Balance, or lack of it

One of the things I commonly say to high performers is

When you live on the edge, sometimes you’ll fall off

it’s from a lifetime of trying to succeed.


One of the things that was a recurring theme of my work 5-10 years ago, as a senior technical leader at IBM, and as part of the professional review board for both Senior Consulting IT Specialist, and IBM Distinguished Engineer, work/life balance. Google has thousands of links to blogs, articles and books on it.

One of the most interesting experiences I had on work/life balance, was down in Australia. After presenting on professional development, and high performance engineering, I was asked about work life balance. What the questioner said was, and I remember it clearly to this day:

Australians work to live, they don’t live to work, how do you see us being able to achieve the same results?

I was floored. Truth is I didn’t know. Gladwells book Outliersmost people focus on the 10,000 hours as a total, but miss the point that for many, that 10,000 hours that Gladwell calls out, comes in a short period of time, often at a huge impact to other aspects of our lives.

This week I came across this blog by Chris Oxford, CEO of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. Oxford says:

It is not just the hours you put in at work; it’s that it owns your head. You think about work in the shower and on vacation, and you get lost in all of the ideas while you are sitting at dinner. It is exciting and dangerous.

and nails it when he says

 I loved my family, I felt good about what we were doing at work, and I assumed I could maintain the balance. Five years later, I had three Inc. 500 plaques hanging on my wall — and I was divorced. This is the danger of the balance propaganda. You think you can have it all, and you wind up losing what means most to you.

Think you are different? Think you can have it all? Think again. Those that appear to have it all, especially politicians who are held to some higher value, don’t. They are either cheating their constituents, cheating their family, or cheating on their partner. Cheating doesn’t require another person, it requires a mistress called work.

6 thoughts on “Balance, or lack of it

  1. Absolutely true… Well said Mark. We are in a culture where people are programmed to burn out. When I joined Starfleet I swore I would never work past six pm. 29 years on I have pretty much managed that except when travelling or in times of genuine (not imaginary) need. Having said that, I am willing to start early in the morning – because it doesn’t affect the family.

    1. And I admire you for that Andy. When we worked together, briefly, I know you took that direction, but I thought I could have it all, and could balance my work/life, and if I couldn’t it would only be temporary on this project, or that one and my family would forgive me.

      As I said in reply to a comment on facebook when this post showed up “don’t misunderstand Amy, as you know, I have a great life now, great friends, and can both afford and enjoy doing things I like. I’m getting seriously excited about racing ITU Long Course in Phuket in November. Where I am came at a huge cost to others, and then to me. While I’m still that obsessive over achiever, looking for acceptance through achievement, I simply have a hard time committing to work anymore, and in many ways, to a lot of other aspects of my life.”

      These days I realize how much I have to lose, and am often no longer willing to put it at risk. We don’t live on past achievements, we borrow from tomorrows success. Even if you have 80% of your defining moments after you are 50, they will have a smaller impact on your life than those before you are 50, unless you live to a 101.

  2. Good point, Mark, and it’s a conclusion I’ve come to these past few years. With the expectations that come with the positions these days I do not see that it’s possible to be at STSM or higher and still be a valuable husband, father, and member of the community. And, as if to prove my point, IBM has changed the wording from “Work Life Balance” to “Work Life Integration.” Balance is no longer part of the equation! I have neither seen nor heard any instance of management telling an employee to scale back on their hours – though I’ve heard it from employees at other companies.

    As for me, I’ve determined that a consistent 50 hour week is all I can give work without sacrificing on my other roles. And just recently, I’ve had to stop working at night, after three instances in a row of saying I would work on something at night then not being able to get to it. So no STSM for me – but I’m okay with that – I enjoy my family time.

    1. Thanks Monte. Really glad that you’ve kept in touch. Fifty hours though ought to be long enough for any employer to recognize and reward value, lets not pick on IBM here. I wonder how the Yahoo change to no home working will effect their contributions and hours? Add commuting on top of an already challenging business environment and you have problems I’d guess. I survived the commute to Basingstoke to St Albans for a while, but eventually the drive came to an end… for much the same reason, the stress of the commute on top of an already stressful work day…

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