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The Fast Track or the Private Path?

FOR a brief period last month, Phillip Sharp, a world-renowned biologist, stood poised to accept one of the nation's most prestigious academic posts: president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Front-page articles announced his appointment, heralding him as ``a superb scientist'' and ``a real ornament to MIT.'' A week later Dr. Sharp made Page 1 headlines again. This time the tone was somber: Sharp had decided to back out of the job because he could not bear to abandon his research and his graduate students. As he explained to his astonished colleagues, ``I came reluctantly to the realization that I could not fill that void in my life with anything else.''

A month earlier, Britons reacted with similar astonishment when Norman Fowler, a respected member of the Cabinet for 15 years, submitted his resignation to Margaret Thatcher.

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``Fowler quits Cabinet `for the children,''' a bold front-page headline in The Times of London proclaimed. A six-column article spelled out the details: Mr. Fowler was stepping down to spend more time with his wife and their two daughters, ages 5 and 8. Almost immediately Mrs. Thatcher announced a knighthood for Fowler, ending any speculation that there might be ``sinister'' reasons for his departure.

``I only used to see my daughters at breakfast, which was a bit of a rush,'' Fowler is quoted as saying. ``I will now have time to talk to them, read stories, and go out. We might even go to the cinema; I haven't been there for a decade. You cannot go back on a child's life or put it on the shelf. If it's gone, it's gone.''

Echoing that sentiment, Fowler's 8-year-old daughter, Kate, said, ``I'm looking forward to seeing more of Daddy instead of him just popping in and out saying, `See you later.'''

These two separate decisions to forsake positions of power remain a rarity, as the publicity they generated attests. But if business and cultural analysts are correct, the reordered priorities of Sharp and Fowler may become more common in the decade ahead. Groups like the Henley Center for Forecasting in London predict a more leisurely pace in the '90s as a backlash to the career-obsessed and ``stressful'' '80s, noting that it will become ``decidedly untrendy to rush about.''

Corporate trend-watchers also point to a shift in the culture of corporations. During the '80s, companies eliminated layers of management, simplifying hierarchies by giving employees fewer rungs to climb on the way to the top. As a consequence, lateral moves - ``plateauing'' - will become more common. Gone will be the thrill of moving up. Instead, the youngest Baby Boomers will be forced to find rewards in second-tier jobs that are well-paid but less stressful.

Charting these dual tracks will not be easy. Last year an article in the Harvard Business Review caused a firestorm by suggesting that employers create two career paths for women - a fast track for those without children, and a slower track for those with families who need more flexibility. The idea, quickly dubbed the ``Mommy track,'' enraged career women, who countered by proposing a similar ``Daddy track'' for men.

Any supposed ``track'' carries the risk of discrimination and stereotypes. But as more workers choose to trade power for a sense of control, the issue is bound to remain controversial for men and women alike.

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Will people like Sharp and Fowler, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, become role models for a new generation of workers? Probably not on any large scale. But in their willingness to settle for less power, less prestige, and less pay, these men offer a reminder that there are two quite different kinds of rewards in life. There is, first and still foremost, the public success a society certifies in the form of wealth, job titles, and status. And then there is the reward of private satisfaction - doing what you were born to do, what you love to do.

Do you go for the prize or follow your bent? The second choice, the personal choice, wears a more human face, promising to serve others well by serving one's truest self.

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