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Letter 5: On Ambition and Freezing Your Sperms

8 December 2014

Dear K,

I am happy to hear of your successful completion of the first six months in your post, or what is more commonly known as the probation period. I think I can detect a note of pride and ambition in your letter conveying the good news. Congratulations!

Probation in the work context must not be taken for granted. Neither should it be understood in the somewhat negative sense of being a trial period during which your every word or step is closely observed, with the gong not far away. Probation has to do with evidence, as in the legal saying, 'Probative value outweighs prejudicial effect'. It is the period during which you would prove your ability and give a glimpse of your worth to your employer. It is something you don't sit out but earn.

You wrote about your ambitious plans of expanding your skill set within the shortest period of time possible and leapfrogging your fellow intake of executives in performance. It is good to have set for yourself clear goals and a timeline for achieving them. But don't get too ambitious on your ambition. The race you have entered into is a marathon, not pole vault.

In every trade or profession, some people are more fiercely competitive than others. Their drive and motivation would usually put them in leadership positions. But our language also has coinages such as legal eagle, culture vulture, persecuting prosecutor and educator agitator. A successful career, in any walk of work, is not necessarily defined by, say, long hours, expanding portfolio or aggressive self-promotion.

It would be a shame if a young and promising executive like you leans too heavily on the career side of things at the expense of other roles, duties and responsibilities. In my days many of my colleagues found time to cultivate their interests after work. I myself hurried to the Goethe Institut and the Alliance Française on certain evenings in different periods. Hence, my two phrases of German and three of French today.

Some companies in the US pay their female employees, as part of staff benefits, to freeze their eggs should they want to delay childbearing and instead make that run up the corporate ladder. Recent research has demonstrated that young sperms are indeed genetically more advantageous than older ones. It is foreseeable that the same benefit would eventually extend to male employees. Such is the strange fact of life: good genes will find themselves chilling out in the fridge instead of being allowed to get on with their business in their natural abode.

Freezing your sperms just delays the problem, or the pleasure of parenthood, depending on how you look at it. When you finally think you're ready for family, you'd find yourself examining literature on artificial insemination and surrogate mother. The science is spooky to me; the ethical and moral conundrum even spookier. You don't have to go to such extremes and can still raise a family the normal way and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

In a university you will find a learning curve, though this is a rapidly disappearing luxury item in many workplaces (practically non-existent among the manager class in English premiership football). Take a natural and comfortable course to learn and grow, and enjoy the views along the way. The timeline of your professional development will always be carefully coached and calibrated.

As Jody Greenstone Miller recently remarked in a Financial Times article, it's actually better to put your ambitions, not your eggs or sperms, on ice.

I wish you a warm Christmas and a happy New Year!

Yours sincerely,,



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