Harmony, not balance

The other day when I was meeting with a student about her thesis, I was introduced to the career website glassdoor.com, which had just released a list over the best jobs for work-life balance. I had honestly never heard of this site before, and my student was telling me about how she and others in her year spend a lot of time talking about what kinds of jobs they are going to apply for once they graduate from business school. It turns out that they look to Glassdoor for advice and that they base their career decisions on questions like balance and quality of life. Now, it’s not that they aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes, these student are high-achieving and have a good chance of landing great jobs when they graduate. To them, there is more to life than work, and they want to have more than ‘just’ a career. Rightfully so, if you ask me.

I like talking to students. It gives me a glimpse of what our future holds. They are after all the ones, who are going to be our future leaders. This conversation about work-life balance and Glassdoor was intriguing to me, but it also gave me hope. These students are going into working life with their eyes wide open, and they know what they are looking for in potential employers.

Work-life balance is a funny thing though. I say funny because it seems to be on people’s lips everywhere, but at the same time I myself find the concept quite problematic (see for example my post Who wants balance anyway?). As a concept, work-life balance came about as a critique of the idea of an ideal worker, of someone who dedicates his or her life to a job. But that isn’t really what has been achieved. Work-life balance has rather become something that concerns mostly women, which at the same time is problematic especially for women, because it strengthens the idea that the valuable, masculine domain of paid work is separate and best kept separate from the less valued, private domain of non-paid (care) work, where mostly women reside. And to be honest, this separation of work from life is one of the things that I find most problematic about the whole idea of work-life balance. My work is such an important and integrated part of my life, which is also exactly the way I want it.

A colleague and I have been working with concepts of balance for the past couple of months and one thing we have found among many women who opt out to adopt new lifestyles, is that this is exactly what they do. They stop seeing their work as separate from their lives, and they stop looking for balance between artificially separated entities. Instead of keeping one from the other and finding balance between the two, they look for harmony and somewhat seamlessly interlace and move between work and other parts of life. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of coherence and authenticity, which is important.

I have a quote tacked to the wall above my desk:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Mahatma Gandhi

To me this is true on so many levels. I think harmony is the answer, rather than balance.

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