Anxiously seeking work/life balance? Give up. You’re bound to fail. You’re bound to fail because you’re framing the problem the wrong way. The phrase itself is a false dichotomy. It’s not work OR life, it’s just life, and work can and should be as much a part of making it rich and fulfilling as all the other aspects of life. Chasing the mistaken idea of work/life balance won’t make you happier.
I don’t mean work should be fulfilling in a “do what you love and the money will follow” kind of way. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect everyone will have a job for which they are perfectly suited to as an individual, one that taps into their unique abilities and passions. That would be nice, but probably isn’t realistic. I don’t think work needs to meet this unrealistically high bar in order to be a fulfilling part of your life. Anna Quindlen got the emphasis wrong when she said,
Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. … The second is only part of the first.”
I’m guessing she said this at a graduation ceremony. A small refactoring of her second sentence would fix it up just fine, however. Substitute “a big” for “only”, and I think it’s spot-on.
A first order approximation of work’s significance is that it represents half of your adult life. Once you’re out of childhood and through your education, you get about 88 hours a week after sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene. That means typical work hours for a lot of jobs are pushing 50% of your discretionary time. Thinking about this strictly from a systems perspective, I’d say you’re making the job of living a happy life much more difficult if you write-off work as a potential source of satisfaction, accomplishment, creativity, and fulfillment. That is exactly what the phrase “work/life balance” seems to me to imply, and why I don’t like it.
To work is human
I think human beings are deeply wired to create value, to bring order from chaos, to husband resources responsibly, and to create a buffer between survival and death through work. Modern social and governmental structures isolate us a bit from this, but as a species, these factors are only very recent. We’ve got a lot more history when laziness or irresponsibility or lack of collaboration meant starvation, and not just having to cancel the cable TV. Work, and specifically, working together, means being able to feed, clothe, house, and protect yourself and your family. Work is a necessary ingredient to effectively passing your genes along, and hence a powerfully selected behavior.
Even in the case where work is not something that inspires you (you’re an artist, but you work in a restaurant), it still can and should be a source of fulfillment. Any job can provide a sense of meaning (you’re supporting yourself and maybe others), service (other people rely on you), satisfaction (you do your job well), social interaction (fellow employees, customers, kids), growth (learning, getting better at your job, refinement), sacrifice (earning future opportunities and rewards), and accomplishment (you start and finish something).
What about balance?
Balance is important. Very important. Speaking as a person who periodically gets out-of-balance, I wouldn’t want to throw the balance baby out with the false dichotomy bathwater. The trouble with the “work/life balance” meme is that it puts into opposition two things that are really part of one thing, not that it points out the importance of balance. I find it much more useful to consider how balance is maintained in my life along dimensions where there actually is opposition and a tradeoff.
Some of the balances I feel are important to pay attention to include:
- working for yourself vs working for others
- time with family vs time with friends
- time alone vs time with others
- idle time vs busy time
- giving vs getting
- creating vs maintaining
- aspirational commitments vs follow-through
- starting vs finishing
- sacrifice vs selfishness
- brain work vs muscle work
- desire to help vs time to help
- spiritual vs material
- short-term vs long-term
- urgent vs important
- starting new ventures vs optimizing current ones
- abstract vs concrete
- low risk vs high risk
- the comfort of the known vs the stress of the new
- doing for myself vs hiring others to do for me
Balancing your life along the dimensions above is a lot more complicated than segregating “work” from “life” and leaving every day at 5pm. On the other hand, counting up to 40 and expecting to magically find balance seems to me naive. Taking half of our adult life off the table when it comes to maintaining balance makes the problem harder to solve, not easier–you have a lot more to work with if you balance across work, hobbies, family, friends, groups, and service.
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