Busting the Myth of Work-Life Balance

If you start a business believing work-life balance is part of the deal, you’re making a big mistake.

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A successful consultant recently told me this story.

She was at a dog park with her young daughter and their dog. As it was the middle of the week, she sat on a bench, working on her mobile, while her daughter and dog played.

After some time, her daughter asked, “Why are you on your phone? You should be spending time with me.”

The business owner gently explained to her daughter that because she was able to do business by phone, it meant she could actually find time to go to the park instead of sitting in an office, imagining a life with a perfect work-life balance.

She knew work and life can no longer be separated into different sides of the teeter-totter. The reality is that work and life are on a continuum. Expecting them to fit neatly into separate categories is a recipe for disappointment and even disaster.

Part of the issue has been management and happiness gurus telling us that we can have it all. They tell us that if we’re struggling, then we must be doing something wrong, and for only $29.99, they will sell us the answer to set it all right again.

The biggest problem is blame. When things don’t turn out the way we imagined, we blame our customers for being unreasonable, our employees for being unmotivated and ourselves for being too stupid to figure it out.

“After all,” we think, “look at all those other happy business owners on Facebook and on the covers of their books. They can figure it out; why can’t I?”

Our customers wonder what’s wrong, our employees leave us, and we lose hope in our own enterprise.

It can all be avoided if we start with a realistic expectation — that really is this hard. There is no balance to being an entrepreneur or business owner. It is an unbalanced undertaking.

It is also a place of joy, accomplishment and growth.

The Great Missed Opportunity
Work-life balance is based on a destructive assumption: that life and work are two separate things. This is a notion born out of the Industrial Revolution, when human lives were fractured into jobs and home life — and many workers spent their lives doing something they constantly sought to escape from: a life of dreaded Monday mornings and dreamed-of Friday afternoons.

A gift of being an entrepreneur is we can escape that division and create a life that is whole.

Consider the arts. Did anyone tell Miles Davis he should stop practicing and performing for so many hours and get some work-life balance? Does Margaret Atwood feel she is lacking work-life balance as she cranks out hour after hour of writing? Picasso? Keith Richards? We acknowledge being an artist is a life.

Entrepreneurship is a discipline like sports and the arts. If the art of growing a business does not bring you joy and purpose, we don’t have a work-life balance problem. We have a problem of calling — and that’s a different conversation entirely.

An Operator’s Licence?
I wish there was a course similar to driver training or CORE (the Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Education program for hunters) for people (and their spouses) thinking about starting a business. Here are some of the things that course should share with would-be business owners:

Read Gerber’s The E Myth Revisited.
Gerber reminds us that baking and owning a bakery are two different things. The first is about the joy of creating food. The second is about the joy of growing a business. One is about flours, flavours and temperatures. The other is about money, relationships and management. Before you open that bakery, ask yourself which of the two joys is yours.

Know you are starting a difficult journey.
The second destructive assumption of the work-life balance myth is: this should all be easier. We invest thousands of dollars and hours trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. That it isn’t easy doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. It is simply this hard. Truly. Especially in the first three to five years. Tell your friends not to worry if they don’t see you every weekend. It’s okay.

Heal the rift between work and life.
Work-life balance is an artifact from the time before we left our jobs. In that job, we had to balance a broken whole: work (not us) and life (us). As business owners, we have an opportunity to heal that rift. We have the power to redefine what a life looks like, as something that includes passion to create something remarkable. We can do that for our employees as well. Read The Nordstrom Way, for example, and see how a business with 50,000 employees continually finds ways to empower everyone to be an entrepreneur within the larger enterprise and to heal the rift between life and work in their own lives. Being an entrepreneur is not what we do, it is who we are.

Make business both a means and an end.
One of my clients is a highly successful business owner and an avid hunter. Yes, he puts hundreds of hours into his business, but he finds opportunity for growth in every one of those hours. And when he wants to go hunting, he goes. As a successful business owner, he has the power to put in place the means to make other parts of his life possible. There aren’t two things to balance in his life. He lives one life, which he creates every day.

As business owners, we have the power, and perhaps even the responsibility, to challenge the idea of the binary life. We have the power to create and model a whole life that doesn’t need balancing.