Shawna-Kaye Lester is founder of Memorable Essay, where she is a university admissions consultant and writing coach. She helps ambitious college and graduate school applicants impress admissions, attend their dream schools school, and create the life and legacy they want. You can find her on IG and Twitter at @skayeonline.
Work-life balance is a concept I once believed in. It is not something I have ever aspired to create, but I used to listen intently as women who had effected some degree of high-level responsibility and compensation in their careers would talk about this magical midpoint. Whenever these women described jobs that demanded that they make a concerted effort to spend as much time in their homes as they spent in their offices, I would think “I want a job with built-in work-life balance.”
By listening to older, accomplished women, I discovered another thing I needed to be part and parcel of any job I had: The freedom to be myself. In 2006, I attended a Goldman Sachs Undergraduate Women’s Summit where Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, delivered a memorable address. I learned how expressions like crying and shouting are often interpreted differently, depending on whether they are done by a man or woman. I also discovered how height, self-confidence and self-advocacy can make a difference in whether or not one is bestowed a leadership position. However, as fascinated as I was by this and all the information provided during the summit, I decided there that I would never become an investment banker.
I could not picture myself being in an office for most of my waking hours every day. More importantly though, I could tell that the person I would need to become in order to survive as an investment banker would be a caricature of my ambitious-but-easygoing self.
Fast forward three years: I watched a friend’s mother take her last breath, and I began to see work-life balance as the hogwash that it is. Your work and your life are one entity, because you spend time working. When someone we love dearly dies and we are saddened, it is partly because we realize we won’t be able to spend time with them as we used to. Time is the currency of life; everything you spend time on constitutes your life. For me, time IS life.
In my experience, women are asked to reflect on their work-life balance more than men are. However, I think all people should stop thinking about this concept as real, and instead, aim to ensure that whatever income-generating activity funds their lifestyle allows them to remain the same person they are as when they are doing non-income-generating activities. When you are at work, just as when you are with friends, you should be able to uphold values you believe in, discuss agendas you care about, and present yourself without pretense.
In June of this year, I discovered that clinical psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabary shares my sentiment. In a blog entry she states:
“As much as possible, and I know it cannot be true for everyone, shift from believing that your work and life are two separate entities. If you don’t, work will feel like “work.” When there is a seamlessness between your work and your life, something miraculous happens: You remain the same person you are – in both arenas. Both are natural extensions of who you are. … Work is not begrudged while your life is not yearned for.”
I have seen firsthand where being convinced that life is separate from work makes people accept all sorts of atrocities in the workplace. The megalomaniac man-child boss who shouts because he has “an anger issue”, the disingenuous coworkers who take credit for your work, and the day-to-day institutional priorities that differ greatly from the ones on the company website are all tolerated for five days of every week because “real life” begins on Friday evening. But real life happens every second of the day.
One week ago I launched www.memorableessay.com, an online home for admissions consulting and writing coaching services I have provided for over seven years. This took five months of focused, constant work. During my “leisure time”, I would read about how to be a more effective service provider. While walking or running with an exercise partner, sometimes I would talk with this person, and at other times I would think about the website layout. Sometimes I would answer a question someone had about their personal statement or interview via WhatsApp, after cooking and eating dinner with a loved one. I found no need for “work” and “life” demarcations.
Do you think people should disabuse themselves of “achieving work-life balance”? I would love to know. For the rest of 2016, may you take the steps necessary to grow comfortable with embracing your work as your life, because it is.