'Success,' American style--and how some people have gotten around it

April 07, 1991|By Neal Lipschutz



Amy Saltzman.


238 pages. $19.95.

Money and success too often are used synonymously iAmerica. A big earner is automatically judged a winner, not only in work but in life. Never mind that the highest-paying occupations can be all-consuming, leaving people with little time or energy for family friends or other interests.

It's an often made point that money isn't everything and that singlemindedly climbing the corporate ladder can lead to an unhappy rung. But in our high-pressure work world, they are points that can't be made often enough. Amy Saltzman makes them here, clearly and specifically.

Ms. Saltzman focuses on "career professionals" who "implicitly believe that work should serve a purpose in our lives beyond allowing us to put food on the table and meet the monthly mortgage payment." The book is only indirectly about money, although the author notes that money has "always been our means of keeping score."

Certainly there is satisfaction to be found in work and careers. Ms. Saltzman's point is that when we ask too much of work, when within the confines of the office we try to create semblances of family and community, all the while racing for the next promotion, the results can be joyless and disorienting. She writes: "The problem is that no matter how enlightened, most large organizations continue to define success in the narrowest of terms and reward forms of behavior that run counter to building happy lives and healthy personal relationships. More often than not, that means glorifying destructive workaholic behavior."

In this book, Ms. Saltzman, who covers career issues for U.S. News and World Report, gives us examples of people who came to distressing places in their careers and did something courageous and imaginative to solve their problems. While these shifts were voluntary, the 1990s are likely to see a number of forced career re-evaluations. Constant corporate downsizing combined with the movement of the baby boom generation through their 30s and 40s mean extraordinary competition for dwindling managerial opportunities. It won't be so easy to move up, so people will be forced to think in non-traditional ways about success at work.

To be sure, the people profiled here are high achievers, self-motivated and very good at what they do. When they decide to "plateau" or "backtrack," two of the types of "downshifting" described, they are more likely than most to find a boss willing to try to meet their needs. But because these people are in excellent jobs and well regarded by their organizations, it is even more to their credit that they had the courage to change when they found themselves in places they didn't want to be. Many others just accept dissatisfaction as the price of moving up.

Steve Garagiola was the main sportscaster for a Detroit television station, appearing on the air three times a night. But his family life was suffering from the absorption necessary to stay on top of his job. "Every time I would express my doubts to colleagues or friends, they would say things like, 'There are a million people out there who would kill their grandmothers to do what you are doing. What do you have to complain about?' So I would just push aside my doubts and keep going." But finally, his family life at risk, Mr. Garagiola stepped back. In order to be at home more he took a job with fewer hours and less responsibility at a station in a smaller market.

The people in this book do not move from successful careers to doing nothing. Even after their changes, they retain good and mostly interesting jobs. What they do accomplish is finding a way to balance more sanely career with other things that are important to them, from writing to community activism. They do this by setting parameters for what they're willing to do. Sometimes they turn down promotions, or they shift within a career or they go the self-employment route.

We all know scheduled-to-the-hilt careerists consumed in the cult of "business," as Ms. Saltzman terms it. Some people are happy there, and this book is not for them. But for Ken Bode, a former NBC News correspondent who switched to a Midwest academic job, family life could only go so far when his work for NBC meant long hours and frequent travel. "What was really missing before was the ability to spend mundane time together," he's quoted as saying about his children. Scheduled "quality time" cannot replace the impact of the everyday presence of a parent in the home.

This is not a self-help book. Happily, it offers no charts or magic formulas and few generalizations. It is good journalism. It features well-written profiles of interesting, sympathetic people who found a better balance in a world where there is never enough time.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer living in New York.

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