The wisdom of balance

Photo courtesy of Sepehr Ehsani on Flickr

I used to work for a company whose motto was “Work Hard, Play Hard.” I sure remember the working hard bit. Maybe what they meant was “Work Hard, Play Hardly.”

Most days need to be about meeting deadlines, advancing goals, and taking care of business. There should also be days of idleness, but our busyness tends to nix that idea.

We struggle for balance. Or we don’t, because we’ve given up on dreams.

Our jobs are demanding and relentless. Life is complicated. It’s not our fault.

Balance, we decide, is a luxury. It’s for the rich and powerful, not for us working slobs.

Balance, however, is not really about work-life ratios.

Sure, that’s how we experience it—as a hellish time-management crush.

I’m super fortunate, because I’m my own boss. But don’t think for a moment this exempts me from the Struggle for Balance. My boss is a tyrant.

I love what I do as a consultant. It’s interesting and challenging work, and people tell me how much they appreciate it. I’d happily do it nine days a week.

The problem is that introverts, like me, come home exhausted. Tell me if this sounds familiar.

Every day we give our energy, focus, enthusiasm, concentration, and big smiles to the people we meet in the world. We want to help our customers any way we can. We work hard because we feel responsible. We work like we’re saving the world.

Then we come home and spend the evening on the couch. We have nothing left for our family, except maybe our moans about how tired we are and how hard our days was.

Does this sound like work-life balance?

Like I said before, stop thinking about balance as a work-life issue. There’s something deeper going on. Let me explain.

Growing up, I was exposed to two very different types of family dynamic. One was very British: reserved, demure, polite, private.

The other was Mohawk: loud, headstrong, opinionated, brash, combative.

Both styles had their virtues. Both definitely had their dangers.

My Mohawk relatives said exactly what they thought, without sugar-coating it. I admired this. I thought of my Mohawk aunts and uncles as ass-kickers. But as I got older, I saw the fruits of a lived lived by the principle “my way or the highway.”

My reserved English relatives were polite and conciliatory. I loved how easy it was to be with them. There were never fights or opinion contests. But again, as I got older I saw a dark side. The reserved side of my family also had strong wills. They just chose to rely on other methods, like passive-aggressiveness, to get their way.

I realized a long time ago I was capable of either extreme. The question was “Is there a good balance?”—between being candid and diplomatic, and between letting people know exactly what you think, need, and want, but without steamrolling over their needs and feelings.

Balance is not about how much you work. It’s about how you ensure that your needs are met in a way that respects and accommodates the needs of the people around you.

The people at work, the people at home, the people you meet in the world.

The company that says “work hard, play hard” when what they really mean is work until you drop is not balancing the needs of the company with the needs of employees.

A workplace out-of-balance is going to face low morale, low worker retention, hostility, and rebellion. The out-of-balance family will have conflict.

Either you work to achieve balance, or you wait for the storm. There’s no third way.

Balance is a negotiation. Your needs, the needs of your boss, the needs of your colleagues, the needs of your family, the needs of your organization and stakeholders.

When your needs are being met, you live in balance with others. When they are not being met, raw emotion takes over. You feel you’re on rough waters. The boat rocks. It’s as if you’re about to capsize.

You are the boss of your needs. Only you can open the Needs Negotiations in a way that restores balance.

What needs of yours are being met? What needs could be met better? What can you do to bring your needs, and the needs of those around you, into balance? What is the next step?

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