Here I am at the end of my seventh month of unemployment and I’m wondering about work-life balance. I have no doubt that most outsiders would consider the balance is a little light on the job side. But by their measures, the balance is equally light on the life side as well. I’ve achieved a balance in having neither.
Actually, I have been busy with this blog and practicing the piano. The blog is analogous to a job, and the piano practice is like a life. The job is not bringing in any income. The life is not bringing the pleasure I’d expect once I get good at it. This is not a period that I expect would impress anyone or elicit their approval. And yet, oddly I’m very comfortable with the current conditions especially if I ignore the cash flow problem.
The concept of work-life balance is something that I thought a lot about since the first time I heard it. In an earlier post, I discussed my concerns that some of the benefits in favor of balance may be detrimental to career development. This post follows up with some thoughts about what exists on the two sides of the balance.
I understand the concept as a need to devote a portion of life in relationships: community, friendships, and family. The devotion often involves some form of financial leverage that for most people requires some form of income from work. While it is possible to engage in the relationship part of life without having any financial burden, someone in that relationship will need a source of wealth or income. Generally someone in the relationship is going to have to work.
The converse is not obviously true. Someone can work and not be in a relationship. The fact that we hear so often the imperative of striking a balance of work and life is evidence that a sizable population opts to work at the expense of devoting energies to relationships (community, friendships, or family). Unlike a life purely devoted to relationship requiring someone in that relationship to have some income, a life purely devoted to working does not require a relationship.
The requirement to balance a life engaged in work with relationships is the theory that relationships are essential to the well being of the individual. Humans by their very nature are social animals, Their long term psychological and emotional well-being requires the nourishment that comes from relationships.
The theory is sometimes expressed as the dubious claim that no one on their deathbed expresses the regret that they didn’t spend more time in the office. Dying is a lonely experience even in the closest of families, so it must be far lonelier for the one who has no relationships. The fact that the loneliness of dying doesn’t change the fact that death will occur. Loneliness is one of many pains suffered in dying: it has a lot of competition for priority. The pain of loneliness is relative to the individual. One can become accustomed to a solitary life that does not even recognize loneliness as a pain.
Even the statement that humans are social animals is misleading. Humans are tribal animals. They identify their social circles by traits that sets one tribe from another. In the modern era, we’ve been more creative about how to define a tribe and how to determine the qualifications for memberships. But ultimately, we separate into relative minority groups with a common identity. Tribes themselves are absolutely individualistic. If seen as an individual, a tribe behaves as antisocially as spiders that will eat their own species when presented an opportunity. Human tribes generally have a virtue over spiders in that we don’t eat the ones we kill, but a glance at the current events provides ample proof that human tribes have no restraint about killing members of other tribes, often in a very deliberate ritual fashion filmed for propaganda on YouTube.
It is very easy for me to to imagine many people dying with the regret that they didn’t spend more time working. In the case of recent current events, I can imagine many people who are suffering tragic circumstances are regretting they didn’t devote more of their efforts at making their imperfect governments work. Much of that effort involved devoting energies to a job either to build the economy or directly to run the operations of the government or of its police or military.
If we are going to make an allusion to the misery of deathbed regrets, we should include the regrets of those whose deathbeds are tragic consequences of not enough time at the office.
Getting back to more mundane topic of this post, I want to talk about the everyday experience of balancing work and life in the context of a generally prosperous and peaceful circumstance. What is the balance of work and life.
The topic of work-life balance is a frequent topic on LinkedIn, a social site that prides itself on its catering specifically to professions or at least to employment. The large number of recommended articles by designated influencers (established leaders) concern the importance of doing things that are not related to work. The life part of the work-life balance resides in that territory occupied by things not related to work. These articles frequently are very enthusiastic of the benefits of this non-work life and the lack of downsides in terms of impacting the job. The idea is to work hard and to play hard, where playing hard is doing something outside of work. The message is that the playing hard will be much more relevant to a person’s enjoying a rewarding life. Based on posted comments to these articles, many people readily acknowledge the wisdom of this insight. The comments often express gratitude for the new insight offered for how to look at the upsides of life.
I felt my opinion on the topic would be unwelcome in that community. Despite the claims of new wisdom offered by each such post, all of the posts basically say the same thing: a life worth living is the life that occurs outside of work.
There is a counter argument that does get presented (even on LinkedIn) that states that the ideal of work-life balance is the unity of work that is enjoyable or that matches what one loves. This message sometimes gets expressed as working in what you love will inevitably bring success. This is a message often supported by after-the-fact evidence of someone successful claiming that he is doing what he loved.
More realistically, the message could be stated as learning to love what you end up having to do. The outcome is the same: a successful person saying his success is doing what he loves, but the way he got there was completely different. Asking someone to love what they do is not much different than telling him to shut up and just do the work. It could be good advice that could lead to prosperity, but it is almost the opposite of the the popularly conceived notion of work-life balance. That popular notion implies that what one loves (or dreams) predates the job and this is so deeply ingrained in the personality that they need an outlet unavailable in the job they can occupy.
So far I described two notions of work-life balance. One is to have two separate lives: one life works in order to finance the life for living. The other notion is to blur the distinction so that one gets life rewards from work. In both of these cases, there is a problem of proof. How does an individual prove that his life is fulfilled either by compartmentalization or by integration? Usually this involves an external judgement. Other people decide whether the individual is balanced. We challenge each other about whether they are happy. We may accept their answer often explicitly stated as “to each his own”, but we want to hear that answer of a current acknowledgement of living a happy life. We assume something is wrong immediately if the current life is not a happy one. Privately, we also pity the wrong answer of deriving one’s happiness in doing a job because it is a prescription for eventual doom.
Because of this unsubtle demand that to demonstrate a happy life to others, and because our tribal nature encourages us to fit in, we attempt to conform to the tribal definition of happiness. This definition is relative to situations. Around here, the situation is generally prosperous and with secure employment (where most jobs can be taken for granted). Here we measure happiness in our experiences and skills in spending our incomes. Evidence of a happy life comes in some combination involving the forms of large well-furnished houses, large vehicles, frequent long-distance travel, frequent experiences at a wide variety of dining and entertaining establishments, and refined tastes for varieties of food or drink.
In this modern age of social networking, people distinguish their “brand” as much by what they enjoy outside of work as by what they do for work. A person is both a top performer in his field and an exquisitely discriminating foodie (whatever that may be).
In this area either of the earlier interpretations of work-life balance can achieve this boast. Many jobs require frequent travel that involve overnight stays with reasonably generous expense allowances that finance upscale dining and entertaining experiences. Alternatively, many office jobs have sufficient compensation and fixed work hours that allow for flexible scheduling of these experiences on ones own time.
We can come to work in an office even on a Wednesday and ask each other what we did after work the night before and expect at least a couple responses detailing an satisfying life-fulfilling experience. Certainly there will be those who just went home exhausted, but we expect this to be a temporary setback.
I offer the above as my view of the nature of the common appeal to a work-life balance. I do not subscribe to these views. As a result the impressions above are not based on my first hand experience.
Early in my career, I looked up to an older generation who were running the business at the time. This generation was older than my parents, but younger than my grandparents. Often they began their careers in the 1950s. It is completely unwarranted to generalize that I encountered as a representative sample of that generation. However, I did encounter some advice that expressed a different point of view how life and work are balanced.
In particular, work was important. That’s not really strong enough. Work is very important. I can imagine the time of the 1950s when these people were starting their careers. The world war ended but it may have seemed to be more of a truce than a victory with the emergence of the cold war. Domestically, the country had a lot of work building the infrastructure to support growing industries and economy. There was a lot of work to do, and there was a need to get it done well. Within the generation that did that work were more than a few who felt their jobs were important. They felt their life would be measured in large part by how well they did their jobs.
For them, work-life balance took a very different meaning. I heard it expressed as follows. When the boss asks you to do a job you have two jobs to do: the first is the job the boss asked for, and the second is the redoing that job the way way you know is the right way. Alternatively it is expressed as giving the client what he asked for and then give him what he needs. In this vision, the life part of the work-life balance was to do the job a second time, the second time in a way that will make you proud.
In place of the current fascination or elevation of love or enjoyment as defining life, the earlier ethic had pride. Pride is a completely different experience than love or enjoyment. This is especially true in terms of pride of workmanship or achievement.
The laborers who spent years working on building the highways in the 1950s and 1960s probably didn’t have much fun doing the heavy, hot, and dirty work. Excepting for an annual vacation, they probably didn’t do much in terms of non-work related fun at home: even hobbies were often related to work skills. However, many of them later expressed pride of accomplishment each time they saw the finished highway, building, or successful factory that they had a role in building. Driving by the site, they would point out the part where they worked. This was important to them well beyond the fact that it gave them a paycheck. That part they point to is where they located a major part of the life side of their work-life balance. This is especially true with the very frequent story of how their particular innovation saved the project or resulted the project ending up the way it did.
Not all projects were successes. There were failures of design or implementation. Factories may have failed to be competitive. Bridges or buildings may have collapsed. Some of these calamities may be traced back to omissions or neglect, traced back to someone not doing his job as well as he could have.
If the ultimate judgement of work-life balance is to inquire the regrets of the person on his deathbed, we should recognize that some may indeed say they regretted not devoting more of their life’s effort on the job. I do not doubt that many people regret not spending more time with relationships, but there are at least some who will regret their damaged or unfulfilled pride of not doing a better job when they had the chance.