How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life”

The importance of “work-life balance” is something of a shibboleth to those of us who talk and write about psychologically healthy work environments, and on numerous occasions I’ve made blithe references to it. But at times, I find myself questioning whether this is an unattainable and sometimes wrongheaded ideal — at least as applied to individuals.

Parsing the definition

Wikipedia (link here) defines work-life balance as:

a broad concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) on one hand and “life” (Health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other.

The mere use of the word “balance” leads us to a debate that cannot be resolved. How do we apportion our time among these categories? Is it 50/50, 30/70, or 60/40?

And how do we define “work”? For example, “family” usually is placed in the “life” side of the ledger. But I doubt that a parent taking care of kids equates family responsibilities with leisure! For many, it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.

Time at work

Beyond the definitional nitpicking, I get the general idea: We spend a lot of time at work, especially in America. Economist Juliet Schor brought this issue into our contemporary policy debates in her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, marshaling data showing that U.S. workers spend a lot more time at work than counterparts in other nations.

So, in questioning the concept of work-life balance, I agree that things in America (and elsewhere!) are out of, umm, balance.

“I want it all”

But implicit in the notion of work-life balance is the idea that we can have it all, if only we can find the elusive formula for fitting the pieces together in the right way.

The YouTube video pasted into this article — from the Broadway show “Babe” — captures that wishful thinking. Three women of different ages and life circumstances meet by chance in a doctor’s office, and they share with each other how they want it all.

But most of us can’t

Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.

So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, thinking that the world is our oyster, and the dean is telling us it’s probably not.

It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice I’ve heard among a sea of mostly banal, forgettable remarks at graduation ceremonies.

Instead

Many women, especially, have understood the impossibility — or at least the unlikelihood — of having all of life’s pieces conveniently coming together at the right places and right times.

Instead of chasing such an elusive goal, I suggest that we all redirect our focus to qualitative questions of what makes for a good and meaningful life, while remaining aware that choices and events may constrict our flexibility.

For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause. For lots, it will involve a perpetual juggling act. A fortunate few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.

“She lived a balanced life”

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something?

As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

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Related posts

Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What will be your body of work?

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?

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June 11 update: In a sad coincidence, Dean Redlich died this week. His obituary, which details his rich life and career, can be read here.

8 responses

  1. Great post, David. I explored this question in a recent survey of lawyers. My hypothesis was that time/scheduling is a symptom and not the cause of feeling imbalanced. I’ll have a full report of the results soon.
    I have been trying to combat the well-intentioned advice women give each other that really misses the mark-“You can’t have it all.” As you’ve suggested, the first step is figuring out what “all” is, which is an individual determination.
    (As an aside, I costume designed a production of “Baby” in college, featuring at least two future lawyers)

    • Gretchen, I’m obviously biased because I witnessed the unfolding of your work in this realm when you were a law student, but I think you’re delving into very interesting stuff here. I look forward to the results of your survey! David

  2. Nice post, David. It underscores a number of issues related to the term “work-life balance” and our perception of what that means. Work is part of life and life has many different components that must be managed. These can include work, family, community involvement, school, hobbies, social activities and more.
    Demands on time, energy and resources vary by time and circumstance (think busy periods at work, new baby, going back to school, sick family member, new job, etc. ), as well as across individuals. In short, it’s about how you allocate your resources and the trade-offs you make. When referring specifically to the work-life interface, I like Cali Yost’s philosophy of “fit” – see http://worklifefit.com. In the larger scheme of things, I prefer to look at it as “life harmony.” Multiple notes are played together and like jazz, there is often a back and forth between consonant and dissonant chords (i.e., chords that include tensions). While there are some generalizations about what people find pleasing, individuals have different tastes and preferences. You might not like every note, but as a whole, are you happy with the way life comes together?

    • David, you managed to capture much of what I was trying to say in more eloquent and succinct fashion — blame the lawyer in me for excess verbiage! And thank you for the Yost worklifefit.com link — I just took a look and it’s very interesting. David

  3. I used to hear wise women talk about such things this way: “You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.”🙂

    David, you’re also on the money talking about defining “all.:” What “all” or “balance” is can vary tremendously from one person’s life to another, and we’re wise to consider that always. In my own experience dealing with chronic illness, I’ve had to adjust my “all” and “balance” to adapt to the realities that come with illness, treatments, side effects, and the unpredictability of all of those. The work-life balance I need looks different from that of my friend who is working full-time and attending college part-time, or the single mom, or friends in professions unlike mine, and so on.

    Once again, you’re bringing good daylight to this subject. Thank you.

    • Lisa, thank you for your comments and especially for sharing your own perspective and experience. You drive home the point that these external expectations/definitions really need to be questioned against the realities of life and individual situations. Best, David

  4. I think that one’s work/life balance is not only individual but changes through time. When there are young children at home that moves the balance more towards home. When there are no children at home, the balance can shift towards work. When disability or illness intervene; that requires still another adjustment. It is when we forget that the scale can be adjusted and don’t question the demands from various sources that we get into trouble. There should be a conscious effort to decide for one’s self where the balance should be at any given time.

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