Even as we work longer days that bleed into our off-hours (reading work emails half-awake in our beds first thing in the morning), the idea of achieving the ideal of work-life balance looms large.
But here’s the thing about work-life balance: Even if you achieve it, maintaining it is precarious. You have to keep everything under careful control–job delicately positioned on one side of the scale with family, leisure, your side hustle, etc., teetering on the other. One finger applied gently on either side and the whole thing could get tossed over. But the division between work and life doesn’t have to be so fraught. In fact, maybe it doesn’t have to be a division at all.
The notion that we have two different lives–our work-life, where we do what we think we’re supposed to do, and our “real” life, where we pursue what truly interests us–can leave us feeling like we’re just surviving the workday to get to the free moments on the other side. And when we do, we’re probably so exhausted that we squander them on Netflix marathons. When we conceptualize work and life as opposed states—something to divide our precious minutes and hours between—it sets us up to live an unbalanced double life.
What about letting go of trying so hard to maintain that balance–and that division? Why not strive to infuse your interests into those hours spent at work? Fight against the slow technology-enabled creep of work into the rest of your life by putting more of what you find personally fulfilling into the work you do daily. When you begin to pursue your interests in the one-half of your life that you call “work,” work-life is no longer such a divided balancing act; it can become Worklife, one word. The question is, how do you start?
At Roadtrip Nation, we’ve asked hundreds of people how they found meaningful work for our documentary series on public television. What we’ve found is that those who are most engaged in their work aren’t pursuing an occupation; instead, they are following their interests. This leads not to work-life balance, but rather, work-life integration–that’s Worklife in practice.
It might sound like a subtle shift, but pursuing an occupation can cordon you off into one narrow role. Building your Worklife out of your interests is more expansive; it allows you to stay true to what drives you, during work hours and after. Approaching work as something that grows out of the exploration of your interests allows you to expand your idea of what’s possible within your interest area. You can stay agile and ready to adjust to fit into whatever role feels right to you right now.
Practicing Worklife by allowing your interests to direct your career path might sound intimidating. For starters, the endpoint may be unclear. However, one thing to remember is that any journey of this magnitude is a process, and that means you may have to test what feels right and be ready to adjust and take a different route.
Take Radiolab producer and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Jad Abumrad. Abumrad had an interest in scoring films, so he studied creative writing and music composition. Along his journey, he realized that film scoring wasn’t for him; he just wasn’t very good at it. That job was all he’d been imagining and planning for, so he found himself stuck and thinking he’d failed. His then-girlfriend (now wife) suggested: “You kind of like to write. You kind of like to make music. You’re not really good at either on their own terms, but maybe you could somehow find the middle ground. Try out radio.”
He spent the next year volunteering at a radio station and working odd jobs to get by, feeling terrible about where he was in his life compared to friends whose careers were taking off. But even as he mourned his past idea of success, he found something he loved in cutting and splicing tape to tell stories. That discovery was a little arrow that pointed him a direction. He kept at it and started getting paid (a little) for the work he was doing, reporting on public radio before scoring his own show, Radiolab. “Sitting here now making Radiolab, I’m continually struck by how weirdly close it is to the thing I always wanted to do,” he says. “I just somehow wrote the script wrong. I wanted to be a film scorer, and I think I’m doing that now–but I would never have known that this is the job I was imagining.”
When we talked to Abumrad, he introduced us to the idea of the adjacent possible. Maybe you can’t go from zero to NASA scientist right away, but there’s a step you can take right now that will start you on that journey. Look at where you are and ask yourself: What’s possible right outside my border? For Abumrad, that was volunteering at a radio station. Your adjacent possible will depend on the interest you want to pursue–but the key is to give yourself time to explore in whatever way you can afford, whether your limiting resource is money or time. Take a class, volunteer, watch lectures on a subject or industry you want to explore, or put all of your possessions in storage and head to New Zealand to work on a farm for six months.
The journey you end up taking will likely have a different outcome than you planned. And that’s a good thing–it means that you’re truly testing what you’re interested in and reacting to what you find, integrating what interests you into the work you do.
Nathan Gebhard is the coauthor of Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide For Figuring Out What To Do With Your Life (Chronicle Books; April 2015). He is also cofounder and creative director for Roadtrip Nation–a long-running public television series, an educational organization, and a movement of people committed to living lives true to their interests.