How a list of three questions helps me live a more fulfilling life

When I am facing a choice between career and family, three questions help point me in the right direction.
When I am facing a choice between career and family, three questions help point me in the right direction.
Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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I am often asked what sacrifices I have made to get to where I am professionally. I have had the opportunity to advise name-brand clients on issues that matter at the board-level, set the strategy for a global business that sees double-digit growth, learn about business around the world, and help support others as they develop in their careers. And I’ve done all of it while having been a mom, wife, daughter, friend and member of my community.

But I don’t feel as though I have made sacrifices. I’ve made choices.

I have two lists that help me make these choices. One of them is a priority list for both my work and personal life. While my work priorities tend to change on an annual basis or with a change in role, my personal priorities tend to remain the same over time: being present with friends and family, taking care of myself and having fun. Having the list handy—even if only in my mind—helps me consider whether I am spending my time on what matters most to me.

For instance, because one of my priorities is being present with my family, I took one of my client’s advice about volunteering at my children’s schools: to spend time with my children at the same time. That’s why I volunteered for class parties and to chaperone field trips, and later to judge at their high school debate and speech tournaments, rather than in a capacity that wouldn’t have involved them.

The other mental list I refer to when I’m making choices about how to spend my time contains three questions: How is my marriage? How are my girls? Am I happy? (It is not that I put my happiness last, but rather that I would not be happy if my marriage was strained or my girls were having problems.)

We all experience times where we feel out of balance, and it is hard in the moment to assess whether we are working too much, traveling too much, etc. While my priorities help guide me, it is sometimes easier to ask myself this set of questions.

My list of questions recently helped me make a decision to return from a business trip in India to help my daughter through a challenging situation. It was not life threatening, but it was a time when, as a mom, I simply needed to be home.

Your list of questions might be completely different than mine.

A few years ago, I was coaching a woman who felt that her life had just become all about work, and she was considering changing careers entirely. I told her about my three questions and suggested she think about hers. At first, she struggled because she wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. After a well-earned vacation, she told me that her questions focused on being present with her sister and sister’s family, making time for international travel and focusing on health and fitness. This helped her to feel more grounded and make the choices she needed to make to be fulfilled in her life.

Of course, none of this works if you are not open with your colleagues about your needs outside of work.

I learned how to share these needs early on in my career, when I was also a caregiver for my mother, who had Lou Gehrig’s Disease. While she had physical care through a nursing home, she did at times need help with doctor’s appointments, and urgent health scares could arise without notice. While I am naturally a private person, I made it a point to be open about my mom’s health so that if I needed to step away quickly, those around me were not caught by surprise. Similarly, when my daughter faced her recent challenge, I was open with my colleagues, and they surrounded me to cover for what I would be missing so that I could get home and be there for my daughter.

We often hear that “it takes a village.” I think that is true for all of us throughout our lives.

I have a strong support structure at home through family and friends, and I have help with things like cleaning, shopping and other household needs. At work, it is equally important to have a support structure. I have countless examples of colleagues stepping in for me when I needed to be focused at home, and I have made a point of doing the same for others.

Making choices rather than sacrifices does not come without being purposeful. You must take time to think about what matters most, allow yourself to be vulnerable and share your needs, and be willing to rely on others for help while offering the same in return. As a result, you can have a very rewarding career and more importantly, a very fulfilling life.

Amy Brachio is the Global and Americas Advisory Risk Leader at Ernst & Young LLP.