danah boyd explores the question does work/life balance exist? in a recent Apophenia blog post. (I’ve entitled this article “*/* balance” because “*” [pronounced “star”] in programming terms means “fill-in-whatever-you-want,” so “star/star” balance might stand for work:life balance, or work:fun balance or work:family or whatever your particular thing is. Her blog post was triggered by this New York Times article In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop. You might also call the article, as they suggest, Death by Blogging.
I have always contended that my method in life was to avoid “work” in favor of something that I enjoy doing. And for me, enjoying means not only that I’m happy, but that I make some sizeable contribution to the welfare of humanity at the same time. So when I label something work, I am referring to something that I really don’t want to do, but have to do for some reason.
And people have always said to me “you’re always working.” But, I actually don’t do very much that I’d classify as work by my definition. I’m fanatically dedicated to what I do, but it’s more often not really work.
So let me say more about balance…
For me, balance requires doing things in my professional life that are fun, productive, tough to do, and contribute to the welfare of large numbers of people.
Balance also involves doing things outside of my professional life that are enjoyable, yet may be hard physical or intellectual work, as well as things that are fun and easy. I’d say they’re in Nicole Lazzaro’s category of hard fun.
In danah’s post, she says “…there’s a core point here: those who are passionate about what they do do it to extremes.” And I couldn’t agree more. This is indeed the core.
For example, I plan and execute (get it, “execute”?) what my buddies lovingly call a death march almost every summer at Yosemite National Park – in the wilderness. I would just call it a sizeable trek. Last year we covered about 70 miles during seven days of hiking. Yes, we were all tired at the end of each day, but damn, this was the most beautiful place, and it is always a real experience to see more and more of the Yosemite wilderness.
For my entire adult life I have cycled between executive and technical positions. Start with tech, then build the company to the right size, act in an executive position for a few years, then leave and go learn a new technology for a few years. Most people, once they leave programming and enter the executive ranks, stay there forever because their tech skills dry up and blow away. But I always come back for more – and believe me, at the moment I am really enjoying what I’m learning in this particular tech cycle I’m in.
So the point, for me, is that unlike the suggested path in the NYT article’ – that bloggers just go until they drop – I let off steam by switching my whole occupational focus every few years. I go with a company until it’s big enough or mature enough that it’s a grind, and then I drop out in favor of more solitary pursuits until I decide to ride the up-cycle again.
I think that ultimately it comes down to Joseph Campbell’s contention that you must “follow your bliss.” And don’t worry about how much time you spend on it.
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PS: Jessica Margolin responded to danah by pointing out that sometimes one side of the equation pulls harder than the other. As Jessica says “The underlying conflict, I believe, has to do with a rigid sense of control. I can control my band schedule, my art and cooking classes, my off-grid-mountaineering-travel schedule. If it’s too onerous, I can always just walk out, after all. But I can’t control my child suddenly having trouble at school.” Yes! That is truly important to understand. Sometimes we make decisions that set our course for years to come. And sometimes those decisions strictly limit the kinds of choices we can make when trying to achieve balance in our lives. And danah’s (and my) contention that one chooses in-the-moment, might only by fully possible for people at certain stages of life.