The Career-Driven Subculture

Clarifying moments in the never-ending struggle to balance work and life.

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When my girlfriend adopted her dog, Isabel, from a shelter, she was living in Washington DC, working at a nonprofit. A few years later, she took a position at a firm in the private sector. It wasn't long before her new colleagues heard puppy stories, saw cute pictures, or met Isabel on Saturdays at the office. "Why do I love dogs?" she'd tell anyone who asked. "Do you know what it's like to come home to an adorable little creature who is visibly happy to see you every single day no matter what?"

That's what made "the case" so hard. One day, her whole team ramped up to help a client through some litigation. Everyone had to work extremely long hours, and Courtney was spending so much time in the office she had to hire a dog walker. It went on like that for days. And then weeks. Finally she decided that until the litigation ended, she would send Isabel up to the farm her family runs, where her parents would watch her. She hated coming home to a house without a dog. But it was only temporary, and Isabel would be a lot happier running around all day than cooped up inside.

"How's Isabel?" colleagues would ask.

"Oh, I've been working so much that I sent her up to the farm in New York," she'd reply. Her immediate co-workers knew all about the family business. And this small bit of gossip spread even beyond them.

It wasn't long after that when a higher up in the firm approached Courtney in the office. "I heard you sent your dog to a farm in the country," he said. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm very impressed by your dedication." It's always nice to get positive feedback from a superior, but something about the way he said it made her pause. And then it dawned on her. One of her bosses, taking "the country" to be a euphemism, thought that she'd put her dog down in order to focus on the case.

And he was commending her for it!

Today Courtney recalls the story as an eye-opening moment. That superior didn't represent the general thinking at her firm. But his remark is one of the things that shocked her into stepping back and reevaluating the prevailing attitudes in the subculture of young, career-driven professionals that she'd joined.

She isn't alone.

On a few occasions, I've heard her tell that story at a party or while out for a drink with friends. When she finishes, it isn't unusual for someone else to speak up. The stories they tell vary a lot. But the common thread is that they experienced a moment of clarity that made them reevaluate their professional choices. Some of these people changed careers, having concluded that they couldn't stomach something about their earlier job anymore. Others merely lamented one aspect of a career they generally liked.

In this era of numerous career changes in the course of a lifetime, I wonder if this phenomenon is even more common than is generally thought. Having heard the story of Isabel's trip out to the country, do you have your own to share?

(E-mail replies to - photo by Conor Friedersdorf)