Simmons Leadership Blog

Balancing Work and Life with Dr. Helen Fisher

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Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher is a pioneer in the neurochemistry of leadership and gender differences. A visiting research professor at Rutgers University, she has produced groundbreaking studies on the biological basis of thinking styles, demonstrating how women's innate talents are especially suited to addressing some of today's most pressing problems. She has applied her insights in a variety of consulting assignments at VISA, Deloitte, Proctor & Gamble, and other organizations, and makes regular appearances on TV and radio talk shows such as Dateline NBC, Anderson Cooper, and Charlie Rose. Also renowned as the nation's leading expert on romantic love, Fisher has written extensively on the brain science of human attraction, including Why Him? Why Her? Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type. She currently serves as chief scientific advisor to the Internet dating site chemistry.com.

Balancing work and life is a struggle for every woman, we asked Leadership Conference speaker Helen Fisher to share her tips on how to successfully balance professional and personal responsibilities.  

What woman do you most admire? What has she taught you?
I admire a lot of women, in both my business and my personal life. But my book agent, Amanda Urban, from ICM, taught me the word "no." Although I am still far more comfortable, and familiar, with the word "yes."
Was there a turning point in your career when you "jumped the curve," breaking an old pattern to change the course of your career? What did you learn from that experience?

I had just finished my fourth book when I got a call from Match.com, the Internet dating site, asking me to meet with the CEO and others. I joined them for a day-long meeting in New York in 2005 and at the end of the day, the CEO invited me to work as a consultant with them to design a new dating site, a subsidiary of Match.com.

I told him that I would be happy to design the site, and indeed, I spend several months creating a new personality questionnaire now used on that new site, Chemistry.com.

This completed, they then asked me if I would be the Chief Scientific Advisor for that site. I said "no thank you." My fear was that I would lose my academic standing as a highly reputable scientist. But the folks at Match kept the offer open, in case I changed my mind. I asked everyone I knew whether I should take this job. Of 18 people I queried, 9 said "no;" 9 said "yes." Finally as I was sitting on a lovely deck at my friend's summer house in Martha's Vineyard, a voice came into my head, saying: "Are you going to go to your grave being a respectable academic? Or are you going to take this opportunity to enter the business community?" At that moment, I decided to move into the business world.

I have never looked back. In academia, when you have a new idea, people respond by saying, "That's interesting, prove it." In business, they seem to say, "That's interesting, how can we use it?" I find the business world to be flexible, daring, inventive, and pragmatic.

Moreover, the questionnaire that I designed for Chemistry.com has now been taken by over 13 million people in 40 countries; I have become the Chief Scientific Advisor to Match.com, as well as Chemistry.com; and each year I do more exciting projects with Match and several other businesses. My academic work has not suffered. I've put even more people into the brain scanner (fMRI) to study human romantic love, attachment, and personality differences; I have written even more academic papers; and have felt no prejudice from my academic colleagues.

I learned that anthropologists have a great deal to add to the business community, and the business community is eager to have us, if we play by the same simple and plausible business rules -- among them: be creative, relevant, pleasant, efficient, and useful.

What's the best piece of career advice you've gotten along the way?

My father was a good friend of Henry R. Luce and in the management side of Time Inc. He told me the three things I still use regularly:

  • Keep your eye on the ball.
  • Be useful as well as ornamental.
  • Hire the right people and let them do their jobs.

All have come in handy.

What was the last book you read?

I read a lot. But a book I read recently is: The Moral Molecule, by Paul J. Zak. It's a discussion of the neurochemical, oxytocin, and its effect on feelings of attachment and bonding.

How do you think women can support each other on their path to success?

Many ways. I have written a book that I hope enlightens and helps women (and men), entitled, "The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World." It discusses the many natural talents of women and the contributions they can (and are) making in many parts of the business community. I also give speeches on both businesswomen and men, discussing neuroscience and the natural attributes of both sexes. My motto: Men and women are like two feet; they need each other to get ahead.

Any tips for work/life balance?

As they say, "Work when it's time to work; play when it's time to play." To honor this:

  1. I don't take my cell phone with me when I go out in the evening; I leave it in a drawer.
  2. I never wear my watch either.
  3. I don't make business calls when I am with my friends so that I don't have to excuse myself and disrupt our time together.
  4. I rarely discuss my work with friends.
  5. I don't mix business friends with personal friends; this way, I can do business when I'm with business people and can avoid doing business when with my friends.
  6. I go to business events alone, so that I can concentrate on business.
  7. When I get home from a business trip, I unpack my suitcase immediately, even at 2 a.m., so that I can wake up in a home, instead of an office.
  8. I try not to have business appointments in the evening.
  9. I don't schedule business calls in the early morning, and try to avoid business breakfasts so I can start the day at home.
  10. I don't wear business clothes unless I am doing business; instead, I keep my wardrobes separate so that I don't find business cards in my pockets when out with friends.
  11. I don't answer my business phone when friends are in my home.
  12. I don't email my friends while doing business.
If you could dine with anyone, past or present, with whom would you dine and what would you order?

I'm an anthropologist, so I would like to have supper with a 4-million-year-old-girl and her family. I'm eternally curious about how our ancestors lived. And I'd eat whatever was served.. I hope something I could recognize.

People would be surprised to know that I...
Am an identical twin. My twin sister is a hot-air balloon pilot and a painter. Although our careers appear very different, we are both able to tolerate risk; both have taken unusual career paths; both work alone; and both are adventurous.

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