Leading the Life You Want

When Stew Friedman and I first met, he shared his life’s work, to design places of work that work for us humans. We talked long into the night. Last week, Harvard Press released Stew’s latest’s ideas into the world, entitled Leading the Life You Want (link to buy). It holds some wisdom for how to navigate the social era, powerfully. So, Stew and I got together recently, and as you’ll see, he has an offer for how he can help you.

Stew, what prompted you to chase this question? What’s your onlyness as to why you, why now?

 When my eldest was born, 27 years ago, I was a young faculty member at Wharton focusing on leadership development and succession, the subject of my dissertation at the University of Michigan. But Gabriel’s birth rocked my world. I realized I had to use my skills and talents more directly in the service of making the world a better place for him and his generation to grow up in. It was a pivot point; I shifted my focus to the question of how business leaders could help families and how all business professionals could better integrate work and the rest of life.

I met considerable resistance. An esteemed colleague warned me that I’d had a “promising career” – why, he asked, would go I enter the ghetto of this “women’s field”? As it turns out, I was uniquely positioned as a man, and as a man at the Wharton School, to speak to a broad array of audiences, including senior executives, who, at that time, were, it’s safe to say, nearly exclusively old white guys. At conferences on the topic I was often the only man in the room. I was in a singular position, and, as you would say, I used this situation that “only” I could fill to try to create positive change.

Good for you for braving past that, um, interesting experience.

What’s the most counter-intuitive thing you learned along the way?

One of the most counter-intuitive things I’ve learned is that in it’s often the case that you can spend less time working to become more productive at work. My students and clients discover that when you pursue what’s most important to you and to the people who matter most to you, you have more energy to get things done, you’re less distracted, and you ignore the stupid stuff. When done intelligently, choices to spend less attention to work can result in improved performance at work.

Another counter-intuitive thing is that in order to pursue your own interests, to lead the life you want, to do what matters most to you, paradoxically, you need to focus on serving others. So instead of thinking about the “work/life balance” think instead of creating harmony among the different parts of your life by pursuing what I call “four-way wins” – actions you can take, under your control, that benefit you, your family, your community, and your work. The possibilities abound; you just have to look for them and then be vigilant about adjusting continually so others see that what you’re up to is good for them.

Having just moved to a new city, which I’m doing to “lead the life I want”, I imagined it would be nirvana. Stew Friedman & Nilofer Merchant at Thinkers50 2013For example, I thought I would work out every day and maybe spend more time meeting local people to learn new stories. But actually I’m much worse off, logging more hours toiling away while not getting very far, never getting to the yoga studio etc. hiding from my local environment because the language burden (and my abysmal french) is so high. From all your experience, is this typical? And what would you have me do different?

Transitions are by nature disruptive, but disruption can offer an opportunity to re-evaluate what’s really important and being in a new cultural environment opens up the possibility of seeing things with fresh eyes. Use it as an opportunity to retool.

What’s the 1 thing someone can do to live the life you want is, fill in our _____.

The one thing is to recognize and focus on what matters to you. Everything else flows from that. Again, it’s similar to your construction of “onlyness” – what is it that is uniquely you, what makes you tick, what gets your juices flowing?  Whatever that is, that’s what you need to be pursuing, and somehow converting into value for others, to lead a meaningful life, the life you want to live.


And I know that your thinking is backed up by research. Share a couple key bits of evidence that proves what you know.

Even as attention to work decreases by 10%, you can get an 8% increase in performance. More on that. I’ve studied executives in so many contexts – including as a researcher heading up the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and then while I ran leadership development for Ford Motor in the late 90’s when I was on leave from Wharton and where I developed the Total Leadership program. And I’ve investigated the impact of this program on our Executive MBA students. One study of 300 of them showed that smart experiments in pursuit of four-way wins result, over a four month period, in an eight percent increase in meeting performance expectations at work, even as attention to work decreases by about ten percent during that time period.

How do you personally build the life You want? What’s your best tip.

In terms of do-able tips, I time shift a lot:  When my children were young and at home, I’d be up hours before them, working in my home office, writing, grading, and so forth, so I could join them for breakfast and put them on the school bus. This is not atypical for a college professor – we have lots of discretion with our time. But this was unique at Ford, I can assure you! I’d also work late at night after everyone was in bed. Now that I’m an old codger, I still time shift, but now I nap at least once (preferably twice) a day. I also try, whenever feasible, not to have any scheduled meetings (phone or in-person) before noon. Today, in what you refer to as the social era, and what others might call the 24/7 non-stop buzz of connectivity, I try to turn it off. I try to keep my mornings reserved for thinking and writing and taking care of myself to rejuvenate, refresh, and restore.

In terms of building the kind of life you want to lead, nearly everyone is skeptical that it’s possible to have a fulfilling, meaningful, rewarding, remunerative, successful career and still have a full and rich life with loved ones. That’s part of what prompted me to write Leading the Life You Want and profile unarguably successful people who have created conscious, deliberate strategies to lead lives that are in harmony – not balanced at any one moment in time, but meaningfully integrated over the course of life.

Time blocks are a key technique that I love and live by, too. Thanks, Stew.

Besides being one of the top ranked management thinkers in the world, his book just got on the Wall Street Journal Business Book Bestseller List, and has had some great early press.

But– and this is so great of him to do given that Stew is in hot demand right now — he’s offered to do something JUST with the Yes & Know community. He will answer questions and we can dialogue on the blog about Leading the Life YOU want. And one of you awesomesauce people will WIN your very own personal signed copy of the book. (We’ll find a way to make it random, which typically involves me writing your name onto sheets of paper and having my son pick one out of a bowl; if you know a better way, please do me know.)


BlogIcon_Right copy Alright, ASK things of Stew, and he can help us break down this idea of Leading the Life You Want into steps, actions and how-tos that will take us to the next level.

20 Replies

  1. Let me be the first to say I really appreciate this message coming from you as a member of the an elite business school. My experience as an executive coach and a facilitator of management programs in the corporate sector has shown me that you are indeed correct. I like to remind my client they are in charge of setting their boundaries. They cannot expect the “company” to tell them not to work 24/7. We all need to remember the power of choice. What are you choosing now? Why are you choosing it ? What does this choice say about your values?
    Thank you for writing the book. It is very timely in the age of most people being “overly busy”.

    1. Thank YOU, Wendy. It seems as though you are doing great work helping people see that they do indeed have choices. Even when we’re “overly busy,” even when we face real-world constraints it’s imperative to know what matters and try to act on that. And it really helps to bring others along.

  2. Stew – sometimes I think that leading the “life you want” is a luxury. I say this mostly because I am a young person struggling to get my new business off of the ground. How do you rectify being in a tough spot (financially, or not necessarily business-wise, could be personal) but also feeling like you have the time and space to craft a life by design?

    1. Hi Meredith. I hear this all the time. It certainly can feel like a luxury, as something unattainable, to be able to step back and reflect on what really matters most to you alone and then take steps, however small, to try to get closer to that. But in decades of work with students, executive, line workers and others I have found that despite a heaping helping of skepticism everyone has the power to diagnose a problem, dialogue with key stakeholders, and discover new ways of doing things. Without sounding too much like a salesman for my new book, let me say that it does include 36 exercises that can help anyone begin to take some steps toward leading the life they want.

      1. Hey Meredith –
        I would argue this is actually an argument about success. If success is say about learning or building deeper relationships with people you respect or … then you’d be willing to act by those. But if you make success the optics of how “successful you look” to others, than you are doing what I say is kissing a moving butt. It is being kiss ass not kick ass. Meaning you are trying to appease or please something that is always in motion. Farther and farther away from your own heart, your own dreams, your own goals.

        1. Could not agree more, Nilofer. It’s critically important to do what you can to take conscious, deliberation action intended to reflect your core values. Your worldview can shift profoundly when you do so.

          Meredith, is there one thing you could do now, one small thing you’ve not yet done, even it’s just for a few minutes, that would take you a step closer to acting in a way that’s true to what you care most about in your life?

  3. Stew, great work and I’m looking forward to diving into the book. I really love the concept of time shifting but, at least in my life, I feel like I’m having trouble applying it as my kids aren’t in school yet (2.5 and .5 years old). I’d love to wake up early…but they wake up at 5 in the morning.

    Any time shifting advice for toddlers?

    1. Hi, Dave. I hope you read the book and find it valuable. Two things: When I say I woke up early before my young children I did indeed mean working well before 5 AM! I know this is not for everyone. My point is that we can all find the innovative, creative solutions that might work for uniquely well for us. What works for me may not work for you. Second, time-shifting is just one possible change one can make. The book contains 36 exercises. Time-shifting may not be the best possible solution for you. A few other exercises come to mind for your situation — Crowd-Source Solutions; My Problem=Our Problem; Worst Case/Best Case; Challenging Your Beliefs etc. I really hope you find the book helpful. And please do let me know. I am truly interested in hearing about your results and your suggestions.

  4. Thank you Nilofer for sharing your relationship with Stew in a win for all of us in your community. I do look forward to the book, especially the evidence-based work, which on first glance aligns and affirms what I’ve come to believe. My challenge is personal (aren’t they all;). I had a successful career in marketing and brand communications in non-traditional sectors for women, progressing to entrepreneurship with another woman, and achieving ranking as one of Canada’s 100 largest women-owned businesses ($7million, Profit magazine). There came an opportunity to exit, and having lived somewhat overwhelmed and burnt out, I chose to go home with my, at the time, small children. Over 12 years from home, I have worked on communications projects, trained professionally (CTI) and developed a small practice as a Leadership Coach, with small-medium businesses. I’ve focussed on living the life I want, engaging in therapy, developing yoga and spiritual practices, participating in perpetual learning (reading, on-line, courses in everything from meditation to Board readiness), as well as contributing to community-based initiatives. At this point, the career portion of my life is not thriving professionally or financially. I love what I do, and it’s not enough, as I wish to work with a team again, and be able to lead more strategic work with greater intellectual and financial reward. My challenge is when I think about making career choices where I would play such a larger role, I back away for fear of not being able to continue with taking care of myself and my family and community. I am grateful for the luxury of having been able to make the bold choices in my life and follow my own path in various ways. And yet, I seek clarity about how to embrace the world of career and work in a bigger way, without self-compromise. Perhaps I simply need to read your book, but I would welcome any insight you have to offer. Many thanks.

    1. Hi Cheryl. I do hope you read the book and find it useful. You are certainly not the only one who is held back from making change because of fear. And I address this explicitly in the book. One of the first things to do is simply to talk about it with key stakeholders — your partner, your children, and others. You may be surprised and relieved by their responses and you may find that they actually expect less of your time and involvement . You may find that they want you to be happy and fulfilled and that that would actually be better for them. You’ve already diagnosed the issue, now it’s time to have some stakeholder dialogues so that you can discover some solutions that work both for you and for your key stakeholders — those who matter most to you. Let me know how this goes.

      1. My sincere thanks Stew, for your personal reply and recommending the stakeholder conversations. I’ve ordered the book! (from Nilofer’s link in the article) What I notice even in commenting here, is the clarity that comes from “naming” it and putting it out there. (How we learn to walk the talk over and over!) Per your recommendation, I will speak with my partner and children, and also identify and speak with some other key “stakeholders”.

        More broadly, I am pleased you are addressing these issues with data, and as a man. (I also follow Tony Schwartz, who comes at work-life issues from an “energy” perspective.) Many of my clients are men in their 30’s and they also struggle with work life harmony, since they want to be engaged and active parents in their children’s lives. Parental leave is available to new fathers in Canada, which helps at that time. And it still can take courage for them to take full advantage of what’s available, and then to make the ‘daycare dash’ while working in more “traditional” male cultures in tech firms. I look forward to what the book has to say about workplace cultures.

        1. This is a really important issue, Cheryl, and it’s one that young men are pushing forward on in significant ways throughout society. As I showed in a study I published last year in a book called Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, Millennial men are keen to play much more significant roles at home then did their fathers. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see this trend unfolding, for I see it as a sign of progress in our evolution toward greater human liberation — freedom to choose roles, that is, congruent with who we want to be in the world. Thanks for helping to move us forward!

  5. Thank you for being a man standing up for these principles. The idea of creating value among work, home, community and self is a powerful way of re-framing “work/life balance”. I always tell audiences that I do not believe in work/life balance since it is just a “juggling” act. I talk about “harmony” which is one level of integration. I like the concept of how value can be built among all aspects of your life. Perhaps this is what “being” looks like?

    Our Women Leaders for the World course focuses on our “vision” for the world — Whole Woman, Whole Leader, Whole World

    Thanks to both of you for being on this journey with us — sisters from all over the world.

  6. HI Linda. I love the way you think and talk about this. Language is so important. That’s why I am so opposed to the phrase “Work/Life Balance” since that’s a metaphor all about trade-offs and a zero-sum mentality. I so much prefer the metaphor of music and harmony; a jazz quartet — sometimes you hear the piano more than the other voices, sometimes the sax is a solo, and sometimes, rarely, sublimely it’s all the instruments can be heard at once. Play on!

  7. Your book, Stew, will come handy as I’m trying to figuring out how to harmonize what I wish to accomplish at work and at home. After the birth of my son, I decided to reorient my career. I took the time to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. We moved from the city to the suburb two months ago (I lived in big cities for 25 years before that) and I co-founded a new business. Now that I set up my priorities, I just need to figure out a routine to fit the life I want, one that will enable me to achieve my professional and personal goals, and be there for my family. Like you suggested to Cheryl, Stew, I believe that I’ll discover the solution with the key stakeholders in my life and by trying new ways. Thank you for talking the time to share your insights with us.

    BTW Nilofer, I’m Jerome Paradis’ wife. He says Allo!

  8. Thanks Nilofer and Stew! This is one of my favorite topics—and such an important one. I’ve studied it extensively as part of research for a book I’ve written on children’s mental health (because kids mental health is so influenced by their parents’ mental health!). My question is this: What is the best first step to change the culture at a traditional, 8-5, office face time-obsessed work environment? I’m kind of on the “cutting edge,” because I work remotely two afternoons a week (my boss is awesome). However, in my work (web), I could have a much more flexible schedule that would align better with my productivity peaks. And I know it’s true for others as well (writers, graphic designers, programmers, etc.).

  9. And Meredith Fineman won the book. I’ll coordinate with you, directly and get Stew to autograph and send to you.

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