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Downtime: A Life's Work in Question

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In the late 1980s, I had a breakthrough realization about life balance that resulted in my first books, "Enough is Enough" and "Inner Excellence." In brief, I was among a vanguard of corporate visionaries who believed that human beings deserve at least as much downtime for maintenance as our machines.

Contrast this to a recent article in USA Today titled ""Would-be vacationers too often saddled with work to play." Here's a quote: "The nation's nose-to-the-grindstone culture -- which only intensified during the Great Recession -- has resulted in many Americans leaving vacation days on the table." Says Carroll Rheem, senior director of research at PhoCusWright: "Americans are a hard-working lot, and they're ambitious and have a lot of priorities."

Really, this news is not a show-stopper. Just pick up the phone and get a call from anyone in an executive position in New York City, for instance, and you will discover first-hand how quaint the notion of life balance seems these days. The frazzled person on the other end of the phone is likely to be making the call while eating at his or her desk, talking way too fast, apologizing for not having gotten back to you weeks or months sooner. You may be tempted to feel upset or slighted, until you realize that the meal they're consuming is an energy bar at 8 p.m. -- and it's breakfast.

Ask them how they're doing, or wish them a great weekend -- let alone ask them the truly arcane question as to whether they have any fun vacation plans -- and you are likely to get an earful about how they're too busy to take time off. If they're a really good friend -- or truly desperate for a moment of personal human interaction -- they may even admit that taking vacation time is considered disloyal, a sign that they're not serious about their work and asking to be fired.

I remember back when authors Willis Harmon, Peter Senge, Rolf Osterberg and I were making serious headway on behalf of holistic corporate environments. I was proud to be in the league of business visionaries such as these who believed that by nurturing the human spirit and creating balanced work lives, it was truly possible to work less and achieve more. To quote myself: "To be fully successful, you must first be fully alive."

I still believe this in every fiber of my being. In fact, I devoted decades to sharing this message with others. Our kind even made some real headway. I remember giving interviews in major media in which I praised the CEO of one major company for openly admitting to taking afternoon naps and another that granted its senior executives extended paid sabbaticals.

But by and large, the only companies who ended up taking my advice, and invested in yoga studios on the premises, were the high-tech start-ups who replaced the notion of work/life balance with the notion that work IS life, so might as well throw the employees a bone.

I am more sad than bitter about this -- a lifetime investment in trying to make a difference down the drain. Because I am a spiritual person, I believe there is divine purpose or at least some degree of mysterious meaning beyond my understanding in this. I don't really believe I was called by God to invest so much of my vital energy and vision in a lost cause, or worse, that I was simply given a poor translation of the message. But still...

I can't speak for any other of the visionaries, self-help authors, business and consciousness trainers and the like who believed so fervently that we were on the verge of transforming American corporate culture. Nor can I speak for those of us in our 60s and up who marched for peace, fought every manner of injustice and trusted that we would witness a better future during our lifetime, in great part because of our work.

Now, as the body of my lifework passes before my aging eyes, chastened by the story in USA Today, I ponder my legacy and what it was all about. The possibility that I am to pass off the face of this earth not as a headline, nor even as a footnote, is somehow both sobering and liberating. Sobering because I so wanted to be someone who would be remembered for my actions and deeds. Liberating, because I now realize it was never really about me in the first place. We live. We die. And in between, if you're as lucky as me, it's one heck of a ride.