If you talk to a Silicon Valley or “thought leader” type about work-life balance, their likely response is if it is out of whack, and you hate your job, then why are you doing that job? They’ll tell you there is no such thing as work/life balance—that there is just this thing called life, and if you love the work you do, the balance will always be appropriate. As is often the case with Silicon Valley logic, it’s only useful in their universe, because such people have a myopic view of life that generally doesn’t include children, family, and true leisure time.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve experienced this difficulty first hand. I have a fantastic job, I have a number of side projects, and I also have a family I love and cherish. One would think I have complete work-life balance, because wherever I turn there is something I love doing or love being a part of.
It’s not that simple.
The human body is only capable of so much, and there are only 24 hours in a day.
It’s difficult to say you have work-life balance just because you have a great job and family, when the reality is that you get home most nights of the week exhausted to the point where you can’t get off the couch. It’s a wonderful thing to have a career you love, but when you come home and there isn’t any energy left to play with your kids, or have a conversation with your spouse because you’ve spent it all at work, you’ll discover that work-life balance is a real and important concept.
This obviously becomes clouded by the fact that many of our business superheroes pretend to have it all. I’ve seen way too many articles gushing over the fact that Facebook COO and author Sheryl Sandberg can work a 16-hour-day and still make quality time for her family because she’s “present” while she’s with them. Gary Vaynerchuk’s tagline is “family first!” yet he frequently espouses working 18-hour days and apparently has a schedule busier than the most energetic 20-year-old tech CEO. Sorry, Gary, I love your work but I have to call BS on this one. If you’re working 12+ hours every day, the odds are high that you’re short changing your family on both the quantity and quality fronts. (Either that or you’re barely sleeping, which will catch up with you soon enough.)
It isn’t just about being with your family, it’s about being with your family. Do you switch off? Recently, I had to face my own shortcomings as a husband and father when I noticed my daughter was less enthusiastic when I walked in the door, and didn’t seem to want daddy’s attention so much. I couldn’t be happier with how my career and side projects are going, but when I got to honestly assessing how I was doing as a husband and father, the only word I could conjure was lackluster. I’ve been lackluster because I was connected to everything else except what was happening with those most precious human beings right in front of me.
Family time isn’t family time when you’re constantly looking at your phone. It isn’t family time when they have only the dregs of your energy, and it certainly isn’t family time when you’re sitting on the couch with a laptop open. Since making that clear distinction, the change has been dramatic. I follow my daughter when she wants to show me something instead of telling her that daddy is too tired. Instead of letting her sit glued to the iPad, I tell her to go and get a book that she likes so I can read to her. Her level of engagement with me has skyrocketed and she constantly asks her mother when I’m going to be home from work.
I was on the doorstep a few nights ago, getting my keys out of my pocket, and heard my daughter run to the door yelling “daddy daddy!” Proof that separating work and home clearly was working. We always get told that relationships require work and effort, and nod our heads in agreement as though we get it. We don’t get it. We don’t get it until our spouse tells us they want a divorce, because for the last 10 years we’ve been strangers.
No matter how much I love my job, or have interesting things going on outside, an extra twenty grand a year isn’t worth it if my family sees me as just some guy with whom they live. Funny enough, no accomplishment I’ve ever achieved—whether it was a bonus, spearheading a project, or an award at work—has made me smile as much as the simple act of sitting down to dinner with my wife and daughter, and enjoying the moment with them.
It’s often said that on our death beds we’ll never wish that we spent more time at the office, but we will wish we spent more time and more effort on the people most important to us. Unfortunately it can be hard for the driven types to internalize that message while they’re busy trying to conquer the world, because they don’t realize how hollow a pursuit it ultimately is.
Work can be a wonderful thing, but no matter how much we love it, it can’t (and shouldn’t) take the place of everything else.
Being honest with myself forced me to make a real, concerted effort to demarcate work and life clearly. I’ve made that effort because work and family aren’t equally important. My loved ones deserve better than that.
Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and everyday life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.