A lot of people seem to think that having kids will be detrimental to your career. If you haven’t had any, I don’t blame you for thinking this. Kids can be terrible! They’ll cry, they’ll whine, throw temper tantrums, embarrass you in unimaginably creative ways, eventually start swearing, and make fun of you behind your back. They’ll probably even poop on you, at least once—maybe twice for good measure.
Now, I know my words above veer dangerously close to the infamous phrase “A lot of people are saying” … but trust me on this one, a lot of people are saying this. Even though my opinion is predicated largely on anecdotal evidence, just google “kids and career” and you’ll find plenty of evidence to back up this false narrative. Articles with titles like “How to have kids without destroying your career” are common, and will make you reach for the nearest birth control faster than a kid can hide their broccoli in a napkin.
Kids come preloaded with absolutely zero perspective. They don’t care that grandma had to till the potato fields of Idaho with her bare hands back in 1948, just to sustain herself for another day so that she would have enough energy to fight off the feral cats in the barn. All that kids today have to worry about is “will there be acceptably fresh organic kale at Whole Foods today?” They have no idea where real food comes from! To a kid, food magically appears on store shelves, as if dropped there by a gluten–free unicorn (who clearly doesn’t have kids of their own, otherwise how would they have so much time available during the day?)
Kids will remind you to upgrade your smartphone when the Snapchat filters are taking too long to load—come on mommy, you still have an iPhone 6S? We’re on to Roman numerals now, let’s get with the program. And you still don’t know how to use Snapchat (cue eye roll).
So why in the world would you even attempt to climb the ladder of corporate success when you’ve got a clingy, whiny, needy, and undoubtedly sticky kid draining you financially, emotionally, and physically? Having a kid is a death sentence for your career, they say! I call bullshit on this—especially if the person uttering this claim has no children. It’s like commenting on an article that you found on the internet without even reading—we’ve all done it, but you know it’s not right.
I will tell you why you should climb the career ladder with kids (and crumbs, and Hello Kitty band-aids, and boogers hanging from every limb).
The struggle is real, and it will make you stronger.
I will not lie to you — juggling a career and children is not for the faint of heart. And if anyone actually reads this article, it will undoubtedly upset some people who have had a hell of a worse time as a parent than myself. My condolences to you, brave parent. My experiences won’t apply to everyone, and that’s okay.
1. You will learn to value strategic planning
As the saying goes, “there is nothing worse than showing up to a gunfight with a knife” but perhaps we should adapt that to something more apropos here like: there is nothing worse than showing up to a playground in the summer without a bucket. Thanks Dad! Because of your lack of forethought, now I’m the only kid who doesn’t have a bucket. Buckets can be used to hold sand, water, and even slugs, did you know this? You didn’t even know buckets were required, did you. Well, next time read the manual (there isn’t one). I’ll just go play squirt guns with the other kids… oh wait, I don’t have one of those, either.
To be a successful parent, you must plan thoroughly for every mission! This is something that I learned as a young officer in the Army, and it applies directly to the experience of taking a child literally anywhere outside of your home. In the Army we were taught that the mission will always change at some point—probably immediately if you’re conducting training. The Army wants to see how you react to a situation that you didn’t plan for.
If you’re smart, your planning should set you up for success, because you’ve thought about all the ways that things could go wrong before you ever set foot outside the wire. I can almost guarantee that your kid is going to throw you for a loop at some point on a trip—and if she doesn’t, it’s because she’s merely giving you a pass so that she can have a popsicle. Kids are smart, and they will manipulate you more than you’ll ever realize!
Always have an escape route—you need to know where the nearest bathroom is, and how long it will take you to get there. Don’t be the parent who takes his kid to the playground, only to pee into a plastic bag because daddy didn’t know where the closest bathroom was. Hey—we’ve all been there, right?
As you advance in your career, strategy will become more and more important. You need to not only be good as an individual contributor, you need to be good at collaborating with others on a higher intellectual level, and planning to achieve goals with a degree of uncertainty.
I’ll give you a good example: recently we asked the membership of Narcolepsy Network (a national nonprofit where I am on the board of directors) to vote on a change to our bylaws. The membership committee, which I chair, had determined that we need to cover more (really, all) of our operating costs from membership fees. The current bylaws only allowed us to change the fees once per year, at our annual conference—a policy that afforded little opportunity to try different models. My committee built a consensus with the rest of the board, explained to our members why we deemed these changes necessary, and pushed this change through. We are finalizing new membership tiers, and though we can’t be certain if our new models will improve fundraising, we’re now able to experiment and get to a sustainable model that works for both our members and the organization at large.
2. You will learn to be decisive
When the shit hits the fan, you need to be ready to react. Sometimes, this happens literally, though thankfully I’ve never had that experience. If you’ve been successful in strategically planning out your day, you will have a far better time executing on the myriad of tasks that you need to perform to keep your child happy, fed, and safe from wild squirrels that may or may not “eat the teeth right out of your head.”
And execute on tasks, both physical and mental, you will. The logistical aspect of parenting appears to be a neglected subject—I could probably write a book on this alone. Having a kid is physically demanding. Didn’t bring the stroller today? Be prepared to “go uppy” because it’s the one day of the week that happens to be “coldy” and oh look, the train is out of service. And so is the bus. And you decided to purchase some groceries while you were out—silly parent. Your biceps will thank you in the end, but your back may not.
You will need to pack extra clothing, burp rags, bibs, mimis, taggies, and whatever other special things your little sociopath of a toddler demands you procure for her. And demand she will.
When the call of duty sounds, you need to be prepared to spring into action. This is not the time for hemming and hawing. In the Army we were taught to act decisively, with the understanding that after later review, you may have made the wrong decision. It’s okay to fail—believe me, I probably fail every day as a parent! What matters is that you learn from your experiences, and don’t make the same mistake twice.
Decisive action is required at times in your daily job, and your direct reports will respect you for this ability. When people are looking up to you, being unable to make any decision is the worst outcome.
3. Complacency is never an option
Congratulations dad, you mastered the art of changing a diaper, likely in a dizzying array of situations. You go to pat yourself on the back, and this is where you make your fatal mistake. This is the moment when the new thing that you didn’t even know you had to worry about becomes a thing, and now you have to deal with this shit on the fly.
Let’s say you’re potty–training your kid. Your daycare handles most of this, hooray! Well check yourself before you wreck… ok your clothes aren’t wrecked, but your kid’s are. And you’re in a museum. Oh, and you forgot to bring a change of clothes, didn’t you daddy? Remember how we talked about preparation and strategic planning? Never leave home without a change of clothes (and half a roll of toilet paper!)
The practical lesson here is that having children will help you embrace a growth mindset in your career. Never stop learning, because kids will keep you on your feet—they’re relentless, like a zombie. But cuter, of course.
When Jana and I built Well Crafted, we were flying by the seat of our pants. We both had experience designing and coding software, but nothing had really prepared us for the overwhelming task of a) bringing a product to market, b) marketing it efficiently to the right audience, and c) turning it into a profitable business. After we launched our minimum viable product and hit step B in that process, it really hit home how many weaknesses we had.
We had to learn to build a brand from scratch, pitch our product to potential investors, and failed at so many things that it’s kind of ridiculous. This is what being a parent and an entrepreneur often feels like—just sort of a state of flailing. But you have to keep going, and we learned a ton from that experience that we’ve applied to our work since then.
4. You will learn to improvise
There will come a moment when she wants to go sledding and make a snowperson, and there won’t be enough snow. At this point you have two options:
- Take the easy way out, tell her that sometimes life isn’t fair, and that it’s really, really just too cold in Buffalo and no one should live there. #ParentOfTheYear
- Get out there and make the best sled run you can with a dusting of snow, buckets of water, shovels, and cardboard to pack it down. (We did this with my daughter’s cousins, with no guarantee it would work, and it wound up being hours of fun).
If you work in a startup, nonprofit, or any organization where money is tight and you have to wear multiple hats, you’ll appreciate the necessity for improvisation.There is a tremendous value to being a self–starter and figuring things out as you go. When I’m interviewing candidates I always like to ask about the toughest situations they’ve been in, and how they resolved it. I love it when someone shares a story in which they’ve had to improvise, regardless of how it worked out.
5. You will learn to focus
And conversely, you will start to understand that you shouldn’t—no, you just can’t—sweat the small stuff, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. Hey look, your kid is eating ketchup right out of the bottle, because that other kid is! You could freak out, and explain that ketchup is a condiment, and that we don’t eat condiments directly out of the containers, because… actually I don’t even know how to answer this one. This is definitely a “but why?” that you’re not going to win. And listen closely, new parents: you’ll never win a “but why?” conversation unless you can manage to tie it together at the end with “so you can play” or “so you can eat candy.”
You’ll have to juggle competing priorities like feeding your kid a healthy, home-cooked meal (which takes time) or keeping your sanity by ordering from Seamless (a great way to expand her palate!) You’ll have to decide whether to prioritize her health (she has a slight fever, and should probably rest inside) or your sanity (we need to get out of the house!) The great news is it appears to be very, very difficult to screw your kid up too much, assuming you have their basic needs taken care of, and you try your best.
As a leader, there are many projects, tasks, and initiatives that you could give your attention to. There is absolutely no way you can do everything you, your team, and your company want to—and you shouldn’t. The ability to prioritize is important, and you need to give your direct reports opportunities to shine. In crunch time, this might even involve delegating some of what you consider to be your work to a member of your team.
Side note to parents: never, ever put the winter jacket on before the mittens. It just never works out like you imagined it. Remember: plan strategically, and prioritize your actions to ensure success!
6. You will learn to have grace under fire
When your kid falls down and skins their knee for the four hundred and fiftieth time, or pulls a 4-inch long blood clot out of their nose (true story) you need to stay calm so that a) you don’t pass out and b) you can comfort your kid who is probably freaking out. There is little comparison to the fear that a parent will experience when there is something wrong with their kid, and your steely ability to keep calm will go a long way in your life.
When you’re confronted with an existential threat, as often happens when building products or services, one of the most important things is to project calmness to your team. If you freak out, they’ll freak out. Something will inevitably go wrong with your plan, and you have to adjust with grace.
When you become a parent, you may feel like your heart is walking around outside your body. Experiencing this stress, while not enjoyable, can put situations at work and in business in great perspective.
Maybe your competition will go after your customers. Perhaps your teammates quit en masse. How will you react?
7. You will learn that relationships matter most
It’s a given that you love your kid, and she loves you—but it’s not like you can just stop there and give yourself a high–five. Like fending off the constant threat of “dadbod,” you have to work at building a strong relationship with your kid! Not only that, you need to provide opportunities for your kid to get to know other adults in your life. It’s important for her to be around other adults, to see how they interact with each other, and to understand that mommy and daddy (or daddy and daddy, or mommy and mommy) aren’t the only adults that will be there when she needs them.
You’ll learn that spending unstructured time with your kid, wandering around the park or the city, can be some of the most important time you spend with them. Some of my favorite memories with my daughter are from random adventures we had together.
When you’re in a leadership role, you need to build relationships with the people you work with, and the people you work for. That’s right—you work for them.
What do you mean, work for them? Well, this is the idea behind servant leadership—you work for the people who report to you. It’s your job to set them up for success, provide opportunities for growth, and see to it that you remove any and all roadblocks to their success. You need not worry, because when they succeed, it will reflect back on your leadership.
That’s where one-on-ones come in: this is an important, sacred part of each week where you have the opportunity to get to know your direct reports better.
People will ask “how do you influence people?”
Answer: by building relationships, you’ll earn their trust over time.
People may ask “how do you motivate people?”
Answer: by building relationships, you’ll understand their intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and then you can set them up for happiness and success in their work.
People should ask “how do you provide opportunities for growth?”
Answer: by building relationships, you’ll know what is important to them, and you can build a plan for personal growth (together).
8. You will enjoy the journey
Your child—though emotional, whiny, and crusted with whatever it was that they served for dinner at daycare—will provide the greatest entertainment you’ve ever seen. And the best part is, it’s free! Well, actually scratch that… kids are actually pretty expensive.
Your child will surprise you in the most unexpected ways, and at the most unexpected times. You will watch her grow, and be amazed at the things she can do. You’ll learn that celebrating her success is one of the most important things you can do.
You’ll experience the same things when you lead a team or a company.
Remember — enjoy the journey!