I recently turned thirty-five. I never thought I’d live to see the day. By that, I don’t mean that I expected to die by now, but that even in my twenties, the number 35 seemed too far to fathom or think about or impact my twenty-something day-to-day.
I also recently became a father. Becoming a parent is a singularity-like event. Those not there have no idea what it’s like. Those past the point of no return can’t get the message back out. It instantly changes the world you live in and the person you thought you were and what’s important and precious.
That’s how the issue of “work-life balance” went from being funny stuff old people talked about to front and center in my life. (I put the term in quotes because I hate it. But it has entered the parlance, so I’ll stick with it.) Here I just want to commit some thoughts to blog (in other words, a rant). I won’t pretend to offer any solutions, just observations.
First things first: this is not an issue for single people, and even couples without kids. Sorry. Let’s not even dilute the debate by including them in it. For them, achieving work-life balance is a nice-to-have, like that fancy car or exotic vacation. Sure things would be better with it, but it’s not exactly crucial. If the twenty-something me waxed eloquent about work-life balance to the present me, I’d smack him on the head. Your own self, or even you plus a partner, have infinite control over the contours of your time. An adult partner has way more flexibility in the timing and quantity of care and feeding, emotional or physical, they need from you. A baby, on the other hand, needs what it needs when it needs it, full stop. Needing to cancel Friday night club hopping because you had to crunch on your project is not in the same league as missing your toddler’s doctor’s appointment.
Ann-Marie Slaughter has pretty much written the last word on the topic in her Atlantic piece, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. If you care about this issue at all, you have to read that it its entirety, and then let it sit in your head for a few days. It is insightful, thoughtful, and comprehensive.
But the debate is still largely gendered. Maternity leaves are much longer than paternity leaves. Mothers stressing out about their babies is considered normal, dads doing the same is considered saintly. Why the low standard for fathers? Only lately have I started reading about working dads and how this issue looks through the lens of fatherhood. The signs are encouraging. I see more dads around me “flaunt” their fatherhood more openly, and be less shy about openly declaring that they’ll take care of a certain piece of work after they’ve attended their kid’s school play.
I see corporate policies and environments, at least in the small tech echo chamber I inhabit, moving in the right direction. Managers are supportive of parents and their need for flexible schedules. Usually it is the parents who are hard on themselves, and can never outrun the feeling that they’re shortchanging both work and family.
There is an “invisible hand” in the modern workplace that values velocity above all else (and I can understand why), and creates pressure for more, more, more without any one individual or manager breathing down your neck. The paradox is that every single individual one interacts with at work might be reasonable in their expectations, yet, in aggregate, expectations always build up to where they’re overwhelming. The problem with velocity is that, when cognitive bandwidth is constrained (which is a fancy way of saying “when your brain is fried”) activity and just dumb number of hours put in is mistaken as a substitute.
To break out of this, one has to judge the value of work by the result and impact achieved, not the hours put in, or where they were put in. And that is easier said than done. A big part of modern work is defining what the work is. Time is thought of as a combustible resource–put more in, get more out–even if that has now shown to be not true for knowledge workers. Here’s a thought experiment: if you or your team achieved all your goals for the quarter in the first two months, could you all take the remaining month off? You’re probably laughing at me because the answer is “of course not, we’d just find more work to do in that extra month.” But 10x developers don’t pull off their magic by working long hours. They do it by figuring out what’s important and focusing on that.
I thoroughly enjoy my work. I don’t even usually think of it as work, and I know I’m fortunate in that respect. Stepping away from it is a struggle. But when I look back over the last few years, the times that stand out the most are my travels with my family. Everything else, work or not, pales in comparison. If I looked back again in a few years, what would I regret more: not putting in enough hours for that project (and maybe pulling down some more money), or missing my son’s first tooth or first steps or first words?