The Most Important Professional Decision You Need to Make Is Personal


There you are, making decisions about what'll bring you a long, deeply fulfilling, I-made-a-difference-in-this-world-goshdarnit sort of career. You think you should be considering your interests your "passions," your personality, your values.

And, sure, all of that is good and helpful and "proper."

None of it will matter, though, if you fail to make the most important professional decision of all:  who you choose to be your spouse.

In honor of the twenty-year anniversary of dating my husband (fact check:  I'm not ancient - we were simply high school sweethearts!), here's the down and dirty on why the personal determines the professional - and how to make the best choice yourself, whenever the time comes.

Meaningful Work Is High-Powered

Most of the articles you find about spousal support for one's career focus on "high-powered careers."

Read:  the people at the top of the corporate ladder, making boku bucks with a three-letter acronym adhered to the butt of their names.

I contend, however, that pursuing personally meaningful work demands the same level of drive and commitment as "high-powered" careers. Finding such work requires a full immersion of self, a healthy lack of work-life boundaries, and the willingness to make sacrifices - financial, personal, familial.

If the pursuit of meaningful work were easy, more than 20% of us would've found it.

There's simply no way to keep this sort of gig flying without a supportive spouse, as research attests:

"Support from a spouse is paramount to steering a successful career and personal life, according to a recent survey of 270 successful women by Kathy Korman Frey, a faculty member at the George Washington School of Business Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. In response to the question, “How do you do it?” nearly half of the women surveyed said: 'support from my spouse or life-partner.'" - Wharton Business School article

Does This Apply Only to Women?

The previous quote begs the question of whether spousal choice is as important for men's careers as it is for women's.

I want to say:  Hell yes! I really want to say that.

I can't, though. The fact remains that women still take on more of the household work than men do, even when both are fully employed outside the home.

That's why Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg devotes an entire chapter to the topic of getting one's husband to be helpful ("Make Your Partner A Real Partner") in her excellent book Lean In, which I reviewed in the past. As Sandberg points out, only 9% of dual-earned families report splitting housework, child care, and breadwinning equally.

That said, I have seen spousal choice negatively affect people of both sexes, especially when men feel pressured to bring home hefty paychecks at the expense of fulfillment and sense of purpose.

Signs of a "Good" Decision

Based on many articles on the topic, here's are the signs I've distilled of making a "good" spousal choice - signs you've found someone who will support you as you pursue the challenging, but highly worthwhile, goal of finding meaningful work:

  • Doesn't hold rigid gender stereotypes. 
    • For example:  Is willing to have conversations about all sorts of work-life arrangements, including women staying home, dual-earner, and men staying home. Does not cringe or balk during these conversations.
    • [Note: A NYTimes article reports on a study that found that "traditional views of gender identity, particularly the view that the right and proper role of the husband is to make more money than the wife, are affecting choices of whom to marry, how much to work, and even whether to stay married."]
  • Isn't wedded to a high standard of living.
    • For example:  Says something like, "As long as we're together, I don't care where we live or what we eat." And lives those words (within reason, of course!).
  • Doesn't use income as a yardstick for "important/worthwhile work."
    • For example:  Actively admires people who live according to a set of values, regardless of their earnings.
  • Readily sees everything you could be, if only circumstances allowed you to be it.
    • For example:  Says something like, "I'd love to help you figure out how you can cut down your job so you can do the writing you've always been talking about."
  • Sees partnership as a team effort, not as two individuals competing or besting one another.
    • For example:  Doesn't even put your accomplishments or income in the same sentence as his own. The comparisons simply don't exist.
  • Has experience with and willingness to compromise.
    • For example:  You two can pick out a movie on any given night without getting into a brawl - even when you want to watch polar-opposite sorts of flicks.
  • Takes deep personal pride in your accomplishments, without making you feel pressured to accomplish.
    • For example:  You're at a party and you overhear your partner sharing your latest fulfilling milestone while beaming. Does not mention this to you later.
  • Believes in your capabilities, both at work and at home.
    • For example:  When you divide duties, doesn't come behind you and re-do them "correctly" after you're done. As Sheryl Sandberg writes, ”Anyone who wants her mate to be a true partner must treat him as an equal – and equally capable – partner.”

Next Steps

Do the signs above seem like a tall order?


Yet such partners do exist. I snagged one, and I know many other men and women who have, too.

In my opinion, the best way to find someone supportive is to BE someone supportive. We attract what we are.

Plus, the odds are increasingly in your favor. Studies show that men currently graduating from college are more egalitarian than in past decades, while women are more realistic about "having it all." As a result:

“It’s increasingly possible to carefully, consciously and deliberately choose roles that fit our values. [Young people] are seeing more choice, more freedom and more realistic ways of pursuing lives that fit with the roles they want to fill in society.” - Stewart Friedman, Director of Wharton Business School's Work-Life Integration Project

So set your sights on meaningful work, pick a partner who will help you reach for such heights, and don't stop striving until you get there.

Photo Credit: tommie m