I’ve been rereading First Things First, by Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca Merrill recently, as I’m creating my list of “must read” books for clients concerned with time management, work/life balance, and the like. This book was first published in 1994 and I read it then. Perhaps the best accolade I can give it is to say that I’ve remembered many of its principles and still apply them today.
While reading the section entitled “The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing,” I started thinking about work/life balance and how “the main thing” may vary from person to person, and how work/life balance is often so poorly understood because the phrase suggests that there is a perfect balance between work and life that everyone should attain. That view is (in my mind) so fallacious as to be dangerous. And last night, I ran across two paragraphs in First Things First that address the issue beautifully:
We live our lives in terms of roles — not in the sense of role playing, but in the sense of authentic parts we’ve chosen to fill. We may have important roles at work, in the family, in the community, or in other areas of life. Roles represent responsibilities, relationships, and areas of contribution.
Much of our pain in life comes from the sense that we’re succeeding in one role at the expense of other, possibly even more important roles. We may be doing great as vice-president of the company, but not doing well at all as a parent or spouse. We may be succeeding in meeting the needs of our clients, but failing to meet our own need for personal development and growth . . . Balance among roles does not simply mean you’re spending time in each role, but that these roles work together for the accomplishment of your mission.
(Emphasis mine.) We each choose the roles we want to live, and we define how we want to live them through a mission statement or similar expression of values and intentions. Outside forces may impact the roles we live (the law, for instance, provides a minimum standard of care for parents) but generally speaking, we determine how to perform in and through each role. For instance, one person’s mission statement might open by saying, “I am a lawyer who….” Another could read, “I am a parent who….” And yet another might write, “I am a person who….”
I hold that the mission statement that revolves around the person, not the roles that person seeks to fill, stands the greatest chance of success because the statement recognizes that a variety of attributes and skills will create the life that the person wants to live. The same is true, I believe, for career success. We bring our whole selves to work. As Judge Tuttle put it, “[S]ome specialized and highly developed techniques may be included, but [the professional’s] mode of expression is given its deepest meaning by the personality of the practitioner. In a very real sense his professional service cannot be separate from his personal being. He has no goods to sell, no land to till. His only asset is himself.”
Work/life balance is necessary to replenish the self and to keep the asset fresh. The balance supports the work. And so (as I continue to seek a different descriptor) work/life synergy renews and sustains the resource that accomplishes the work. Just as some of us need 6 hours of sleep a night and some need 9, the source of renewal will vary in quality and quantity from person to person. What’s more, the synergy goes both ways: just as “life” facilitates “work,” “work” may facilitate “life.” A lawyer may carry out the duties of her work in part to teach her child of what it means to be a professional, or perhaps she may use her work to further her political beliefs. And quality and quantity will vary in this direction as well. What matters is the recognition that each part of a lawyer’s life, each role that he chooses to assume, will either support or undermine his overall effectiveness in life — recognition that exists in concert with appropriate action. And that’s why “work/life balance” and “work/life synergy” matter.
I challenge you today to consider what roles constitute your life. And then, search for the synergy among the roles that creates the whole. How can you strengthen your performance in each role in a way that will strengthen the whole of your life?