Saturday, June 13, 2009

Work - Life Balance isn't always possible, so suck it up

There is an old joke that goes something like this:

Two guys were hiking in the woods when they startled a bear. They took off running, and one guy said to the other "We're never going to outrun this bear".

The second said, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."

For years, people in my post-baby-boom generation have been told that the secret to success and happiness is work-life balance. They rank their priorities and consistently (and rightly) place family above work, then interpret "balance" and "priorities" to mean they should be spending as much TIME with their family as they do at work. They make it a point to be at every soccer practice, PTA meeting, and handle their share of the pick-up duties. I myself believed this for many years, right up until I was laid off several years ago.

This is when I learned an important lesson: Placing your family ahead of work in order of importance doesn't necessarily mean you devote the same amount of TIME and ENERGY to being WITH your family; it means you place your family's welfare and well-being ahead of work. Believe it or not, your family doesn't ALWAYS need you around. But, they do need you to provide a home and food and health care and the other necessities of life. And then they need your time. It is work, your job, that provides these things.

Like it or not, there are going to be people that are as good or better than you. There can only be one #1, and if you want to be that star performer, the one that is still around when the layoffs are done, you will have to work harder. Don't give me that tired old mantra "Work smarter, not harder". Today it is "Work smarter AND harder".

There are going to be great periods at work where everything runs smoothly and you're out of work on time and you're able to coach the t-ball team. But there are also going to be periods where the challenges are huge, and the winners at work will be the ones that step up and do what is necessary to overcome the challenges. These periods don't last forever, although sometimes it can feel like they will. So, explain to your family that for the next few months you're going to miss dinner twice a week, then stick around and take care of that last meeting at 6 pm.

In my current position, I recently transitioned what I do to another plant in my company located in Asia. At the time, I was working my way out of a job but I embraced this and I worked the long hours and made the tough decisions. Late-night conference calls and 4 a.m. email checks, with a ton of complex, difficult work in-between were the norm for several months.  Now, I've been entrusted with several programs that have been deemed critical to the future of our business unit in Huntsville, all because I made the choice to work harder and smarter. This is paying off by providing the security my family needs right now, and the opportunity to improve our financial situation despite the worst economic times in our lives.

Lest you think this is a self-congratulating post, allow me to point out that my counterparts in Asia that now work my old program are 12 timezones ahead of me. When I arrive at 7 a.m., I have a full inbox of complex communications, and these continue to come well into my morning. When I leave between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., I've already received the first of the emails for the following day. Remember this the next time you wonder why manufacturers build everything they can overseas.


  1. Work harder and smarter, but when you ARE with the family, work just as hard and smart to be with them MENTALLY as well as physically. I know that's the toughest thing for me.