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Monday, October 18, 2004

Balance is Bunk! Continued

This is an excerpt from "Fast Company Magazine",
From: Issue 87 October 2004, Page 68 By: Keith H. Hammonds

Balance Is for Fat People

Pavan Vishwakarma is a 25-year-old freelance Web and e-commerce software developer. He lives and works in Bhopal, India, but he has done work for companies in Illinois, Nevada, and Canada. And he has, as he advertises, "no working hours limitation. I can work up to any stretch of time."

You want balance? Vishwakarma doesn't, particularly. He wants to work, and he'll work cheap -- a lot cheaper than you will.

The global economy is antibalance. For as much as Accenture and Google say they value an environment that allows workers balance, they're increasingly competing against companies that don't. You're competing against workers with a lot more to gain than you, who will work harder for less money to get the job done. This is the dark side of the "happy workaholic." Someday, all of us will have to become workaholics, happy or not, just to get by.
Tom Patterson has spent the last year setting up a technology operations center in Hyderabad, India, for MarketTools, the Mill Valley, California, marketing-research company where he's senior vice president of technology and operations. And he has been stunned by what he sees there.

"I'm amazed at the work ethic," he says. "People are hungry, entrepreneurial, and willing to do whatever it takes at great sacrifices. These kids are working for a change in economic status. Things that we take for granted like housing, health care, vacations -- this is what they're looking at. And the difference to them between $6,000 a year and $10,000 is huge."
Protest, if you like, against labor exploitation or unfair competition. The reality is, workers in India, China, Brazil, and, inevitably, everywhere else aren't stopping long to worry about it. They make our developed-world notion that workers actually are entitled to balance seem quaintly dated.

For years, work-life advocates have held up as a model the "work to live" ethic of Europeans, who historically have toiled fewer hours than Americans. But those would-be paragons are failing, too. The French government is reconsidering its decision in 2000 to reduce the national workweek to 35 hours. And two of Germany's largest companies, Siemens AG and DaimlerChrysler, have (with popular support) won union concessions that will force longer hours for employees.

If you're competing against Pavan Vishwakarma -- and ultimately, we all are -- you can't have both a big paycheck and reasonable hours. The laws of economics won't allow it. If we want time with our families, time to give back to our communities, time to stay slim, we're going to have to accept a pay cut -- and even then, we'll have to work darned hard. Hungry beats fat, every time.

The Superman Trap

For many, the great fallacy is not that we aspire to accomplishment but that we aspire to everything else, too. Unwilling to prioritize among things that all seem important, we instead invent for ourselves the possibility of having everything.

In part, this is the inevitable result of the rush of women into the workforce and the proliferation of two-income families. Can any couple facing two full-time jobs, kids, aging parents, groceries, the dog, the bills, and telemarketers at dinnertime expect anything but all stress, all the time?

But it's not just demographics; it's also desire. If women's inner voices in 1963 were saying, as feminist writer Betty Friedan surmised then, "I want something more than my husband and my children and my home," then today many (and many men, too) are saying something different: "I want it all."

So it is that Tina Sharkey, AOL's senior vice president of life management and community, finds herself on a plane two or three days a week, taking photos of her meal, the flight attendants, everything, so her two young kids will know what she does.

Sharkey's routine seems, to many who know her, mind-boggling. She and her husband, fully employed entrepreneur Seth Goldstein, live with their kids in New York. But many of her 250 employees are at AOL's Dulles, Virginia, headquarters. So she spends one or two nights a week at a hotel nearby. Even at home, her workday is a whirl; she typically breaks at 6 p.m. to go home but is back online from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. As "chief everything officer" of her family, as she puts it, Sharkey coordinates the children's care and family meals, and participates in what school functions she can.

She is an extraordinary woman who evinces both intensity and empathy. But her regimen poses a trap for the rest of us. If we work hard enough, we imagine, we can do anything -- and, therefore, everything. "Balance is misleading people," says Laura Nash, who with Howard Stevenson surveyed hundreds of professionals for their new book, Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). "The problem is, they're looking for a magic bullet, a one-stop solution." It is a peculiarly American quest for perfection, for "a solution in achievements."

You've seen supermen and superwomen: They're the ones at their kids' baseball games, half-watching while tethered to their cell phones (been there). Or they're on the phone at work, sorting out child-care schedules and meal assignments with their nannies and spouses.
The problem, as Nash points out, is that while success at work is largely rooted in achievement, success outside of work mostly isn't. The things most of us say we value in our nonwork lives -- simply caring and being there for others -- aren't a function of accomplishing anything per se. Contentedness in that realm is less a matter of doing more than of cutting back.
Obvious enough, isn't it? Life is about setting priorities and making trade-offs; that's what grown-ups do. But in our all-or-nothing culture, resorting to those sorts of decisions is too often seen as a kind of failure. Seeking balance, we strive for achievement everywhere, all the time -- and we feel guilty and stressed out when, inevitably, we fall short.

The Book of Life

Do we throw up our hands then? We can't do everything, but neither can we retreat from the things that are important. How do we make work and life happen on our terms?
The short answer is, we don't entirely. But there are saner ways to confront the problem. One is rooted in the short term. In their interviews and surveys, Nash and Stevenson learned that successful professionals who were also happy had found ways to "switch and link" -- to switch the focus of their full attention with lightning speed among activities and people in different realms.

David Zelman, a psychotherapist and executive coach, sees this as a crucial skill successful people must learn. "Can you leave the office in the office? Can you give someone outside the office the same attention you gave your CEO? If you can give your children or your spouse 100% of your attention, even for a brief period, it goes way longer than compromising and giving them some time because you think you should."

The other solution is more about structure. It forces us to take a long-term view. Give up on the promise of balance at any point in time. Instead, consider a life and career as a portfolio. In each chapter, we have different responsibilities and priorities: children, home, travel, aging relatives. We face a corresponding variety of roles and opportunities on the job: a big project, moving up the managerial hierarchy, consulting, a startup, a top leadership role.

Balance, for what the word is worth, then becomes a lifelong quest -- balance among chapters rather than within each chapter. "It gets in people's heads that the ultimate goal is a 50-50 split between work and life," says work-life consultant Cali Williams Yost. "But there are times when I've happily devoted 80% of my time to work -- and other times when I couldn't." The tough part is recognizing the chapters for what they are -- just temporary episodes that together make up a coherent and satisfying whole.

"This is just one chapter in my life. I feel I have so much to contribute. I have to leverage myself and contribute in the way I can."

That's why Sharkey finds her current manic lifestyle acceptable -- because, she says, "this is just one chapter in my life." The opportunity to fix and build a business at AOL -- and to create something that brings lasting value to women and families -- is, she believes, worth the frenzy and the compromises. "I feel like I have so much to contribute. I have to leverage myself and contribute in the way I can."

Consider it an exercise in continuous redesign, in adapting to ever-changing circumstances and priorities. For couples, this also requires constant rebalancing of roles and responsibilities: You got the promotion, so I'll telecommute for now -- until my next big opportunity comes up. Those who succeed, says Zelman, are "the people who learn to dance with change, who create and ride the wave." They don't make decisions once or twice, but all the time.

And here's what's crucial: With each decision, these people invest themselves, their passion, and their time in what is most important to them. They also agree to give up something important; a portfolio life doesn't excuse them from the need to make trade-offs. The decision to reject the mirage of balance requires the discipline to continually prioritize and compromise.

Is that balance? Only in the sense that, over time, things more or less balance out. But that doesn't make it perfect, or easy. In some ways, it's counterinstinctual. It forces us to think differently about our careers and about the contributions we make in all realms of our lives. And it gives us a plan that's valid only until the next baby, project deadline, layoff, or illness.

But all things considered, it could prove a lot saner.