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Randi Zuckerberg thinks burnout is a “lifestyle” problem. It’s not.

In her new book “Pick Three,” the media guru frames work-life pressures as a prioritizing challenge, and prioritizing as a form of empowerment.

Randi Zuckerberg thinks burnout is a “lifestyle” problem. It’s not.
[Photo: Flickr user CeBIT Australia]

“We’re told to be great at everything in order to achieve some unrealistic level of balance across all areas of our lives,” Randi Zuckerberg declares in the introduction to her new book Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day), which publishes this week. “I’m here to burst that bubble.”

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“I think the idea of being well balanced is about as off-kilter as a born-and-bred Scotsman dancing the Irish jig (get it, off kilt-er?),” she winks.

The Facebook veteran and Zuckerberg Media CEO is hardly the first to question the notion of “balance.” In 2015, Ernst & Young (now EY) analysts noted the rising incidence of workers struggling to keep their professional obligations in check; around one in three said that work-life balance was getting harder to maintain. The following year psychologists at Indiana University sounded alarms about the negative health impacts of work-related stress, including risk of death. Today, countless books and articles preach alternatives like “work-life integration,” and public figures including outgoing Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards readily dismiss the idea of trying to “have it all.”

Zuckerberg’s foray into this genre arrives more than six years since she first formulated Pick Three’s core insight, in a tweet framing the problem as “the entrepreneur’s dilemma”: Founders can’t succeed if they try to focus equally on getting sleep, building a business, staying fit, and maintaining their relationships with friends and family.

Zuckerberg has widened her lens and expanded this into a book-length idea. “If you want to be great at what you do”–whether or not that includes building a startup–“Pick Three and only three,” she writes. “And don’t waste one minute feeling guilty or bad about the two you didn’t pick. Because you’ll get another chance to pick them tomorrow. Or the day after. Or next month–it will happen.”

The trouble is that in the modern economy, the most pressing “dilemma” for many of us isn’t selecting the right strategy “to be great” at what we do. It’s trying to make ends meet.

Lifestyle choices

Zuckerberg’s new book reminds me of a survey LinkedIn conducted with Harris Poll last November. A PR representative shared those findings with me in similarly sunny terms as the ones Zuckerberg adopts throughout Pick Three. The survey set out to investigate American workers’ changing definitions of professional success, conceived as a matter of taste or personal values. But the responses revealed something different.

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As I noted at the time, “Traditional signs of success, like material wealth and enviable job titles, are now eclipsed–sometimes seven times over–by hand-to-mouth concerns like paying off debt and hopefully someday not living paycheck to paycheck.” Indeed, the student loan crisis now ensnares baby boomers as well as their millennial kids, while the steadily improving national economy has scarcely budged wages for a decade. Since the survey responses were even starker among women than men, I surmised that the gender pay gap was compounding pressures like these.

It’s for similar reasons that I’d also surmise that “feeling guilty or bad” about not doing everything fails to rank among the top issues most professionals worry about. Yet Zuckerberg treats this not just as an urgent problem, but a cultural dilemma solvable with a personal shift in mindset.

“We’ve been taught that imbalance is a dirty word, but I think it’s actually the key to success and happiness,” she writes. “The Pick Three lifestyle can help you nail life (and keep your sanity) by being well lopsided. When you focus solely on the trio you choose each day, prioritizing becomes totally manageable and you give yourself the permission to do those three things with the kind of excellence that will propel you further than weeks of half-assed focus.”

Pick Three’s entire premise hinges on three key phrases in this paragraph: “lifestyle,” “choose,” and “give yourself the permission.” Don’t you see? It’s a lifestyle choice! If you don’t “choose” to focus on work for three days straight, don’t worry about what your boss will think. If you “give yourself the permission” to ditch sleep in the name of business-building, your family will get by.

In this paradigm, not only are these decisions yours to make, but the consequences of such ruthless and freewheeling prioritization–if there are any–won’t be personally, professionally, or financially catastrophic.

A much worse myth than “work-life balance”

There are two kinds of people for whom this is true: the very wealthy and the very well-protected. Norwegians, according to Zuckerberg, have been wise to her philosophy “for years.” She cites the World Happiness Report, which regularly ranks Nordic countries at the top based on “six key variables: income (work), high life expectancy (fitness), family values (yup), freedom (sleep), trust (friends), and generosity (all of the above),” she writes.

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Awkward shoehorning aside, Zuckerberg conspicuously fails to mention the other factors that Nordic countries tend to rank highly on, namely some of the most advanced social-welfare regimes and workplace protections anywhere in the world–from robust paid family and medical leave to equitable and affordable health care, effective and accessible child care, and, in Iceland, mandated gender pay equity.

Zuckerberg doesn’t pause to consider how such policies might affect the “dilemma” Pick Three sets out to resolve. Nor does she sufficiently acknowledge how much easier it is to pick and choose your priorities when you have hired help, which Zuckerberg does.

Yet she reserves several pages, in the “Work” chapter, to share a personal narrative of self-determination: “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a hard worker. From the day I could say the word Harvard, I wanted to go there. Which meant working and studying all through middle school and high school,” she writes. “My parents provided a wonderful, comfortable upbringing, and they paid for my education so I never had crippling student loan debt,” Zuckerberg admits, then rushes to assure us, “Yet I always had a little nagging voice in the back of my head saying, Randi, you can’t depend on anyone else in this life. Work hard. Earn things for yourself. Make your own money” (her italics; Pick Three is heavy on them).

This meritocratic apologue–downplaying privilege and material advantage, so as to avoid any charge of entitlement–is the same dollar-store libertarianism that Silicon Valley has been successfully repackaging as a billion-dollar empowerment gospel for decades. It’s finally depreciating; anyone who still believes that the tech-industry successes Zuckerberg herself has enjoyed are equally attainable by every hard worker just hasn’t been paying attention. In the Trump era–with the federal government actively rolling back protections for LGBTQ people, women, and wage workers while advancing paid leave and childcare policies that offer little to nothing for the lowest-income workers–this worldview isn’t just counterproductive, it’s actually toxic.

These days we need a social-responsibility gospel much more than a personal-responsibility one. Even politically conservative teachers who’ve led strikes in Arizona are making that case lately. Indeed, 2018 has marked the year that Silicon Valley–and Randi’s brother Mark in particular–has been forced to reckon (if grudgingly and at times disingenuously) with its duties to the collective good.

Perhaps the best thing about Pick Three is that its advice already sounds anachronistic. The Kaiser Permanente medical director who attests to Zuckerberg that he “had experienced the equivalent of two or three gym workouts from a day of walking meetings” would’ve sounded like a zany productivity wonk prone to hyperbole even a few years ago. Now he just sounds like a quack.

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If offered a choice between Zuckerberg’s tips for “turning your to-do list into a ta-da list” and a slate of workplace policies on par with what all those happy Norwegians get, I’d pick the second one.

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About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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