When people use the phrase “work-life balance,” most of them imagine a seesaw or a scale. On one end is “work,” and on the other end is “life.” The two are linked in such a way that everything is a tradeoff. If work is up, life is down. If life is up, work is down. More of one means less of the other.
This is insane.
“Work-life balance” implies that work is separate from living a life, or that it’s something to be balanced against your life. That’s strange, given that most people spend more time working every day than they do in any other activity. If all of those hours are not part of life, then something is deeply wrong. Life and work are not two enemies battling for our limited attention. In fact, the opposite tends to be the case. When we have meaningful, fulfilling, purposeful work, it radiates through our lives. And when we have happy, secure, loving relationships, they, too, radiate through our lives.
I have a six month-old boy at home now. That makes leaving the house for a trip away harder than it was before. And it would be easy for me—and others I know—to wrap ourselves in knots of guilt about how we spend our time.
What I’ve found helpful to remember is that the balance we seek is not that of a seesaw, but of a symphony. Every element of a symphony has a role to play: sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, sometimes silent, sometimes solo. The balance we seek is not for every instrument to be played in moderation at every moment — that’s just a long, boring honk — but for a complementary relationship where each instrument is played at the right pitch and the right intensity, with the right phrasing and the right tempo. At certain times, particular aspects of our lives come to the fore, while others fall into the background. As new harmonies emerge, we can create something beautiful.
Of course you have to make choices. You can’t be in two places at once. I’ve known many people—both men and women—who’ve left the military to raise a family, or who’ve put off pursuing a degree or starting a business until their kids are grown.
Life demands that we make hard decisions. I’ve just found that thinking about balance in that seesaw way ends up driving us crazy, making us miserable, or both. If you feel that every moment of life is a moment of slacking from work, or that every moment at work is a moment that you’re, say, stealing time from your daughter, I don’t know how you’d stay sane.
Some people aim to solve this problem by half committing to everything they do. And, of course, everything ends up mediocre. When you give a half-effort at work and with your family, when you always worry about being somewhere other than the place you are, nothing feels exceptional.
Another approach is to seek intensity tempered by intensity. Work hard. Pray powerfully. Exercise intensely. Laugh raucously. Love completely. And then . . . sleep deeply. Some hours, days, weeks, months, and years—your family will come first. Other times, your work, your art, even your passionate pursuit of a promising hobby, might dominate your time and attention.
As we think about balance, it’s helpful—and I think a little more forgiving of ourselves—if we recognize that our balance will be that of the adult artist who brings sound or color together into a harmonizing whole, not the balance of a four-year-old on the playground. And that means that, yes, sometimes you’ll work through the weekend. Sometimes your family won’t see you. Other times your family will be first and your work will lie fallow. Sometimes you’ll live a solo, focusing on just one thing. Other days everything will work together. Give yourself the freedom to live a life that’s balanced.
One final note about this: It’s fashionable to imagine that work-life balance is a recent problem or phenomenon. I think that’s mostly a way of flattering ourselves. We imagine that our generation is so special that no one has ever been as overwhelmed as we are today. But this tension about how and where to spend our energy has existed as long as work and life have existed. And the best solution has always been essentially the same.
An English minister summed up a great answer in the 1930s. This quotation greets me in the lobby of my building: “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
It’s as true today as it was then.
Eric Greitens is a Navy SEAL, Rhodes Scholar, boxing champion and humanitarian leader. The founder of The Mission Continues and the author of the New York Times best-seller The Heart and the Fist, Eric was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. His book, Resilience, has just been published.