When Public Success Is Not Enough
Initiating manhood in a new season of life
“For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”-Mark 8:36
Two months ago, my first child arrived, a daughter named Sophia Dawn Buddiga.
Before I even met her, I knew I loved her. As her birth approached, I daydreamed about the exciting days we would have ahead where I would take her to the park, teach her to swim, and try ice cream for the first time. I thought I was fully prepared for the excitement of her birth.
Yet when the nurse handed Sophia to me, bright crimson with a head full of jet-black hair, I was completely undone. Tears flowed from my face as the combination of joy, fear, happiness, shock, and excitement coursed through my veins. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that moment, no matter how many books you read or videos you watch.
It’s a singular moment.
An old chapter of my life had closed and a new one had begun.
Fatherhood is undoubtedly one of the greatest joys in my life, but there is also overwhelming fear.
Fear of the immense responsibility for a little one who is so dependent on me.
Fear of future failure in my role as her father.
Fear of not being able to provide for my family.
Fear that I’ll never be enough.
Fear that I’ll be a workaholic father and husband who’s absent from her and her mother’s life.
We’re told these fears of fatherhood are natural and normal. Along with marriage, it’s perhaps the most life-changing event a man can undertake.
Why is our tendency to run away from this fear? To shrink from it? To be passive in the face of what one should see as a formidable, but amazing task, one that millions of men before us have done faithfully?
There are many classic reasons people will point to for why some men seem like adult children these days: hedonism, narcissism, and perhaps a lack of requirement or reward from society for them to grow up.
I know a version of that life because that was me. I left college and started making money as a professional poker player. That opened up a world of entertainment that extended my adolescence. No responsibility. I could wake up at 11 am and roll out of bed to play cards. We’d go to the nicest restaurants, gamble for the bill, and then go talk to girls. It was a pleasure island: a place for modern-day Pinocchios and Peter Pans to escape reality.
My scenario might have been a bit extreme, but regardless of your job, most people will tell you to have fun in your 20s, don’t get tied down, etc. Your life should be about maximizing pleasure. Then, suddenly, at some point in your 30s, you’re supposed to snap into adulthood and settle down and have kids.
No wonder some men find this ask jarring. Why give up a self-oriented life for responsibility, for restriction, and for selflessness? Marriage, and especially parenthood, is a life full of sacrifice by both adults. It’s easy to chafe against the new situation, wishing things would go back to how they were. There’s a desire to try to fit the child or the marriage into your previous life, usually with little success. It’s a seeming constant war of attrition, often breaking with a mid-life crisis, divorce, or long periods of melancholy.
One of the questions I’ve been struggling with for the past year since I found out I was going to be a father is wondering if someone can be world-class at what they do and still have an amazing family life.
When I’m working on a new craft, it becomes an obsession where the only metric that counts as success is winning. And to me, winning derives from outworking the competition. While it was also true in academic competitions like the National Spelling Bee, poker especially brought to the forefront that I wasn’t the most naturally gifted compared to my competitors. Friends like Fedor Holz and Connor Drinan seemed to have an almost supernatural understanding and intuition for the art of poker. If a new game of poker was invented tomorrow, they would be the first to master it long before training videos, best practice strategies, or solver software were developed. Without that innate talent, the only way I felt like I could even try to compete at the highest stakes was by trying to outwork everyone else.
The same idea felt like it applied if I wanted to be one of the best at my craft when I entered the venture industry. Coming into it nearly a decade after college, I had a smaller network1 and less business experience than most of my peers. I felt like the only way I could catch up was trying to compress the lost time. I had to read the blogs of the great VCs, watch their Youtube videos and podcasts, and meet as many smart investors and founders as quickly as possible. Working ferociously hard was the only way I could make it.
There were undoubtedly times over the past year where it felt like I struggled to find the right balance and wasn’t present enough at home with my wife. That question only became magnified when Sophia was born.
Jeff Bezos. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. Elon Musk. Michael Jordan. These are some of the men who I admire most for their work and count as heroes. But it’s clear that they often neglected their wives, their children, or both on the way to accomplishing awe-inspiring feats. History is littered with examples like this.
When you look at many of these titans, it’s hard not to think that the only way to accomplish great things is if you have that single-minded purpose and focus that throws everything to the wayside: total immersion.
Sometimes that makes me think I need to taper my ambition. If it’s not possible to be one of the best without total immersion, why try? Why do I need to be one of the best? I’m sure you’re supposed to be able to still do the job effectively while making sure to be there for every dance recital or tennis match. I could make it a rule to never miss dinner at home or work on a weekend. If my employers are happy and I can provide for my family, why put in that extra effort?
But if I’m honest with myself, that preemptive desire to set lower expectations for myself comes from a personal fear: the visceral fear that my only competitive advantage in life is working hard. If I give up now, then I won’t have to face disappointment when I confront the reality that I will suck at my job if I don’t outwork everyone else.
When I think about my family and my relationship to work, that’s my biggest fear. Fear that my edge is going to disappear as I take on this new role as a father. Fear that I’ll never reach the goals that I would have for myself as a single man. Fear that the only way to reach those goals would be to lose my family along the way.
Last Monday was the first day I went back to work after paternity leave. I came home at 6 pm, eager to see Sophia. My wife passed her to me and to my dismay, my daughter immediately started bawling when I tried to hold her.
I’d just had an amazing day because I have a job that I love. It truly never feels like work when I’m meeting with founders or learning about venture investing. But when I came home for the first time after a whole day at the office, my daughter was crying because she didn’t remember me. I’d left that morning before she was awake.
Fear rollicked through my body. Is this what it’s always going to be like? Am I going to be an absentee father she grows up resenting?
While there are days this fear tends to come on so strongly that it’s tempting to give up completely, it’s so clear to me when I pray and think about it that a division between being a great family man and excellence at work is a false dichotomy. It’s not a requirement of greatness even if so many men have been that way.
We can individually choose to strive to be the exception to that rule.
I’m heartened by examples like Marc Randolph who prioritized his wife and their relationship while co-founding Netflix:
One of my Susa teammate’s father co-founded one of the premier venture capital firms in the Valley. From the outside looking in, it’s obvious they still have an amazing friendship and a close-knit family to admire. To me, that’s just as impressive as the outstanding returns delivered over the past few decades.
It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
The next time I went into the office, I made sure I spent an hour that morning hanging out with Sophia. I fed her, changed her, and played with her. That was an hour I could’ve spent reading the Bill Gurley blog archive, but when I came home that night, she was all smiles. That Gurley blog could definitely wait until tomorrow.
So what does it take to be both a private success and a public success?
It requires making the right choices over and over and over again all the way until your dying day. For some of the men listed before, their falls came long after they’d started accomplishing great things. Many temptations and distractions increase with public success.
To be totally honest, this article isn’t one where I would say I know the answer or have a synthesis of my thinking yet. For me, I believe it starts with centering my life on Jesus and living life out of that overflow. He is my ever-present help when I face anxiety and fear.
But I also know there’s a lot of tactical advice that can help us along the way. An older and successful man like Marc Randolph sharing a tip like his Tuesday date night with his wife is so important to set an example for younger men coming up. We need more of those so we can all start learning from each other, especially in a time where an understanding of what dutiful masculinity and fatherhood requires has seemingly disappeared. Some men like myself can often feel like they’re “Uninitiated Men”2 because as a culture we’ve lost the vocabulary, the rituals, and the traditional bestowing of manhood that comes to a boy from his father or a company of other older men.
Many of us may not have those close-knit bonds or tribes anymore, but we do have the “decentralized tribe” of the Internet and examples from those either currently living or from the past to learn from.
I’ll be totally honest, this article also comes from a selfish need: I want to start an open conversation so I can avoid the traps others have fallen into and remain rooted in what’s important. I can only hope it’s helpful to others as well.
How does one strive for greatness in their field while not losing sight of what’s most important?
For those of you on the journey, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned or things you wish you had known in hindsight?
Let’s get the conversation started.
Thanks to Blake Eastman and my wife, Gwendolyn, for reading early drafts of this article. My Twitter DMs are open and you can always reach out to me at pratyush [at] susaventures [dot] com
The first VC interview I ever had was from a cold email. I basically knew no one in Silicon Valley. Even my current job at Susa traces back to a cold Twitter DM.
This phrase is borrowed from Fathered by God, the best book I’ve read in several years. If you prefer an alternative interpretation, the book Iron John hits on many of the same themes using ancient myths that play with similar concepts.