Fast Company

Balance is Bunk!

It's the central myth of the modern workplace: With a few compromises, you can have it all. But it's all wrong, and it's making us crazy. Here's how to have a life anyway.

This is page 4 of the article, "Balance is Bunk!"

The Superman Trap

For many, the great fallacy is not that we aspire to accomplishment but that we aspire to everything else, too. Unwilling to prioritize among things that all seem important, we instead invent for ourselves the possibility of having everything.

In part, this is the inevitable result of the rush of women into the workforce and the proliferation of two-income families. Can any couple facing two full-time jobs, kids, aging parents, groceries, the dog, the bills, and telemarketers at dinnertime expect anything but all stress, all the time?

But it's not just demographics; it's also desire. If women's inner voices in 1963 were saying, as feminist writer Betty Friedan surmised then, "I want something more than my husband and my children and my home," then today many (and many men, too) are saying something different: "I want it all."

So it is that Tina Sharkey, AOL's senior vice president of life management and community, finds herself on a plane two or three days a week, taking photos of her meal, the flight attendants, everything, so her two young kids will know what she does.

Sharkey's routine seems, to many who know her, mind-boggling. She and her husband, fully employed entrepreneur Seth Goldstein, live with their kids in New York. But many of her 250 employees are at AOL's Dulles, Virginia, headquarters. So she spends one or two nights a week at a hotel nearby. Even at home, her workday is a whirl; she typically breaks at 6 p.m. to go home but is back online from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. As "chief everything officer" of her family, as she puts it, Sharkey coordinates the children's care and family meals, and participates in what school functions she can.

She is an extraordinary woman who evinces both intensity and empathy. But her regimen poses a trap for the rest of us. If we work hard enough, we imagine, we can do anything -- and, therefore, everything. "Balance is misleading people," says Laura Nash, who with Howard Stevenson surveyed hundreds of professionals for their new book, Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). "The problem is, they're looking for a magic bullet, a one-stop solution." It is a peculiarly American quest for perfection, for "a solution in achievements."

You've seen supermen and superwomen: They're the ones at their kids' baseball games, half-watching while tethered to their cell phones (been there). Or they're on the phone at work, sorting out child-care schedules and meal assignments with their nannies and spouses.

The problem, as Nash points out, is that while success at work is largely rooted in achievement, success outside of work mostly isn't. The things most of us say we value in our nonwork lives -- simply caring and being there for others -- aren't a function of accomplishing anything per se. Contentedness in that realm is less a matter of doing more than of cutting back.

Obvious enough, isn't it? Life is about setting priorities and making trade-offs; that's what grown-ups do. But in our all-or-nothing culture, resorting to those sorts of decisions is too often seen as a kind of failure. Seeking balance, we strive for achievement everywhere, all the time -- and we feel guilty and stressed out when, inevitably, we fall short.

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