What is work-life balance and why do you want it?
Balance implies equal weighting between your private and public selves. You want it because you want a purposeful life, a life of meaning.
Except Joseph Campbell doesn’t see it that way. He said people don’t really want meaningful lives. What they want is aliveness.
Having a sense of purpose makes you feel alive.
Balance isn’t sexy or dramatic. The comfy middle feels like the opposite of aliveness, more like living unconsciously. These are the unspoken assumptions behind the concept of work-life balance.
Work-life balance, then, must address the twin needs of purpose and aliveness for it be sustainable over time.
Work-life balance is “the state of equilibrium where a person equally prioritizes the demands of one’s career and the demands of one’s personal life.” 1
Purpose means doing work that has meaning. Aliveness refers to the feeling you get when you’re living on purpose, both personally and professionally.
If you don’t identify what’s important to you – your values – you can’t ascribe purpose to what you do. Meaning, in the private and public realms, comes from knowing who you are. You feel alive when you align your inner and outer selves and aren’t afraid to show it.
You can experience aliveness without purpose and vice versa. I imagine skydiving would make me feel very alive, but it doesn’t hold a lot of meaning to me. Reading books to support my coaching work fills me with purpose but I don’t feel particularly alive when I’m typing out my notes afterward.
The Balance Beam
One way to look at balance is the balance beam, which I described in Shedding Rigidity. I identified fluidity in HR on one end of the balance beam with rigidity on the other and explained you need both in HR to be “in balance.” Without any rules (completely fluid), everything is subjective which negatively impacts perceptions of fairness and objectivity. With too many rules (very rigid), you spend more time maintaining the system than fulfilling the role of HR, which is taking care of people.
The balance beam is level.
You can steadily advance since you can see peripherally and hopefully identify the pitfalls at either end of the beam, i.e. the extremes. The potential disadvantage is not finding creative solutions because you want to stay level, i.e. not rock the boat.
Balancing on a Scale
Imagine the Scales of Justice. Often you see one scale tipped more than the other, reflecting that one viewpoint weighs more than the other. Based on the strength of the argument and its supporting evidence, the Scales of Justice tip one way over another.
The scale means balance tilts based on the information at hand.
One advantage to balancing on a scale is momentum. Once you choose which side of the scale to balance on, you can gather resources to move forward decisively. The disadvantage? Some argue those scales aren’t weighted evenly, that they are tipped more one way than the other at the outset. In other words, the scale isn’t balanced.
Both types of balance work
Your decision may depend on the situation. Using HR as an example, I may tip the scale in a one-to-one conversation whereas I’ll stay on the beam when creating company-wide policies.