Published on July 8th, 2015 | by Nancy F. Clark0
The Work-Life Balance Fallacy
By Alyssa Oursler—
It doesn’t take much more than a quick scroll through my Twitter feed to see countless mentions, lists and hacks revolving around the ever-elusive goal of “work-life balance.” The phrase itself gets Googled an average of 50,000 times per month, in addition to thousands of searches for “work-life balance tips.”
Just this week, a TIME headline posed the question: “Is Work-Life Balance Even Possible?” before painting a cliche picture of the term: “Balancing your time and energy between work and home is difficult; you’ve got that report due on Wednesday and your kids need help with their homework.”
Balance is indeed a key component of life, but the nearly ubiquitous concept of “work-life balance” is a dangerous one. The harsh binary framework creates a false separation of Church and State from the get-go — in this case pitting the professional and personal against each other as if they were Mayweather and Pacquiao.
“The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.”
Others have argued for a kind of blurring of the work-life line before, but the majority of “experts” and “thought leaders” dispelling the notion that work and life are inherently separate tend to tip the scales towards the “work” side of the equation. As Confucius supposedly put it: “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This is an argument — or just another disguised life hack — for finding passion and meaning by finding the right profession.
I propose blurring the lines in the opposite direction.
What about instead making your life your work?
Such a proposal likely sounds foreign or fluffy or overly philosophical (or perhaps all three). We’ve been brought up to equate work with a career, and to prioritize it. As kids, we were asked again and again what we want to be when we grow up. We were paraded to Career Days, we took personality tests to place us in the right job, we introduce ourselves by profession. These habits fall squarely into the “work as life,” or “work balanced with life” paradigm — and we’re now passing them along to the next generation.
If we choose a “life as work” paradigm, those questions and norms shift noticeably. Imagine being asked as a kid not what kind of job you want when you grow up, but what kind of person you want to be — and imagine then being taught to work towards that goal.
I recently read the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, written by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porra. It’s considered “one of the most influential business books of our time” and its title sums up the basic premise pretty well. As I was reading it, though, I couldn’t help but think that what we really need is Built to Last: Human Edition. One section in the book, for instance, focuses on how visionary companies from Sony to Boeing had “big hairy audacious goals” (BHAGs). These goals serve as North Stars of sorts and enabled achievement of the often unthinkable.
I love the idea of a BHAG.
I’m undoubtedly drinking that Kool-Aid.
I just want it in a different flavor.
For too many of us — yes, I’ve been there — our “big hairy audacious goal” is simply the next rung of the corporate ladder and the pay bump that comes with it … if that can be described as big or hairy or audacious in the first place. And oftentimes, it seems like our goals are much smaller — like surviving to Friday or surviving to the next paycheck so we can then enjoy life a bit (while dreading the return to work).
That’s not to say the next paycheck isn’t important. Money (and thus the standard concept of work) is likely a prerequisite of any BHAG. But it’s all about context. Money (to risk sounding a bit soap-boxy) should be a means to an end, not the end goal. David Whyte nods to this as well, writing:
“Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it.”
David’s idea of work is not bound to the workplace, though. He shatters the classic work-life balance paradigm and instead breaks his life into three sections: Work, Self and Other. I similarly have a three-pronged approach for generally organizing my life and goals, although things get messy and twisted quickly because … well … that’s the way it goes. For me, the categories are health and happiness (which are intertwined); fulfillment (which is often dependent upon health and happiness); and money (enough of it to make the first two things possible). David nods to this integration as well:
“We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.”
Put another way, my goals and choices and plans are meant to all work together, not against each other. It isn’t a formula of balance as much as one of empowerment and enablement. So while work is undoubtedly a part of my life, it’s not a separate to-do list or separate office or separate ladder to climb.
I have big hairy audacious goals that aren’t strangled by the work-life separation, and hope more people being to take a similar approach. I’m convinced our day-to-day choices and day-to-day outlook will be dramatically different if we simply shift our thinking and re-categorize our priorities.
Forget work-life balance. Take a sip of the new Kool-Aid, build your life to last, find balance without binaries and make your life your work.
Ask yourself: What’s my big hairy audacious goal?
What’s my North Star?
What kind of person do I want to be when I grow up?
Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who comments on technology, gender, health, entrepreneurship and more. You can find her at teainacoffeeshop.com or connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.
Article photo by Diana Robinson