The idea of a work/life balance is an attractive one. It helps give us reprieve and meaning when we have jobs we don’t enjoy, allows us to pursue multiple competing ends at once, and permits people to be more than simply their jobs. If one only identifies by the job they have, then failure at that job is easily interpreted as failure as a person. Imagine the airline pilot who identifies first and foremost, and nearly only, as an airline pilot. A sudden accident or incident can leave him now-unqualified to perform the job with which he so closely identified. The entrepreneur who identifies as a baker may be crushed when her bakery shuts down due to government regulation or market forces. The steel worker or auto worker may fall into depression when their jobs are outsourced to cheaper lands.
The Traditional Work/Life Conception
An all-consuming work-life can be precarious in these situations. Nobody who seriously advocates against the popular dialog on the work/life balance would argue that these people’s cases are ideal; however, the idea of a work/life balance as it is normally conceived is actually a dangerous way to get most people to lead fulfilling lives. It leads us to compartmentalize our lives, so that we lead fragmented narratives. “Work” life and “home” life then compete for our time and attention. As one starts to overtake the other, we see whatever we have conceived as our “ideal balance” start to unravel.
On this conception, working a job you don’t like may be justifiable so long as it gives you enough time to do what you’d like. The designer who hates his job deals with it because it permits him to spend more time with his family. Similarly, having an all-encompassing job is fine so long as it seems better than the “life” part of the balance. For most people, the conception probably doesn’t even go this far. They probably see themselves leading lives where they spend an average amount of time at work (e.g., 40 hours per week) and an average amount of time at home or in the life-balance.
The compartmentalization is fine if it goes completely to plan. The problem is that like many things in life, it rarely does go to plan. A corporate downsizing may lead one to change jobs and work twice as much as they did before in an even-less-fulfilling job. A change in management styles may make the job considerably harder, more politicized, and generally miserable than before. Or maybe a sudden sickness at home will make it that more time must be spent there than before, and the time spent at the once-enjoyable job becomes rushed and stressed. The compartmentalizations start bleeding over into each other. A 50/50 balance becomes an 80/20 balance, or a 20/80 balance.
The danger with any kind of compartmentalization is that it is only effective when it is effective. Though this may seem obvious, it really means that once we’ve conditioned ourselves for a certain type of compartmentalization, it’s really hard to kick ourselves out of that and into something new.
What to do, then? Do we just allow ourselves to be overtaken by our work? Do we turn into the Hollywood business-person who is taking business calls during a family birthday, or on a trip rather than spending it with our kids?
The Anti-Work/Life Balance Work/Life Balance
Rather, what we need is a conception of work and life that allows us to tear down that compartmentalization. This can be “Being Your Work,” but that doesn’t really let us know where to start.
Human beings tend to organize activities into one of two primary categories (outside of basic bodily functions): work and play. Traditionally, work is that which must be done, though it isn’t enjoyable. This can be hard labor, hunting, corporate work, or simple relationship maintenance. Play, on the other hand, is typically conceived as “recreation,” or things that don’t have to be done, but that we choose to do with the time left over from work. Play is taken less-seriously, as shown by the fact that losing a baseball game is less-serious and given lower status than losing a promotion.
It’s this typical conception between what must and mustn’t be done that leads to the dangerous conception of work/life that we have now. You work at work. You play at home. Maybe you have some play at your work, but your primary play is at home. Or perhaps most of your play is at work (as with the people who identify first and foremost as their jobs).
Rather, what we need is a conception where you don’t even conceive of work and play as being separate things. Your job is your play just as much as your time at home is your play. The job-life and the home-life don’t strive towards different ends as they do in the typical conception. Rather, they both ought to strive towards the same thing: fulfillment. However you define fulfillment, bring your home and work lives into sync with each other as both attempting to form a life that you are happy with.
This may not be easy. It may mean quitting your corporate job and working as a freelancer. It may mean taking that corporate job and doing what you do now on the side. It may even mean quitting your job altogether. The important thing is that your professional and home lives need not aim towards totally separate ends and one need not be totally predicated on the other.
The new conception of work/life is a pure synthesis of both. Your work is your life, but your life is your work. You are the project you are working on, not just your business or job.