What “B” word, you ask?
Balance. Particularly in the context of the phrase “work-life balance.”
The whole idea of work-life “balance” is something I have been railing against for a while. It’s not because I am opposed to surgeons having things in their lives they are passionate about besides their work; if anything, I’m a staunch supporter of that idea. What I am opposed to is deluding ourselves, or (worse yet!) our mentees, into believing that at any given point all aspects of our lives are in equilibrium. But first, some etymology to help you better understand my position.
The history of the word balance comes from Latin, bi + lanx. That’s two + plates. The implication is that the aspects of modern life are somehow equal at any given time, and that they have structure and regularity to them. Alternatively, if you assume that balance is a zero-sum concept, then by having more emphasis on one area we therefore lose an equivalent ability to do in another. And, quite frankly, the idea that we’re all supposed to have work-life balance? It’s guilt and shame inducing if we’re not packing perfect lunches for ourselves and our children, obtaining grant support for our research, maintaining our supermodel physique, winning teaching awards, putting a balanced home-cooked dinner on the uncluttered table every night at 6 pm, maximizing our Press-Ganey scores, and doing volunteer work of Mother Teresa caliber. I got exhausted just typing that sentence!
Logically, I have an alternative to propose. I’ll start by openly admitting that I cheered when I went to my mailbox two weeks ago and saw the cover of the March Harvard Business Review. I agree with their premise on the cover- that it’s not about balance, it’s about choices. Or fit. Or some other word that acknowledges that it’s messy, it’s imperfect, and that there really isn’t structure or regularity to any of our lives. Ultimately we all choose what is most important to us in both our personal and professional lives, often at a given moment, ideally with a long view to what it will mean in a few years. If we move away from this paradigm of juggling (which means that things get dropped, and plates can break) to a paradigm of deliberately choosing what best aligns with our values, we can be more engaged and more successful. The important part of using the word “successful” in this context is that if we are making our own choices about what aligns with our values, we’re also defining success on our own terms. To me, that sounds like a recipe for happiness at work and at home.