My boss caught me off guard this morning. She said something truly profound. Profound in a way that made me wonder why it had never occurred to me before. It now seems so obvious. We were discussing the idea of work, and she said: "There is no such thing as work-life balance, only life".
Let's take a look at this phrase 'work-life balance'. Implying that a balance is required implies a weighing of opposing forces competing against each other, like a set of scales or a see-saw. More of one means less of the other. Immediately, the war is waged between work and life. But is it real? I don't think so.
If you ask a person what they have in their life, they will rattle off a list usually including family, work, friends, study, hobbies, sport, etc. These are parts of our life. Parts. Never do any of the parts of our lives oppose us being alive or having a life. Even parasites need the host to remain alive. If you took all of these parts out of your life, what would remain?
I have never heard another part of people's lives being described this way before. Imagine describing your family-life balance. This would elicit some different reactions. How would it feel to think your family/ hobbies/travel were preventing you from really living?
There are difficult times in all of these areas of our lives. Our kids get sick, we can't perfect that Clapton song on the guitar, or we don't get the promotion we desire at work. This is where the growth is. We get better. We become more kind by looking after our children, we learn tenacity from guitar training, we strive to be better when we fail or things aren't easy. I firmly believe that all of the parts of our lives contribute to our life... to our development, to our learning and to who we become every day.
Work also gives us skills for other parts of our life. Conflict resolution is a skill which is often learnt at work, but can be very transferable to other parts of life. And other parts of our life can improve our work; Steve Jobs created fonts on a computer after taking a summer class in calligraphy.
For different people and at different times of our lives, work will take up a different proportion of our life. The impact of our family, our health and other external situations affect not only our work, but other parts of our life as well. So why do we externalise work? All the rest of the things we do are chosen but we have no choice about whether to work or not?
Do we literally have the choice to go to work or not? Yes. We all have the choice. We have obligations and consequences if we choose not to go to work, but can we choose? You bet. We still have a choice.
Perhaps some of us feel that work opposes life because it is not aligned with our personal values. Maybe we want to separate ourselves from 'that thing' we call work. Maybe you are stuffing yourself into a suit when you want to be training a netball team or you're managing a burger bar when you want to be performing research to identify new diseases from ticks.
If that is the case, now is the time to re-evaluate your beliefs and your work. Does your work align with you? Is there some way you could help it to align more? Could you start a corporate netball team or could proceeds from your burger bar contribute to tick research? If not, do you have transferable skills which could be applied somewhere you would be proud to work?
We are the ones who choose what is in or out of our life. Work means different things to different people. For some, work may be a job to do to fund their hobbies. For some, work may be food on the table for a family and for others work is improving the world in a way that is personally meaningful to them. If your work has meaning for you and you can see how it contributes to the world, it is very likely you will be satisfied.
The idea of a 'work-life balance' is the con of the century. First, it separates us from a source of learning, development growth and personal reward. Then, because work is separate from us, it enables us to see it as an 'other'. It is something we may cherish, or something we use as an excuse for a 'comforting' heavy meal, or something that increases our tendency for wine every night. Then we can blame work for our obesity or our excessive alcohol intake, even though we ourselves are responsible for our own actions. Work can then be the scapegoat of many problems which may or may not be work related. We may forget all of the ways in which work has shaped us; made us more confident, given us skills we otherwise would not have acquired.
Work is definitely a part of my life, a part which has been rewarding, difficult, awful and beautiful. I think my boss was seeing clearly when she spoke with me this morning. There is no work-life balance, only life.