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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.

Balance is Bunk!

It may be that you recently had a week that defied sanity. You faced an impossible deadline at work. You were expected at your daughter’s dance recital, at a soccer game, and at a meeting with the kitchen contractor. Then another big project landed in your lap (thanks, boss!). You were exhausted, and your spouse was miffed. And your job? Well, at 11 one night, you finally bailed on that deadline.

And you wondered, What’s wrong here? Whatever happened to balance?

The truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream, a vain artifice that offers mostly rhetorical solutions to problems of logistics and economics. The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.

This is not, of course, what many of us want to believe. In the last generation, balance has won huge cultural resonance. No longer mere cocktail conversation fodder, it has become something like a new inalienable right, creeping into the American ethos if not the Constitution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of balance. Self-actualization and quality time for all!

This hopeful premise, born of the feminist movement, has been promulgated relentlessly since the 1980s by writers like, well, me. (At one point, in the name of balance, I actually diapered my infant daughter on CNN.) The froth fed a sort of industry, as consultants rushed to help businesses help employees balance work and life. That’s the point of on-site day care, of breast-feeding rooms, of flextime and telecommuting and take-home dinners from the company cafeteria — and, more notorious, in days of dotcoms past, of take-your-pet-to-work policies and foosball tables.

But the balance movement is fatally flawed. For those of us trying desperately to keep up with everything that needs doing, it poses two mythical ideals. If we work hard enough at it, one goes, we can have everything. Or if we cut back, we can have just enough to be truly content. The first obliges us to accomplish too much, often at too high a price; the second doesn’t let us accomplish enough. Either way, balance is a relic, a fleeting phenomenon of a closed, industrial economy that doesn’t apply in a global, knowledge-based world.

There’s a better way to think about all this, one that requires us to embrace imbalance. Instead of trying to balance all of our commitments and passions at any one time, let’s acknowledge that anything important, and anything done well, demands our full investment. At some times, it may be a demanding child or an unhappy spouse, and the office will suffer. At others, it may be winning the McWhorter account, and child and spouse will have to fend for themselves. Only over time can we really balance a portfolio of diverse experiences.

For now, the balance mania persists: Media mentions have soared in the past five years, and executive coaches say their clients are as consumed by the problem as ever. Employers, meanwhile, are trying desperately to say the right things: Accenture, the big professional-services firm, knows “how important it is for our employees to strike a balance between their work and personal lives.” Google offers workers a slew of benefits (On-site dental! Dry cleaning!) billed as “balance enhancers.”

But this passion and fury is misspent. All our striving for balance is only making us crazy. Here’s how to think about living in a postbalance world.

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