I’ve struggled with the concept of a good work/life balance for many years now. I’ve always been a very firm believer in the line between personal life and what we do for work. As the saying goes, we “work to live”, not “live to work.” But then there’s the other philosophy that says if you love what you do, then it won’t feel like work. To this day I struggle with where the right balance is, and what sort of lifestyle is worth the work you put in. Can you really love what you do so much that it doesn’t feel like work? (Especially when you’re as inherantly lazy as I am?)
As an Executive Assistant (what I do when I’m not writing long-winded blogs) my hours can be fairly erratic. When I was serving my last Chairman I was salary (the norm for this sort of position) which made the extended hours a bit upsetting at times. Now, I’m hourly (no overtime pay but still a step up…) and my current CEO demands (as nicely as possible) I put extra time in. This last week especially I’ve had a lot on my plate and found myself taking it home. Great for my paycheck, but not so great for having any downtime. Downtime and decompression time are very important to me to the point I often take extended lunches to remove my brain and start on my blogs. But when you find yourself struggling to get enough sleep and having little “you” time, at what point do you decide if it’s worth it or not? There’s no real standard, and I’m NOT complaining about where I am in life, but I do seek the balance for the sake of myself and my employer as I believe many people do.
So what’s the solution? It’s said that you have to work hard and put in your time in order to improve your lifestyle and make money. But is the money worth it if you don’t have time to enjoy it? I know that I’m not willing to give up my lifestyle at this point, and I want to build on it, so the most logical conclusion is to keep my nose to the grindstone, kick ass, work the long hours and reap the rewards….eventually. But I’ve always believed it’s a mistake to put your happiness into a far off goal or dream. It must be a balancing act that involves working toward your eventual dream (I’m not even sure I have one…) while taking the time and providing yourself with the experiences that make your life worth living now. Regardless of how much you work, you have to be happy! Sometimes that means pulling yourself away from the grindstone and investing time in you or those you love. If only it were as easy for us to be as happy at work as many company founders want us to be! But you can’t blame them for not understanding why you aren’t.
I’ve spent years working for company founders now. One thing many of them don’t understand, and that you may not realize is that it is psychologically extremely difficult (if not impossible) for you to have the same level of connection / ownership to the company that they do. You may care deeply about your company, you may even “love your job”, but the person who brought that idea into the world built it out of their experiences, thoughts, beliefs, feelings and even some of their imbalances that you will never have. It is an extension of them, and therefore when they are investing time in the company, they feel fulfilled in a way you essentially can’t because they are actually investing time in themselves. It’s not impossible to try and mimic this mindset, but when you go home and open that laptop at night, neglecting personal time to catch up on your e-mails, it simply won’t feel the same to you, because for them, even if they would rather be doing something else, catching up on those e-mails IS personal time.
So, assuming you don’t want to give up your lifestyle and become a wanderer, your options boil down to four or five situations:
1. You win the powerball or get rich quick somehow. Come find me so I can help you think of awesome ways to both manage and make the most of the money while using it to perpetuate your own happiness and that of others. Thank you and your welcome!
2. Start your own business. This is the only way to experience the “founder” level of ownership and satisfaction in your work. However, the founders that I speak of and who are employing you have already “made it” to some extent, and thus are in the phase where they can actually enjoy it on some level because they (obviously) have employees and income. I never said they didn’t earn it (in most cases anyway) by working harder, smarter or both. In the beginning and even well into the green (profit,) owning your own business can come with huge levels of stress that can make that personal connection to your company very difficult to handle. There is a reason many of the very successful founders and CEOs you hear of are often quirky, odd, eccentric or sometimes straight-up batshit insane. They have to be in order to be obsessed enough with themselves and their company to push it to astronomical levels.
3. Do something easy that you “love”. When we’re teens and young adults we often joke about doing what we perceive as super fun to get paid for. Acting, starting a band or writing a best selling book (or god forbid.. being a reality show “star”.) Obviously, some people really do achieve this, but it’s not easy at all and often requires a lot of sacrifice. For instance: a lot of late teens/early twenties (especially but not exclusively guys) joke about doing porn because who doesn’t want to get paid to have sex!? But naturally the industry often doesn’t live up to the fantasy image in some people’s head. Beyond that, many quickly find that once they are forced to do whatever hobby/activity they really enjoy casually under “professional” guidelines/circumstances (another example: Video Game Tester,) it loses it’s fun pretty fast. A few weeks later it’s no longer a dream career, it’s just another job that’s making you not want to have sex or play video games on your own time any more. That said, some types people are cut out for those respective industries and it doesn’t ruin it for them (usually because they can drastically differentiate the two in their head,) But either way, work is still very much work and for those average people it will put a damper on their outside life too. So, while “doing what you love” is a great idea, it’s harder than it sounds, takes a lot more work than one would think and is usually tough to find/break into. Even after you get there, it is impossible to know if it will be as fulfilling as you hope. That said, for some people it IS worth it, IF you can really make it.
4. Set a goal to become something difficult that you “love”. This falls a little in line with starting your own business in that it really can pay off the way you hope it will, but you will have to go through hell and high water to get there (and I mean years of it.) As an example I have several friends who grew up wanting to be veterinarians. I’m happy to report I personally watched some of these people become the 1% of 1% of 1% or something like that. They achieved their “dream” to some extent. I say it like that because some didn’t end up doing what they envisioned themselves doing, some fell massively into debt and the others that really made it did so by sacrificing years of their time working and studying (long AFTER the hell that is Vet School) at really odd hours under immense amounts of stress and pressure to finally, finally emerge somewhere close to where they wanted to be. The reward is that yeah, they are most often better off financially and more fulfilled than your average Walgreen’s clerk. But it’s still work, and sometimes they get up in the morning (12:01 AM) and don’t want to do it, but they still have to. I should also point out that some of these people end up owning their own business. So, essentially a different path to option 2. That said though, if you can make the investment early on, this is arguably the best, most consistent outcome beyond the powerball option.
5. The rest of us. Circumstances happened, and we’re not where we wanted to be or thought we would be by now. Hell, some of us didn’t even know where we wanted to be and still don’t know where we’re going. But we’re still adults, and we haven’t given up and become vagrants just yet, so work happens and bills gotta get paid. This brings me back to the importance of enjoying your life along the way. Because with this option, if you don’t, you’re probably miserable. The work/life balance in this situation is essential because you don’t have the ownership and you don’t have the long-term dream that you achieved. You are working to live. That’s really okay so long as you don’t lose sight of why. The balance isn’t always about a set amount of hours, it’s about whether or not your work allows you to do what you enjoy. That means both the time, and the resources to be happy in your life outside of work. It doesn’t have to be everything you dreamed just yet, it just has to be enough to have fun, be happy, and make progress. So working those extra hours is totally worth it if it makes you feel better about your work and gives you the extra funds to treat yourself and/or those important to you. But if you feel like a slave to your job and go home miserable only to crash and repeat the next day; get out. No amount of money will save you from that, and the more you make, the more of that scarce life they will ask for.
This brings me to a few guidelines for maintaining that balance (be realistic):
1. Don’t be afraid to say no. Draw your lines, draw your boundaries and don’t back down from them. Do NOT allow a job to corner you into making compromises that will make you miserable.
2. Know what you are worth and ask for it. If you research and feel you deserve a specific wage, ask for it. If they won’t work with you to at least make a plan to get there, move on. The same goes for benefits you need for you and your family. Often these are arguably more important than base wage.
3. Ask for the time you want in advance. Know what you are willing to give and not to give and barter that time as needed to be certain you have the time that is most important to you. This can be a specific schedule or specific days.
4. Along with number one, be honest and communicate about all the above needs. If you aren’t seeing what you want, give your employer a chance to accommodate you before you just get fed up and leave. It looks better on both parties even if something can’t be worked out.
5. Have a contingency plan. We’d all like to be “lifers” with a great company, but shit happens, and it happens fast. Make sure that you have the cards up your sleeve to be willing to walk away from the table if you need to. Feeling trapped in a job you don’t want to be in is a very quick way to demoralize yourself.
Finally (and yeah.. this post got long…)
6. Make sure whatever you are doing for work leaves room for you to BE HAPPY about your life outside of work. This means having time to have a life outside of work, having enough money to enjoy your life outside of work and having a job that doesn’t make you feel bad about you your life inside or outside of work. The work/life balance isn’t about a specific number of hours per week or a wage you make, it’s about how it enables you to live, and how happy you can be in the process.