Work-life balance is one of those overused phrases that’s thrown about so much that I’m not sure we know what it means anymore. Work means different things to different people; life presumably means personal life, but it’s unclear if we’re talking about spending time with your partner and your children, or having time for your hobbies, or just making sure that you take a break from your office work; and balance is some representation of the proportions of each of these two things – usually, it’s a question of more life and less work. But how can work and life be measured, simply in time or in some more subjective unit? If not in equal proportions, then who decides what are the “correct” proportions? Too much work and you might die of a heart attack, or at the very least end up sad and alone; too much “life” and your money might run out!
In the corporate world, work-life balance is about making sure that you have time to go to the gym after work, have dinner with your family (before then going back to your emails), play golf with your buddies on Sundays. As Nigel Marsh said in a Ted talk on How to make work-life balance work (– well worth a watch! spot on, and very funny), “being a fit 10-hour-a-day office rat isn’t more balanced, it’s more fit”. We can tell ourselves that our employers care about our health and our family life, but they only care insofar as these things make us better employees: work, and profit, will always come first.
My mum has often told the generalised story of Mr Johnson, who is called into the office one day and told that he’s fired.
“But – I’ve given everything to this job! I’ve worked here for thirty years, I’ve worked evenings and weekends. My wife has left me, my children don’t talk to me, I have no friends or interests outside of work.”
“Well, of course, we’re very grateful for that Mr Johnson. Goodbye Mr Johnson.
Another story that she tells is about a colleague of hers who was incredibly unhappy in her job and longed for retirement. When the colleague finally reached retirement age, she found that she had a brain tumour and passed away soon after. Postponing your life until when you can you retire, until you’ve earned x amount of money, until you’ve done whatever it is you feel you have to do, is a very risky strategy, and an unbalanced one at that. In a slightly more positive version of this story, we have Google CFO Patrick Pichette’s resignation memo in which he explains how he had an epiphany on Kilimanjaro that led him to his decision to quit his job to travel the world with his wife. Lucky him – but, as he himself admits, his children are now grown and have moved out, while his long-suffering wife may find it’s too little, too late. And will he be happy with this new backpacking life or will he find a way back into the world of work via a position on some board or getting involved in some new project? Only time will tell if there’s a happy ending there.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Tim Ferriss advocating the four-hour work week: setting up a business that is so completely automated that you can remove yourself from the business and go off and learn to tango. This is equally disingenuous: while I’m all for travelling and learning new things, I also enjoy the challenge of real work projects, getting to know new colleagues, working together and seeing the results. I know some people like to keep work and personal life completely separate but I want to enjoy my work as much as I also want to challenge myself and learn new things in my personal life. Buying and selling protein powder or coffee beans or whatever product with the sole aim of making money will never appeal to me as a business proposition.
In fact, I happen to think that the entire construct of work-life balance is artificial and impossible to achieve. You can’t separate work and life – these are not mutually exclusive things like life and death or sleeping and being awake. Work is an inherent part of life, whether we mean the standard white-collar definition of “9-to-5” in the office or a more modern idea of remote working and virtual offices. If you hate those hours that you’re spending working, whether it’s four hours or forty or more, then no amount of “life” after work is going to make up for that. But equally even if you could give up work with no thought of earning an income I think it’s unlikely that you would find it fulfilling to spend your days bumming around; they say that most people who win the lottery choose to stay on in their jobs, whether because they want some degree of normality or because they like their colleagues and actually enjoy their work.
In my case, as for Millennials (well, I am one, according to my year of birth), I “don’t desire a career as work is one pursuit of many. Instead Millennials view work as a portfolio asset – work is one element of their portfolio, alongside outside pursuits and passion projects”. It’s not so much a question of balance between work and life as an overall sense of balance across all different aspects of life to keep me challenged and fulfilled, earning enough money without selling my soul, spending time alone and with friends and family, eating well and staying fit, learning new skills and having new experiences, being active and having a rest.
Ultimately it’s a choice of how you want to live your life, how much and what kind of work you want to do and need to do in order to live your definition of a comfortable life, what you choose to prioritise, how you fill your time when you’re not working. And if you’re experiencing an imbalance versus where you would actually like to be, you don’t necessarily have to make drastic changes, quitting your job or taking a year off; even small steps can make a huge difference. I just spent the weekend dog sledding and cross-country skiing in Lapland for goodness sake – a weekend! That’s all it took to get away from my everyday routine and have one of the most amazing and invigorating experiences of my life. In the case of Nigel Marsh, a few hours spent with his son was all it took for his son to have the best day of his life.
I’m reminded once again of that quote from Viktor Frankl:“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” If you don’t answer that question, if you don’t make these choices, big and small, then someone else is going to make them for you – and you may not like the result…