How’s your work/life program going? Have you achieved the perfect balance? What is the “perfect” balance? Hard as this might be to believe, according to historian Peter Burke (1995), the dichotomy of work/life balance was introduced more than 200 years ago. 1 Two centuries later, it is still a topic of discussion, widely debated, with endless pundit contribution. Just try bringing this topic up the next time you are around people who are (or act like) they are committed to their work and their personal lives. People can be passionate in their beliefs, regardless of whether they think a work/life balance is possible, or impossible. Why get emotional? Does it matter? Apparently, it does, but in an odd way.
For many who like to debate this issue, they seem to have raised the topic to become a sort of professional moral compass – if you’re not achieving a healthy balance, you are judged as flawed (read: a bad partner, irresponsible parent, or soulless…a slave to your work). Conversely, if you are achieving that balance, your business colleagues and acquaintances may judge you as being mediocre, laggard, or not committed to the cause at work.
In the U.S., the work/life balance ideology kicked into high gear in 1986. Perhaps the transformation of the workplace, with increasingly more women who play multiple roles fueling a heightened sensitivity, creating a more ubiquitous desire to achieve this elusive goal. In 2012, the Society of Human Resource Management found that an increasing number of employees viewed work/life balance as integral to job satisfaction. Yet while greatly discussed as a noble goal, most professionals seem unable to achieve or sustain it.
On the flip-side of the argument, there have been numerous books, articles, and commentaries by business leaders who vociferously argue that the idyllic state of work/life balance bliss is contrary to success. Work ethic, hard work, dedication, and being a self-proclaimed workaholic, fan the argument that these characteristics are prerequisites essential to achievement. These same individuals will often go on to cite rock-star business heroes and entrepreneurs who have achieved stratospheric financial success, because they slept at their desk, “eating, sleeping and breathing” their work; personal life be damned. In the words of Neil Young, “Better to burn-out, than fade away.”
What is perhaps most puzzling about these diametrical views is the question: how did we get here? How does the right answer seem to reside at one of two very different poles of opinion? And, while some like Mound Mohan, a serial entrepreneur, might suggest that “older” entrepreneurs (think: over 35) can achieve a healthy balance 2 thanks to the benefit of hindsight and a mature state of business cycle.
Common sense would dictate that with less responsibilities at home (kids grown, financial stability, etc.) work/life balance might be more attainable. Of course, this typically requires an age well beyond 35, even 45 (who has their kids out of the house by 45? Only those people having kids when they are 25, and who’s doing that in this age of everyone’s an entrepreneur?) Regardless, while age, gender, financial status, and myriad other variables might play a role in your opinion on work/life balance, it may ultimately come down to the myth you’ve embraced as reality.
Myths are embedded in our collective psyche. They are the basis of our belief systems, essentially shaping the lens through which we see the world and how we function in our personal and business lives. We grow up believing in myths that society dictates as the norm and follow that direction. Somewhere, we learned that by a certain age, we should be partnered, have 2.5 children, be mortgaged to the teeth, and have a career. Thankfully, myths evolve, leaving behind old myths. Think of the old myth that said women belong in the home and the new myth: we must achieve work/life balance. So, why is this a myth you might ask?
In a word, “BALANCE.” As a serial entrepreneur with a family, how I balance my work and life, and what worked for me and them, is as individual as a finger print. Perhaps the reason the issue is so contentious, is that everyone has their own opinion on what constitutes balance. If your definition of balance is gauged by percentage of time and is slightly askew of mine, you might say, “This guy’s a workaholic or lightweight, or destined for failure – with work and/or family.” What’s wrong with work/life balance and why it proves elusive is because we try to define a “norm” for which no “norm” exists.
Think about the word balance: a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions or equilibrium. By virtue of how life comes at us, when do any of us have things in balance? Perpetually? It’s not like we can control a 50/50 dial between work and life. Admittedly, there have been times when, much to my family’s chagrin, my balance was 100/0 in the work/life columns, as I focused on a start-up company, or launched a new product. But in the grander scheme of things, my balance has also been 0-100, cooking meals, attending games, and taking vacations. Rarely can you achieve equilibrium with an ever-shifting set of priorities. So, is it a matter of averaging? Do spouses, partners, business associates, families, and friends “average” when they judge you? And what about you? Do you average when beating yourself up?
I was over 35, with a beautiful wife and three boys. They weren’t even close to “out of the house.” I was starting companies and travelling a lot. I still do. And you can be sure there was little “balancing” going on when I had to be in China to review molds, parts and pre-production of our first SoundTube® turn-key speakers – a huge undertaking – and all during Christmas season! In my mind, I was applying averaging all the time to justify weeks of ultra-commitment with moments of family fun (or just time together, helping with food, driving and homework) – it didn’t matter what continent I was on, what holiday it was, what performance I may have missed. And yet, I managed to make tons of events, coach lots of teams and make it home for dinner 95% of the time. I still do it. I still have moments where I’m “too busy” and getting a hard time for it, and times when I am committed to a wide assortment of family and other activities. It’s not always easy, or fun, but I’ve made it work, even if I get bloodied once in a while…
Whatever your views on work/life balance are, they are yours and hopefully work for you and those who matter in your life. But there are three morals to the story. The first: We shouldn’t rush to judge either side of the work/life balance equation. On both sides, you’ll find happily married people who’ve had tremendous work success. Like many personal choices we make in our lives, how much time we devote to our work and our life outside of it cannot be gauged by pundits or anyone beyond your sphere of influence. The second moral is this: Even those people “inside” your sphere can wreak havoc on your balance, since they often forget to use the averaging approach as they try to micro-manage, demand, push, pull, fuss, cry, or make outrageous comments. Often, without considering the reality of all the factors, all that’s going on at the time, all that’s going on in that very finite, specific point in time. It’s like children crying when they don’t get what they want, yet they forget all about the 10 good things that just happened prior to the new need. It’s then, you may need to remind yourself and them about the averages. And the third: Don’t subscribe to the myth. Find your own balance. Find what works for you. Because if it doesn’t work for you, who else is going to be happy? Remember: If you’re like most of us, your balance will surely change from day-to-day.