Just because you’re adamant about making sure you have a personal life doesn't mean you can't be top in your field. Top is different today than it was even ten years ago. Top doesn't mean climbing a ladder to make the most money. Top means having influence in discussions that matter to you, and having interesting problems to solve.
How do you get that? One way is by making a move when you can't get any further on the path you're going. A good example of this is Billy Cunningham, medical professor at UCLA. He made a name for himself by documenting that upper-middle-class people of color in the United States were 37 percent more likely to have poor health than upper-middle-class whites, and by making revolutionary recommendations in front of Congress like dispensing medical information in church. His recommendations worked. But then he was faced with the question of what to do next.
“I thought about what is coming down the pipe where we might see the same disparities and can anticipate it and prevent those gaps from occurring. I also thought about what I could be the first to study. I started focusing on adherence to AIDS cocktails and then I realized I was late to the game because several others had started working on it before I did and they had laboratory expertise that I didn’t which would make it hard for me to compete.”
The topic he settled on was the AIDS vaccine. He was in a position to study ways to distribute it and to put himself in a position to be a key member of the community that launches the vaccine (when it is discovered) in South Africa, where the infection rate is as high as 50% in some populations.
Cunningham knows he wants to bring better medical treatement to minorities, but he knows the best way to make a difference is being the top in his field. He consciously plots to find a space that is open for him to rise to the top. You should be doing this too, in your career. This is how you have the most influence to ask important questions, seek meaningful answers, and make a difference in peoples’ lives.
Another good example of making a move is Alex Ohanian and Steve Huffman, who just sold their company, Reddit, to Conde Nast. When I interviewed them last February, they had received a buyout offer from Google, but they turned it down. At that point, Reddit was on an exciting and seemingly limitless path. Today, though, Reddit’s path as a stand alone company might be a dead end because Digg, their competitor, is now an industry standard, and Reddit is second fiddle. Taking the buyout offer now, from a premier publishing company with enthusiasm for building out Reddit, makes good sense for Ohanian and Huffman. After all, Ohanian told me, “We do this because it is fun and interesting.”