Your Career is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

We all know that work-life balance matters, chronic work stress leads to burnout, and we should always look out for number one. And yet, we aggrandize the lives of CEOs, business leaders and successful professionals as if they make no sacrifices to get to the top of the heap.

That fairy tale couldn’t be further from the truth. As it turns out, prioritizing between health, career and company is never as black and white as we’d like it to be. Those factors are inextricably intertwined, and that makes for some of the most troubling tradeoffs and toughest decisions of our lives.

Take successful senior executives, for example. They spend years, maybe decades getting an education and climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. Sure, they get nice perks and make big bucks, but they spend much of their lives at the office, in meetings and living out of a suitcase.

At some point, even the most dedicated executive will begin to question the wisdom of living the life of a stressed-out workaholic, no matter how lucrative the gig. And yet, they’ve got to “get while the gettin’s good,” which only adds to the pressure. I’m not saying we should cry for them; it’s more a word of caution along the lines of “be careful what you wish for.”

It’s no different for doctors who, by the time they earn the right to practice their trade, have racked up enormous debt that takes years and years to pay off. And sometimes they get out in the world and the unthinkable happens: They realize it’s not their thing.

The late great author Michael Crichton, who penned multiple best sellers including Jurassic Park,  actually got through medical school before realizing that practicing medicine was the last thing he wanted to do. What a rude awakening that must have been.

Meanwhile, everyone thinks that becoming a professional athlete is like winning the lottery, but players often trade long-term health for short-term financial gain – and foolishly risk cutting their careers short in the process.

It’s become so common for major league baseball teams to push their starting pitchers too hard that Tommy John surgery – a major elbow reconstruction procedure – has become an epidemic. And while most pitchers who go that route do make it back to the major leagues, 20% never pitch again.

The problem is that teams control players for their first seven seasons in the big leagues. After that, players can opt for free agency, so teams are not incentivized to manage their health for the long haul. Meanwhile players push their performance to get better stats and more lucrative contracts during their limited careers. Again, the motive is to “get while the gettin’s good,” but taking that too far can backfire.

The situation’s even more risky in full contact sports like hockey and football. The NFL has recently taken a more aggressive position against helmet-to-helmet contact because of the health risks of chronic concussions, not to mention all the resultant lawsuits, of course.

No matter what you do for a living, there’s actually a powerful lesson to take away from the sports example. When pitching legend Tommy John was rehabilitating from the original surgery that now bears his name, his surgeon, Frank Jobe, advised him to “listen” to his arm. For you and me, that means “listen” to yourself.

In my upcoming book Real Leaders Don’t Follow, I talk about walking away from a sweet gig as a high-tech senior executive because, “after 23 years of climbing the corporate ladder like some crazed workaholic monkey, I simply couldn’t do it anymore. My candle, which had burned so very brightly for so long (yes, at both ends), had burned out.”

The truth is, there was a tremendous amount of pressure to stick with it. To endure the never-ending meetings, petty politics and brutal conflict. To spend another million miles living on airplanes. To keep waking up in hotel rooms in the middle of the night with no idea what city or country I was in.

But I listened to myself and knew it was time to call it quits. That was 12 years ago. Do I have any regrets? Sure I do. For one thing, my wife never forgave me. Not over the money, mind you. But since I now work at home, she’s never gotten over me invading her space and trying to take charge. Big mistake.

And while the life of a small business owner isn’t necessarily less stressful or more gratifying than that of a senior executive, it was the right move for me in many ways, not least of which involves my health and happiness.

“Life is short” may be a popular saying, but barring tragedy, it’s actually pretty long. And as with life, I’ve come to view careers as being more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s more important to make it to the end in good shape than to overdo it and kill yourself in the process.

Listen to yourself. It’s good advice.