Work-life balance

When people can’t find a good answer to an important question, it is usually the case that they’re not asking the right question.

Obviously, that doesn’t apply to scientifically hard objective problems like nuclear fusion, room temperature superconductors and faster than light travel.

But it is almost always the case with human problems.

Take “work-life balance”.

The way the problem is phrased already constrains the range of possible solutions. It suggests that work and life are competing values between which, we must find a compromise that will satisfy our unique preferences and situation.

That’s what people usually do. It sounds like the only thing they can do. But it doesn’t sound right.

Because actually, the relationship between work and life is the relationship between tool and purpose, means and ends, the how and the why. The relationship isn’t horizontal, but vertical. It isn’t parallel, but serial.

It’s not like this:


It’s like this:


On top of the “framing error” that work and life are competing values to be balanced rather than tool and purpose, there is often the unconscious assumption that work has to be tedious to count.

By that logic, paperwork counts and sending people to Mars doesn’t.

In other words, people are trying to find the right amount of unpleasant stuff to do to earn the right to do the pleasant stuff. It becomes a question of willingness to put up with dullness, of frustration tolerance, a psychological pain threshold. That again sounds like a framing error that precludes the correct answer from even being thinkable.

(The complementary error by overcompensation to that is the hipstery notion that anything you enjoy automatically counts as work. That’s how we end up with hundreds of thousands of art majors angry they’re not making seven figures, because other people selfishly insist on paying only for things they find useful or enjoyable.)

Sure, a lot of useful work is hard. But “hard” and “not fun” are different things. The two are orthogonal qualities. In fact, some things are much more fun when they are harder. If you work on spaceships, or artificial intelligence, or curing sick people, your work is super hard, but also super rewarding (if not always “fun” in the strict sense).

This may be hard to accept at first, because one of the central lessons growing up was that grownup stuff was inherently dull.

But the link between “work” and “drudgery” was incidental, and followed mostly from historical circumstances. There are many more kinds of jobs today, and most considerably more rewarding, than anything a generation ago.

If you can find a way to make a living doing what you love, so that “work and life” are not competing, but in fact aligned, congratulations. You solved the work-life question by synthesis.

That is, in fact, the correct answer – the realization that you can align work with life, rather than deciding between them.

The second best solution is realizing work is an instrument to other goals. Like life.

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  • Yan Masarsky

    It’s also a problem of terminology. Work (and pretty much everything else) is a _part_ of life. You don’t balance a part with the whole, just as you don’t look for a balance between books and pages in them. What people mean by “work-life balance” is more accurately described as “amount of stuff I usually don’t want to do but I get paid for it” vs. “amount of stuff I want to do but usually there’s no money in it.” I’d say that “life” is a bit too grand a term for the latter, by the way.

    We might dismiss it as semantic nitpicking, but by subliminally accepting “work” as something opposed to, external to life, we reinforce the artificial dichotomy that creates our inner conflict.

    If there is a balance to be found, it’s the balance between over-specialization that we inherited from early stages of civilization (“I”m just a blacksmith, there’s nothing more to me”) and over-individualization of the post-industrial era (“I’m a unique snowflake and can’t be bothered with labels of professional self-identification”).

    (Next chapter: balance between cool, hyphenated words, and dull, regular ones.)

  • Alex Ermolin

    Oh, a ‘do what you love’ sermon, isn’t it? A year ago, things looked somewhat different (and a lot more interesting): ;-)

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      You still need discipline to do the things you love for a living – loving something doesn’t mean you enjoy it 100% of the time, or that you wouldn’t rather be doing something else at any particular point in time.

      Even in my dream job as sexy space pirate, there would be times I would rather be on a beach than realigning the polarity of the subspace synchronicity array or whatever.

      But there is no merit in suffering for suffering’s sake, and work is not necessarily a situation where you earn the right to do nice things by rolling around in the not nice things. It’s not an exchange of pain for merit points. The pain may or may not be incidental, and the point of discipline is doing stuff *despite pain* when it makes rational sense to, not *seeking out* pain.

      It’s more a “don’t be sucked into a masochistic assumption work *has to* be unenjoyable” sermon. That’s not an inverse statement of “work has to be enjoyable”, which is the hipsterfallacy I warn against too. Not having to be cold doesn’t mean having to be hot.

      The linked article by ycombinator founder Paul Graham makes the distinction:

      Actually, probably don’t open the link. You’ll get sucked into reading everything the guy ever wrote, like me.