Beating the Myth of Work-Life Balance


Forgo the elusive, and faulty premise, of finding a work/life balance says David Whyte, poet and author.

Competing demands seem irreconcilable, sapping energy.

  • Can we focus on the family and still do our best at work?
  • What of time for ourselves?
  • Do texts, calls or emails between work and home help?

We can’t be two places at once, of course. Nor is switching our attention back and forth–worrying about home while at work or vice versa a sensible practice

A recent post by Maria Popova discusses Whyte’s book, The Three Marriages—Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. She explains and expands on Whyte’s critique of “work/life balance” while offering her own views on the matter. She says this of the concept:

It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside — that which we must endure in order to make a living — with the upside — that which we long to do in order to feel alive. 

Popova goes on to offer a series of quotes from Whyte to illustrate his objection to the way the problem is often framed:

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

What is the nature of the problem then, rather than the simplistic notion of balance? Whyte’s book title refers to these as the Three Marriages, of Work, Self and Other.  So he takes the oft-heard expression that someone is “married to their job” and runs with it.

We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

Daisaku Ikeda, a noted Buddhist philosopher, has this to say about how to deal with the difficulties of time and life management without ever mentioning the notion of balance:

People always have many different roles to play. The crucial thing is to be determined to make a wholehearted effort in everything and be fully engaged in what we are doing at any given moment. The secret to successfully fulfilling a variety of roles is to concentrate fully on the task at hand and give it our best effort with enthusiasm, maintaining a positive, forward-looking attitude and not worrying.

So Ikeda’s prescription is to put 100% of ourselves into what we are doing in the moment—to not be concerned with those other roles now, but in their own time. Whyte offers this caution if we fail to do so:

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 and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

Popova add this on Whyte’s point:

I have always found the notion of compromising — particularly when it comes to this unfair tradeoff of work and life — to be a double-edged sword … compromise implies reaching a happy medium between two conflicting needs; … to compromise requires the trimming off of excess in one area in order to alleviate a deficit in the other, which invariably means … undermining — the area deemed excessive. 

As an example of the failure of compromise, consider what happens to the self, the “internal marriage” if we neglect it? Whyte says that:

[W]e can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

We don’t find happiness from others. We find it from within. Looking outside for love and happiness is a fruitless endeavor, doomed to failure and frustration. When we love ourselves we then become capable of loving another. When we achieve our own lasting happiness, we can share it with another rather than waiting for them to provide it to us. How do we do that? Keeping in mind his suggestion that we be “fully engaged in whatever we are doing at the moment,” these additional words of encouragement from Ikeda are helpful.

Unless we live fully, not “sometime” in the future, but right now, true fulfillment in life will forever elude us. Rather than put things off till the future, we should find meaning in doing what we think is most important right now—setting our hearts aflame and igniting our lives. Otherwise, we will not be able to lead an inspired existence.


First published April 17, 2015 on LinkedIn. Republished with ownership rights. 



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