For too many people, staying in the family business is the easy way to worm out of difficulties of adult life: finding a place where you fit in, discovering what you love to do, and living with the fear of rejection. Especially today, with a dried-up job market, the family business is a way of avoiding a difficult job hunt.

I worked in a family business — a bookstore. I started when I was eight, selecting titles for the early reader section, and by the end of college I was a walking card catalogue. After so many years, I was the heir apparent to the store. But I wanted to do something else. I just wasn’t sure what.

Fifteen years and three careers later, I am certain that there are three things you should do before you decide to settle down with your family business for the long haul:

1. Figure out your dream job. Don’t worry about being realistic. Rock star, movie producer, politician: everything is fair game. Then decide if you want to go down the path to fulfill that dream. Don’t feel bad if the dream is impossible – many dreams are not realistic, but they contain gems of truth. For example, someone who dreams of being a rock star probably wants to be creative at work. The exercise of dreaming helps you to figure out your core needs. Once you know these needs, take an honest look at the family business. If you cannot fulfill your core needs in the family business, you should leave.

2. Get a job. Even if you are sure you’ll stay in the family business, get a job outside of the business. Job hunting sucks, which is why you should do it. The process is humbling and scary because on one level, you are asking someone to pay you to work so you can eat; at another level, job hunting requires understanding yourself well enough to talk about your dreams, your strengths, and your weaknesses. You need to experience what it is like to ask for a day off from someone who doesn’t love you. Working for someone outside your family helps you to interact effectively with all people outside your family. This process is a rite of passage, and if you don’t go through it, you risk stunted growth.

3. Take a large risk. If the entrepreneur is on the high end of the risk-taking scale, the kid who stays in the family business is on the low end. At the end of life, the thing people most often say they regret is not taking enough risks. Make sure that staying in the family business will not make you wish later that you were a risk taker. If you take a large risk early on, then you can be more certain that you are not staying in the family business because you are scared of taking risks. Risks are different for everyone — a mountain for one person is a molehill for another. Find something that scares you and do it.

Adult life is about learning what matters to you and creating a life that reflects your values. In order to know what’s important, though, you need to see the world. Take time to establish yourself independently from your family — at least for a while — so you can see yourself more clearly. Whether you stay in the family business or go somewhere else, you’ll be a happier person for making the decision honestly.

It's 10pm and Donna and Richard are talking schedule. The question is: Who has to take the kids to daycare in the morning. Richard says he has a 10am meeting. Donna has a 9am meeting. She wins. He has to take the kids to daycare.

The kids are ages two and five. The older one will complain about going to daycare. He will want to stay home. He will demand to know why can't someone stay home with him. It's good that Richard will be dropping him off. The complaints kill Donna, but Richard will tell his son to suck it up and get in the car.

It's a small win for Donna, but she faces difficult work/family balancing questions, so small wins matter. This is not a column about how Donna worked out everything perfectly in the end, because she hasn't. But this isn't about the end — this column is about what it's like when the work/family balance first feels off-kilter. What to do about it so that you increase your chances of having a happy ending.

Donna and Richard both work at an entertainment company that you know, and they both have career paths with a steep upward slope. Richard thinks daycare is a fine way to cope with their busy lives. Donna thinks daycare is too long a day for their kids. But the problem is that both parents would rather work than stay home with their kids.

Donna tried to keep her fast-paced career after she gave birth, but she had to make adjustments. One of the first things to go was the long hours. Then the mentoring; She couldn't be a mom at work and at home. Then she convinced her boss that she should be a strategist rather than a day-to-day manager, so she got rid of management responsibilities for 15 people. She is still torn. Other mothers at her office tell her, “Go home. Be with your kids. I don't remember my son when he was young. Don't let that happen to you.”

Donna's husband has made adjustments too. He used to work 80-hour weeks. Now he works 50 hours. No one at work tells him to go home and be with his kids.

When Donna suggests that the kids would be happier with a parent instead of daycare, Richard says, “If you think someone should stay home, then stay home.” But he says she's being too hard on herself. “We're at home all weekend,” he assures her. I ask him why he doesn't want to stay home and he says, “I couldn't do it. I can't provide the structure daycare provides.”

[When they were first married, Donna announced she wanted to be the one with the high-powered career, and Richard was supportive. Now, though, with Donna's guilt creeping in, she has put family before career and Richard has put career before family. I put it this way to Richard and he says, “Well, yes, that's a crude way of saying it.” Then, ten minutes later, he says, “Kids have a way of making you see what your real priorities are.”]

I ask Donna and Richard why she is torn and he is not. She's not sure. She says they have different ideas of parenting. “He watches TV while he reads Goodnight Moon.” Richard says he thinks “it's a chemical, woman thing.” He has five sisters. Each of them ended up staying home with children even though that wasn't their plan.

One reason Donna has been able to rise through the organization is because she is good at presenting to the boss what needs doing in a way that gets her what she wants. Right now she wants to test out working part time, so she is maneuvering to get the type of responsibilities she can do from home. But these aren't the type of responsibilities that gain big promotions. So she doesn't tell her boss exactly what her plans are because she wants to leave room to put herself back on the fast track quickly if she wants that.

It's a careful dance she's doing, and she has enlisted lots of help. Donna has a friend at the company who she trusts enough talk candidly. And she has cultivated a mentor, outside the company, who has already done this dance and can provide guidance. She talks openly with her husband and her sisters-in-law, who have decided to stay home. But Donna's problem persists: she thinks a parent should be at home, and she doesn't want to be that parent.

“It's embarrassing,” she says. And then she asks me again to be sure not to use her real name. I am sure Donna is not alone; many parents would rather work than stay home with kids, but for the most part, it is women who experience guilt over this predicament. I have a feeling, though, that Donna is a step ahead of a lot of women because Donna is not saying she HAS to work, she is saying she WANTS to work.

There are no quick answers. There are couples where the man is willing to stay home with the children. There are couples who cut back on both careers to care for the children. But most couples have a man who doesn't want to cut back on his career, so it is the women who are weighing these decisions. Donna does not have answers, but she's taken a lot of steps to give herself breathing room to get to the answers. For those who are flailing — in the open or incognito — we can all learn a lot from Donna. She is unsure, but she is unsure in a dignified, unfrazzled way, and that may be the best we can hope for right now.

Even though it's not cool to complain about your job in a recession, people do. And one of the most common complaints I hear is that the job “isn't creative enough.” But most of the lack of creativity people pin on their jobs really comes from inside themselves.

Creative thinkers approach whatever they do – painting, sculpture or business — with innovative ideas. Are you really as creative as you say you are? Here's a quick checklist: creative people have high standards, inherent intensity, and an obsession with coming up with something new. If you are a creative person who complains about being stifled in the business world, unleash your creativity on business problems, and you are likely to be happier in your job and promoted more often.

Business building is inherently creative, and people who get to the top are people who consistently think of creative solutions for business problems. Think of your favorite strategy games — they all involve creative thinking. Business is just like those games; if you approach a problem in a different way from your competitors, you are more likely to pull ahead. Think about Bill Gates — he realized that he could take other peoples' products and market the products more creatively than the original producer. Or how about David Neeleman at Jet Blue? He approached customer satisfaction differently than all the other airlines, and surprise: People want leather seats more than they want bad airline food.

But don't forget to be practical in your creative thinking. If you don't want to be practical, you should be a visual artist. But let me tell you something — you get paid a hell of a lot more for creativity in the business world than you do in the art world. The good thing is that the two are very closely linked.

The current exhibit at the Plus Ultra gallery in New York is a great example of this link. The economy is bad, and the art world is hit hard because when there's recession you focus on your mortgage not your art dealer. So this gallery is showing works by the Jani Leinonen. He has developed his own business model for the art world: Pay per view. Each painting is covered with a specially treated frosted glass. You put your money in the vending machine slot next to the painting and then the frost dissipates and you see the art.

If Leinonen were in corporate America, his boss would praise him for using technology to develop a new business model for a stale market. Think of yourself as an artist at the office; notice that each business problem begs for creativity. And be happy that you have health benefits and vacation days, which you wouldn't if you showed your solutions in galleries instead of conference rooms.

Some people will say, “My boss doesn't want any creativity.” Before you say that, consider that maybe what your boss doesn't like is outlandish, shoot-from-the-hip suggestions for difficult problems — or worse yet, risky solutions to unimportant problems. But maybe it is true, that your boss does not appreciate creativity. It's probably because he is scared of risk and change. And that fear is the first problem you must solve with your new, creative approach to your job.

My friend Liz just got an offer to be director of a groundbreaking, high profile, psychology program. It's a lucrative, five-year contract. Liz is 35 and single and has tons of time to devote to her career. But she's not sure if she wants to take this offer because what she really wants is children.

Like many women in this age group, Liz spent her 20's and early 30's building her career. She has lots of experience meeting men she can manage and very little experience meeting a man she can date. (Conversation we had when the last guy stopped talking to her at dinner: Me, “Dump him.” Liz, “But you said talk isn't constant when you've been together a while.” Me, “Three weeks is not a while.”)

Her current job would be great if she had a guy lined up for kids because she could work part time, which would allow her to stay on her career path and spend a lot of time at home. But alas, there is no guy lined up. Her current job is good for online dating, too, because she can work from almost anywhere so she can conduct a broad search across county lines, (and because she can peruse Match.com from her office unnoticed.)

But Liz is antsy to have a child and even with the Internet, dating is not a fast process. So she is thinking of taking things into her own hands. She has contemplated telling a boyfriend that she is using birth control when she is not, and getting pregnant that way. But she can't get past the conversation she'd have with her teenage kid:

“Mom, why didn't my dad stick around?”

“Because I tricked him into having a kid.”

Liz has two, non-boyfriend options: buying sperm from a bank or buying a baby from Asia. Both options cost about $30,000, which is a good argument for taking the new, high paying job. The ongoing cost of childcare – which, for a single mom in her neighborhood, would be about $400 a week — is another good reason to have a high paying job. Her current job would not provide enough income to fund this baby venture.

But once she's the director of the program, she couldn't work part time, she couldn't move, and she probably couldn't even find the time to date. So for Liz, this job decision is loaded. It's the decision between holding onto the dream of a spouse and kids and a part-time job, or giving up the dream for more practical measures and going the child route alone.

Liz calls me every day to discuss her life, which has become somewhat like a horse race. She tells me that this month's boyfriend might be in love. “He took me to his parent's house for dinner.” She thinks it'll be a really good sign if he takes allergy pills so he can sleep over in her cat-infested bed. “Then marriage is a real possibility.” Last week, she got herself another month to make the decision about the directorship. “By then, maybe I'll know.” But she sighs a deep sigh, and we both know that when it comes to giving up a career for a family (or vice versa) really you never know.