Surviving la Vida Loca

Where does your career end and your personal life begin? Who knows? The barriers between public and private, work and life are growing faint, says author Sally Helgesen. To keep the elements of your life balanced, check your values, not your Palm.


Switch your cell phone to vibrate during dinner. Set an email curfew of 9 PM. Ditch your BlackBerry during Jenny’s ballet recital. Leave your Palm at the office next weekend.


Knock yourself out. But don’t expect any of those quick fixes to make one lick of difference because temporary Band-Aids just can’t heal chronic work-life imbalance. The fundamental social shifts spawned by the information economy force all of us to ask revolutionary questions and make profound personal changes — resolutions that go beyond a weekly “family night” or a Saturday moratorium on Web surfing.

First, we must recognize that technology has rewritten the rules of work and life, says Sally Helgesen, author of Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work (Free Press, 2001). With the ascent of a knowledge-based economy, work has become more decentralized, competitive, and unstable. At the same time, Helgesen says, intrusive technology, like pagers and cell phones, has destroyed traditional barriers between work and home, making our lives volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

“The meshing of public and private forces us to think about our lives in far less compartmentalized ways,” says Helgesen, also the author of Everyday Revolutionaries and The Web of Inclusion. “As the work world becomes more fragmented and unstable, we must learn to be more adaptable and flexible and to incorporate learning throughout our adult lives. We need to identify our passions and personal interests, and then find ways to integrate those things into our work and our lives.”

Helgesen’s mantra bears a striking resemblance to that of new-economy prophets who espoused the virtues of making a living and making a life. Now that the Internet bubble has burst, the have-it-your-way theology has come under fire from skeptics and critics who equate work-life balance with dotcom flakiness.

“Unfortunately, this downturn signifies a large loss of confidence in the future,” Helgesen says. “There is a backlash among people who feel that social and economic changes introduced during the past 10 years were only the result of a boom economy. I disagree. I think we are undergoing a fundamental shift in the way work figures into our lives and in the ways people interact with organizations. We shouldn’t return to the same old workplace practices just because the NASDAQ drops.”

The knowledge economy is here to stay. And to thrive within it, we must reorder our work and our lives so that the individual is above the corporation and that the social network ranks above the career ladder. Achieving balance today, Helgesen says, is a hard-wrought process that we should feel obliged — not just encouraged — to begin immediately. Here are five of her steps for making the new world of work work for you.


Start at the Core

This is the most essential — and daunting — of Helgesen’s strategies because it asks overbooked and overwhelmed people to slow down and think hard about who they are, what they want, and how they can achieve happiness in work and life.

Even during the current slowdown, young people today encounter limitless possibilities in the workforce. Unlike previous generations, they are not pigeonholed by gender, limited by race, or stunted by geography and history. They can be whatever they please, granted they have the energy and dedication to get there. That is precisely why they must resist the temptation to charge headlong into work with eyes shut and wallets open, Helgesen says.

“Because this environment is so rich with opportunity and choice, it requires us to think harder and more carefully about our goals,” she says. “On the other hand, our schedules are so crowded that we’re less likely than ever to devote time to introspection up front.”

While researching Thriving in 24/7, Helgesen conducted interviews with individuals who “have found ways of fulfilling their responsibilities while achieving a real measure of satisfaction and joy in 24/7.” She quickly noticed a common thread running between her subjects: All had taken the time to outline their values, discover their passions, and position themselves accordingly.

“We must stop asking, ‘What does this job provide me now?’ and begin asking, ‘Is this work satisfying?’ and ‘Where will this position lead me?’ ” Helgesen says. “We should regularly analyze our work and see how it coincides with our desires.”

Learn to Zigzag

“Stages and raises are not tied to ages anymore, so it’s difficult to stick to arbitrary 10-, 20-, and 30-year plans,” Helgesen says. “Development milestones are determined by opportunities rather than time lines today.”


Companies no longer expect a gold watch to inspire 40 years of loyal service. The Industrial Age relationship between employee and employer is void, but companies have been slow to accept a new paradigm. When a middle-aged manager leaves her job to pursue an MBA or a 25-year-old consultant trades in his paycheck for a portfolio of freelance gigs, managers assume a permanent parting of the ways. They don’t know how to forge untraditional relationships, and Helgesen says that it’s the employees’ duty to teach them how to work as lifelong partners.

“We must reframe our relationships with organizations into partnerships,” she says. “To do that, we must articulate our unique value to the organization, find an intersection between our skills and the company’s needs, and then market ourselves for a position that makes all parties happy.”

Create Your Own Work (Even If You Stay in Your Job)

Consumers today demand increasingly customized products, and marketers scramble to satisfy one market niche after another. That personalization is now moving from the marketplace to the office, where employees demand more control and flexibility than ever before.

“Companies want to capitalize on specific market niches,” Helgesen says. “At the same time, people want more customized work experiences. Companies must learn to apply the principles of personalization to their employees as well as to their consumers.”

As that free-agent ethic picks up steam, however, a weakening labor market is making it easier for employers to put up roadblocks. Back in control of the talent reins, employers are less likely to endorse telecommuting, flexible hours, and freelance work relationships than they were two years ago. And Helgesen thinks that’s an awful mistake.

“A lot of companies are under the misconception that the war for talent is over and that the attraction and retention of talent is no longer a big issue,” she says. “Being able to attract and keep really talented people with superior ideas and insights is, in a knowledge-based economy, the greatest challenge for every organization. And as more people in the workforce demand customized experiences, organizations will have to head in that direction if they hope to keep innovation and creativity alive.”


Weave a Strong Web of Inclusion

As fewer people build their careers around an organization or a job, social connections will grow as an integral source of support, training, and ideas, Helgesen says. In turn, personal networks will become less compartmentalized as you introduce a colleague to a neighbor or arrange for a client to interview your college buddy. Helgesen believes that these connections will form important lifelines that deserve time, effort, and respect.

“We must recognize this web building not as a distraction from work but as a part of the work we do every day,” she says. “We also must recognize that networks are adaptive tools for coping with change and sources of psychological support.”

At the same time that email and mobile phones have made communication easier and more convenient, new technologies have also made networks more impersonal and distant. Chances are you haven’t shared lunch, or even a handshake, with half the people in your Rolodex. But Helgesen says that “virtual” contacts can still prove tremendously valuable if you understand the strength of weak ties.

“As long as your network acts as a base of support and as long as everyone within that network is strengthened through its interactions, your connections will thrive,” she says. “Mutual benefit is the key.”

Practice the Rhythm of Renewal

This final exercise trumpets the value of downtime. People typically hit upon the most remarkable insights during the most unstructured moments of their day, Helgesen says. But in a world occupied with being constantly occupied, it is often difficult to set aside enough time for lunch much less an hour of free-form thinking.

Helgesen suggests scheduling at least one period of uninterrupted relaxation into every day. No phones. No pagers. No email. No excuses. And she warns against delaying this downtime for a weekend or a vacation; make it part of your daily routine, she says.


“Think in terms of balancing your day rather than balancing your life,” Helgesen says. “Think about the things that are most important to you, and work to represent them all in the course of an average day. If we can achieve balance in our days, we can achieve balance in our lives.”

Anni Layne Rodgers ( is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about Sally Helgesen on the Web.