A Surprising Way to Ruin Your Personal Life

The right tools for one job can blow up another.

any of us literally bring our work home with us, as our smartphones and other devices plug us in 24 hours a day. But there may be a more insidious, figurative way of bringing our work home with us: When we apply the thinking and problem-solving approach of our particular profession to our private lives, we can ignore or neglect important aspects of our emotional lives, that would be considered irrelevant in the workplace.

We may, in other words, be using the wrong tool for the job.

Emotional sensitivity and self-reflection are critical for developing and maintaining close, satisfying relationships with the people we love. Our professional skills are often less useful—or even undermining—when applied to these same relationships.


  • A lawyer searches through the applicable law to feel confident he is making the best argument for his client. Now he wants the same level of certainty when deciding whether to marry his girlfriend. This leaves him in a state of anxiety, because there can be no certainty in deciding whom to marry. He can do an exhaustive search of the law; he cannot do an exhaustive search of all possible wives. Moreover, a law can be understood dispassionately; a fiancé requires emotional engagement. The more he tries to logically analyze the situation, the more he distances himself from his feelings, and the more confused he becomes.
  • An executive recruiter works to find candidates with the resume her clients require. She decides to apply the same principles to dating. Even if she feels a connection with a date, if he doesn’t meet all of her “requirements,” he is dismissed, and she feels cheated. When she meets a man with the right income, profession, and college pedigree, she gets excited—despite an absence of kindness and warmth. After all, feeling an emotional connection with a candidate at work is irrelevant to her client’s needs. But what about her own?
  • An architect prides himself on creating the spaces his clients want. When his two-year-old daughter is afraid of being stuck in her crib at night, he designs an easy exit for her—after all,if the client isn’t happy with the space, you change it. Understandably, though, his wife does not want their daughter to be able to roam the apartment alone at night. What his daughter really needs is help with self-soothing so she can learn to sleep through the night.
  • An investment banker believed in the bedrock financial concept that you never foreclose on an option. It’s a common sense notion: You don’t want to give up something that you might want in the future. When applied to dating, though, it leaves out a crucial element—emotional reciprocity. As the young man lived according to this concept, he strung along one woman as he dated others. He didn’t want to tell her that he wasn’t that into her, thereby foreclosing on the option to date her in the future. But the woman desired a relationship with someone who was equally interested in her, and foreclosed on him instead.
  • On the battlefield, there is only victory or defeat. But a former military officer often applies this approach when he is in conflict with friends. When he feels wronged, he is quick to retaliate, lobbing verbal missiles and refusing to give ground. On the battlefield you must fight back, but with friends, our lives are rarely in danger—the valued currencies in this realm are understanding and forgiveness.

There is a common expectation among friends and family that many of us will bring work home in this way. After people learn what I do professionally, they often ask, “Are you analyzing me now?” (The answer is no.) Alternatively, they launch into telling me their problems. At first, I found this surprising, but it isn’t really—we aren’t taken aback when a lawyer is argumentative. We expect accountants to be exacting. We assume artists to be interesting and creative, and actors to grab our attention. We live in a country where people are identified with their professions.

The problem is when we expect our professional skills to be applicable to our personal lives.

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