Balance is Not a Four-Letter Word
You may have seen commentary lately about former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's speech to the Society of Human Resources Management at its recent annual conference. The thrice-married, family-sacrificing, career-driven Welch pontificates about the myth of 'balance' and warns women (but, somehow, not men) that taking time off to raise children will hurt their chances at top-management positions.
Now, if Welch weren't so gendered in his remarks, I might find quite a bit to nod my head about in his ideas. For example, he tells the audience that, "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences." He's right. We can't have something for nothing. If we want to devote our lives to our jobs, we can't devote them elsewhere - and vice versa. No one, ESP couples included, should think that the world will open up and hand us lives that include incompatible prizes. Welch goes on to say that taking time off for family "can offer a nice life, but the chances of going to the top on that path" are smaller. He adds: "That doesn't mean you can't have a nice career." Again, I think he's spot on. And I'd apply that same tenet to downsizing your career (not just taking time off completely). ESP couples typically choose to prioritize balanced lives - and downshift their careers by either reducing their hours or finding flexible work - rather than gun for the single goal of a superpower career or maximized paycheck. To us, it's a sacrifice well worth making.
And that brings me to the conclusions being thrown around Mr. Welch's comments. Conclusions like 'balance is impossible' and 'we need to stop using that outdated phrase, 'work/life balance.''
Here's where I completely disagree.
There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with the vocabulary. We don't need a new word - 'fit' or 'juggle' or 'integration.' Nothing wrong with these words either, by the way - they are dandy too. But changing the word is just playing with symantics. Balance is alive and well and fully attainable. It means something unique to every individual. It changes over time for each of us. To me, it means sorting out all of life's options and taking personal responsibility (together with your partner, if applicable) for aligning your internal priorities with the way you actually live. It means not accepting the cultural status quo if it doesn't happen to match your soul. It doesn't mean erasing the possibility of harried days - although, unless harried days are your goal, it means making choices that don't result in long runs of them. It doesn't mean perfection.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with 'balance.' Welch, in his old-fashioned, gendered way, is simply illustrating what happens when we don't prioritize it. The truth will out.