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Why Work/Life Balance Is Folly

The 'Leading the Life You Want' author's tips to live your priorities

By Richard Eisenberg

Here’s a question that might give you pause: Are you leading the life you want?
Stewart Friedman, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book, Leading the Life You Want, says many of us aren’t. We find ourselves, Friedman says, struggling to achieve something significant without shortchanging the people who count on us.
But don’t despair. Friedman has found that there are ways everyone can achieve professional success without sacrificing the things that matter in our personal lives.
In fact, writes Friedman — founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project — “sustainable professional success results from meaningful investments in the rest of life.” (You can hear him talk about this on his Sirius XM satellite radio show, Work and Life, or by enrolling in his upcoming, 10-week Coursera MOOC, Better Leader, Richer Life.)

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Friedman says the key to leading the life you want is following three principles: Be real, be whole and be innovative.

I just interviewed him to learn how we can lead the life we want and why Bruce Springsteen is a great role model to emulate. Highlights:
Next Avenue: What are the benefits of leading the life you want?
Friedman: The paradox of the book’s title, Leading the Life You Want, is that people who are really gifted at leading the lives they want take what they care about most and their skills, passions and interests and bring that to bear on making life better for other people.
There’s also a selfish motivation: You will feel better about the life you lead when you have a sense of purpose and meaning beyond just you. Some people claim this has health benefits; it certainly has spiritual benefits.

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If you have an interest in people who matter to you and you are not attending to them, that is eventually going to get to you. You will feel guilty, distracted and worried. That reduces your effectiveness and your ability to produce in your professional life.
There’s a perception that you have to sacrifice everything to be successful in your professional life. That’s not true.


You have a problem with the idea of work/life balance. Why?
The notion of having a balanced life is folly. It’s misguided because it frames the issue as win or lose. Instead of thinking in terms of what do you have to give up to lead the life you want, think of where is there an opportunity for me to take action. What can I do to make things better in the different parts of my life?
And that means achieving what you call “four-way wins.” What are they?
An action or a different way of thinking that helps you see that what you’re doing is making a positive impact directly, or has a ripple effect, on four parts of life: work or school; home or family; community or society and the private realm of your mind, body and spirit.
When you look at the world that way, you’re more likely to discover opportunities to make things better for yourself.
If your mindset is ‘balance,’ you’ll always be unhappy. But if your mindset is ‘How can I initiate change that is sustainable and works not just for me but for my family, my community, my career and my mind, body and spirit?’ you are more likely to find those opportunities.
You write that Bruce Springsteen is a great example of someone who leads the life he wants. What can we learn from Springsteen?
I have admired and learned from him for decades. Bruce really demonstrates the three principles: be real, be whole and be innovative. He’s especially good at embodying his values consistently, which means knowing what you stand for and making sure that plays out at work, at home, in your community and in the world.
Bruce excels at the skill of being innovative. His band member Little Steven has said: ‘Our leader continues to inspire us in profound ways by his insistence to stretch boundaries.’
But for the rest of us, many people are feeling pressure at work to do more, not less. How can we scale back to make time for the other priorities in our life?
I hear that from people every single day: ‘You don’t know my boss.’ And that pressure has only grown with the advent of the digital age and economic pressures that so many people are facing.

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It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out how to make adjustments; virtually everybody can do it. Build networks of support around you and innovate to find ways to get things done. Just take small steps. You’ll really feel better.
What are we doing wrong?
Often, people have a sense that ‘I’ve got to do everything for everybody.’ What you need to do — and there are exercises in the book to help you do it — is to think through who are the most important people to you, what do they actually expect and how are you doing at that. I’ve seen over the decades that in the majority of cases, when you explore what others expect of you, they often expect less than you think.
Let’s talk about a few of those exercises. One of them is: ‘tune up and realignment.’ What’s that about?
The idea there is pretty simple. When you’re doing something that you do regularly, but not every day, like getting your car tuned up, why not build into that time a chance to look inside yourself and see if you need to make any adjustments to your life? Ask yourself: Am I living in a way that’s consistent with what matters to me? Take 20 minutes to see how your engine is running.
Another exercise is ‘talent transfer.’ What’s that?
Basically, do an inventory of the skills and talents you’ve developed and think about creative ways to apply them in different parts of your life. If you play piano, maybe you can teach kids how to play or you can play for people at work or when you visit relatives.
By the time you’re in your 50s or 60s, there’s probably something you can share that will make you feel good and help others, too.
So it’s not too late to find ways to lead the life you want if you’re in your 50s or 60s?
As a matter of fact, it’s not only possible at that age, it’s necessary. I’m confident that anyone who’s interested in learning more about what it takes can do so. It’s like the performing arts. Can you start learning a new instrument in your 60s? Hell, yeah.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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