One of the first business books I ever read was David Ogilvy’s wisdom-drenched Confessions of an Advertising Man. As good as that book was it was also an artifact of its time. Consider the following advice in the chapter on “How to Rise to the Top of the Tree.”
“If you prefer to spend all your spare time growing roses or playing with your children, I like you better, but do not complain that you are not being promoted fast enough.”
The book was published in 1963 when work/life balance was not part of the conversation. In fact, the term did not make it into the American vocabulary until 1986. I’m pretty sure people started arguing about it at almost the same time.
The concept itself is flawed. It gives “work” an outsized importance by setting it against everything else in life. On the one hand we have work. On the other hand we have everything else. Child-rearing, time with loved ones, relaxation, spiritual activities, emergency surgery, hiking in the woods and a zillion other things are balanced against work.
And, what does “balance” mean anyway? Is it balance like two scales weighed against each other or balance like walking along a balance beam or balance like the flavors in a good salad?
Whatever we call it, we’re talking about people’s lives, including the part that some of us spend at work. If we’re going to have a fruitful discussion, we need to start with the realities of people’s lives.
It’s not about balance, it’s about choices
Most of the times in my life when I’ve been the happiest and the most productive, my life hasn’t been very balanced at all. But I was able to make choices based on what I thought was important at the time.
And the unhappy, unproductive times? Those were the ones where I didn’t have a choice. When circumstances or other people or the consequences of earlier choices took away my choice, life was not very good at all.
Work is only part of the mix. If you’re a boss, one way you can make this work is to give people choices. Another way is to support the choices they make.
Choices change over a lifetime
The choices you make at twenty-five will not hold for another seventy years. If you are single, your life and your choices will change if you marry and again if you and your spouse become parents. A serious illness or personal crisis will change your choices. You’ll change other choices, too, because living is about changing and developing.
Organizations have rarely concerned themselves with life changes. Want to cut back on your workload for a few years to raise young children? Good luck with that. Want to get back into meaningful work after significant time off to care for a sick parent? Good luck with that, too.
It’s up to you. Your company isn’t likely to think it has a stake in you once you don’t fit their mold. That’s short-sighted and wrong.
People are the source of sustainable competitive advantage
Forget technology and slick strategy. Sustainable competitive advantage comes from people. There’s nowhere else for it to come from.
The way to reap the rewards of that sustainable competitive advantage is to recognize that people lead dynamic and sometimes messy lives. Go with the grain. Give people choices. Support the choices that they make and have to make.