We all hold certain things dear—professional achievement, for example, or family life, or financial security. But when we step back and take stock of our day-to-day actions, we may notice a gap between the things we value most and the way we actually spend our time, money, and attention. It may be a crevice or a chasm, but, in either case, the gap raises questions about how we manage the differences between our professed values and our actual behavior.
Consider the case of Nick, the CEO of a health care products company. (The identities of all the individuals discussed in this article have been disguised to protect their confidentiality.) He turned the organization around after it was taken private by a leveraged buy- out firm and has a successful managerial track record in a range of blue-chip and entrepreneurial companies. He is highly regarded by the private-equity investors who own his par- ent company. But there is a huge gap be- tween what Nick cares about and what he is actually doing. One of the best times in his life, he told us, was when he and his wife took sabbaticals and volunteered for a year with an organization that helps immigrants—a cause that matters greatly to Nick, as the son of immigrants. He misses the time he and his wife spent together that year. “These days, given our schedules, we’re lucky to spend more than one weekend a month together,” he says. Nick also questions his professional impact. “At 50, I know I have five—maybe ten—good work years left,” he says. “But I’m dribbling my life away working in a business that I’m not passionate about and that may or may not make me rich.”