Life-Life Balance ...

measured out with coffee spoons

I work hard. I realise this may come as a surprise to all of those to whom I owe decisions, papers, messages and assorted other actions. Certainly, none of this can be readily attributed to the amount of time I spend working. I have short changed my family, let down friends, damaged my health and probably been less effective than I could have been. Along the way I have, of course, done some things I judge worthwhile that would not, without the additional effort, have been achieved.

I am practiced at advising colleagues to take it easy and, honestly, I do not expect others who work with, or for, me to follow my example. I am at least conscious that I am a poor role model. The advice usually comes under the banner of work-life balance. It is a term I recognise as having managerial currency but I have frankly never been able to think in those terms.

I have been very fortunate to have been engaged in work that has absorbed me. I have had fun, not every day, but most days. I have exercised my capacity for innovation, built relationships, learnt new skills and acquired knowledge. I have been privileged to work on problems that speak to my values and that I believe, deeply, are important. My personal identity, my sense of myself, is inextricably linked to this. There are probably unattractive motivations too, ambition and ego, not least.

The challenge is then, not work-life balance, a tradeoff to be made between two entirely distinct things that can be readily weighed against each other, but rather a life-life balance. For those of us who are able to do creative work, who have a significant element of control over that work - where and when it is done, how we achieve a life-life balance requires a much more complex and subtle set of judgments and decisions.

My assertion here is that if we simply assume we are trading off extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, work separated from life, we trivialise the challenge and fail to face up to the true nature of what we are expecting people to do. Success in research, for instance, demands deep personal engagement and persistence, this is not an option. To sloganise about work-life balance is actually to evade talking about what we need to do about overwork, stress and other negative consequences of life-life imbalance. We cannot speak honestly if we do not recognise what people are giving and getting whilst at work, if we do not view them as whole people.

I wrote this on Sunday morning.