My Career Gets an A-plus…My Life a C-minus

My Career Gets an A-plus…My Life a C-minus

The title of this post is a quote from an actual conversation I had with a successful Silicon Valley executive bemoaning the apparent paradox of his business success (A+) and his not-always-fulfilling personal life (C-).

He went on to tell me, “basically, I earn great money; I’m well esteemed and challenged in my career and moving up.  However, so many of the areas in my life don’t get the time and attention I give my job, such as personal financial management, family, health and wellness, other personal passions and relationships. They all take a back seat to the urgent and constant care and feeding of my career pursuits.”

Firstly, I was impressed with the courage it took him to share this personal observation with me.  Many of us are not aware of the dynamics between our careers and personal lives, and how precarious the balance between the two can be, until it’s too late.

Sadly, many of us pay attention to that balance only when something awful triggers our attention, like divorce, health problems, death of a loved one, or a breakdown in a relationship with a family member.

In my experience working with business leaders in public and private high-growth companies, these life events typically occur between the ages of 35 and 50. Each can transform the way you evaluate your life passions and the time you devote to them. I interviewed Dave Cotter the CEO and founder of SquareHub about this very idea, based on my recent post called ‘Taking Stock of Your Life.’

The conclusion I agree most with is that perhaps “balance” is not the operative word when discussing a solution.

Ed Batista, a noted instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an executive coach, and blogger for the Harvard Business Review, covered this subject in a post titled “Happy Workaholics Need Boundaries, Not Balance.” Batista suggests that phrases like “work/life balance,” or “prioritizing work and life,” should be replaced with the word “boundaries.”

In other words, executives don’t need balance, they need boundaries. The reason so many highly successful business leaders are devoted to their work and pour their passions into their jobs is because they love their work. It’s a choice, not a chore. Choices don’t respond to balance; they require boundaries.

Batista believes good boundaries lead to more wholesome lives, and more synergy.  He gives examples of three different types of boundaries to consider using in daily practice:

  • Temporal—designate specific time for family relationships, enhancements to health, and life passions.
  • Physical—create and maintain physical distance between you and your work, including the tools of your trade (computers, smartphones, etc.)
  • Cognitive—give attention to important personal relationships, and stay in the moment. In other words, don’t dwell on past events or get distracted by what you have to do later.

I tend to agree with Mr. Batista that “balance” isn’t the most meaningful concept to keep in mind when considering the problems of my Silicon Valley friend.  My personal issue with the word “balance” is that it implies a winner and a loser; it presumes life and work are at odds with each other. For example, picture a playground teeter-totter. When life goes up (wins), work goes down (loses). To me, that’s not a useful model. It also makes finding the point of balance very elusive.

It is obvious to me why business leaders often get themselves into this predicament, much like my friend did.  The demands of the job require focus, drive, and huge amounts of energy. That’s what it takes to satisfy the needs of clients, to reach goals and objectives, and to motivate and inspire the team that works for you. This all naturally takes away time for other things.

At the same time, the constant validation of financial success can reinforce the pressure to work harder, and create a fear of slowing down.

Creating work/life boundaries (or better yet, work/life integration) is critical to achieving an A-plus in your career and in your life.  I like the word “integration” because it suggests wholeness, cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual interests rather than opposing ones. Boundaries logically become one of the important tactics in the process of integration.

Setting boundaries has been a real challenge for me personally. I spend a great deal of my available time and mental energy on building and growing Highland and serving the needs of our clients.  I’ve developed bad habits over the years, such as over-committing my time, ignoring my other passions, putting off my exercise to next week, and not being fully present at family functions. My wife has called me on this many times.

Just like the Silicon Valley business leader, I’m aware that I want integration of my work and life.  I’ve put that awareness to action, setting better boundaries so that I get the richness of life I desire.  Add in some loving accountability from those closest to me, and I hope to report back soon that I’m integrating the most important things in my life better than ever.

How about you?

John Christianson
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