The worst day of my life occurred on February 28, 2012. That was the day my wife, Christine, lost her nearly 2 year long battle against stomach cancer at the age of 39, leaving me behind with our then 8 year old daughter, Erin. I am not one who believes in the redeeming value of tragedies or views death as part of the natural order of life. To me, there is nothing redeeming or natural about death; it is an enemy to fight even if surrender is inevitable. However, facing death can sometimes remind us of how short life really is and that we should make the most of the time we have among the living. Christine’s death reminded me of the importance of not taking loved ones for granted and the importance of pursuing my passion.
Christine taught me that a tiny person (She was 5 feet tall and 85 pounds when healthy and under 60 pounds after her chemotherapy) can make a big impact by simply pursuing her passion and encouraging others to do the same. After her death, I vowed that I would try and pursue my passions in all areas of life and teach Erin to do the same. To paraphrase noted author Frederick Buechner, “Your calling is the place where your deep gladness [passion] and the world’s [our communities’] deep hunger meet.” Endeavoring to live this way obviously impacts all facets of life – career, family, spirituality, social responsibility, etc. – and rightly so; however, I want to focus here on the impact to my work, my career, and ultimately my family.
After a time of soul-searching and struggling to put mine and Erin’s lives back together, I decided to adopt three guidelines for how to live my live generally and to managing my career in particular. The first guideline is that people come first, especially my family and my friends, the second is that I always want to purse my calling and passion, and the third is to involve my communities. Let me flesh out what that has meant for me beginning with the last two guideline. My hope is that it may spur those folks in the communities I participate in to think more about making the most of their careers. My caveat is that this is still a journey for me and so I do not pretend to know all the answers and I am not suggesting that everyone must follow the exact path I am taking.
Always Pursue Your Passion
Christine was extremely passionate about bringing people together in community and helping those in need, particularly children. When we first moved to Harlem and had Erin, Christine saw an opportunity to help increase the level of early childhood development in the neighborhood. So she worked with other Moms in the community to create a not-for-profit organization called Harlem4Kids. Their mission is “to support an inclusive network of Harlem families and to further enrich the lives of our children through fun and creative programs that celebrate cultural diversity.” In pursuing her passion for childhood development in the community, Christine was able to utilize her strengths in consensus building and organizing groups and activities. Being able to pursue a passion that mapped to her strengths and gifts is what Buechner talks about and what enabled Christine to continue giving to Harlem4Kids to the very end of her life. Being able to do use her gifts to pursue her passion gave Christine deep gladness and met the needs of her world.
That idea of your passion being closely linked to your strengths and gifts was reinforced when I joined Rackspace and was introduced to StrengthFinder. StrengthFinder help you discover your gifts and encourages you to focus on areas that leverage those strengths instead of focusing mainly on your weaknesses. The thesis is that this sets you up for success and also sustains you because, as human beings, we are most passionate about those things we are good at and tasks where we can make a tangible difference. Knowing my strengths helped me to understand why I loved building community and teaching others in my communities the things I’ve learned. I was able to cut through the noise and to focus on a career path that would allow me to learn technology, teach it to other, and share it in community – all of which are things I am passionate about and have gifts to offer. That was also when I decided that, going forward, as long as I made enough money to take care of my family and to make them comfortable, I would choose pursuing my passion over money and title. In other words, as long as I had a certain income (different for every person) I would not choose a job which offered more money if it meant not doing what I love. Looking back, the times where I’ve made wrong career choices has been when I ignored my passion and calling and chose to purse jobs strictly for money or title. This is why I encourage everyone to find their strengths and see how it maps to their passion.
Involve Your Communities
When Christine started Harlem4Kids, she specifically chose to not go it alone but to do it with a group of other Moms in the neighborhood. That wasn’t always easy but Christine knew there was wisdom in community and that she needed others who could see and do things that she could not. A good community can help you hone your passion and sharpen your strengths, while helping you to stay grounded. That has been no less true for me as I’ve moved in my journey from Sales Engineer to Cloud Architect to OpenStack Evangelist to Business Strategy Manager to Director of Technical Marketing. Ive always made it a point to consult with others, ask questions, and seek community wisdom from various sources, including friendships, blogs and podcasts. Among the people who have been absolutely critical to my career choices are folks like Ryan Yard, Niki Acosta, John Griffith, Shamail Tahir, Tyler Britten, the Cloudcast crew – Aaron Delp and Brian Gracely, and the Geek Whisperers crew – Amy Lewis, John Troyer, and Matt Brender. Similar to when I’ve made career choices either because of or in spite of my strengths, the soundness of the decisions I’ve made have been directly correlated how much I speak with and follow the wisdom of community. So I strongly encourage everyone to be involved in communities and to seek their collective wisdom when it comes time to make important choices.
Take Care Of Those You Love
Ultimately, my primary passion is for my family and friends, with my career as a way of helping me to provide for and to support them. This perspective of prioritizing loved ones over career puts guard rails around the choices I make. For example, I knew early on after Christine’s death that I wanted to leave my pre-sales job and pursue a career in technical marketing and evangelism. However, being a newly single parent with a young child that had just lost her Mom, I knew it would not be wise for me to leave a stable job with no travel for a new endeavor that would require me to be on the road regularly. For that period of time, I had to sacrifice the pursuit of my career passion for the sake of caring for my daughter; but in the end it was not a real sacrifice since caring for Erin is the greater calling. I had to wait until Erin was a little older, had time to grieve with the help of a counselor, and for someone to unexpectedly come into our lives to fill the void Erin and I both had. When Cathy became a part of our family, she became the balm to soothe our wounds and the medicine to help Erin and I to heal. She also put our family in a place where I could begin to take the steps to pursue a change in my career that has led me to the place where I am today.
Balancing the care of my family with the pursuit of my career passion is an ongoing high wire act for me. I wish I could say that I now live my life in perfect balance with all my priorities in order. The reality is that this is a constant struggle where I have to remind myself over and over again to place family first over my job. Some practical steps I take to try and maintain that balance:
- Schedule appointments with my family – I learned to block out evenings with my family on my work calendar, including using the standard appointment alert. Otherwise, the temptation is to allow work to consume that time. This is an issue for me, in particular, because I work from home where the tendency is to blur the line between work and home. I’ve also made the choice not to have my laptop with me and not to check e-mails during family time so I can be fully present with my family or my friends if they are visiting. My reasoning is “If you are going to spend time with loved ones, spend time with them and not just go through the motions.”
- Take sabbath time with my family – The concept of sabbath (time set aside to rest), while having Judeo-Christian roots, is gaining credence even in the secular world. I know people who pride themselves on being able to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. However, I would argue that human beings, body and soul, are not suited to work without regular rest and that families thrive best when the whole family can take sabbath time together. Certainly, my experience is that my family would prefer weekly time set aside for them over just a few weeks of concentrated vacation time a year. Typically, I will take either all day Sunday off or sundown Saturday until sundown Sunday, depending on what work deliverables I have Monday morning. However, whichever 24 hours I take for my sabbath, I try to put away all work-related paraphernalia and focus on rest and time with loved ones.
- When I travel, I bring my family with me – Whenever possible, I try to bring Cathy and Erin with me on business trips that are more than 2 days long. I am fortunate in that my travel allows me to accumulate frequent flyer miles, companion tickets, and hotel points, which I make liberal use of. This obviously means trying, whenever possible, to use the same airline and hotel chain for your trips; I am always surprised to hear from friends who travel frequently but don’t do this. Along those lines, if you are allowed to pay for business trips using personal credit cards, apply for cards that will give you back frequent flyer miles and/or hotel points. For example, I have a card I use for air travel and another card I use for hotel stays. When I bring my family, it means that I will set aside some evenings to be with them and not attend a conference party or hang out with friends in the industry. I do try to balance that by having lunch or drinks after dinner with friends and letting Cathy and Erin know that some evenings I will be out with people in my tech communities.
I know this is not my usual tech industry blog; however, now that I’ve gained some distance from the trials of 2010 to 2012 and am at a place where I am doing the job that I feel best suits me, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned. Hopefully, I am not being self-indulgent and that my story may benefit some who read this post. I am willing to talk with anyone about what I’ve written and willing to help anyone I can. If you want to talk, reach out to me via the comments or on Twitter @kenhuiny.