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How High Achievers Should Pick a Spouse
As many of you know, I recently got married after many, many, many years of dating all kinds of men, blogging about it, and even publishing a book about it. To my delight and surprise, we actually spent several classes during my time at HBS discussing marriage, how it affects our careers, and how our careers could affect our marriage. I sent out an email asking how many of you would be interested in what I learned at HBS and in my own life about choosing a life partner, and lots of you said you’d be interested so here you go!
Below is a blend of things I learned during classroom case discussions at HBS mixed in with my opinions after feeling like I have chosen the best life partner in the whole world for myself.
Pick someone who supports your career vision.
We discussed a case in the class Founders’ Dilemmas in which the husband is pouring time and money into his new venture. His wife is supportive at first, but then she starts pressuring him to get a “real” job with a steady income and reasonable hours. Without the support of his wife, the entrepreneur husband struggles to keep his venture afloat as well as to keep his marriage intact. Unfortunately I can’t remember the title of the case or even the main dilemma in the case (perhaps it was actually the marriage), but I do remember that our professor stressed that we choose a marriage partner who understands, supports, and is ready to come along for the ride of our career vision.
My career vision is to combine my talents in writing, speaking, mentoring, and creative production to encourage and inspire people all over the world to achieve their personal and professional dreams.
My career vision is currently manifested as running this awesome business and helping people from all over the world get into their dream schools, get money to pay for it, and then be well positioned to get or create their dream jobs. However, my career vision also includes writing many books, traveling around the world, and having lots of autonomy over my time and how I work. My husband 100% understands and supports my career vision. Never does he say things like, “You know, you could make more money working at McKinsey. Why don’t you go do that?” When something I launch doesn’t work out as planned and I get discouraged, he always points out the positive things that are going well in the business, and encourages me to persevere. As an entrepreneur in a seasonal industry, my income is volatile month to month and can be somewhat unpredictable (though the tools of financial analysis of past performance that I learned in grad school help me predict my income much better these days). My husband understands that and is okay with that.
In turn, I support his career vision, and help him think through his next steps in his education and his career. I try my best (though it is very hard) to support his career vision rather than imposing my career vision for him onto his vision.
Another thing that we learned at HBS is that if you have two high-achieving career-oriented people, you have to be ready for some negotiations, deal-making, tradeoffs, and compromise. One case we read featured a married couple where the wife had gone to Stanford GSB and the husband had gone to HBS and they were both trying to balance their high-flying careers. We learned that if both spouses want demanding careers, they have to be willing to take turns making sacrifices for the sake of the other person’s career. Otherwise, resentment could start to breed within the marriage or worse, one partner might decide s/he is better off divorced and able to fully pursue their career. For example, if my husband and I need to move to another state or even another country to support his career vision, I am ready to do that—and because my business is virtual, I am very fortunate to be able to do that. Our career visions are complementary to one another. I can keep building my business, writing my books, traveling, and such while he discovers and advances in his career. Right now, we’re in Austin, my chosen city to live in for now, but we could just as easily be in NYC, Washington DC, or London in a a few months if that’s where we need to go for his career.
Pick someone with whom you can grow and change.
In Western culture, we spend a lot of time figuring out if we have “chemistry” with someone but I think that we should spend more time figuring out if we have “alchemy” with someone. I think of chemistry as an exciting, lusty feeling toward someone where you feel simultaneously bewildered and bewitched by someone. To me, chemistry is a volatile experience where things often end up blowing up. I’ve had crazy chemistry with a lot of people, and prioritizing chemistry in relationships has never worked for me in the long term.
On the other hand, I think of alchemy as “the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.” (Source: http://www.yourdictionary.com/alchemy) Chemistry is way overrated in Western culture, whereas relationship alchemy is not well understood and is not appreciated. When you pair up with someone and live through the day to day challenges of accepting, loving, and living with another person, you have the opportunity to create a beautiful life together out of the ordinary act of living rather than trying to “borrow” excitement, prestige, wealth, youth, or any other characteristic from the other person via “chemistry.”
Pick someone who shares your values.
Everyone has values, even if you don’t know what they are. To discover your true values (not just the ones you wish you had), look at how you spend your time, how you spend your money, and what you think about the most. My husband and I share the following values (though we each have additional values that the other one may not consider as important to their own life): in no particular order
education: We both believe in the power of higher education and that we should be lifelong learners and that everyone deserves a quality education. We spend a lot of time and money investing in our respective educations.
entertainment: We both love to spend our free time on entertainment-related activities, especially going to the movies, going out to eat, playing games, going to fancy bars, hanging out with our friends and family, etc. We do these things together, and also enjoy doing these kinds of things with our separate groups of friends.
kindness: We both value being kind to ourselves, to one another, and to all those who we encounter in our lives. We maintain personal boundaries to protect ourselves from people seeking to cause us harm, but in every situation, we seek to take whatever is the most kind action that is still authentic and protective of ourselves.
abundance: I grew up in Dove Springs, one of the poorest neighborhoods in my city, and my husband grew up in Togo, one of the poorest countries in the world, and as a result, we both value abundance. Right now, that manifests as going on vacations, having lots of free time (this might not last long if/when we have kids), living in a pretty, clean, and walkable area of a great city, and having enough money to spend on the things we want while also putting money into savings.
giving back: As I mentioned in my earlier point, we both grew up surrounded by poverty. We both believe in giving back our time and talents to underserved communities—and once I’m no longer buried in student loan debt, I plan to give back money as well. We are both particularly interested in at-risk youth and being examples and role models that you can make it out of the ghettos of Texas or one of the poorest countries in Africa. I often speak to groups of high school students about what it’s like to run my own business, and this summer, I’m offering a workshop on applying to college, which is free to low-income students.
creativity, fashion, and art: We both love reading about, watching documentaries about, and talking about fashion, creativity, and art. We’d love to one day start a fashion line together of Western clothes made out of African fabrics. For now, we just enjoy the many fashion documentaries available on Netflix and do a lot of window shopping together.
Pick someone who reminds you that you are not your accomplishments.
As a very achievement-oriented person, I am always keeping my husband updated on how the business is doing, we celebrate every time I get a new client, and we talk about how quickly I could pay off my student loans on a weekly basis based on how much income I’ve made. However, my husband always reminds me that he loves me “because God told him to” (his words), not because I went to Harvard, or that I run a business, or that I make really good breakfast. It’s important that I remember that we love one another not because of what we have done but because of who we are. Make sure you pick someone who loves you for you—not your degrees, not your paycheck, not your job title, and especially not for your inheritance.
If you’re still looking for The One, I recommend that you keep these ideas in mind when considering potential mates. You aren’t looking for a Trophy Wife or Trophy Husband; you’re looking for a life partner. Pick someone who you can adventure through life with as you grow and change, and with whom you can create something beautiful, extraordinary, and sometimes hard to explain.