Sorry, but Your Boss Outranks Your Honey

If you're trying to balance your personal and professional lives, forget it -- your boss wins.
Author:
Publish date:

Last weekend was supposed to be perfect. My lovely girlfriend, who is now my lovely long-distance girlfriend, was going to take the train down and spend the entire weekend with me. We spent all summer living together, and it's difficult getting into a new rhythm when we're only together three days a week.

Last weekend was going to be sublime, until late Friday morning Uncle Jumbo (you know and love him as Jim Cramer) dumped a high-priority project in my lap to be finished by Monday. And this wasn't some easy assignment. No, we're talking about a five-day workload that had to be done in two-and-a-half days. My weekend was going to be miserable. I tried to call my girlfriend, but she was already on the train to New York. Not only did I have all of this work, I would also have to spend the entire weekend neglecting her, which historically hasn't worked out well for me.

What are you supposed to do when your boss drops a huge, weekend-spanning project in your lap on a Friday afternoon, and you've already made plans to do something romantic or even just social that weekend?

For anyone who's spent some time in the workforce, this seems like a fairly common, if completely miserable, occurrence. But if you're not yet working, or just getting started in the real world, this sort of thing might come as a surprise, like the kind of episode you'd expect at the beginning of a movie (

Harold and Kumar

comes to mind) but never in real life.

Young readers, I'm sorry to report that the opening scene of that cinematic masterpiece, where Harold's two WASPy bosses dump their work in his lap so he can complete it for them over the weekend, is remarkably true to life.

(To see Cliff's videos with Jim Cramer on this issue, please click here and here.)

When you're faced with such a situation, and some aspect of your personal life is about to be ruined, the one night and two days of glorious freedom you have every week about to be sacrificed (unless you're a lawyer or an investment banker and have to work weekends anyway), what should you do? How do you balance your professional life with your personal life? This is one of those questions that I found both repulsive and moronic two years ago when I had never worked a serious day of my life, but I've gotten a lot less dumb since then.

Maybe you don't want to take career advice from a beneficiary of nepotism, but remember that nepotism is a

two-way street.

When your boss asks you to go the extra mile by sacrificing the sacrosanct weekend and working while you're supposed to be with friends or loved ones, there is only one response to his or her (we at

TheStreet.com

are committed to gender-neutral prose) question.

You say, "Yes, I'd love to," and you say it with a smile. I don't care if you're an ambitious yuppie addicted to the bourgeois dream of wealth and upward social mobility like me (oh how far I've fallen from the teenager who wore old, torn army jackets and listened to nothing but punk rock -- both sure signs of a comfortable upper middle-class upbringing) or the kind of bohemian who doesn't care about money or "material" success and only works in order to support her (or his) surprisingly expensive, starving-artist lifestyle.

I'm all about sticking it to the man, and I dislike getting pushed around by management (even when management is family) as much as the next guy. I certainly don't believe in being responsible when it comes to spending money, as those of you who've read my earlier columns should know, but if you're going to spend recklessly, you'd better work diligently if you don't want to end up jobless and broke.

Those of you with ambition have to say yes, because it's the only way to get ahead. Those of you without ambition had better say yes, because for the most part we're all replaceable cogs in a heartless machine called capitalism, and you will be disposed of if you're no longer useful. Pardon the vestigial Marxism, but I've only been out of the People's Republic of Harvard for three months. Seriously, though, you want to keep your job, and that means keeping your boss happy even if she (or he) makes unreasonable demands.

If you don't like the sound of that, move to France. America is the land of opportunity, be it the opportunity to make it big or the opportunity to push your subordinates around after you've made it to the top. France has 35-hour workweeks and five weeks of government guaranteed vacation, whatever your job, plus a dozen public holidays, giving French workers a total of nearly

seven weeks off per year, guaranteed by the government. Of course, it's nearly impossible to get hired over there, especially if you're not French, so all you bohemians looking to work less are stuck with the American dream.

Unfortunately, balancing your personal and professional lives means giving top priority to your professional life. Obviously, there are exceptions here. If you've got a great union job, you can achieve a better balance, and for those of you who don't fit the ambitious yuppie profile, then you've clearly got more flexibility.

I know this stinks, but there are three things you can do to make it easier to handle the permanent imbalance between your personal and professional lives.

First, make sure that your friends, family and, most importantly lovers, know that you have a job that might require you to blow them off for work from time to time. They're never going to take this kind of thing well, but you'll have less to atone for later if they have advance warning.

Second, try to arrange your social life so that you make fewer long-term plans and more short-term ones. This way, you'll have to cancel on fewer people, and you'll be able to take advantage of the free time when you have it.

Third, and most important, learn how to turn these situations, like the one where your boss decides to annex your weekend at the last minute, to your advantage. That's what I did last weekend, and it worked fabulously.

While I worked on Cramer's project, my girlfriend cleaned up my apartment, which had become absolutely filthy ever since she returned to law school. While I slept, she went out for food, cigarettes and orange soda to keep me going. She even did my laundry, but that was mostly because there were no clean towels, and she wanted to be able to shower. I'd say it was like living with my mother again, but my girlfriend is already almost three years older than I am, and the last thing I want is for things to get Oedipal.

Did I shamelessly exploit her affection for me to make the weekend of work easier? I probably did, and so should you if you've got someone great enough to help you out like that.

Is this making a virtue out of necessity? Sure! But if putting your professional life ahead of your private one succeeds and makes you more money, you'll have the ability to make up for inconsiderate behavior with expensive gifts. Money can't buy happiness, but in my experience it sure buys forgiveness for inconsiderate behavior (anyone remember that $4 million ring Kobe Bryant bought his wife?). Even though I essentially ditched my girlfriend for work, I made up for it in other ways.

I bought her an iPod shuffle with some of my iPhone rebate, and a necklace (the cheapest) from Blue Nile in order to show that while she might not be more important to me than work, she's certainly more important to me than the $100 Apple Store credit I received for buying my iPhone before the price cut.

Wherever you stand in the workforce, whatever your goals may be, if you don't want to get fired then when your boss says jump, you jump first and ask how high later. Young professionals and college students, I'm sorry. That's how the system works. You can make your life a bit easier, but in general, you cannot balance your personal life with your professional one. Your professional life balances you.