The Profound Unhappiness of Erin Callan

Erin Callan
Source: Lehman Brothers
Erin Callan

Erin Callan, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, offers this contribution to the work-life balance discussion:

I don't have children, so it might seem that my story lacks relevance to the work-life balance debate. Like everyone, though, I did have relationships—a spouse, friends and family—and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over.

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.

Inevitably, when I left my job, it devastated me. I couldn't just rally and move on. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did. What I did was who I was.

I have spent several years now living a different version of my life, where I try to apply my energy to my new husband, Anthony, and the people whom I love and care about. But I can't make up for lost time. Most important, although I now have stepchildren, I missed having a child of my own. I am 47 years old, and Anthony and I have been trying in vitro fertilization for several years. We are still hoping.

Sometimes young women tell me they admire what I've done. As they see it, I worked hard for 20 years and can now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone.

I've been following Callan for a very long time. Until I read this, I didn't realize how much she regretted about the choices she made with her life. It's quite moving.

It's hard not to wonder how much of this is related to the failure of Lehman Brothers. If her firm had not collapsed, she might have felt different about rising to the upper echelon of Wall Street. Success can often provide at least the illusion of happiness. Or, perhaps, it would have just delayed the recognition of her own unhappiness.

Callan hardly needs advice from me but I'll offer it anyway. She may want to consider that her lack of satisfaction with her life's direction is not a product of the choices she made. Instead, her choices may have been a product of her lack of satisfaction. In my experience, the kind of people who can rise to the level she did at a relatively early age tend to be filling a hole in their psyche, an indistinguishable yearning for something more that is experienced as a kind of pain.

Look at Callan's life. She is obviously very ambitious and capable. Yet she describes her life as almost beyond her control. There are no words of happiness about the success she achieved. Instead, she says she wouldn't wish her life on anyone. And now that she is in a new phase of life, she is still filled with regret, worry and unsatisfied ambition. "We are still hoping," she writes. But she means striving, pushing, trying to escape the limits of the ordinary.

If Callan suffers from this, it's not clear that she wouldn't still feel this kind of profound regret if she had filled that abyss with family life rather than work in the financial sector. This feeling of unease about her place in the world is just a part of who she is.

There's very little that can be done about this. Although perhaps recognition of the permanence of this uneasiness would help her experience it not exclusively as a source of pain.

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