struck for several reasons: to not define the majority of your happiness through your kids (since they eventually leave, alas), to inspire your kids that hard work is rewarding, that self-sufficiency is importent for survival as well as confidence and character building. So my ideal is a mix of family and work. As my co-worker wrote yesterday, there’s an app for that.

  5. Thanks for posting this: I’m currently negotiating with my employer for additional vacation in exchange for reduced pay.

    And even aside from having children, I note that some of your largest professional successes began as hobbies, e.g., your family initially discouraged you from wasting so much time on Web stuff. And as a grateful graduate of your 3-day RDBMS course (thanks again!), I only learned of the course through this blog, which I only knew / cared about because of your earlier Web publishing.

    @Danny: barrenness is the zeitgeist only among people who carry genes for intelligence, responsibility, and achievement: the lazy, the stupid, and the criminal are reproducing more than ever, subsidized by the barren “smart” people!

  6. I’ve pretty much read everything you’ve written Phil, after finding Travels with Samantha, from… somewhere? I’m pretty sure I’ve read this entire blog, which always seemed more personal than your other writings, and I’m someone who’s never lived remotely close to Massachusetts.

    Beyond wanting some extra cash, mostly so I can buy a house with a huge yard (I apparently can’t listen to your or my own advice) in the middle of the Pennsylvanian woods near a creek, better stereo equipment, and camera equipment, I’m extremely happy working what barely constitutes a working day, then spending the rest of my day doing: nothing, reading books, watching movies, going hiking, and exploring the lonelier sections of the country, since that’s all stuff I love to do. Who on earth wants to work? Finish your shit and go home. I take pride in good work, but I’ll be damned if I need to do more than necessary.

    Lastly, when you mentioned Nobel Prize winners, I immediately though of Richard Feynman, who could have cared less about garnering such a prize. His joys in life were his family, his students and teaching, and discovering new and wonderful physics. Not winning wouldn’t have affected his life in the least. I imagine the woman who wanted to be an investment banker but decided to marry one was probably looking for that happiness in money (Nobel Prize), rather than in doing something she actually enjoys doing.

  7. Dear Phil,
    Many of us want to be remarkable. I guess it’s our personal definition of remarkable that counts the most.
    Being the adopted son of a Virginia farmer (a man who made it through seven years of school before the Great Depression and World War II changed his life forever) I was decidedly not pushed to succeed by most modern definitions. We were poor but not comfortless and I was never, ever taught to think in terms of financial success equaling life success.
    As a fledgling business operator nearly twenty-five years ago, I began a perilous climb on what I thought was my own ladder of success, the financial kind. Very sadly, it took me witnessing my father’s slow decent into the clutches of dementia and then heart failure to make me reconsider what I thought was true success and achievement.
    As I wrote in my father’s eulogy, he was the finest and most remarkable man I had ever known and money had absolutely no relevance.
    Being similar to you, Phil, in that I’m 50+ years of age with a very young daughter, I can say with the utmost sincerity that I can only hope my daughter will find me a fraction as remarkable as I remember my father.
    So yes, there really is no comparison to the beaming face of your own child to all the Nobel Prize’s on the planet and or vast sums of money. Personally, I’d take the ways of a poor Virginia farmer and the impressions he left on his adopted son over any career achievement imaginable.

  8. I am a member of a parenting forum predominantly used by women, and a large number of them are openly regretful about not maintaining a career while their children were small as now that their children are older, they find themselves trapped in “little jobs” well below their capabilities, frustrated and unhappy that they are now closed out of work that would be intellectually satisfying and for those who are no longer married to their childrens’ father – well-paid enough to allow them to provide their children with the same level of treats and leisure activities that they see their peers getting. (Your friend should read this article – most women are not better off after divorce: ).

    The choices are different for men and women. For most men, the possibility of scaling back the career (at least temporarily) in order to spend more time with the kids is very much worth raising as it’s often something they have never seriously considered, even if they are extremely unhappy with the status quo. For most women, they’ve been thinking about it since they were teenagers.

    I’d agree with David Wihl – long term, a balance must be struck – for both parents. My partner and I have both cut back our hours in order to spend a day each during the week with our son. We did discuss him quitting in order to care for our son full-time – but at the moment, this is what works for us. (We both really *need* quiet, focused alone time, as well as grown-up conversation with other adults, in order to stay happy and healthy. Going to work gives us some of that. If one of us was a full-time parent, we’d have to work out another way to manage that, but it would be tougher I think.)

    For me, having seen my parents’ choices, I would definitely not choose more children if it meant financial instability and the ensuing stress. I have no doubt that we would love them, but there comes a point where the cost would be too high – I would not choose three children and a heart attack at 60 for my partner (family history suggests this is not an unlikely outcome), versus two who get to grow up with their father. We’ve no way of really knowing ahead of time where the tipping point for us will be though. And, of course, for other parents, taking the financial hit might be the best way to avoid that heart attack.

    I think my parents and I are very very far below your peers in terms of income though, so our choices are different to you and your peers. And that’s one point you don’t address – you need to be pretty comfortable in the first place for the choice to be “Another child, or another rung on the ladder?” rather than “Another child and struggle to make the rent, or stop here and be able to afford university?” Most of us don’t get to be the Queen of Versailles or Sheryl Sandberg, either way.

  9. Anna: Thanks for the reference. Both my friend and most characters in Jane Austen were not talking about being married versus being divorced, the subject of the article. The baseline position for comparison was being single (“spinsterhood” I think was the term in Jane Austen’s day).

    The article that you cite shows that Liza Ghorbani, for example, would likely have gained more than $3 million in after-tax spending power by having persuaded the man who is now the target of her child support lawsuit to marry her. However, as the man was already married when the two met, this was not a straightforward option.

    So I don’t think the article disproves my friend’s statement. Mostly the article reinforces the point made by many Austen characters and by that Harvard undergraduate that I cite: the simplest way to have access to another person’s income is to marry that person (and therefore if one wants a higher income one should select a high-income spouse). The spouse of the investment banker, after all, may have access to as much as 95% of the i-banker’s income (let’s assume that the i-banker spends some money on clothing and food, but walks or takes the subway to work). It would be difficult to obtain 95% of a person’s income via alimony or child support. But suppose that 50% of that income could be obtained via child support and/or divorce litigation. My friend’s point was that the average American adult would be substantially enriched if given 50% of the income of an investment banker, though the Guardian article you cite would point out “That adult could have been even richer if he or she had remained married to the i-banker.”

    [Separately, your cited article also supports the costs of a “love match” as portrayed in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Fanny Price’s mother falls in love with a comparatively poor man, bears more children than the two can afford, and that gives rise to the situation of the novel in which Fanny is living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins (Fanny’s father is still married to her mom, still relatively poor, but no longer as lovable as he was in his youth). Nobody ever suggested that the average marriage would lead to material prosperity since, by definition of “prosperity”, the average person is not “prosperous”. If the average marriage cannot lead to material prosperity then the average divorce or child support lawsuit certainly cannot. Liza Ghorbani would not be able to collect $3 million into her personal checking account as a consequence of an adulterous affair if she had chosen to have an affair with a married man worth less than $3 million. The best summary of the Guardian article seems to me “If money is very important to you, don’t marry, or get pregnant by, someone who is not wealthy.”]

  10. And some of us opt for neither career (or any paid job) nor family (kids) — nor did we call our parents much, when they were able to be called — and still feel life is well worth the living.

    The career/kids dichotomy feels contrived to me, as a 50ish-yr-old woman, since many of my female friends never wanted kids anyway (and some didn’t want partners, either) and are for the most part happy in their long-time careers, and the ones who really did want kids actually have great kids as well as good, well-paying jobs and it didn’t seem to be a big issue anywhere along the child-raising continuum what would take precedence when. I have only one friend who wanted a partner and kids and who very sadly has neither — and it wasn’t her focus on a job or career that kept either of these from happening.

    I think your audience, as you probably know, is quite well-educated and pretty high on the socio-economic scale, and therefore is able to make these kinds of choices AS choices instead of being stuck in a low-level retail job, with kids they don’t want.

    I agree that most of the people I know of grandparent age are much more into their grandkids and their (the grandparents’) current projects than they are in reliving their careers.

    To the commenter who thought that the Queen of Versailles would not have the opp. to marry up were she not attractive — has he looked at people who are married, including those married multiple times? I know one not particularly attractive woman married 8 times and it baffles me (though it probably wouldn’t baffle men) what potential partners see in her. Attractiveness is important in love and career, but it’s certainly not a game-ender for a woman to be unattractive, quite heavy, coarse looking, or to have a face scarred and stretched by plastic surgery, even at the highest wealth echelons.

  11. @foo: As an attorney who appears regularly in the New York City Family Court, I would be very surprised if Ms. Ghorbani ever pays a dime in legal fees. You might think that the person who started a lawsuit would bear some of the costs that result from that lawsuit. However, that would discourage people from filing lawsuits and reduce fees for my “brothers and sisters” (other attorneys). More disturbingly, if one party ran out of money the lawsuit would end. The parents would come to some arrangement regarding the children and put their time, money, and energy into taking care of their children instead of giving me and my “brother” on the other side enough to send our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to top colleges. An early settlement is a good outcome for children, perhaps, but a terrible one for attorneys. Many legislators are attorneys and the judges are nearly all former practicing attorneys. It would be impossible to craft a system more effective at stripping couples and children of their assets.

    I get paid if either party in a divorce or custody/child support action has liquid assets. If my client does not have the cash, the judge will order the other side to pay me “for the sake of the children.” Given the international nature of Ms. Ghorbani’s dispute, the legal fees should be in the $1-2 million range and the total bill will be added to whatever Mr. Gallagher is ultimately ordered to pay.

  12. I find it ironic that couples feel the need to become two-income mostly in order to afford their housing costs, but basing rent/mortgage on two incomes causes the prices to go up.


    It’s not like those high paying jobs vanish into the ether. Some man probably filled it. So it’s not a net loss.

  13. Right now I’m rereading Travels with Samantha. It’s about a 30ish computer geek (intelligent, articulate, wonderful person, (too) often right about things) leaving his comfortable monoculture in Boston to see what other people in America are up to.

    On the 9th of June he gets a glimpse

    “As I was throwing all my yuppie toys into the minivan–the fruit of years of living purely for myself–Carl, a 37-year-old Mormon engineer from northern Utah, was packing up his five obedient children and solicitous wife. Their procession into a Ford Taurus wagon taught me what it means to be a real man. Carl looked a bit weathered but was confident that he’d lived his life well.”

    And a month later
    “Woody left me with a precious epiphany: “If you want more out of life, give up everything. If you want people to be your friend, give them everything you have. Give them your food, house, companionship, trust, love. When you start hoarding things, that is when the world turns against you.””

    In september there’s a Broken Flowers (authors ex-girlfriend)/Queen of Versailles (smart woman, spending time with own kids instead of cow-orkers) moment and loss of some possessions. The author reminds himself “Don’t cry for things that can’t cry for you.”

    Back in Boston, the pressure cooker, the machine, the monoculture he reflects:
    “The range of expressed opinion in Cambridge is broader than in a small town, but the range of opinion that any given person is prepared to hear is much narrower. All across America, I had seen people sit down and listen to each other even when they were on opposite sides of an issue. In Cambridge, people with slight political differences can barely get through a cocktail party together.”

    It all ends with a very intelligent conclusion, mush like the one above:

    “My overwhelming posttrip impression was that I had barely scratched the surface of an unknowably rich society. Every person had an interesting story; every person had learned something valuable in coming to grips with his or her circumstances. Compared to the variety of folks and lifestyles I encountered on the road, my Boston activities and social circle are but a teaspoonful of ocean water.

    Most of the people I know in Boston live for professional recognition, to add initials to their name (e.g., “Ph.D.”, “S.M.”, “J.D.”, “M.D.”), for career success, and/or for social prestige and fame. In my weeks on the road, I met quite a few North Americans who would not be out of place among my usual associates. However, I met hundreds more who lived for their families, for physical and materialistic pleasures of the day, or for religion. Many of these people were much happier than my friends. They derived satisfaction from things that have made people happy for thousands of years, e.g., children, money, religion. The typical Harvard/MIT lifestyle looked very high risk by comparison.

    Professors would spend 10 years in school, then 7 years working feverishly, then get crushed when denied tenure. Scientists would spend 30 years trying to really accomplish something, but end up with only a stack of obscure papers in unread journals. Women clawed their way to moderately lucrative middle-management positions but found their career flattening out just as their child-bearing years drew to a close. Some of these aspirants would get the Nobel prize, and the rest said that they enjoyed the process and didn’t need anything else. Nonetheless, I knew precious few “academic and professional strivers” who seemed as happy as Laurel and Eric (the bed and breakfast workers in Wisconsin), Ali and Michelle (Australians traveling in Montana), Shelly (young mother in Grande Prairie, Alberta), Kelly (trucker on the Alaska Highway), Lloyd (heavy equipment operator in Whitehorse), Woody (philosopher in Denali), Walter and Karin (Swiss dairy farmer and his wife, a saleswoman), Hans and Rey (bike shop owners in Juneau), Tom and Lisa (chucked it all to see America by motor home), Marty (schoolteacher in Seattle), or John (insurance agent in Monticello, Utah).

    It struck me that I’d heard a lot of engineers say they wished they hadn’t worked so hard on a start-up company, a lot of professors say it was a shame that they’d put their research ahead of their marriage, a lot of lawyers question their value to society, but I’d never heard anyone say he or she regretted time spent raising children. What would happen to my friends if they didn’t realize their goals? Even worse, what would happen if they did realize those goals, then came to see them as not sufficient?

    Thinking about all these friends growing older, unmarried, and childless, I shuddered the way I would watching a family stake their whole fortune on double-zero at a Vegas roulette table. ”

    As far as I heard the author then spent another 12 or 15 childless years in the pressure cooker, made some worthwhile software and books, worked long long hours
    and eventually made a bit of cash. And a child.

    When I got my hardcopy of Travels With Samantha this summer, I hadn’t read it for 18 years or so. I think the conclusions of the books are sound. I took the advice, at least. I got kids earlyish (for a computer geek), worked at two startups that were fun, but eventually only made the founders rich. While still of good health and sound mind I semi-retired to the dirt cheap countryside and worked only part time from home. Deciding the hours and income in consultation with kids, wife, dogs, cats, friends, neighbours. And clients.

    And for those decades varying of amounts of joy I feel an enourmous amount of gratitude towards the author of Travels With Samantha and Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. They are very fine books.

    There should be some solace in having made books with profound positive effects. And o those of you still reading this: read Travels with Samantha instead of Atlas Shrugged. Greenspun’s book is way better and will put you on a better path.

  14. Phil, this piece is why I subscribe! I thought I’d better tell you lest you feel the rewards are insufficient to continue.

    Can you give some serious thought and opinion to Canada becoming the 51st state? After all, you could use our resources and we (Canadians) could sure use some help getting out from under the moss here!

  15. How would you rate whatever satisfaction you’ve found in gaining and sharing your aviation skills vs. your earlier career accomplishments? I am still very proud of my few years long ago as a naval aviator.
    I find that while I’m also proud of plant start-ups and building departmental organizations, those things tend to have rather short half-lives. Delightful little girls who have grown though those irritating teen years to become attractive adults and caring mothers – some with equally delightful grand-kids – are a much more durable source of joy and pride.

  16. Philip,

    As you know, having attended my wedding the day before I graduated, I learned these lessons early. Not only did Lisa and I have 4 kids, I have worked primarily from home for the last 12 years in order to have more time with them, and for the last 4 or 5 years I have been self-employed and scrambling for steady work. I don’t regret it at all, because while we were never in the upper class, I’ve always been confident of making ends meet. Lisa is now a nurse and EMT after 25 years of non-careerism and that was a good choice for her too. In a few more years I expect to be financially set for good and in the meantime I’ve enjoyed a variety of careers.

    If I hadn’t met Lisa at MIT I would likely have been in startups and “made it” sooner, but no regrets. I’m glad you finally got around to enjoying a family, we always knew you would.

  17. I read Web Publishing and was then able to created and have it (and its patent) bought up by patent trolls in Mountain View, CA. Without that I would not have been able to buy my airplane (selected in part through reading Philip’s aviation blogging), which has given me unbelievable time with my two children and my restless wife (we have now crossed the country sixteen times in this little four seater).

    So I am unsure how much happiness is created and conserved. If you had managed to have an additional child earlier, but not written your book I would have been poorer and, I believe, less happy.

    You are not disagreeing with Sandberg’s book. You just need to promote the option more for men and you are lined up exactly. Her real thesis is in there somewhere which is, “If half the companies and countries were run by women, and half the homes were run by men, the world would be better off.”

  18. We express differently similar hopes and plans (and regrets), while we all share the same feelings.
    Thank you for your blog over many years!

  19. I am glad for you that your daughter seems like a real cutie but alas not all kids are above average. I remember a new-father friend telling me that his baby son tried to piss on him when he changed his diaper. He was obviously having a difficult time with him. Fast forward about 20 years I made contact with him again and learned that the boy had developed schizophrenia. About 1% of children become schizophrenic. I do not have the numbers but I think there are similar probabilities for other severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, autism, debilitating depression. Other children become addicts of various substances and books like “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout claim one in 25 are sociopaths.

    That is not to say that people should not have children else our species will disappear but life is tough and we should take our satisfaction where we find it. I think we should principally look inward because you are the only person that you can really influence. Everything else is a bonus.

  20. This is a funny posting. But it also sounds a bit corny, to me at least: the choice between career and kids, and the rewards of it? What about women, and playing with them? The main problem I’m having is with the notion of ‘rewards’. Does it make any sense to compare present choices (and rewards) to remembered choices (and remembered rewards)? In old times (Augustinus) they saw it as a choice between amor Dei and amor sui. The latter means living up to expectations, even self-chosen ones. The former is transcendent, you cannot know the meaning of it until you find out, and for that you need some luck (called grace). Women are a problem, though. Philippe Sollers, in his 1983 book ‘Femmes’, summarised it as follows: “Le monde appartient aux femmes. C.à.d. à la mort. Là-dessus tout le monde ment.” Which I would translate (and trivialise a bit to make it clearer) by: “Women decide. They make happiness impossible. And everybody finds that normal.” Politics are another problem: people living up to expectations, and poisoning other people’s lives with them.

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