Do you remember Erin Callan, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers? The onetime associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, who rose quickly at Lehman, only to fall spectacularly after the investment bank folded? Smart, ambitious, and blond, Callan (right) was often portrayed in the press as a sort of female Icarus.
Last we heard, she had retreated to a very private life with her second husband, a former New York City firefighter.
Now, Callan has resurfaced—this time with a painfully personal article in The New York Times. It is a rather elegiac essay that mourns how she has essentially wasted large chunks of her life:
Since I resigned my position as chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers in 2008, amid mounting chaos and a cloud of public humiliation only months before the company went bankrupt, I have had ample time to reflect on the decisions I made in balancing (or failing to balance) my job with the rest of my life. The fact that I call it “the rest of my life” gives you an indication where work stood in the pecking order.
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.
Callan reveals that her devotion to work contributed to the failure of her first marriage, and, possibly, her chance at motherhood:
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 [second husband] Anthony and I have been trying in vitro fertilization for several years. We are still hoping.
The broken marriage and the regret about children are almost stereotypical cautionary tales about the fate of hard-charging career women—though I have no doubt Callan feels those losses acutely.
But to me, what's also poignant is how betrayed and abandoned she felt once she was pushed off the ladder of success:
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 think anyone who has an absorbing job can, at some level, relate to this statement. Our work is a major component of our identity—and there's inevitably a sense of loss if that's taken away. For Callan, whose job was so incredibly high-profile, that identity crisis must have been unbearably acute.
Though she doesn't talk about how seductive (and lucrative) her Lehman job must have been, Callan does admit that if the bank had not failed, she might still be on the treadmill:
Without the crisis, I may never have been strong enough to step away. Perhaps I needed what felt at the time like some of the worst experiences in my life to come to a place where I could be grateful for the life I had. I had to learn to begin to appreciate what was left.
Ultimately, I think that's true for most of us. It's easy to wag a finger at someone like Callan who's come out empty after sacrificing everything for a job, and say: "I told you so." But the truth is that a soaring career is very addictive. Self-reflection and a reordering of priorities don't happen when you are riding high.
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