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 2 of the article, "Balance is Bunk!"

The Happy Workaholic

Sigmund Freud suggested it first: Imbalance is part of the human condition. The father of psychoanalysis observed that anxiety is a crucial "signal" function, a response to danger — either external physical danger or internal psychological danger.

That is, anxiety is a central part of our existence. It is a source of creativity and drive; it spurs us to accomplishment. Great leaders, serial innovators, even top sales reps may be driven by a kind of inner demon — the need to prove themselves, to achieve for fear of being worthless (or, as Freud postulated, for fear of castration).

But it's hard to argue with the result: Such people are incredibly productive. They drive change. And that cuts to the problem with a reductionist view of balance. Simply cutting back on work inevitably fails, because in real life, success in work is predicated on achievement. In a competitive business environment — which is to say, every business environment — leadership requires commitment, passion, and, to be blunt, a lot of time.

This isn't a cynical argument in favor of clocking the hours — though let's face it, in some organizations, that pressure is all too real. Rather, building something great, leading change, truly innovating — "it's like falling in love. You have to abandon yourself to it," says John Wood. "There's the risk of inherent contradiction between wanting to do something entrepreneurial and wanting to have balance."

Wood is 40 years old. He helped build Microsoft's business in Asia until 1998, when, trekking through Nepal on vacation, he saw villages with few schools and bookless libraries. In response, he started Room to Read, a not-for-profit group that builds schools and libraries and provides books and scholarships to Asian children.

Wood isn't married, though he does date. He loves biking, running, and the annual trek that he takes with friends through Southern Asia. Mostly, though, he loves Room to Read. He'll do 11-hour days in his San Francisco office, have a working dinner, then check email late at night. He works seven days a week, year-round.

"I don't look at balance as an ideal. What I look at is, Am I happy? If the answer is yes, then everything else is inconsequential."

But here's how he thinks about it: "I don't look at balance as an ideal. What I look at is, Am I happy? If the answer is yes, then everything else is inconsequential. If you look at the number of hours I work, it's probably extreme. But those hours talking with an adviser over dinner — is that work? Well, yeah, but it's also stimulating.

"At Microsoft, my definition of balance was getting a decent number of hours outside the office and off email. Now I don't care about that, because the email I check at midnight may come from a person who says he wants to endow a school in Vietnam. So I can't help but read that email, because it's a chance to change a kid's life."

Most achievers don't work hard just at work. They think about their work a lot of the time outside the office. Even if they acknowledge the value of paying attention to their families or their health, they're consumed — and thrilled — by the task at hand. Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and Sharon Lobel of Seattle University have a term for such folks: "happy workaholics."

Friedman, who has long encouraged business leaders to pursue "whole" lives, thinks it's possible for leaders to be "poster children for balance," as he says. But he also agrees that conventional arguments for balance devalue the work half of the equation. "Work is an experience through which much of life's rewards and opportunities for service can be realized," he says. "Creating value for the world, for the next generation, all our high-minded ideals — much of work has the potential for giving voice to that sort of aspiration. And most executives are passionate about what they do.

"So if people are fulfilled through their work, why do we question that?"

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4 Comments

  • Peng Ge

    If someone emails you about "wants to endow a school in Vietnam", I bet he won't change his mind if the response email has to be sent out later, in the morning. So what's the point? really!

  • Lisa Canning

    I see the Life/Work Balance issue as a health issue; if you are handling that stress or not. I came to this site because of a google search on this subject, to see what's out there because I've volunteered to be on a Life/Work Balance committee and I was looking at what's out there, what's the current thinking. I'm thinking it's being happier, therefore more productive, and both employee and employer benefit. Here it's not going to be any additional 'benes' offered, it's just offering ideas and tools to pick from. Point taken that it's almost another goal pressure, that's valid; it's akin to being perfect. One size won't fit all, so tools to assist in finding one's balance, one's comfort zone is all we can ask for, and this won't be a static thing, it will fluxuate with one's career and goals. Stimulating article. Thanks!

  • Lisa Canning

    I see the Life/Work Balance issue as a health issue; if you are handling that stress or not. I came to this site because of a google search on this subject, to see what's out there because I've volunteered to be on a Life/Work Balance committee and I was looking at what's out there, what's the current thinking. I'm thinking it's being happier, therefore more productive, and both employee and employer benefit. Here it's not going to be any additional 'benes' offered, it's just offering ideas and tools to pick from. Point taken that it's almost another goal pressure, that's valid; it's akin to being perfect. One size won't fit all, so tools to assist in finding one's balance, one's comfort zone is all we can ask for, and this won't be a static thing, it will fluxuate with one's career and goals. Stimulating article. Thanks!

  • Lisa Canning

    I see the Life/Work Balance issue as a health issue; if you are handling that stress or not. I came to this site because of a google search on this subject, to see what's out there because I've volunteered to be on a Life/Work Balance committee and I was looking at what's out there, what's the current thinking. I'm thinking it's being happier, therefore more productive, and both employee and employer benefit. Here it's not going to be any additional 'benes' offered, it's just offering ideas and tools to pick from. Point taken that it's almost another goal pressure, that's valid; it's akin to being perfect. One size won't fit all, so tools to assist in finding one's balance, one's comfort zone is all we can ask for, and this won't be a static thing, it will fluxuate with one's career and goals. Stimulating article. Thanks!