Work, Family, Scene: You Can Only Pick Two

When I first moved to Austin in 2013, I went out to lunch—fittingly—with a writer named Austin Kleon. I was a longtime fan of his book Steal Like an Artist (his book Keep Going is a new favorite). After we ate, he drove me around the city, showing me things and giving me advice. 

Austin was a little older than me and was already married with kids. 

I remember asking him how he made time for it all. “I don’t,” he told me. “The artist’s life is about tradeoffs.” And then he gave me a little rule that has stuck with me always:

Work, family, scene. Pick two.

Work—that is your creative output.

Family—that’s a spouse, kids, or any close personal relationships. 

Scene—that’s the fun stuff that comes along with success. Parties. Fancy dinners. Important friends. This is the stuff that looks good on Instagram, that you can brag about, that falls into your lap like a wonderful surprise. Offers, invitations, perks. 

It’d be wonderful if you could have it all…but you can’t. 

You can party it up and hang onto a relationship but you won’t have much time left for work. You can grind away at your craft, be the toast of the scene, but what will that leave for your family? Almost certainly it means they will be home, alone. If you’re as committed to the work as you are to a happy home, you can keep both but you will have no room for anything else—certainly late nights or hangovers or exotic trips. And if you try to have it all? Well, you won’t get any of it. 

I emailed Austin about this all recently and he pointed me to a poem by Kenneth Koch from the New Yorker that had inspired it for him. It had a great verse in it:

There isn’t time enough, my friends— 

Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends- 

To find the time to have love, work and friends. 

Pick two. 

I know you think you’re the exception, but you’re not. I wasn’t. I can tell you that from experience. I tried all the different variations. I’ve traveled too much…and family and work suffered. I’ve worked too much and family and connections have suffered. I’ve tried to cram it all in and ended up a burned out mess, as I wrote in the epilogue to Ego is the Enemy. Eventually, you come face to face with that hard choice of that epigram and choose your priorities. That’s just how it goes. 

In the years since that conversation with Austin, I’ve been very productive. I’ve written about a dozen books. I’ve sent out an email and a podcast episode every day for both Daily Stoic and Daily Dad. I’ve filmed over 250 videos for the Daily Stoic YouTube channel. I’ve read and recommended hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books to my Reading List Email and then opened a bookstore. I’ve also gotten married, had two kids, had wonderful moments with my family. 

I have not been to very many parties. 

I’ve said no to a lot of stuff. As I wrote recently, I’ve passed on everything from trips to the Super Bowl, a vacation on Necker Island, and more than a few different ghostwriting opportunities. A younger me would have thought these things crazy to pass up on. But that’s exactly what I did. 

I said no. 

I say no a lot. Not just to the big things but little things. Coffee, hangouts, a couple of us are going to dinner, group texts… People who know me, especially lately, find it hard to make plans with me. I’m not a jerk about it, but you can usually count on me to count myself out. 

A few years ago, Dr. Jonathan Fader, an elite sports psychologist who spent nearly a decade with the New York Mets, gave me a picture of Oliver Sacks in his office. Behind Sacks, who is speaking on the phone, is a large sign that just says, “NO!” 

I have that photo hanging on the wall in my office now. On either side of it, hang pictures of each of my sons. I can see them—all three photos—out of the corner of my eye even as I am writing this. It’s a sort of embodiment of the options Austin Kleon had laid out. 

I’m working. I have my two kids and my wife. I’m tapped out. 

Does that mean I miss out on stuff? Really cool stuff, in some cases? Sure, I guess. But the person who tries to have it all will always end up with very little. Certainly very little of anything lasting or meaningful. 

The memory of the warm sun from a long weekend on Necker Island won’t last nearly as long nor sink nearly as deep as the hugs I get from my boys each morning. There’s no one I could meet at a party who, in the end, I’d want to spend more time with than my wife. Moving amongst tens of thousands of people during the super exclusive festivities of Super Bowl Week comes with its own kind of invigorating energy, but it pales in comparison to the inspiration and motivation I get from the emails and messages (both positive and negative) sent by the readers of my books. Inspiration and motivation that help bring the next book into being, and the book after that. 

Life is about tradeoffs. 

When we know what to say no to, and we know why, we can say yes with comfort and confidence to the things that matter. To the things that last.

Work, family, scene. 

You can have two if you say no to one. If you can’t, you’ll have none.

P.S. Thank you to everyone who has supported my newest book, Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy or if there is someone in your life who would benefit from it, you can get signed copies in time for the Holidays over in the Daily Stoic store. Of course, you can also get the book anywhere else books are sold, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Audible.

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