Yeah, it's true no one ever said on her deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." But neither did anyone ever have carved on a tombstone, "He achieved work/life balance." (In general, you don't see a lot of slashes on tombstones.)
Ragan.com writer Jessica Levco started a hearfelt feud on this subject yesterday with what must have been a purposely glib piece titled, "'Work/life' balance isn't your employer's problem—it's yours."
Surely Levco doesn't believe that everyone who works a lot does so "probably because you don't have a life to begin with." Surely she senses she's being simplistic.
She goes on to offer some suggestions that could help single, childless young people who do PR trade journalism to keep work from getting on top of them. E.g., take in an architecture lecture at lunch, join a club after work that forces you to leave the office at five, respond to emails slowly so you don't get caught up in a time-consuming email exchange.
And ultimately she suggests that you advantage of the fact that your work isn't terribly important. "I wasn’t hired to get all my work done in a day, a week, or a month. The work will always be there. It will never get 'done.' Even when I work for 15 hours a day on this website to 'get ahead,' there will always be another story to write, an article to plug, or something to tweet about the next day. It really just doesn’t matter how hard I work—just as long as each day, I show up and work. Each day adds up over time."
I worked for Ragan when I was her age, and I know: That is the right attitude for working there sustainably. Of course, it was never my attitude; with only occasionally comical consequences, I chose to take the subject of corporate communication as seriously as some people take neuroscience or theology. Nor does Levco's resemble the attitude of Mark Ragan, though over the years he has had to come to grips with the inevitability of employing people who do not "think like an owner," as he always wished we would. He seems resigned to the idea that he will employ lots of people who treat working at a PR trade publisher with the casualness you'd expect from people working at a PR trade publisher.
I congratulate young Jessica for finding emotional independence from her driven boss and freedom from slavish work hours and a permanent sense of professional proportion. But I itch to tell her that maybe it's not work/life balance she should be seeking, but work that's worthy of staying late some nights. Or worrying about some nights. Or going into work in the middle of some nights, because working is more productive than worrying.
I wish her what I always wish for myself, even as I revel in the great freedom of the freelancer's life—yesterday I wrote in the morning, rode my motorcycle downtown to buy a sportcoat, handled some more work, took my daughter to to soccer practice while I played tennis, then dropped her off and rode my bike to a local bar's motorcycle night—not more "balance" in life, but more meaningful and challenging and useful work to do, whatever kind of work, professional or domestic, that turns out to be.
Many of the happiest moments in my life were the ones that evaporated while I was lost, listening to someone's weird ideas, trying to figure out what I really thought about a thing, telling a complicated story, persuading someone of something important—doing what it felt like I was put on the earth to do.
And aside from how we feel about our work: There is important work to be done in the world. Things to be built, lives to be saved, revelations to be had, miracles to be achieved—all by people who rightly believe that it does matter how hard they work.
If all Jessica wants is a balance, balance she will have.
But "balance" ain't much to tell your grandkids about.
It's not something to boast about.
And it's definitely not something to rub other people's noses in.