Erin Callan

Erin Callan

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Erin Callan, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, wrote a compelling and candid opinion essay about the difficulties she faced balancing the intense demands of her job with her life.

Confessions of a Workaholic

Callan writes:

“I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time. Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left.”

As the boundaries slipped away, so did her life outside of work. Callan writes about how her relationships suffered and how she failed to have children, a regret she is now trying, at the age of 47, to remedy.

She now wonders if all the sacrifice was worth it. She writes:

“Until recently, I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success. But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme. Besides, there were diminishing returns to that kind of labor.”

Smart, daring, and beautiful, Callan was legendary for her intense work ethic. A CNNMoney profile of her states:

“Callan was the sort of person who would work all day, then, for example, stay up with the guys till 3 a.m. at Lehman’s management offsite. But while some of her colleagues got hammered, Callan always, always remained in control. She’d be up early the next morning. Back in Manhattan, Callan started most days at 6 a.m. in a spinning class at the gym or with a personal trainer. Then she was in the office from 7:30 a.m. to around 8 p.m.”

Life After Lehman

Only after the 2008 financial crisis was Callan able to step back, take survey of her life, and understand that real change was necessary.

She writes:

“Without the crisis, I may never have been strong enough to step away. Perhaps I needed what felt at the time like some of the worst experiences in my life to come to a place where I could be grateful for the life I had. I had to learn to begin to appreciate what was left.”

While the vast majority of her colleagues returned to high-profile and lucrative jobs on Wall Street, Callan, who did take a job at Credit Suisse one month after leaving Lehman, only to leave the job five moths later, disappeared from the scene.

Today, she lives in Sanibel, Florida with her second husband, a New York City firefighter whom she met when they both attended the same high school.

Lean In or Lean Back?

When Fortune Magazine’s  asked Callan what prompted her to write the op-ed for The New York Times, she answered, “I wrote the piece because I felt it was important for young women to know there is no magic formula to ‘have it all.'”

So, if Sheryl Sandberg is telling women that, in order to succeed, they must lean in, then won’t Callan’s story be perceived as a cautionary tale for what happens when women lean in too much?

Journalist Patricia Sellers writes:

“Doesn’t Callan’s prescription for happiness–essentially, fall off the perch, lean back, and learn ‘how to live a life’–counter the empowerment message that Sandberg delivers in her new book.

Learning To Set Limits

The real lesson to be learned from Callan is the importance of learning to set limits on how much you give for work. In a piece for Businessweek, Arianna Huffington recently wrote about how a fainting episode at work, brought on by too much exhaustion, taught her the importance of unplugging and recharging.

She writes:

“Women need to define success differently than men. If you don’t learn to unplug and recharge, you’re not going to be as good a leader. Look at the price we’re paying. Look at the increase in heart disease and diabetes for career women. If success continues to be defined as driving yourself into the ground and burning out, it will be disastrous for our families, our companies, and our world. We have so many people making terrible decisions, despite the fact that they have high IQs and great degrees. If success doesn’t include your own health and happiness, then what is it?”

As our jobs become more and more high pressure and technology makes a 24 hour workday possible, both men and women must struggle to discover how much is too much. Though this struggle for balance is a continual, life-long challenge, it is an essential and necessary one.

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