Work-Life Balance: A Player's Guide
Today at a Glance
- A Reddit post I shared that read, "PSA: 20 years from now, the only people who will remember that you worked late are your kids" sparked a lot of online dialogue last week.
- Our default setting of work worship may be slowly, methodically robbing us of joyful, fulfilling, comprehensively wealthy lives. Perhaps it’s worth questioning the default setting—to begin living by design, rather than by default.
- I am of two minds on this: (1) Being present and spending time with those you love is the most important thing in the end and (2) Having the people you love see you work hard on things you care about is a principle they'll remember for the rest of their lives. Understanding, navigating, and balancing the tension across these two minds is how you ultimately "win" the game.
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Last week, a newsletter subscriber sent me an email that read, "Had to do a double take to be sure you didn't write this. Still not sure."
The comment was in regards to a Reddit post:
To answer my subscriber’s question, no, I did not write this, but the central idea behind it deeply resonates and is worth exploring in greater depth.
Contrary to what you may think on the surface, this isn't just about our kids and our relationship with them—this is about defining what matters to you, the values you hold most dear, and the tradeoffs you are willing to make to find balance along the way.
In short, this isn't just an important read for parents—this is an important read for everyone.
Questioning the Default Setting
The original post—which was posted in the r/antiwork subreddit, a community of 2 million members focused on critiques of modern work, traditional capitalism, and overwork—garnered over 30,000 upvotes.
In my view, it strikes an immediate cord with most of us, especially this naturally ambitious bunch of newsletter readers, because our "default setting" is to just work. To put our head down, grind away, and go home for leisure—not for the leisure itself, but to recharge for another bout of work.
As David Foster Wallace famously pointed out, "the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious." We opt in without knowing it, and never step back and ask ourselves whether it's time to opt out (partially or completely).
We see ourselves in this post, whether in the context of our present situation, our past situation and regrets, or our future situation and concerns.
One of the most popular replies touched on the regrets of those who had chosen the default path:
"I've missed so many birthdays, plays, and events for work, and I can't even tell you why. I don't remember what I was working on, I can't tell you why it was important. But I can tell you how my not being there made my kids feel. Don't be like me."
The comment reminded me of a story in an early chapter of Essentialism:
"Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife's tired arms, I was on the phone and on e-mail with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting. My colleague had written, 'Friday between 1-2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.'"
Our default setting of worship may be slowly, methodically robbing us of a joyful, fulfilling, comprehensively wealthy life.
Perhaps it’s worth questioning the default setting—to begin living by design, rather than by default.
Two Minds in Tension
While the original post focused on the negatives of long work hours (which are easy to bash), I do believe it's important to stretch the discussion in a new way.
I am of two minds on this:
- Being present and spending time with those you love is the most important thing in the end.
- Having the people you love see you work hard on things you care about is a principle they'll remember for the rest of their lives.
The importance and value of the second point often gets lost in the narrative around work-life balance. Understanding, navigating, and balancing the tension across these two minds is how I believe you ultimately "win" the game.
Put differently, the goal is not to sacrifice our career progression, fail to live up to our professional potential, and stop learning or growing in an effort to be constantly present with our kids.
The goal is to have the clarity to choose—to define your balance, to live by design, rather than by default. The goal is to ask the question, and to craft your own answer, not to blindly accept the "right" answer someone else wants to sell you.
The ability to choose is a privilege in and of itself, as it requires a certain level of baseline comfort to have been earned or achieved. For those who have the ability to choose, it's important not to squander it by falling into the default path.
It's important to ask questions, think clearly, and wrestle with tradeoffs.
My Answer (& Tips for the Journey)
My own answer and approach is informed by my first hand experience with my father. His ability to balance the two minds is something I will always remember.
He would come home for dinner, play catch with me outside, then work late once I went to bed.
Much of my own discipline and work ethic came from seeing him work hard on things that lit him up intellectually, while never allowing it to get in the way of what was most important to him (his family).
I always felt connected to his work because he took the time to explain the things he was excited about—why he was working hard on them and what he hoped to achieve with them.
This is a critical lesson for those of us seeking to navigate the tension across the two minds:
- What do your loved ones know about what you are working on?
- How are you including them in that journey?
- Do they understand why you're working hard and long hours on it?
- What lights you up about it and how can you include them in that?
Involving your loved ones in your journey is a beautiful thing. They will understand why you're working hard, the value it creates for them and you, and feel connected to your growth and achievement. An absence due to work becomes more well-understood and appreciated with the benefit of context.
In this light, “20 years from now, the only people who will remember that you worked late are your kids” has both negative and positive connotations:
- Negative: They’ll remember you missing time with them, but also;
- Positive: They’ll remember your discipline, work ethic, and energy for growth.
The balance of these two connotations—the two minds in tension—is where we hope to thrive.
In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, author David Brooks talked about the distinction between two types of virtues:
"The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?"
I think we would all agree that eulogy virtues are what matter most in the end, but I have one pushback:
Sometimes eulogy virtues are built through the consistent, disciplined application of resume virtues. Sometimes we build the deep, evergreen traits talked about at our funeral through the steady, daily actions in pursuit of a career goal.
So perhaps the debate is less about one or the other—about work or life—and more about how they come together—about how your work can flourish within the context of your entire life.
Just as we reject the default setting, I would argue we needn't accept the false dichotomy of work or life, of resume virtues or eulogy virtues.
We can have both...