I am going to cut to the chase. Balance is bullshit. It is a myth. It is a unicorn that is more likely to be a disinterested pony with a papier-maché horn than some magical beast ready to carry us to the rainbow world of perfect harmony. I hope that doesn’t sound too pessimistic because I have a whole other article on that, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.
But you are right. It would be pretty pessimistic of me (not to mention make me a big jerk) to announce that finding balance is a whole bunch of horse-crappery and then sign off with a “Thank you very much!” So, because I am not a jerk, I promise that I will tell you what is better. But not yet. I want to kick some more dirt on balance first.
Let’s take a moment to consider what it means to balance something:
bal·ance/ˈbaləns/ noun 1. an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.
That’s it. Equal distribution of weight. How much weight? Doesn’t matter. Stop asking smart questions. Just keep piling it on as long as we are keeping it even. Because we will do ALL THE THINGS. We will get a graduate degree (maybe two!), make partner in our law firms/ get the keys to the C-Suite, be philanthropic with our time, talent, AND treasure so the world will stop burning down around us! (Quick inhale!) And it will be fine as long as we also, in equal measure, make the perfect Pinterest cupcakes and attend Sally’s 2nd grade Father-Daughter/Mother-Son Dance and be on time to our Adult Basketball League Goat Yoga Class–Whew! Because this balance thing is an equal opportunity offender. We are ALL bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan*.
*Please Google joke if you are under 30.
But guess what? Scales break. Regardless of how we distribute the weight of our responsibilities, when we continue to pile it on, We. Will. Break.
It is not only the unbearable weight that we pile on to our scales of balance that is the problem, it is what we are told to strike a balance between: Work and Life. Well, if that’s not just a full throw-our-hands-up-in-the-air and proclaim that work is supposed to suck, then I don’t know what is. The thing we spend the bulk of our day doing is being defined as something at the opposite end of the spectrum of living. Well, that’s pretty bleak.
Work is part of the whole that makes up our lives. That’s why instead of banishing it to the realm of death, I say we make it better. We cultivate resilience in our work cultures and in our lives. So how do we do that without getting tangled in the balance myth?
Instead, we talk about boundaries. Boundaries say, “Wait a minute. Why am holding all this weight with arms out to the side waiting to be broken?” Boundaries say, “I don’t need all of this. I don’t actually even want all of this.” Boundaries say, “I can set this down, pass it along, cross it off.” Boundaries are empowering because WE get to set them. They will be different for different people. It might mean one person will not take work calls after 6pm. For someone else, they might do their best, most creative work between 9:30pm and midnight. Boundaries are simply what you decide is ok and not ok. And because you are in charge, you can decide what boundaries are flexible and which are immovable. “Yes, I will choose to work late for this project I care a lot about,” but “No, that does not mean I want to have ‘dinner’ with the boss afterward.”
If you are in the position of hiring and developing the people in your companies and firms, I challenge you to become comfortable with talking about and encouraging boundaries. Beginning with the interview, ask your candidates what their work boundaries are. Make a point of talking about your own boundaries. If you fear that asking that question and encouraging boundaries will devolve into a culture that lacks grit, teamwork, and tenacity then I am here to tell you that you are operating from a scarcity mentality. Boundaries do the opposite. Research has shown that the people who are most tenacious, generous, and innovative are those who are most boundaried. Why? Because when people are boundaried, they avoid being resentful and exhausted. No surprise, but resentment and exhaustion aren’t great ingredients for much of anything positive. When we nurture ourselves and the human beings we work with every day with healthy boundaries, that is when we receive the bounty of resilience in vibrant lives and vibrant businessness.