A couple of weeks ago, I noticed this inspirational post about extraordinary success. I’ll be honest that I really love most of the wisdom in it, and I’m likely to work through various pieces of it over the next month or two, simply because much of the wisdom resonates with things I write about frequently in this blog.
May has been wild and crazy in terms of deadlines and commitments. A couple of weeks of clinical service. AHRQ grant proposal due. Trying to get out of ATLS Instructor jail (I forgot to teach in 2014 and my instructor status was due to expire this month). Ogden Half-Marathon. Manuscripts to finish before mentees leave town. In other words, lots of the usual stuff shoved into the same 31-day time frame (though, remarkably, no airplane time).
As I was reading through Jeff Haden’s post, #3 hit me like a ton of bricks. “You don’t think work/life balance. You just think life.”
I’ve previously bemoaned the concept of work-life balance (I still can’t stand that idea), and have also emphasized the importance of “no” as a central part of the professional vocabulary (when you say yes, it’s honestly forcing you to say no to something else anyway). While Haden writes about your work being who you are, for most of us in medicine that’s even more true- our career, our calling is a central part of our identity. I’ll admit that while the first thing in social conversations is definitely not, “I’m a surgeon,” it definitely sets parameters for my life and how I life it. Those parameters aren’t good, aren’t bad…they just are part of the whole picture.
Can my cats write my research strategy for a grant proposal? Well, no. But does taking time out for a run or dinner with a friend make me a better surgeon? No question that it does. I’m also learning that the to-do list will ALWAYS be here. It’s not going away, and the project post-its on my Personal Kanban white board in my office seem to multiply faster than bunnies. Watching the sunset while I go for a walk with my dog? Yep, that can’t be replaced and won’t always be there. And my mind might be just a bit clearer for editing that manuscript when I come back.
I’m not saying we don’t ever deserve time off from work; I’ve made a deliberate move to take a day a week off from the projects and my email, and it’s honestly been helpful for me. What I am saying is that if you’re obsessively focused on work-life balance, it’s quite likely you’re looking for something that doesn’t truly exist. It’s all just life.
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.