Some Thoughts on Work/Life Balance

I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of professional service firms over the years, spending at least one full day and countless hours with each principal, and also interacting with thousands of the employees who make things happen at these firms. I say “privilege” because it’s stimulating to be around their energy, creativity, independence, humor, and “otherness.” I love my work.

Because I’ve been successful in that work, many people informally ask me questions about starting businesses, fixing businesses, and even buying/selling businesses. This might happen over a drink or a meal. One of the concepts that frequently surfaces is this idea that people ought to pursue what they love and success will follow. “Just follow your passion and the success will take care of itself.”

Bullshit. There are a lot of people following their passion who are on the edge of starving. They’ve oriented a work life around themselves that meets their basic need for stimulation, and in the process they’ve made all sorts of compromises on the fundamental business issues.

This fallacy extends to management, too. “If it’s not fun I shouldn’t be doing it.” That’s nonsense, too. Management and leadership are very hard work indeed, and if it’s high on your list to shun the things that aren’t stimulating, you’ll be ignoring some basic management and leadership duties that just plain aren’t fun. But are necessary.

It’s possible that you’re looking for the wrong things from your job. Almost all of you are afflicted with S.D.D. (stimulation deficit disorder), compounded by a nearly constitutional belief that you have the right to find the cure in your work.

If Everyone Thought Like You Did

Thank goodness there aren’t more people like you. We’d have no coffee because it’s kind of boring to grow, truth be told. And I know, because I used to do it. I grew up in Costa Rica and Guatemala and understand what a subsistence culture is. You want some coffee? Grow it, assuming you have the land and climate. Need some sandals but don’t really have a spare cow for the leather? Maybe grow some extra coffee and trade it to the guy who can’t grow it…but does have cows and the time to make sandals.

Work was work and play was play. Actually, work still is work and play still is play for most of the world. Pharmacists at Wal-Mart got into the field because they wanted to help people, but there’s not tons of excitement counting pills and having the same discussions with old men about their common ailments. Architects love building visible monuments and tackling design problems through the creative use of building materials, but most of their day is boring. I have a good friend who’s a space shuttle astronaut and it’s not nearly as glamorous as you’d think.

My point is that the world would be a very different place if every worker demanded a high level of creative stimulation. In your ideal world, it wouldn’t matter that this design project has to meet specific business criteria or be finished by a certain date. Instead, you’d be like Mozart, supported in style so that you’d be free to create, free of the encumbrances we call practicality, usefulness, or even convention.

I can hear the screaming now: “But look at the music he created!” The difference is that he’s an artist and you aren’t. That’s right, I said that you are not an artist. That’s not your job. Your job is to employ an unbelievably valuable skill to business problems.

The work you do operates on certain principles. Within those conventions we should be as unique in our application as we can get away with and still solve a business problem, but no more (especially if the client isn’t paying for it).

I’m not using any big words here, and each of you would nod your head and agree with this perspective of the role that business plays. But after you quit reading this position paper, you’ll be tempted to go right back to the endless chase for stimulation.

Why It Could be Dangerous to have a Stimulating Job

But is that bad? When I talk like this, most people stare at me like they don’t understand why this is a big deal at all. After all, what could be wrong with a very stimulating job, especially if you get rich in the process? That’s a good question, and I’m going to give you five reasons why I think it’s dangerous to medicate your S.D.D. with your chosen profession.

First, expecting too much stimulation from your work will result in compromised business decisions. Compromised business decisions are usually subtle, but over time they yield a blunt instrument.

Second, expecting too much stimulation from your work will result in too much drama because you will be too close to the product or service. If everything you do contains even just a little bit of yourself, clients will find it difficult to interact with you about your work. They’ll fear that you will take such discussions personally, when in fact all they want to do is speak about the business effectiveness of your work.

Third, expecting too much stimulation from your work will result in disappointment with clients if their mission doesn’t overlap with your personal one.

Fourth, expecting too much stimulation from your work will result in early burnout because you won’t be running a sustainable business.

Fifth, expecting too much stimulation from your work will result in less of a life. Your focus is on the job. Long hours aren’t a huge problem because “this is something I enjoy.” Making a bit less money than you could otherwise make is okay because of the fun you are having. But both of these results (less time and less money) create an environment where you no longer have much of a life after work. You’re tired, there’s little time, and there may not even be the money you’d need to pursue that hobby you used to enjoy so much.

You do remember what you used to do for creative stimulation outside your current vocation, right? Maybe it was flying, photography, painting, travel, reading, or surfing. Whatever it was, you’d have a much healthier business and personal life if you separated the two. Together, there’s too much overlap. Too much confusion. Too many compromises. Grow the coffee and use the extra money to buy the sandals.

Having said that, there is no future whatsoever in having a job that you don’t enjoy. But demanding that your job be enjoyable, and then making decisions to protect that aspect of it, may very well backfire. Sometimes hard work that’s just good, honest, grinding hard work is good for the soul. It teaches us discipline, appropriateness, and measured contribution. Oh, and best of all, it can fund a very fun personal life apart from work! Is it time for you to treat your business more like a business, and your personal life more like something you’d never trade for anything?

I’ll get off my soapbox, now, but I wanted to plant some seeds about achieving balance in the work/life equation. Thanks.

Download Full Article (894 KB pdf file)