Redefining Success: Straddle the Fence of Work & Family

Aaron McHugh

Redefining Success: Straddle the Fence of Work & Family

I find it difficult to always be in balance.

Usually work, life or play is taking up more than their fair share of the allotted time between sunrises and sunset.

The biggest tug-of-war is between family and work.

The older I get the more I see how driven we are as a nation to “succeed”.

The irony of that quest is that the definition is largely driven from deep within us.

We each define and adapt our own definition of success.  There are of course external definitions that influence our belief system.

How your neighbor or your brother or your co-worker defines success likely does not align like a dovetail joint with your version.

Success is making a ton of money

I had dinner with a guy a few months ago and his definition went like this.

“I care about making money”.

He and his family have aligned around the idea that Dad goes to work and mom cares for the kids.

In his early forties he believes that once he banks his millions he will be able to nestle into a life long practice of investing in his family.

The truth is he already has a million dollars or more socked away, but that first million or two was not enough.

He kisses his kids and boards his next flight to go fight in foreign wars on foreign lands.

Will his theory work?

Maybe he’s right?

Can we maintain hyper focus on our work for days, weeks, months, years and decades and then make a switch to our family later?

My experience says no.

Time is not a renewable commodity.

Relationships are fragile and largely dependent upon continual deposits over time.

In home mortgage terms, you can’t make a balloon payment once per year.

Healthy relationships simply don’t tolerate annual airdrop care packages.

What if family always comes first?

I have other friends who are so engaged with their family it is worth taking note.

They attend every one of their kid’s practices, volunteer in their kid’s classroom and help make magical birthday parties a reality.


I’m not just talking about women here.  I mean I have guy friends who show up and make their kid’s lives amazing.

I’ve tried to take a few cues from their example.

There is a balance

I’ve seen plenty of people who allow the pendulum to swing so far towards this direction that their families lack sustainable provision.

Lot’s of time invested and great relationships but challenges arise when it comes time to send your kids to the dentist to get a cavity filled.

Physical presence is not enough

I’ve learned that being fully present is the single best gift you can offer your family, co-workers, employees, friends or acquaintances.

I wanted to believe for years that if you were there in physical presence that was enough or at least good enough.

The reality is that physical presence is useless if we are not also emotionally present.

The crux then becomes how do we maintain both physical and emotional engagement in both worlds?

How do we straddle the fence?

How do you afford to take your kid to the dentist and be emotionally engaged in his/her life?

How do you afford to go on a nice vacation with your wife and be around on a Thursday evening to enjoy a glass of wine on the deck?

Straddling the fence of these two invitations is difficult.

I’ve met very few people who actually have navigated the fence straddling very well.

I have met thousands of people who have a lot of money.

I have met many fewer who have a lot of money and simultaneously have great relationships with their children, wife and friends.

Which side of the fence do you want to be on?

How precarious might your journey be if you attempt to occupy positions of influence on both sides of the fence?

Be thoughtful.

Walk on purpose.

8 thoughts on “Redefining Success: Straddle the Fence of Work & Family

  1. Thanks Aaron for your thoughtfulness here. I find myself moving back and forth over the fence, typically failing at both. I think the “being present” part is the biggest challenge and should I gain mastery of that, I am a success.

    1. Michael I’d wager that the guy you are today is in the sweet spot of both of these worlds. Maybe the guy 10 years ago was different. Same for me. Good news is that being present today changes our present and our future.
      Keep going bro

  2. I love that you don’t say that we can arrive at some sweet spot where the tension disappears. Reflecting on the last five years with a young family, I think the single best investment I’ve made, one that’s impacted both sides of the fence, was time spent with my mentor. He is twenty years my senior and can call my bluff (even when I’ve got myself fooled). That relationship has called me to question my definition of success, my need for control, and is showing me what it means to be present.

    Aaron, this post is super timely as I have the next four days hanging out with the kids while Jenah is at a retreat. Of course, I have a lot of other things on my plate, too. This will help me choose well.
    Thanks Friend.

    1. AJ. glad to hear its helpful. I like the “calls my bluff”. Its good to have people in our lives who can navigate us that way. Good family flick recommendation-We Bought A Zoo. A movie that fits well into this storyline.

  3. Difficult challenge indeed. I have tended to focus on the relational side at the expense of the financial side.

    Growing up, Dad worked at IBM and Mom took care of the kids. With 6 kids, there were many a time in my teen years that I ended up wearing “floods” because the budget wouldn’t support new pants every 4 months. Was it tough? Yeah, but I wouldn’t trade my parents presence and interest in my life for what I saw happen to many of my friends who had more money and less parenting.

    That has been a mantra of mine for the last 25+ years … “I will not sacrifice my wife and kids for $$’s” … though I admit, when times get REAL tight (unemployment and food stamps), it is a whole lot harder to answer the question: am I REALLY taking care of my family?

    It is a balance that must be looked at regularly, or you can fall too far to one side or the other.

    Thanks Aaron for the topic and insight.

    1. Mark-that is rubber meets the road “food stamps and unemployment”. I remember as a kid watching other families who appeared to have both money and relationships. We had the free lunch and food stamps route as well. I found in the last few years how much that has driven me to (not all healthy) succeed in business so as to avoid a repeat. As a result I can look back and see how at times I was choosing money and providing what I defined was important and missing some of the day -to-day enjoyment of being with my kids.
      Complicated creatures we are. Keep going bro.

  4. You pose the question as a work/family issue but what I think you are really discussing is a money/family issue. I know plenty of folks who toil away at low paying jobs at the expense of a connection with their families. I also know folks who make tons of money, don’t work much and still have no connection with their family. I would submit that if we are talking about money/family it all becomes clearer once you understand your key life drivers. If you make deliberate conscious decisions about how much time your family needs and how much time you need to make the money to create the life your family needs (not wants), then straddling the fence becomes easier. When the position of influence on either side is your own definition of a position of influence it’s not precarious at all.

    1. LM …..and that’s why you are a entrepreneur who lives anywhere in the world, makes a good living and has great relationships with your family. I think you are right money/time is the root of the tension, thanks for writing this.

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