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Work/Life Balance is a Myth

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

You cannot “balance” aspects of life that are inherently unequal.

To attempt to do so produces nothing but pain and fruitless sacrifice in pursuit of an ever-elusive and never-achieved “balance”.

Work and life cannot be balanced, nor should you try to do so. Life and work activity exist within a hierarchy goods and not some kind of yin/yang equality.

Here’s an example. On vacation over the last few weeks, my wife noticed something interesting in my conversations with other dads I met, usually during long hours shepherding our young children at the pool. Nearly every conversation of decent length followed the same order of topics:

1. Where are you from?

2. What do you do?

3. Questions about family (spouse, number and ages of children, etc.).

4. Then, if the above discussion goes well and there’s sufficient time, the questions and discussion inevitably bend toward deeper and more risky topics such as current events, politics, values, religion, etc.

The same general order of topics holds true when meeting people in other settings. When strangers meet, they naturally tend to discuss the less important and less risky things first. As trust and familiarity progress, you get into the things that really matter.

Look at the first two topics. What you do is only slightly more important than where you’re from and other safe questions like, “How was your flight?”, or “How about that sunset yesterday?”. Unless you’re a committed introvert or on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery, you are going to have that conversation nearly every time you meet a stranger.

Those first two areas of conversation are really just a way to decide (and in some respects test), whether you want to move on toward discussing the last two areas.

The things that matter in life do not exist in a balance. They exist in a hierarchy. Understanding, respecting, and reinforcing that hierarchy is essential for the health of leaders and an organization’s culture as a whole.

My greatest mentors, role models, and my own decades of experience seeking wholeness and happiness, have convinced that this simple “hierarchy of goods” looks like this:

1. God. If that doesn’t butter your bread, call this what you will: spirituality, values, philosophy, etc. (But really… it's God.)

2. Family

3. Work

In order, this hierarchy answers why you do what you do, who you are doing it for, and what exactly you are expected to do about it today. Leaders who know those three things and are disciplined in allowing the answers to guide all of their choices, will inevitably be “successful” in any endeavor.

Each of these areas of life are crucially important, but they are not equal. The goal is not to find balance, but to meet our responsibilities in each area according to their rightful place in the hierarchy of responsibilities and goods.

Pursued in the wrong order, these areas subtract from and compete with each other for dominance and attention. When one of these essential areas of life are missing, seriously deficient, or dysfunctional, all of the others suffer. Or worse, you'll likely be tempted to fill that hole with something that doesn't belong and will not satisfy that need.

However, when pursued in the correct order and with vigor, the benefits multiply as each area provides a firm foundation for the next.

It’s critical to understand the order in this hierarchy precisely because we frequently face competing demands from each of these three areas of life. Even the most motivated and stellar performer cannot be in two places at once. No matter how nimble your thinking is, you cannot give multiple things your full attention at the same time.

You must choose between your child’s soccer game and attending the board meeting. If the soccer game is unfortunately on a day of worship, you might need to choose between the God of the Universe and the lesser (and much more jealous) god of children’s sports leagues.

It’s only by understanding the hierarchy, that you’ll know who rightfully gets the short end of the stick that day.

An attempt to “balance” that day would look something like this…

First, you drag your kids to an early Church service in jerseys, shin guards, and flip flops (so they can get their cleats on faster once you jump back in the minivan). You jet out before the end of services while sidestepping elderly parishioners pushing walkers who’ve started their own pre-emptive retreat ahead of the crowd. You throw everyone in the van and squeal out of the church parking lot like a teenager who just got the keys to dad’s Camaro.

You show up to the soccer game at the end of warm-ups. But no worries, the sprint from Church to the car already got everyone limber. You stay for two-thirds of the game before passing the baton to your spouse or a willing neighbor who will bring the kids home.

Then you bounce to the board meeting, arriving slightly late, sweaty and much too casually dressed – but explaining that after all you had a lot to “balance” today. Ten minutes into the meeting your spouse texts you a pic of your daughter scoring her first goal, which of course… you missed.

That’s not balance. It’s anarchy. I’ve done it. It’s no way to live and makes you pretty sucky in all three areas. Everyone gets a little from you and no one gets your best.

Instead, do one thing and then the other. Most importantly, do them in the proper order, completely, and with your full self. If that means one of those areas gets sacrificed that day, so be it.

Knowing what comes last in life is just as important as knowing what comes first. Using that reality as a litmus test for “success”, a twenty-something intern who has these priorities straight is accomplishing more than a CEO that doesn’t.

Great leaders understand this hierarchy and let it guide the micro and macrocosm of their lives. Also, they do whatever they can to ensure that the life and culture of their families and organizations reinforce and nourish this hierarchy of goods.

As in this slightly silly example, the same is true in the long arc of life. I’ve never met a retired person who wishes they spent more time at work. However, I’ve met plenty who agonize over what they willingly missed in the lives of their children and family in order to pursue professional success.

Similarly, at the end of life especially, it becomes crystal clear how much effort a person has put into understanding their place in the universe and what the great adventure of life is all about. Rest assured that regardless of how we’ve spent our time in life, this will be everyone’s final question. Prepare accordingly.

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