I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance. And I think that is worth everybody paying attention to it.
— Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO
I don’t always agree with Jeff Bezos, but I find this notion of work / life harmony compelling. When I stumbled upon this interview with Business Insider, I had to pause a moment and consider the possibility of this construct as a way to think about work and life.
Normally, the interplay between work and life is described as a balance. The last few years, some of my Human Resources friends have been describing it as integration. I always ask the cynical question: is work being integrated into life or life into work? We laugh heartily until our ribs feel like they’re going to crack from the pressure, then they quickly change the subject.
When I think of balance, I’m reminded of physics, notably lift and weight or thrust and drag. Each force opposes the other, and when there’s balance between both pairs, an airplane will fly straight and level. If you change one factor of the equation, the whole thing shifts, and the airplane may climb, descend, turn, yaw, or even do a combination of these things. This is the system of strict tradeoffs that Bezos talks about.
I once introduced the notion of work-life integration during a presentation, and just about half the audience leaned over and wretched. I can’t say I disagree with them. Despite the taste of the word, it’s very definition does suggest something of harmony, especially as you are combining two things into a whole. But I think the idea of integrating things often implies that you will have to make tradeoffs as well.
If we think of this purely in business terms, an acquisition comes to mind. When one company absorbs another, people lose jobs in order to get back to a state of equilibrium. Two businesses become one, but not without losing something in the process.
Harmony, on the other hand, speaks to order and proportion. In a state of harmony, things don’t necessarily have to be equal, but they need to work together to make a meaningful whole. In music, it is the blending of sounds to make a chord. When there is harmony, things fit well together, move well together and work well together.
When I think of harmony, I think of the circle, which holds everything and is completely empty at the same time. Achieving harmony leads to a state of bliss.
On a personal basis, you can achieve harmony when you align your actions with your inner essence. Your inner essence is the core of your being, that individual oneness that is you as as a human being. This inner essence is like a rich and diverse stew, and when our actions don’t match what’s at the core, then we experience dissonance, which leads to increased suffering.
Obstacles to achieving harmony
One of the biggest impediments to achieving work / life harmony is that our world is not constructed to help us reach this level of individual understanding. Our structures, institutions and cultures do not place a premium on knowing yourself. Rather, we’re focused specifically on achieving arbitrary outcomes that we’ve identified as success.
In school, it’s all about teaching you what you need to know to go to college. In college, you’re placed on a path that leads to a job. Once you get a job, it’s all about doing what needs to be done in service to your employer. There is no time for inner sojourns. There is only the work that needs to be done.
We spend so much time on work that it should be a manifestation of who we are as a person, but it should not be the sole source of identity. Today, more than ever in our history, people have the option of finding a path suitable to their individual interests and disposition with an employer who shares their ethics and values. Because we spend so much time there and invest so much energy in it, it should be something that we find fulfilling.
What we have is a situation where the job may not promote harmony. In fact, in the worst cases, it’s antithetical to harmony, absorbing so much time and energy that it actually results in entropy.
I think this is the reality for most of us. Our jobs are what we do to earn a living, and they absorb ever-increasing quantities of our finite amount of time on this planet. We coast through life and 10 years turns to 20 years to 30 in the blink of an eye. Next thing you know, you’re too old to do the things you’ve deferred.
The goal then becomes determining what resides inside of you and using that as your compass. To achieve harmony you have to figure out what the right proportions of the things that feed into you. Where it gets complex is that beneath “work” and “life” are a number of different layers. Each layer represents the activities and constructs that comprise the unique you and have relative portions, the sum of which comprise the whole. These portions vary with the individual.
For example, I have a day job, a side hustle, a few hobbies, a lot of interests, and a creative practice to hold it all together. I also have a wife and a family. Between personal activities, health, work, children, a side hustle, etc., I have to make choices. There are trade-offs, and there are things I just can’t do. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work out.
I’ve been experimenting in different ways to get closer to harmony. I think this depends heavily on the stage of life you’re in, because you do have to set priorities, that is, rank everything in its relative importance. For me, my family is priority. And it pains me when my job interferes with my ability to attend events for the children. This causes dissonance and therefore, stress.
It’s a work in progress. I haven’t yet achieved harmony between all the forces, but I’m experimenting to find it. It’s about the right systems that will generate the outcomes I can live with.
In the kitchen
I find it fascinating that we don’t know the right proportions. It seems like this would be something inborn, automatic, natural, like breathing. What I’ve found, instead, I feel more like a chef, running the fine line between madness and mischief. I have to experiment with different spices and seasonings from all around the world to find the right ones and the right proportions that will work together to make make a beautiful and delicious artisanal meal.
Likewise, we have to experiment with what we think works for each of us individually, which is especially tricky when you consider that you continually change. Like an ecosystem, which does not stagnate, but evolves bases on prevailing conditions, you go through a personal evolution, from a tiny, self-centered organism with simple needs to one that feels its needs are variegated and complex. And in that movement, you sometimes lose a sense of who you are at the core and have to spend a good bit of time on Earth rediscovering yourself.
What’s interesting about the stew is that there are some fundamental things that just don’t change, or are very difficult to alter. Interests, core morality, a sense of ethics — these are often in place at a very young age. It takes much more effort to change these things, and it’s doing the deep work of mining this inner territory that gets us to a place where our outer actions begin to match our inner being.
So, to figure out if this concept of work / life harmony truly resonates with me — which I feel in my gut. I’m conducting a series of experiments and deep diving into what drives me. I’m changing my approach to productivity, note taking, practice, review, idea generation, time management, execution. Some things are core and will never change — my desire to learn, my strong sense of morality, a code of ethics.
All these areas represent different ingredients for the soup, and it’s my job to find the right proportions. Once I figure one out, then I have to focus on another, which means I have to change others. It’s a process. It takes time. I’ve been doing this for years now.
So, as I continue to run these experiments, I’ll talk about what’s working, what’s not, and what it means to be a human being in this world. Never before in the history of our planet are we more acutely aware of the passage of time and our inability to escape its ravages. The only recourse we have is to become the best version of ourselves in each moment and create value in the world. Beyond that, the rest is out of our control. It’s a grand adventure if you open yourself to it.