So, I checked off one of those bucket-listy things: I gave a TED Talk. Well, it was a talk at a TEDx event, a corporate TEDx event where I work. Which means that it is most likely it will never be released to the public TED.com website, or be visible outside our company firewalls. So, for most of those who read this, you won’t get to see the talk.
But, I wanted to share the script of my talk. Frankly, the script is better than my talk anyway, as I didn’t do as well with memorizing the words I’d written as I’d hoped. Nevertheless, the talk went well, and I heard feedback from a number of listeners who found the talk thought-provoking. So I offer the script here in the hope it may do the same for you. Enjoy!
The Tricky Myth of Work-Life Balance
Work-Life Balance. We alllllllll want it, right? Or we’re supposed to want it… It’s important to find, to create, to achieve, to maintain. We’ve seen posters, articles, interviews, How-Tos, infographics, there’s even a “Work/Life Balance for Dummies” guidebook.
I searched on the phrase “Work Life Balance” and there were nearly 200 Million hits. It’s almost a Holy Grail for Human Resources and Life Coaches.
For any of you not familiar with the concept, it’s a big idea that offers to guide our sensibility about managing the relative priorities we place on our activities inside and outside of the workplace. It’s the subject of seminars, lectures, and entire training programs. For many, it does seem to be a realistic achievement and a useful description of what works for them. Others swear by it as the key to their relationships and time management.
But, I’ve always had problems with the whole concept. It just never made sense to me. The idea of taking these two categories—Work and Life—and throwing them on a scale to balance on each side just plain challenges me. First, I question whether these two buckets of my attention and focus really make sense. Is Work NOT a part of Life? Am I somehow not alive when I work? And is it fair, or even useful, to heap everything my employer isn’t paying me to do into one generic dish called, “Life”?
Instead of seeing the pieces of this challenge as just the Work and Life components, isn’t it true that this “Life” bucket (or “dish”) is really a whole bunch of areas of focus in our lives? Think about it. Our entertainment time, our resting time, our fitness time, our relationship time, our spiritual time, our learning time, our volunteering time… Each of these calls, pleads for our time. And if these are in our lives, we are placing some priority on them. Well, that’s more than just two dishes on the scale.
I kind of picture a balance scale with a whole set of dishes arrayed all around it. Think about that, it doesn’t sound like an easy place to balance everything, or anything. Which leads me to another discomfort I have with the Work/Life Balance concept. If “balance” is the expectation for these, do they all get the same focus to “balance” it all out?
Well, are they all really the same in importance? Can they be “balanced”? It makes it sound like we should be able to get it right and be done with it—find the “balance” and that solves it. But each of our worlds keep changing, our “Life”s keep changing, our priorities keep changing. Just think about it…
We’ll walk through my life and career to illustrate… I began my career, fresh out of college, and first getting into the workplace. I experienced my first big boy paycheck—pretty cool, and it gave me a good reason to make Work a pretty strong focus. But then I also had a few “outside” activities to keep “The Balance” right, going to rock or jazz shows and clubbing with friends, just a little bit of exercise and sports to stay fit—not too much for me, gotta love that 20-year-old metabolism. And then there was volunteering—at church and in community theater, which was great at helping me to feel pretty good about my “spare” time. In time, I met a great girl named Lisa, and that became a great relationship I wanted to grow with all I could offer. That led eventually led to marriage (our 26th wedding anniversary was yesterday). Later came a baby, our daughter, Grace… And soon enough we’re into all of her activities.
But then at work, I was doing well, working hard, and thinking about whether I should go after a graduate degree. But with promotions through project leader, subcontract responsible engineer, functional manager, governance program manager, and systems architect and product owner…the responsibilities kept growing. In the meantime, my parents were getting older, too, needing my help with their home and even needing my assistance with their health challenges. And of course, the changes in the workplace have pressed on my focus and attention. I was actually in my 21st month of working temporary assignments while looking for a new position when I found out I was selected to present this talk.
My goodness. At some point, the word “Balance” doesn’t seem possible, doesn’t even sound preferable. And the term “spare time” isn’t a fair label for the few spots on the calendar that aren’t scheduled with any activities…yet. It seems im-balance is almost what we’d prefer. Life doesn’t sit still, so there’s not really a chance to balance things out, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of a balance scale that could make any sense. It’s just plain stressful to keep a tally of how we’re doing with Balancing between the two sides of our existence.
Just look at what happens with all of these elements of our lives. We don’t always have the choice to compartmentalize and separate them. Sometimes I have to take the call at work about the problem my daughter is experiencing. Sometimes I have to take the call at home about the problem that jumped to life at work. Sometimes I have to take the call about my volunteering at home OR at work because there’s just plain something I have to work out with someone. These boundaries are rather naturally disrupted.
And that’s one of the other big concerns I have with the Work/Life Balance concept. It has the feeling of segmenting our existence into these two categories—even separating our identity and our behavior between the two sides of that scale. But all of this is our Life. All of this is US. All of this is worth our focus and priority at some level, and it doesn’t make sense to keep them all out of contact with each other.
This is why I’ve been up on a soapbox saying that while “Work/Life Balance” doesn’t make sense, “Work/Life Integration” does ring a bit more true. See, we’re not going do better with all of these important parts of our lives if we force them all into neat boxes (or trays on a scale)—instead, I’m interested in how to push down those barriers, let them overlap and mix and blend in better ways.
Well, that’s tricky, too.
Will I be cheating my workday if I take that call in my office? Will my family get the short end of the stick if I take a call at home?
At its center, this is very much about maturity, about our maturing. As we gain life experience, we can take on more responsibility for how we choose, how we manage our time, how we respond to our obligations and the expectations placed on us. And with that experience, those choices can become more facile, more effective. Over time, there’s the opportunity to understand these boundaries and appreciate the flexibility and the harmony that can come with flexing those boundaries…
I’d like to offer you a slightly different vision for how we look at this complexity in our lives. It’s a movement from Work/Life Balance, past Work/Life Integration, toward Peace. Now, when I say “peace,” it probably makes you think of passivity, of an absence of strife, both in our minds and bodies, and in the world around us.
But the Hebrew word for “Peace,” the word, “Shalom,” has a deeper meaning than all of that. It denotes a completeness, a soundness, and can mean both to live in a complete and sound way and to move in the direction of completeness and soundness. Now, consider this. Becoming “complete” isn’t without its strife and challenges. It’s most often through the struggles we endure and the challenges we overcome that we actually learn and grow. That doesn’t sound like an absence of strife. And peace isn’t really a static state, achieved once and done. Peace and completeness is a pursuit, one with struggle, with setbacks, with learning, with adjustments.
Well, what would this look like in our lives? What has it looked like in my life? Let me be the first to say that I am in a continual struggle to live in a more “complete” way. I keep finding out more of how I need to fit it all together a bit more. And that only makes sense, because the elements in my life, inside and away from my workplace, keep changing. But I keep learning. So, here are five recommendations I can offer from what I’ve learned.
First, don’t let the “Balance” mandate beat you up. “Balance” really isn’t a fair ongoing measure of success. Each aspect of our life changes and adjusts in what it requires or what it relinquishes. Consider just how little that is like “Balance” and don’t let that discourage. You are the one who works out the combination of what’s important in your life. I learned early in my marriage that the “Balance” approach wasn’t enough given that most of the activities in my life would gladly request more than a rational portion or even a fair share of my attention.
Next, it’s important to realize that finding that right combination in the here and now relies on your integrity. You need to be honest and considerate of how you work this. Our jobs demand honesty in all that we do and require integrity on how we spend and bill our time. And our families deserve the best we have to offer—not just the leftovers of our remaining energy after a long work day. Those other areas of passion, true passion, where we invest our interest and efforts are certainly worthy—at least in our own estimation—and deserve the best we can offer them as well. So considering how we can offer each area our honest best is the call. Working for a defense contractor while serving as a volunteer worship leader at my home church are quite enough to teach me that my integrity is on the line with all of these time allocation decisions I make regularly.
But, third, it cannot work to just plain give too much to everything. That doesn’t balance anything, even though it will try to balance everything on our own mortal shoulders. We do need to be able to discern the difference between practical stretch goals and just plain pipedreams. There are not enough hours in any day or week to include everything our interests might demand. And not everything that attracts our eyes is truly worthy of our time investment. I turn to a saying that one of the Human Factors Engineers I used to manage would quote liberally. It was the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery who said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
We really won’t find peace or completeness in saying, “yes,” to requests in excess. I’m guilty of being too willing to say “yes” to volunteer opportunities at church and in the theater, going directly from work to a meeting or rehearsal day after day–but still ready to schedule something else if asked. It was a priceless lesson to teach my mind that a night with nothing scheduled on the calendar shouldn’t automatically be considered a “free” night—it’s often better to consider it a night booked for not going anywhere…
Fourth, this integrity question is actually helped a great deal by embracing the reality that who we are doesn’t actually change from locale to locale, or from work to home to charity to leisure. Consider the other meaning of the word, “integrity”—it also refers to being undivided or whole. We may choose to act very different, but doing so comes at a psychic cost. The changes in behavior are fibs we tell ourselves somewhere in our minds to make the change simpler. If we drop the fibs and be true to who we are in each of our environments, it facilitates our progress toward completeness and peace.
My final recommendation is to forgive. Forgive yourself when you do fall short of your own expectations on working out these boundaries and attention—which you will. And forgive others when they don’t help you work this out as you’d like—which they will. There’s no gain in dwelling on resentment, no matter who is the focus of that disappointment. You will be helping both your own and their movement toward peace and completeness.
So, if I can give you anything today, I want to leave you with the permission to think differently about this. Not to be boxed into pursuing Work/Life Balance, but encouraged to move continuously toward that right concept of peace and completeness and soundness, toward Shalom, in your work-and-everything-else life.
Now, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make the best poster. How about this: Don’t be ruled, or fooled, by the balance scale!