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February 27, 2017

“Fun and Purpose”: Forgetting the Work-Life Balance Fantasy

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In her recently published article, health and wellness journalist Emily Hill contends that “work-life balance” is a “fantasy,” a “big hoax,” the pursuit of which makes people miserable, because, she asserts, they’re chasing after the unachievable. And why is it impossible, in Hill’s opinion? Because, she says, “‘Work’ and ‘life’ aren’t binary. ‘Balance’ is dynamic, not static. And ‘life’ is much more complex than ‘non-work.’”

We can all agree with Hill that work is, in actuality, an inseparable, inextricable part of life, but many people do intentionally cultivate a sense of separation between their working hours and life beyond those labors, demonstrating their need to define and pursue meaningful, engaging activity when they’re out of the office. So, for all those out there whose work leaves them hungry to carve out time to pursue purpose and joy when they’ve punched out, how does this translate?

Hill answers the question with an idea of Jim Bird’s, author and speaker on work-life balance, who says the desire for balance stems from our need for “achievement and enjoyment.” Bird says, “We assume that if we seek achievement, enjoyment will follow automatically. But it doesn’t […]. If you try to get all the value from one side, all the value disappears.” What or where, then is the intersection of enjoyment and achievement?

Picture2Lauren Bacon’s “Balance Matrix” which Hill includes in her piece, visually answers this, as Bacon plots priorities and energy on an x-y axis. Of interest to Hill is the upper right quadrant, “Fun and Purpose,” which Hill feels elucidates our enjoyment/achievement desire, and replaces the inaccurate binary of “work versus life.” The matrix illustrates well how fluid our experiences are in varying stages of life, as we go through shifting combinations of prioritization (yours or others’) and being energized (or not).

For professionals like wahves, who’ve found work that engages them and allows them both to pursue their priorities and be energized, work is part of that wonderful upper right quadrant. It’s where accomplishment and joy intersect, and where the notion of balancing work at odds with life shows its true colors as a strange and unattainable goal. Because the fact is, work, even when it’s “drudgery” or “tasks”, will always be part of life, not something to pit against life itself. The goal when work is depleting, Bacon asserts, is to adjust and make a change, rather than mourn not achieving the illusion that is work-life balance: “Maybe you can’t quit your day job or fire your kids…but a little tweaking can do wonders.”

So, whether you’re reading this as a happily employed wahve, a wahve employer, or as someone still searching for your dream job, or wondering what your professional niche is, the truth is that your life, of work, commitments, and activities that bring a collective sense of purpose and joy is always very much yours to uniquely shape and adjust throughout your life, says Stew Friedman: “One can cultivate a life in which values, actions, social contribution, and personal growth exist in harmony…not every single day—that’s the impossible myth of ‘work-life balance’—but over the course of a lifetime.”

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