My career was taking off, and so was I – figuratively, and literally. As my star rose in the very, very small firmament that is my specialty, the invitations for the honor of my presence increased. Keynote speeches, advisory boards, and prestigious panels. Exotic meeting locations, all expenses paid, and please bring your wife if she can get away. Success is intoxicating; it’s nice to be recognized by peers and admired by wannabes. My kids were little, and I told myself they were sleeping much of the time I was out of town, anyway. My wife caught me up on the milestones I missed.
It was during our middle child’s 3 year-old birthday party, when our others were 5 and almost 1, that I had my fateful Dorian Gray moment. I was filming them running around in party hats with ice cream cake on their cheeks. These days they weren’t sleeping as many hours as when they were younger, and they were starting to have experiences they would remember – without me. In kindergarten and preschool, at play dates, Gymboree, and in the backyard. T-ball was starting in a month for our 5 year-old, and our 3 year-old’s hair was just long enough for first pigtails. The baby was walking. Running really, to keep up. I tried to keep up, too. To know their friends’ and teachers’ names, what they liked best on TV (how badly do I date myself if I tell you it was “Barney”?). But even when I was home and they were animatedly telling me about their day, my mind wasn’t with them. It was on the next colloquium I had to write, the next flight I had to catch, and the call I should make to a colleague to discuss the seminal lecture I would be giving in Scandinavia. As I filmed my daughter opening her presents, I had a stark vision of my future, but I didn’t look like me; I looked like Rick, Mike, and James.
Rick, Mike,and James are real people, colleagues I knew from my hotshot meetings, established megastars in their universes of influence. Million Milers! There wasn’t a major meeting in my field without one or more of the MMs on the dais. In the lounges after the meetings, they regaled us with travelogues; they had been everywhere, and seen it all. For small talk, we compared miles and upgrades, and chirped about the legroom. I was fast becoming George Clooney in “Up in the Air” while George was still an intern in the E.R. There was one big difference between George and me. Okay, maybe more than one big difference. But the one that matters for purposes of this discussion is George’s peripatetic character didn’t have kids, and I did.
Rick had trouble remembering if his second child was in 10th grade or 11th, but knew his oldest was in college and probably drinking a little too much as she did in high school when she had the DUI. Mike’s three teenagers were estranged from him since he left them and their mother back East to move West for a big promotion. He was confident they would reconcile when the kids were old enough to understand adult responsibilities. James’ divorce came with a brutal custody battle. His wife made wild accusations about his extra-curricular activities on the road.
With a vivid and terrifying vision of becoming one Rick, Mike, or James, I stopped filming the birthday party, and started seeing it. I realized I liked hearing my kids tell me their adventures better than I liked hearing those of the MMs. I liked sleeping at home with my wife better than by myself in a luxurious hotel room that I could only describe to her by phone each night. I liked hearing my baby giggle better than I liked hearing polite applause from colleagues in a far-off ballroom. I wanted to be at the first T-ball game. Heck, I wanted to coach the T-ball team.
That was the day I grounded myself. Not all at once, of course. I still had obligations to fulfill. But I learned to say “no,” and I learned to be a lesser player. I was fortunate that my job didn’t require the travel or the notoriety – those were merely accoutrements of my success. I could still earn a decent living and sleep at home, as long as my ego would survive a cut in prestige. And it did. In a matter of months, I lost my Premier Executive status with the airline.
How much stardom do you need? How much do you need to know your kids, and how much do they need to know you? And, how much are you willing to miss during all those hours on the tarmac?