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There Is No Work / Life Balance

Book Review: Fat, Forty & Fired
Interview: with author, Nigel Marsh
By: Ben Murphy, The Father Life, April 2007

THERE IS NO WORK/LIFE BALANCE! Ok, I might be over exaggerating a bit, but it got your attention didn't it? And chances are it resonated with you on some level. The truth is that there is work/life balance, just probably not in most of our lives. The fact is that many men in this country have great careers and pathetic family lives... it's not intentional, it just kind of ends up that way. As a friend of mine says, "work is one hell of a drug."

THE (SHORT) BOOK REVIEW

If you relate, than you really must read a new book that was just released here in the U.S. It's called Fat, Forty and Fired and it's by a guy named Nigel Marsh. It's a funny book that reads quickly but man does it hit home. The book has already been published in the UK and Australia, and it hit the top 10 bestseller lists in each country. The Father Life had the privilege of snagging an advance copy of the book and of spending some time chatting with the author, Nigel Marsh. Bottom line, this is a book that fathers really need to read.

The book is, essentially, an autobiography about a high-level advertising exec (Nigel Marsh) who hits age forty, loses his job (the firm closes), and realizes that his family life (married with four children) is non-existent. So, rather than dive back into the rat race, he takes a year off to connect with his family, to lose the weight he's put on (by taking up open water distance swimming), to kick his alcohol habit, and primarily - to figure out what's happened to him.

"...it was clear I had lost perspective. Work had become a far too dominant factor in my life and I was becoming that person I always swore I would never be... In this case, the problem was compounded by the fact that the work was out of sync with my personal values and motivations. Trouble was, the nastier I became, the nicer my family was. It would have been some comfort if I had a shrew for a wife and revolting, unlikable children, but the reverse was the case. Kate and I had been married for ten years, during which time she had been nothing but supportive and understanding. Along the way she had sacrificed her career and given me four of the most gorgeous children that ever walked the earth."

Nigel is a Brit-turned-Aussie, and his antics and witty, irreverent, self-deprecating humor run throughout the book. You wouldn't expect less from a guy who made money conning himself off as a racquetball instructor (yes, that's in the book) for, well, just for the heck of it...

The reason I really liked this book is that it's not an in-your-face, self-help book. It's just a guy's story. And that, to me, made it really accessible and powerful. You relate to Nigel's story because it's like yours in a lot of ways and that hits home.

THE (LONG) INTERVIEW

(While this was a great book to read, and I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy now that it's out, frankly, the most valuable part of this experience was getting to chat with Nigel through email and over the phone. So, I've included below a series of ideas, quotes and conversations that came out of chatting with Nigel about Fat, Forty and Fired, The Father Life, family, business, etc... Hope you enjoy! BM)

After Nigel's year off as chronicled in the book, he took on the position as CEO of Leo Burnett, Australia. Leo Burnett is a prominent global advertising firm, and Nigel was ready to dive back in with his newfound experience to draw on. "But I immediately went back to work and began doing exactly the same things I had done before. Basically I found it extremely difficult to maintain balance when I went back to being a CEO. I set up a whole list of rules - and broke them all. For example, Wednesday night was supposed to be date night for my wife and I - I cancelled the first 14 in a row. After the first year back I started to develop a way of doing it better - but it would be dishonest to say it was easy. I'm no expert - I'm just an ordinary bloke trying my best. I believe the first ground rule for getting what you want out of life is to decide what you want out of life. If you use that as your start point I feel you won't go far wrong."

Nigel's return to being a CEO at Leo Burnett Australia were by all means successful, having turned the Australian firm around from being in-the-red to winning the coveted Ad Agency of the Year award. But after 3 years back as CEO, Nigel stepped out of the position. "I ended up learning much more during my 3 years back than in that 1 year off. During the process, I finally came to grips with the fact that running 2 ad agencies + having 4 kids and a family are just totally, totally incompatible... If you want to be at the top of your game professionally, there just isn't going to be room for family and visa versa. The reality is that there aren't any easy answers, mate."

Since stepping down as CEO, Nigel has continued on as Chairman for Leo Burnett Australia, but spends the bulk of his time with family and with work related to the book - including sales of the first book, speaking engagements, and work on his second book (slated for an '08 release). "I came to the enormously scary decision that I'd stick this out as long as it seemed to be working or until the money ran out. My decision to largely leave corporate life is the total opposite of what was expected... After turning Leo Burnett Australia around, the expectation after that was to capitalize on that success... the expectation is to continue. I totally did the opposite of what was expected. To quote St. Benedict one of the most valuable concepts I came away from all this with was 'to listen with the ear of my heart.' I spent 35 years ignoring it and now it is my guiding light. I'm a damn sight happier listening to it than not. Strangely I'm also a damn site more successful..."

Now on the speaking circuit, Nigel speaks to groups about business, leadership, and family. Nigel and I spoke on the phone while he was in Perth, an hour before speaking to a crowd of 3,000 McDonalds' employees. "I find that one of the things that's somewhat bittersweet to me is the fact that my credibility as a speaker is based on my corporate success and, thankfully, that gives me a platform to speak about the book and the ideas that really matter to me... But, ironically, if I hadn't had been successful as a CEO, no one would care about the rest the reality would be, 'oh, he's just some bloke talking about family stuff'."

"Up until now, a truly balanced life has really been the territory of oil moguls and rock stars... the super-rich. Seriously, most of us are too damn busy working to stay afloat that it's just not in the forefront of our minds... The more I dig into this area of fathers and career, the more it seems to me like the situation women found themselves in as housewives in the 1950's. Staying at home doing the homemaker thing, but missing out on the career piece. And women worked hard to change that expectation. I think that's kind of what's happening with guys now. You have men who feel relegated to their careers. And that's not to say men don't love their careers we obviously do, but I think many guys are looking for more fulfillment in life."

"Societal change will happen... essentially, there needs to be a change in mindset. I'm a firm believer that in the end, the human race well, we find a way to sort out the messy stuff. Whether it's slavery or segregation or how to combat terrorism... we do, eventually, start coming to grips with these things and we sort them out. The current business model of long hours, etc. is absolutely mindless as a long-term proposition. There's got to be a better model - ultimately the current structure is self-defeating."

"It's like Tolstoy, I believe it was Tolstoy, observed that there are the Napoleons of history but it's not as much huge revolutions as it is small, steady change that really actually changes things. It's ultimately the everyday nice blokes that change the world, not the Napoleons."

DID YOU TAKE THE YEAR OFF PLANNING TO WRITE A BOOK AS PART OF THE EXPERIENCE? OR DID YOU GET INTO THINGS AND START THINKING, "MAN, I REALLY NEED TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT THIS!"?

"I didn't take the year off to write a book. I took the year off to try and save my life. One day after dropping the kids off at playgroup I sat down on the kitchen floor and started writing (much to the later annoyance of Grace) on the back of one of my daughters drawings with a children's crayon. I had no idea what I was doing but simply couldn't stop - I wrote 11 chapters there and then. Later that night I thought maybe I should write a book..."

WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE BOOK'S RELEASE IN THE UK AND AUSTRALIA? WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE FROM READERS? HOW DID THAT AFFECT YOU?

"The response has been totally overwhelming. I wrote it without thinking it would get published, let alone be a best seller. It's a bizarre thing that something I wrote could change people's lives. You know, you just write this stuff and I thought it would be small but turns out it was a best-seller in the UK and Australia... so I'm really excited about the book coming out in the U.S. market... There are literally hundreds-of-thousands of men in America who are on the wrong path and I sincerely hope this will prove to be helpful. Last week (in Australia) it sold 4 less copies than Dan Brown. It's been on a number of prime time TV shows and the front cover of magazines, serialized on Radio, translated for foreign markets and it's currently in development as a feature film. I simply did not expect that sort of response.

However, the most affecting part of the response has been the letters and emails. To date I've had over 900... and that just blows me away. Readers pouring their hearts out to a total stranger. I write back to every single one. I thank them for the nice things they say but then stress that I am not a self-help author or an expert with any of the answers. The bizarre and wonderful thing is that a number of them have written back saying that this is precisely why they found the book moving and helpful - because of its normality and authenticity.

I get lots of questions from people lots of people wanting advice... I'm becoming very sensitive of how I talk with people in emails or at a speaking engagement. I've taken a very, very conservative approach and have been very cautious. Personally, I was very fortunate to be in a position that afforded me being able to take a year off. But the fact is that life is full of responsibilities, it just is. Taking a year off is not realistic for everyone. People need to be realistic. If it makes sense for you to take a different path, great! But don't get all dreamy and go off the deep end. For example, if you have family responsibilities and a crummy job, but it pays well and you have a relatively good life than it's just a dumb decision to dump it all and become a poet. On the reverse, I've had people call me who are partners in their law firm and at the pinnacle of their professional careers, financially set, and are utterly miserable, and I say, 'what the hell are you still doing in the office?!' I really try to take these questions seriously, because these are people's lives, so I'm careful, and I'm honest. To the bloke who wants to be a poet, I say, ''sorry, mate, but that probably wouldn't be a smart decision.' And that's not what he wants to hear, I'm sure, but I'm just trying to be honest.

The real tragedies in the emails I get are the situations that can't be fixed... I get emails from guys who have achieved everything professionally, but are utterly depressed because ultimately they never could quite hold down a family and lost that and now are 60 years old and, frankly, it's too late... I mean, how the hell do you reply to that?

This all really boils down to a lesson now for men to examine: based on the path I'm on now... am I going to be happy and satisfied with life in 5 years? In 10 years? 15 years? When my kids graduate and move out, am I going to have regrets on stuff I may have missed... and, what would it take now to change that? That answer is for each guy to answer for himself, but the real question is, have you the courage to give it a go?

I'm glad you guys have The Father Life going, because it will give you a media for these types of things; and the real thing you can help men do is just get them to take the responsibility to think about it; to stop long enough to seriously just think about their life, their family. Maybe nothing will change but if there's a chance that it will, it won't happen until men stop and think about it. If you can get them to stop and take the responsibility to think about it that, often, will get the ball rolling to change things."

LESSONS LEARNED...

"I suppose the greatest lesson I learned is how right Socrates was when he said all those years ago that ' the unexamined life is not worth living.' Making the time and taking the effort to think, truly think, about your life is the main battle. It is so easy to just exist - to make a living as opposed to making a life. The 5th Century mystic St. Benedict once gave a devoted follower the memorable advice, 'Pause for a moment, you wretched weakling, and take stock of your miserable existence'." Not a bad piece of advice to apply to your own life at least once a year.

The only other lesson I would suggest to think about is to never ever put your life's design in the hands of a commercial company. At the end of the day, however nice they are, they don't care. They are a commercial entity and to them you are an economic unit of value not a human soul. It's your responsibility to design the life you want and a big mistake to leave it to anyone else - in particular a public company. I thank the Lord every day that I learned this lesson at 40 not 65 like so many people who write to me."

YOU ALSO KICKED YOUR ALCOHOL HABIT DURING THIS WHOLE EXPERIENCE. FOR GUYS WHO KNOW (BUT MAY NOT WANT TO ADMIT) THEY ARE STRUGGLING WITH ADDICTION - WHAT ADVICE COULD YOU OFFER?

"Two things. First, that there is always hope. However desperate you feel, however bad things look, don't give up on yourself - there is always hope. Second, to avoid the mistake of thinking that you'll sort out your drinking problem when you've sorted out the rest of your life. The secret is to do it the other way around. First sort out your drinking then sort out your life. It's a damn site easier and effective in that order."

WHY ARE GUYS SO DRIVEN BY SUCCESS THAT THEY CAN FALL INTO NEGLECTING THEIR FAMILIES?

"Work can be addictive and it enables you to not face some tough questions... In some ways it is easier to let yourself be sucked in to the one-dimensional, career-warrior thing than it is to build and live a rounded, balanced life. It is how most men get their identity, after all. I also believe there is a serious lack of role models for men. We are stuck in this ridiculous rut where we hold up someone like Jack Welch as a role model. With all respect I think he is a total disaster as a role model. I don't want 'I made budget but my marriage failed' written on my tombstone."

WHY DO WE CONTINUE TO CHASE AN UNATTAINABLE WORK/LIFE BALANCE?

"I think there is a widespread and profound lack of honesty about this whole area, a decent amount of it perpetuated through the media. This lack of honesty promotes a myth about the ideal balanced state that I doubt exists anywhere. There is a saying that the one and only rule of the media is to 'first simplyify, then exaggerate.' A good starting point would be to admit some basic truths like 'Working hard can be huge fun and wonderfully rewarding.' Or that 'staying at home with your kids can sometimes be mind-rottenly depressing and boring.' Or that if you want to be at the top of a high-pressured career tree and you have four young kids, then you will not (whatever anyone else says) be meaningfully involved in your kids' lives on a day-to-day basis. FACT. What you choose to do with this fact is up to you but to deny that it is a fact seems to me to be the height of dishonesty. We need to deal with the facts not the fantasy. Only then will we stand a chance of working out an achievable balance as opposed to chasing an unrealistic dream.

Links:

Purchase the book
Fat, Forty and Fired, official webpage
Author's Website
Publisher: Andrews McMeel
Additional Reading: Balance is Bunk, Fast Company, Keith Hammonds

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