Work/Life Balance? Don’t make me laugh!



I googled “Books on Work/Life Balance” and came up with 177,000,000 in 0.59 seconds. Obviously, this is a very popular topic. And just as obviously, if there were a simple solution, it would have been found and we would all be living lives composed of eight hours each of work, play, and sleep.

On the other end of the spectrum are thousands of books about dedicated poets, novelists, artists, politicians, entrepreneurs, inventors, and tycoons whose obsessive dedication to their craft was anything but balanced. Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs certainly did not portray a man satisfied or fulfilled with an eight-hour workday.

One of my tech-entrepreneur clients asked me if meditation could help him become more grounded. We discussed various meditative forms and a practice that he could work into his busy schedule. He betrayed his dedication to finding balance when he asked, in all seriousness, if he could possibly combine meditation with walking on his treadmill while watching the news. The sad part of this story is that the question was completely serious.

In my experience, work/life balance is a unicornical myth. A few people have seen it in their gardens late at night, usually after working 36 hours straight. It was either enlightenment or hallucination, it was fleeting, and it was damned hard to tell the difference.

While running a company in Asia, I had a wonderful guide in all things Buddhist. He deepened my meditation practice, instructed me in Chi Kung, and spent many hours filling my beginner’s mind. One day I asked him about work/life balance, of which I had absolutely none. I remember starting the conversation with something like, “Eastern philosophy talks a lot about balance. Can you help me understand and attain it?”

His reply was, as usual, unexpected. He said that Eastern philosophy does not seek to achieve balance. He said that was a mistranslation. Eastern philosophy, he said, addresses harmony. I asked him to explain the difference. He replied that balance implies a mechanical partition of energy: 8 hours each of work/play/sleep or study/play/sleep or spirituality/play/sleep depending on your stage in life.

Harmony, he said, is the appropriate expenditure of energy at any given time based on the challenge at hand. There are times when it is entirely appropriate to focus all one’s energy on work. Sometimes, that energy needs to be focused on family. Sometimes, we just need to catch up on sleep. Not to expend our energy on that particular topic at that time may bring mechanical balance…but certainly will not bring harmony.

No, this is not a workaholic’s apologia. Harmony is about recognizing where energy needs to be focused. Our lives as entrepreneurs are filled with stress. We can harmoniously accommodate that acute stress (positive, even fun) by staying focused for a limited amount of time. If we tried to find a balance-equation for all the stress in our lives, we would simply generate chronic stress (negative, definitely not fun) that grinds us down.

As always with Eastern thought, there is more to the story. My mentor also explained three components of life that bring harmony to a consistent level.

Karma – acceptance that things happen in life that we cannot understand, and do not seem fair

Dharma – purpose, which is individual and unique for each person

Sangha – a community of people with like-minded values and behaviors

His explanation was that by accepting our Karma, we change the Western question of “Why me?” to “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” Of Dharma, he said that if we are fulfilling our unique purpose in life then we are moving toward harmony.

He believed that Sangha was the most difficult concept for Westerners to accept. He said that the importance of community cannot be overestimated. Placing yourself in the company of people of similar values and behavior, people of quality, sets standards towards which we each strive.

Stones - balanceIn other words, for each of us to achieve harmony, we must accept where we are in life, dedicate ourselves to doing what most fulfills our sense of worth, and find a community that shares our values. If we pay close attention to these three qualities, we will still not achieve balance. But, at least we have a chance of precarious harmony.

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