Career Opportunities

A recent piece in the New Yorker by James Wood took a look at the parenting skills of great novelists and concluded that “only a handful of great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.”  Great novelists, it seems, tend to be lousy parents.

I came across a reference to this in a blog post by Stephen Martin on The High Calling.  There he notes that is own writing career (and that of many other writers he knows) actually benefited from the presence of his wife and children in his life.

This set me to thinking about how my children affected my career, back in the days I thought in those terms.  I can honestly say that having kids motivated me to be more intense about my career as a lawyer and drove me to work harder to achieve success.  But I have to also admit that the effect of that was to separate me from them more.  I took the responsibility of being a parent very seriously, but I translated that into working long hours and climbing the corporate ladder.  I was an absentee parent during much of their childhood.  I was a good “breadwinner” but not nearly as good a father as I should have been.  My kids turned out fine, and I doubt many people would accuse me of being a bad parent, but I know I would have been a much better father had I ordered my priorities differently.

Now that I’m in the second half of life, having ditched the city suit-and-tied life, I’ve consciously chosen to prioritize being home and with my wife, rather than trying to earn a lot of money.  So far I’ve been very successful at earning very little money and at spending lots of time with my wife.

Looking back, I know now that I could have made that decision long ago.  For better or worse, had I done so I would have spent a lot more time with my kids.

I admire folks who don’t buy into the rat race model.  We’ve gotten to know a wonderful farm family in our community who chose farming because it would maximize the time they get to spend together, working as a family.  The father was a pilot and a missionary in Africa.  He and his family took up sustainable farming, despite no experience with it, and now they’re operating a successful natural dairy and grass-fed beef operation.  They work together on the farm every day, as a family.  It is extremely rare for anyone to make a decision like that in our culture.  For those few who do, I say good for them.

One further thought on the great novelist/lousy parent connection.  Frequently those who achieve the pinnacle of success in their careers are messed up people in their personal lives.  They’re often alcoholics.  They often have failed marriages (often several of them). Frequently their children end up hating them (or barely knowing them).  They often die unhappy, sometimes at their own hands.  While that may be something of a caricature, there’s plenty of truth in it.

Obviously those are not lives folks should seek to imitate.  Rather, it seems to me that it is those who live modest quiet lives, dealing humbly with the ups and downs of life, who are leading lives worthy of imitation.  Even if they never write a great novel.

8 comments on “Career Opportunities

  1. Bob Braxton says:

    The PBS radio program Car Talk originally consisted of two segments with a break in between. Then the show was changed to three segments. The hosts used to refer to content coming up in the second half of the program. Ever since the shift to the three segment format, it has been a running joke to refer to the last segment as “the third half” of the program. I refer to (our) retirement as “Third Life.” This also mirrors the gist of the classic book “The Three Boxes of Life” by Richard Bolles … The Three Boxes of Life: And How To Get Out of Them: An Introduction …


  2. Fox says:

    This is why we put priority on being a familyas much as possible. Unfortunately, we may need a bit more of the rat race mentality to get to the point we need to be. Land to raise our own chickens and grow our own food isn’t cheap. We really need to be in a position to save up so that can be our priority.


    • Bill says:

      There is definitely a tension there. Even though I regret how I lived for so long, the reality is that living like that contributed to my now being able to live like this. The most important step is to avoid debt. Debt is like slavery. Being out of debt opens up lots of possibilities. For young people it is almost impossible to be debt-free (I certainly had my fair share), but the first stage of living sustainably is to become able to live without debt.


  3. This is so true, and not just of writers. The people we regard as downright saintly, for example Gandhi, have changed the world for the better but not been good parents or partners. When I was young I wanted nothing more than to do good in the world. I wanted to broker peace in far-flung trouble spots or face down whalers in a Greenpeace raft. Instead I live on a small farm. I write and care. I’m learning we change the world where we are.


    • Bill says:

      Great point. I’ve done a lot of research on John Wesley, who many would regard as saintly. He did lots of great things, but was a lousy husband.

      As for changing the world, I can definitely relate to your comment. I wanted to do stuff like that too. We once came very close to moving to Haiti to work at an orphanage. I often felt that life was passing me by and I was missing chances to make a difference in the world. Eventually I came to realize that living here and (as you say) changing the world where we are is fine and important work. I thank Wendell Berry for helping me understand that. Thanks for the great comment.


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