TED talks are supposed to make you smarter. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make you stupid. A popular TED talk entitled, “Why you won’t have a great career,” by economist Larry Smith is absolutely some of the worst career advice ever given in public.

I can sum up his advice as…pursue your work with all your might and don’t think twice about investing your precious time in your children.  In fact, he tries to make his disdain for little kids a joke by claiming that at least he restrains himself from “kicking them.”

Nice joke, Larry. Not funny!

What drives me crazy about the advice to “lean-in” to work is that workaholism is often held out as a requirement for promotion to senior leadership. In recent years, I have heard many executives say work life balance is no longer possible so just deal with it. These are the same decision makers who consistently understaff their profitable enterprises to create chronic work-load emergencies.  As people rise in management, more 24/7 expectations are heaped on them as a kind of test of commitment. A stupid one.

Since women tend to value their loved ones more than their egos women are discouraged from achieving the leadership level they deserve. In my view women are punished for their values because our work cultures are psychologically unhealthy. When talented women and men who want more from life than power, status and money are handicapped because they won’t drink the poisoned Kool-Aid of work mania, it’s a sign of sanity…NOT a lack of commitment.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “what are we trying to accomplish?” None of Smith’s advice is grounded in the science of Life Satisfaction research. Interviews with 80 year olds reveal that the single greatest source of life satisfaction when we review our lives near the end is…this is no surprise…the quality of our closest human relationships.  And quality is defined as relationships of trust, authenticity, non-judgment and mutual advocacy. It’s those behaviors that create “loved-ones.” Those behaviors and one other.

The single greatest indicator of relationship quality is whether you simply enjoy being with each other when you’re not doing anything fun, interesting or exciting. When just being together doing the mundane things of life or even nothing at all is pleasurable you know you have a treasured  relationship. As the book “The Little Prince” tells us…you know you have a friend when you enjoy wasting time together. The only way to create that kind of soul satisfying friendship is an investment of time together. Not just quality time but a quantity of time.

So where does a great career show up in end of life satisfaction?  Doing satisfying work doesn’t actually show up until number four on most people’s lists. For many people it isn’t in their top ten. The reason is simple. Most people don’t discover an overwhelming inner passion for a particular work achievement. And the reason for that is work success is not their reason for living. Yes, of course we want to make our difference and be valued but 99.9 % of us are not going to alter the course of human history in a big way.

In fact, a university study revealed that at best, historians say less than 5000 people who have ever lived have “changed the world.” Since population experts estimate that 70 billion people have been born over the course of our earths’ existence, it is highly unlikely our work will change the world in a way that satisfies our ego’s quest for self- importance.

On the other hand, it is almost assured you will change the lives of your loved ones… for good or bad.

I have worked with a number of CEO’s until they retired. Not one has told me they regret spending too much time with their family and friends and wished they had sacrificed those relationships for their jobs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for you having a great career. In fact, over 500,000 people have viewed my “Turn your Superpower into your Career” speech on University of California TV. (UCTV.tv) But clearly, becoming a workaholic is not the path to a great career. It’s a path to personal pathology. Most of the workaholics I have counseled were driven by a sense of personal inadequacy, an insecure ego drive or a lust for fame or power. Those are extremely poor guiding motives for personal career management.

The bottom line. 

  1. Your life is your career…not your job…. your life. So never ever let your job or your achievements define you. It will only make you neurotic and painfully boring.
  1. Only you can define your “great” career. I know bartenders and waiters who love their jobs because they are fulfilled by their interactions with customers. I know doctors and many lawyers who are very unhappy with their careers because they went into those fields for the wrong reasons. My mom had great fulfilling “career” as both a wife and mother and later a grandmother. Her career changed the lives of everyone she touched, especially mine. She made no money, was only famous among her friends and family and yet she was thrilled with her career. I know because near the end of her 91 year life she told me so.
  1. A great career is one which makes you a better person. As Aristotle put it your best life arises from fulfilling your higher nature. You best career and the only one that matters is becoming the best person you can imagine becoming. Of course you will forever remain quirky but your imperfections can be catalyst for growth, learning and creativity if you know what you’re up to.

One more thing…don’t overwork to make more money than you need. There have been times in my life when I did not have enough money and that is grinding.  But please consider what my friend Steve Clayback recently said….

“You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.”

I believe the Beatles revealed all we really need….