11/11/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Work-Life Balance: Reality or Myth?


Over the years I have presented numerous workshops and coached many people, mostly in a business context. About 15 years ago, the term "work-life balance" started emerging and quickly became a "buzz phrase." I started noticing it in the investment banking industry where I used to joke at workshops for newly hired bankers, "If there was truth in advertising, they would say, 'Don't have a life? Willing to work 90 hours a week with the potential of burning out in 4 years? Then come work for us!'" That always got a chuckle in the room.

The idea of work-life balance is not new. The government first attempted to advocate this balance when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, introducing the 40-hour workweek. The focus re-emerged in the mid-1990s, coinciding with the internet moving to the forefront and the increased number of working mothers in the workforce.

The early 2000s saw a lot of downsizing due to the tech bubble bursting and the aftereffect of the events of 2001. The call to action for those left standing was, "Do more with less!" The results were tired, stressed-out employees. Those who seemed impervious to the stress continued to try to rally the troops with the idea that doing the work of three people was not only possible but required if you wanted to look like a team player. Only when employee burnout and illness started impacting the bottom line did management begin to notice that something was askew.

In the mid-late 2000s a burgeoning business appeared, offering stress management and work-life balance solutions. If you Google "Work-Life Balance" today, there are scores of articles, tips, workshops, and how-to guides, all designed to help you get better balance in eight steps or less. Obviously there is no easy solution, or we would all have enough sleep and quality time with the family while meeting our business objectives on shorter and shorter deadlines. I am not proposing a solution here, but I am going to offer a perspective.

I think the idea of balance is a myth. When something is perfectly balanced, it's stationary. Think of a statue. No matter what the position, size or angle, it's perfectly balanced--unless it's intentionally off-kilter. If you never have movement in any aspect of your life, then we can talk about balance.

However, if you're like the rest of us, your life has many moving parts which often collide. My 11th grade philosophy teacher introduced me to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus by quoting that "Change is the only constant." I often hear complaints about how every aspect of life seems to be in constant flux, with things moving faster and faster all the time and that it requires a monumental effort to slow down and find a still point. Since movement is part of the nature of life, then perhaps what we should be seeking is equilibrium rather than stillness.

Equilibrium is about how we adjust between opposing or divergent influences. Remember seeing your first gyroscope? It constantly moved to maintain its upright orientation. What if everything that happens to you becomes an opportunity for re-orienting yourself as you move through your life? Sometimes it's necessary to go out of balance to recalibrate and make sure all the moving parts of your life are going in the right direction.

As uncomfortable as multiple forces pulling on us might be, what if those moments are nature's way of encouraging us to take a step back from the daily busyness to evaluate whether or not what we're doing is supporting ourselves and those around us? It can take great discipline to do this as the world and all the opportunities that present themselves moment-to-moment can be mighty seductive.

I recently had a chance to practice this. Over the last several months, I have been in a robust conversation with another woman about starting our own company. Then, someone I deeply respect who has a global platform approached me about helping her build a company. Wow! What an extraordinary opportunity! Suddenly I had two opposing forces pulling on me, both of which were awesome in their own way. I took the time to reflect and consider both options. Nearly every day I would switch from one to the other because I could see the advantages of both. I even considered whether I could integrate them to create a third option. In the end, it became clear that what I really want in my heart of hearts is to have my own company with a partner who is as committed to working with me as much as I'm committed to working with her. The lack of clarity and the indecision lifted, and I found my equilibrium once again.

The process of ongoing re-orientation is a path of freedom because you shift from being at the mercy of the world around you to making conscious choices that uplift and support you. If life is full of movement, change and imbalance, you might as well use it to your advantage.

"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving."
-Albert Einstein