The Crucial Thing Missing From The Work-Life Balance Debate

Forbes Leadership Forum, News, Commentary, and Advice About Leadership

This article is by John Coleman, the coauthor of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders and a chief administrative officer at a large Atlanta-based financial institution. 

I’m often frustrated by the prevailing conversation around work-life balance, which tends toward unhelpful or misleading oversimplifications. In the prototypical discussion, “work”—a person’s professional pursuits—is something to be held at bay lest it consume “life”—a person’s family time and personal pursuits.

The unwritten assumption here is that people naturally prioritize the professional over the personal, and that the “things that really matter” are those outside a person’s career pursuits. It also assumes everyone’s life follows a similar model—a career crafted primarily for professional and financial gain and a family at home requiring care and attention.

But what is the result of striking this balance? Articles on work-life balance almost never ask what we’re striving to balance for— what is the goal of the exercise. They assume that a certain number of hours sprinkled at work, at home, at the gym or with friends will yield a good life. But these articles rarely articulate what this good life looks life. And they rarely contemplate those who take alternative paths with their personal or professional lives—people whose work is at home raising children or those who never enter a long-term romantic relationship and instead focus on their careers (which can of course offer great purpose) or their friends.

Consequently, we’ve been conceiving of the topic of work-life balance all wrong. And I’d posit a new way in which to explore the issue by fundamentally redefining the terms. Starting with the end in mind, the goal most of us are striving for is fulfillment and human flourishing—both others’ and ours. This might be something like the old Aristotelian concept of eudaemonia. It is not just a happy or balanced life—though it may be happy—but a good life, one lived for worthy purposes and, in a way, uplifting to others.

A new framework for flourishing

If this is the goal, then I’d suggest we re-conceive of the two fundamental terms of the work-life debate. Rather than thinking of “work” as “things we do at an office” or our professional pursuits, I’d term work anything we have to do. And I’d term “life” anything we want to do. Perhaps you could think of it in a matrix like this:

In this construct, all of our meaningful activities, personal and professional, have elements of both work and life. At home, for example, I have a number of responsibilities—things I have to do—that I consider work: Changing diapers, doing loads of laundry, hanging curtains. If my personal life were made up of only these things I’d never want to go home. They’re not fun, and they’re the price I pay for the responsibilities I assume as a husband and father—fulfilling because they are purposeful. But there are a lot of fun activities, too—things I want to do: Jumping on the trampoline with my kids, going to concerts with my wife, having dinner discussions with good friends. These things are joyful.

Similarly, at work, we all have responsibilities—certain committee meetings, difficult conversations with colleagues, lengthy PowerPoint presentations, and so on. These are the necessary evils we take on as part of our purposeful commitment to our workplaces and our colleagues. And then there are the fun parts—lively problem-solving sessions, innovation, synthesizing new concepts or ideas in writing. We accept the sacrifices because they must be done for our own good or the good of others. And we embrace the activities that bring us joy because they energize us.

Have you ever felt that your life—at work and at home—was all “work”? At the office you may feel like you’re stuck only doing things you must do, rather than anything you enjoy. At home, you’re caught running errands, doing housework r dealing with problems rather than enjoying friends, family or hobbies. This is drudgery—it may have purpose—but it’s joyless and draining.

On the other hand, imagine a life with no responsibilities. It might sound wonderful. But flitting from interest to interest without really sacrificing anything or taking on the burdens of others would end up being hollow and superficial—an easy but shallow and purposeless existence.

Worst of all would be to live without joy or purpose—rudderless and unhappy all at once.

Best, of course, is to live a life that combines purposeful commitment to self (things like character-building and self-improvement) and to others, enriched by the joy of friends, fulfilling hobbies and professional pursuits, and meaningful time with loved ones. This kind of life is flourishing and fulfilling.

Restoring balance, finding fulfillment

This framework allows us to approach to topic of work-life balance differently.

First, it is flexible enough to accommodate varying life choices and stages of life—accounting for single people, marrieds, grandparents, office workers, entrepreneurs, those who stay home to take care of kids, and everyone in between—while assuring that no matter our chosen recipe for life, the ingredients are measured to leave us nourished and fulfilled.

Second, this frame forces us to monitor each sphere of life for the balance of purpose and enjoyment, acknowledging we need both in everything we do. Am I investing in and sacrificing for others—colleagues, family members and friends? Or am I living happily but superficially for myself? Am I providing for those I care for but finding life joyless? Knowing this balance, we can address it—shedding responsibilities when we need to, adding joyful activities where they’re called for, and finding ways to discover the joy even in life’s difficult or routine activities.

Finally, seeking this kind of fulfilling balance would force us to shift focus from the process of work-life balance (“Am I spending enough time doing x, y, or z?”) and turn to the goal of life itself: personal and professional flourishing. The questions then become: What does flourishing and fulfillment look like for me? Where do I find meaning? What makes me happy—at work or at home? And what matters enough—whether children or a professional cause—that I am willing to sacrifice for it? Asking these questions assures that any conversation about balance actually centers us on something fulfilling.

How do you think about “work” and “life”? Is your balance a good mix of things you have to do and those you want to do? And is it oriented towards flourishing? Taking a fresh look at balance can leave us purposeful, joyful and fulfilled.