“We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back […] In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one of them to gain an easier life.”
A few years ago, I was visiting colleagues in Bangalore when the subject of work-life balance in Silicon Valley came up. My colleagues asked how entrepreneurs maintain a healthy work-life balance when most startups require 12+ hours days. My overly simplistic answer was that they don’t.
In my experience, most entrepreneurs have given up on work-life balance and instead rely on work-life integration. It’s why romantic relationships with co-workers are so common at early-stage companies and many companies have on-site day care. If only one spouse works at a startup, it’s not uncommon for the other to show up at work periodically to have dinner on site with them. In an extreme example, a married couple I know are both working at the same startup and bring their child to work every day. That’s truly work-life integration.
A few weeks after the Bangalore visit, one of my colleagues sent me David Whyte’s book, ‘The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship’ with a note that read “work-life balance is a myth.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to reading the book until recently – which might be proof that my life was out of balance. In the book, Whyte argues that our current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic and that there are three forces in effect: Work, Self, and Relationship.
These three forces are referred to as marriages because they “involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.” The vows in our relationships are usually obvious and those at work are explicitly tied to our compensation which means we tend to stick to them. However, vows to ourselves are easily broken; resolutions rarely last more than a few weeks.
True happiness does not involve neglecting one marriage in favor of another but rather finding a way to interweave the collective vows into an integrated whole. As Whyte writes:
Each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. […] we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.
This paragraph resonates with me and is consistent with other common advice about work-life integration:
- All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
- The person you marry should be your best friend.
- Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
However you phrase it, the intention is the same. Pay attention to your work, self, and relationship vows. Don’t sacrifice one of them to get ahead on another.
True balance comes from integrating all aspects of your work/life.