Dismantling The Career Ladder 🪜
Family? Job? Why not both? A TNF CAREER BUMPER ISSUE
The New Fatherhood is an open and honest conversation about modern fatherhood, with a bunch of dads figuring it out as we go. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. You are one of the 9,227 dads (🚀) signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, why not get your own?
Our weekly open threads have become a core thread of the collective TNF fabric. Sitting atop the initial Notion page of what eventually became this newsletter I wrote:
“The New Fatherhood isn’t all about me. It’s every dad out there who is pushing fatherhood forward, whether intentionally or not; but who keeps putting the effort in, knowing we’ll only be able to get this big rock moving by striking it together.”
This place is at its best when we bring our communal brainpower to the surface. Last week saw a dad reach out wanting advice on changing careers when “every decision feels like it carries a lot more weight now, and it's easy to get stuck in a comfortable groove knowing your (current) needs are covered.”
Friday’s open thread provided a chance to harness our collective wisdom, and you didn’t disappoint. I went back over the clickthrough stats, which showed around 1% of you saw the 30 or so dads who offered their perspective. This week, I wanted to bring the best ones back for a wider audience.
Over to you, dads.
As a new dad (when my son was one), I thought that the best way to show my love for my kid, and the general future of humanity was to do the most adventurous, meaningful thing I could imagine. I applied to be an astronaut.
Weeks earlier, I’d also quit drinking, and maybe I was just whiplashing from feeling lame being sober. Either way, now I think I’m glad (and not too surprised) that I wasn’t selected as an astronaut.
There’s only so much showing from a distance that can be felt as love. Risking my life, rocketing away from my kids and everyone else, getting an adrenaline rush as I do it, going places no one’s been, paving the way for the endless future of humanity—it’s entirely possible that my kids would have no idea how much I loved them if that’s how I showed them. Let alone everyone else. Actions all speak, but they’re easier to hear face to face.
Commercial fishing will have to suffice, leaving my kids for a couple of months at a time instead of years. Bringing them with me when I feel like it, not when they’re old enough to navigate a government web form. Watching their lives expand day after day instead of pushing the expansion of life in general. And I know parenting is harder than fishing. Probably harder than flying a rocket too.
In the first week of '22, I and about 20% of the company got laid off. My wife was 31 weeks pregnant at the time. Between a salary freeze that arbitrarily applied to me but not peers in 2008, a hell boss, a previous layoff, and the blood-sweat-and-tears startup laying me off in the 3rd trimester, my conversion to millennial cynic was complete. These guys and gals care about your labor but not your well-being. Ya gotta watch out for yourself, and yours. #radicalized
I sprang into action. I had been laid off before, and I hauled ass over the next 5 weeks, and got a job offer the day my wife went into labor a few weeks early. My final negotiated offer was accepted after she got the epidural administered but before the kiddo came. (I felt like I should try to stay "in the room" more but she said "it's gonna be a while, you're doing great babe 😂, go ahead and negotiate")
I had about 5 weeks of unemployment, 6 weeks of Washington State Paid Family Leave (which was about the same as a paid leave experience, but publically funded at an unemployment like level) and then I started the new gig with a 6-week-old. The new job pays 20% more than the startup and is in an area I'm interested in.
I will say sometimes a career change happens TO you, and it's not a chosen move so much as playing the hand you're dealt, prospects, network, and economy. And I don't love being laid off. But both times, the experience kind of shaped me, focused me, and I came out of a new gig doing better professionally (and WAY better life-wise) than I had done before.
For anyone dealing w a layoff right now, my tips are 1) file for unemployment right away, even if you accepted a lump sum severance payment you're eligible and you should, 2) join a gym or get regular exercise while you look for work, and 3) don't be so 'cute' about only applying places where you have an in, that your overall volume goes down. Volume, volume, volume. It's almost like a marketing or sales funnel. If you are targeting a lot of relevant openings, have a decently HQ resume, and can learn over time how to interview better, you will make it happen.
At some point last year when I was going through a horrific work experience—and was ready to quit and find a new job—I asked the dads here for some advice. One dad just suggested to chill a bit, focus on your kid, there will be time to be more career focused. I took it all in, and I'm so glad I did.
I think if you're lucky enough to have some flexibility in a job and enough of a household income to manage the tough times at the moment, I don't think there's anything better you can ask for. I kind of knew that we would be poorer as a result of having a kid—childcare costs, just additional costs everywhere else—but apart from saying goodbye to some pre-kid luxuries (I do miss having random cocktails with mates, but whatever) I think its been ok.
Now my daughter is 2 years, I feel like I'm starting to get my brain back. Sleep is becoming normal (until the next milestone/holiday event/developmental stage!) and I feel like I'm able to imagine for the future again beyond simply trying to survive with a newborn. My biggest pivotal career move so far has NOT to take one. To just stay in place, try and keep things interesting for myself, but in a way just enjoy the ride and get off the relentless career train for a bit and enjoy the scenery with my daughter.
A little over a year ago I gave up tenure and full rank at a private liberal arts college, so we could move close to my wife's family. I would not have been able to do that if the pandemic had not wrought economic havoc on the college, which worsened toxic elements that I'd already been complaining about for at least five years. So I can't claim any moral high ground really -- I was losing faith in a future in higher education, and my wife's online business rendered my income unnecessary. So instead of providing financially, the biggest gift I could give to my family was to resign. It's been great for my kids and for my wife, but it's taken a little over a year for me to feel like I understand my new role or that I fully believe it's been good for me. This spring, I'm beginning to feel truly hopeful for the first time since we moved.
In 2018 my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimers, my parents lived with us for 12 weeks over a hot summer, as they had to now move to a more suitable property in a well-connected area. My mental health nose-dived not long after, with existential dread, fear, paranoia. A glimmering diamond in the turd was that I took it all as a red flag, to really start to appreciate and value the little everyday qualities of my life and not devalue how fucking beautiful it is to grow a human and create a life with them, and how terrifyingly short this sprint across the galaxy this life is. I stopped being so god damn complacent and entitled.
Covid landed on us and removed all connection to our families and my dad passed away in the shitty lockdown numbers 2 and 3. No great commemoration or celebration of life. Just a limp empty void to the end of someones life. I'm still not over the experience of being in the war zone of caring for an alzheimer's patient and then having nothing to show for it at the end.
It sent me into a spiral and now two years later I find myself blinking into a post apocalyptic world with more purpose and desire than I have ever had before. I am studying counselling, forest school leadership and we are home educating our son.
The vivid 3 dimensional life we now have before us, because of all of these experiences. I love and appreciate every day more, I love my son and my wife more, I value every essence of the simple joys of being with each other, just by sharing breakfast, or a dance in the kitchen or reading stories before bed. None of this is glamorous, well paid or highly valued status. But its all ours. So we now make decisions based on how much we can be together, how much we can devour this life and not be at the mercy of it. Finances will always have to be monitored, we may never be economically 'rich' but we will always prioritise our time together.
I had already started to explore a career shift before I became a father; I had spent a year getting trained and certified as a coach, and had started a coaching business on the side during the pregnancy. But actually quitting to become self-employed was really hard. I had all these voices in my head telling me it was irresponsible, I was a provider for my family now, how could I walk away from that salary and prestige, etc.
A few things helped:
I shared those doubts with my wife. She said "Of course you should quit your job and go into coaching". I was shocked - I thought that she, pregnant with our first child, would want the security and safety of a full-time job. But she said "I see you. On the days you just do your job, you are stressed and exhausted and kind of miserable. On the days you do even one coaching session, you are full of life and excited. That's the man I want to be with."
My wife is an engineer at Apple, so we would still have an income and health insurance.
After I came back from paternity leave, I was still hesitating, and my coach at the time asked me "So is this what you want to model for your son? To stay in a job you don't want to be at and sacrifice your own happiness just for the money?" That hit home, being the role model for my kid.
Took it upon myself earlier this year to move from working as a teacher in public school to the world of private school. Public education is a disaster area here in California, and 8+ years of working within the system saw no improvement from where I was standing. Decided to jump at an opportunity at a private. Downsides: lack of flexibility with my content planning AND took at 33% cut in my pay. Positives: my commute is way shorter and the school I now work at actually reflects my beliefs and values.
I have only been working at my new place for a couple of months now, but I have loved every moment so far, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. Yeah, we’ve had to make adjustments in lifestyle, but those adjustments have resulted in spending more quality time with my wife and three kids (6, 4, and 1). No regrets whatsoever.
6 months after my first was born I moved to a job that was mentally easier but a further commute and higher in-person expectations. I was there a year before I moved to a higher-paying job. I was one of two parents on the team at the higher paying job and was poorly supported for things like doctor visits and sick kid days. 6 months before my second was born I took a small pay cut and moved to a fully remote job where 80-90% of people are parents. I have never felt more supported.
Being fully remote I’ve been around for so much more of the first-year stuff than I was when I was commuting 2 hours a day with my first son. With the second kid, I made a conscious decision to put kids ahead of work, and I’m doing better work in less time.
Down with the ladder
Big decisions were less fraught before kids, when your salary could happily be frittered away on [vinyl records | collectable figures | expensive jackets | limited-edition sneakers | lavish vacations].As is clear from the stories above, there’s no single well-trodden path we can all follow, and what works for one dad won’t necessarily work for you. It’s like choosing where to live: the decision comes down to what you’re optimising for, and what quality of life means to you.
"Quality of life" is subjective: what's important for you might not be important for me. What you prioritise is dependent on many factors. Some of it will be baked into your programming from your childhood: what did your parents do? How much did they work? What was going on in the world at that time? Did you live in one place? Did you move around a lot? Your experiences in these early years will drive the type of life you're looking for now: you might prioritise security and safety if it was something lacking in your own childhood, or you might want escape and adventure if it was something you always dreamed of as a kid.
Your definition can be driven by many factors. It could be baked in, unconsciously guiding your decisions. It might be driven by what you've learned as you've grown older: books you've read, conversations you’ve had with friends, and different perspectives seen on the career path of others. It might even come from a newsletter like this one.
What quality of life means for you, and what it means to me, are almost certainly not the same. There is overlap, of course. You’ll hopefully share many of the same priorities as your partner, and you'll find yourself gravitating towards friends with a roughly similar set—it's inevitable as we settle into tribes who share the same beliefs and guiding principles as we do. But I’ll have criteria you don’t care about, and vice versa. And that's OK!
What’s important isn’t what other people prioritise. But it’s that you’re intentional about your own goals, and are working towards the right thing. We were raised to see career progression through the metaphor of a ladder—something to be scaled, an ascent taken with decisiveness. But where does a ladder lead? Most times you’re climbing to fix something, or to provide illumination in the dark, before you dismount upon a swift completion. When was the last time you got off the ladder at the top? What happens if you change your mind halfway up? I’m not sure the ladder works anymore. Making sense of your career feels more like a maze: there’s one way out, but maybe more; the way ahead is unclear and filled with dead ends; and even whilst expending maximum effort it can feel like you’re going back on yourself.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about it differently. About the idea of a career filled with stepping stones. Going into it knowing it’s nigh-on impossible to know the entire path ahead, so you can only plan the next step, at best. Some stones offer a steady place to gain sure footing, take a breath, and get your bearings. Others feel more precarious, where slipping into the water seems certain, but the only way to know for sure is to step onto it, with caution. It doesn’t help anyone to rush across at full pelt—that’ll only make things more treacherous. But each step forward highlights potential new options, routes that make themselves known only when you’re on the preceding stone, and the final path you take might only make sense when you’ve reached the other side. The complete opposite of a career ladder, really.
In a career of stepping stones, there's only one thing you can do: make the next right step. To take decisions that align with your goals and values. Imagine you were gifted the ability to communicate through time, and could talk to your older—and God-willing wiser—self: what would he tell you to do at this point?
Trust your intuition. And step on.
3 (career-focused) things to read this week
“The Right Way to Make a Big Career Transition” by Utkarsh Amitabh in Harvard Business Review. New career on the brain? Here’s a very TNF-style essay, with a personal story intertwined with actionable tips that can help you make potentially life-changing decisions, and focus on what’s important to you. “Pro tip: Write your future autobiography. Before leaving Microsoft, I actually sat down and wrote a sort-of autobiography. I reflected on what the most defining events along the way would be. I was intentional about describing (in great detail) what I wanted to be remembered for and the way I spent my time. Conducting this thought experiment gave me more clarity on what mattered most to me and why. This doesn’t need to be 100 pages long, but it does need to give you an idea of what you want your journey to be.”
“How to Make Smart Decisions Without Getting Lucky” by Shane Parrish in Farnham Street. A one-stop shop of decision-making principles that are “both practical and time tested,” from the ever-excellent Shane Parrish. There’s something here for everyone, whether your decision is about changing careers, moving cities, having a second child, or just what to make for dinner this evening. “If you’re like most people, you’ve never been explicitly taught how to make effective decisions. You make decisions like a golfer who never took any lessons: miserable with the state of your game and yet not seeking to learn a better swing, and instead hoping for the best every time you lift the club. Hoping that this time your choice will finally work out.”
“How to Make Tough Career Decisions” by Benjamin Todd in 80,000 Hours. A nine-step framework that will hold your hand towards making the right choice—even if that right choice is staying where you are. 80,000 Hours are a non-profit focused on helping people “switch into careers that effectively tackle the world’s most pressing problems.” This framework is evidence-based, and chock full of links that can guide your ship safely to the right port. Bonus points for this excellent example of why pro and con lists don’t really work:
Dads: Let’s Push Things Forward
This weekend our Geneva community saw a more in-depth discussion on the tensions between careers and kids. We also discussed the joy of refinding spontaneity after the newborn stage, the mental health benefits of regular exercise, and how folks have been finding our initial dad’s circles (the third of which took place this week).
I’ve also been on a Channely McChannelson vibe, adding new places for different topics, including a career and work channel (inspired by this week’s newsletter) alongside channels for dads who graduated into the Fatherhood Class of 2023, 2022 and 2021, a place where you can share horror stories and seek guidance from dads who are roughly around the same stage as you.
There are also some new local dad channels. We’ve already got a London one (which is now 30+ dads strong) and am working on connecting dads in Barcelona, Boston, and a few other big US cities. I have this far-fetched dream of local TNF chapters wherever “dads with feelings” congregate. Now we’re hitting a fair number of paid subscribers, those karmic collisions are starting to become more regular.
Become a paid subscriber today and support what we’re building here. Your kids will thank you for it. And your old, wise self too.
Hey! Listen to this!
After listening to his interview with Rick Rubin, I’ve been diving into the Rich Roll archives on the school run. This guest spot on Tim Ferris’ podcast was a fascinating look at reinventing yourself at every decade marker, and shared some interesting contours of my own journey. (Minus the five ironman-distance triathlons in Hawaii in a week, obviously.)
Signing off with a career update of my own
Well. I’ve been umming and aahing about when to put this into the newsletter. But a career special issue feels as good a day as any. So here goes.
Last summer I spent a few weeks wondering about what the next stepping stone was for me. I was talking to close friends about my own values, how much joy and sense of purpose I was getting out of this newsletter, the conversations I’ve been having with dads, and what it might all add up to. I’d been reflecting on my own journey—my chance encounter with a professional coach in the kitchen of a house party and the journey we went on together; leading to a separating of my sense of identity from my job, moving to Barcelona, starting TNF, and a fundamental reconstruction of what success means to me.
When I look back on the Kevin of 2016, I wasn’t searching for a coach. I didn’t really know what one did. But those 12 weeks working with Jim shifted something inside me, in a fundamental way, that allowed me to move forward, unburdened from previously invisible shackles holding me back. I’ve ended up naturally talking to lots of dads in my life, guiding them through life-changing transitions, and learning a lot in the process. So last summer I decided to do this for real. I began my training to become a career coach, and am now working with my first batch of clients. It’s already proving to be some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. My initial focus is working with dads trying to
juggle integrate different aspects of their life together—in a way that mums have been struggling with for decades, and dads are just beginning to grasp the details of—and folks who aren’t ready to sacrifice essential slices of their life to climb the corporate career ladder.
Anyhow. Consider this what they call a “soft launch.” If any of this resonates, and you feel like you’re ready to figure out what the next step might be, take a gander at this site—built with my own two hands; thank you, three years of Computer Science at Manchester University—and let’s talk.
Awkward self-promotion muscle: you can relax now. Remember to ungrit teeth upon descent.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
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Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson. Survey by Sprig. Thanks to all the dads who contributed to the thread this time, and every time. Follow The New Fatherhood on Twitter and Instagram. Send me links, comments, questions, and feedback. Or just reply to this email. Congrats to Paul Millerd who became a new dad this week! Welcome to the club, Paul. And full marks to anyone who caught the subtitle easter egg this week.
Delete as appropriate. Or don’t delete anything, if this particular mix of money holes perfectly sum up why you were broke for most of your adult life.
Thanks for the shoutout! Enjoyed this issue (sucker for work content). My book was inspired by hearing stories like this. It’s amazing how many people experience this stuff but think no one else is.