Opinion: I recently graduated. Here’s why I refuse to give up my life for a job

Editor’s Note: Jane Bernhard is a former actor. She is an MBA graduate of Columbia Business School and is launching a podcast called “Your Career, Unscripted” on July 15, where she interviews business leaders and recent graduates on their career journey and values. You can follow her on LinkedIn and subscribe to her newsletter here. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

As recent graduates across the country prepare to start their new jobs, many of them will feel pressured to sacrifice spending time with loved ones to get ahead in their careers. I have been there, pursuing a job at the expense of everything else, and I implore others not to neglect the most important part of life: the people you spend it with.

Jane Bernhard - Columbia Business School
Jane Bernhard - Columbia Business School

I have always been a very driven and creative person. I graduated with a BFA in Musical Theater and continued my work in theater and television acting through my 20s. My career was my life. I spent countless 14-hour days in rehearsals, moved to random states multiple times a year, performed eight shows a week and shot audition tapes during any break I could get — pulling constant all-nighters to memorize 40-plus pages of scripts.

It took an immense toll on my personal life, which was completely pushed to the side as new opportunities came up. I was forced to miss funerals, trips and classes, and was constantly advised not to take any vacation, as I needed to be present for any and all last-minute, potentially life-changing auditions. The pressure was extremely high. I don’t remember those auditions, but I do regret the time I didn’t spend with friends.

Then Covid happened, shutting down productions around the world, forcing me to pause and for the first time to reexamine my path in life. Was I just too afraid to let go of something I had poured my heart into for over a decade? The answer was that the most meaningful parts of my life were the ones spent with the people I loved — and not on a stage or screen.

That led to a complete change in direction — a career path that would allow me more freedom to spend time with my friends and family — or so I thought.

Arriving at Columbia Business School to pursue my MBA, my ultimate purpose was to build a career, in technology, entertainment strategy or marketing, that not only fueled my creativity with financial stability, but also gave me space for personal relationships and breathing room.

The market volatility at legacy companies in my passion industries led me to consider the conventional MBA path — consulting, as it paid well and would be a good learning experience — along with tech startups, since smaller companies were hiring at a time when larger ones were tightening their purse strings.

But the world I was entering felt all too familiar. My peers pursuing investment banking, consulting and early-stage tech startups were working all hours, day and night, grinding on M&A deals, and taking 2 am calls to calm down overbearing clients. I had hoped that after moving to a slower-paced city, this lifestyle would look a lot different.

It didn’t. At the end of job interviews, I would ask hiring managers what work-life balance looked like at the company and was often told that by not wanting to be on call until 3 am, I was not fitting the box of a conventional MBA graduate, and therefore was doing it all wrong. But my goal was never trying to fit into a box — but to break out of one.

I was offered opportunities and considered for roles that I later found out required 90- to 100-hour work weeks and consistent late-night calls. Upon turning them down because of the extreme hours, I was told that I was missing out on what should be a decade of nothing but hustle, and that ending work before midnight is lazy. As someone who started working professionally at age 14, the notion that 16 years later, some might perceive my pursuit of balance as lazy is disheartening and frustrating.

Conventional consulting doesn’t work for me, but I realized having my own consulting business does — so I started one. I put my heart into my work, while understanding it is not my identity, and while working on many demanding side projects, including a podcast and a book. I get to make my own hours and still prioritize financial stability. And if I find a job elsewhere down the line that aligns with my priorities, I may open that door. For now, I forge my own path.

Through an independent study at Columbia, I interviewed a number of business leaders and recent graduates to learn about different career paths, and interviewed hundreds more after I finished my thesis. Interestingly enough, many executives shared that the advice they would give their younger selves is not to spend so much time at the office, noting their immense personal sacrifices.

A former CEO of a prominent entertainment company said that they spent too much time away from their family and on the road. That sentiment echoed loudly as I heard tales from tech executives about all the moments they missed in their kids’ childhoods. They noted that, at the time, the work meetings felt urgent and important, but looking back, they wished they went to their kids’ sports games.

When I followed up by asking if they believed that they would have achieved the same level of success without the sacrifices, they said that they could have been successful, but that version of success would have looked different.

Well, different works for me. I taped these vulnerable insights to my wall, as a reminder that at the end of the day, what matters is how you lived, not how you worked.

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