Everyone is busy trying to lead a “full” life. But is it full—or is everyone just stretched way too thin?
“Work/life balance” is a misguided metaphor for grasping the relationship between work and the rest of life. And the idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity. It ignores that “life” is actually the interaction of the four domains of work, home, community, and the private self. For nearly thirty years, my life’s work has been to help people find ways to bring the often warring aspects of life into greater harmony.
Of course, you can’t have it all—complete success in all the corners of your life, all at the same time. No one can. But even though it can seem impossible to bring these four domains into greater alignment, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Conflict and stress aren’t inevitable. Harmony is possible.
The most successful people are those who can harness the passions and powers of the various parts of their lives, bringing them together to achieve what I call “four-way wins”—actions that result in life being better in all four domains. They make it their business to be conscious of what and who matters most. Their actions flow from their values. They strive to do what they can to make things better for the people who depend on them and on whom they depend, in all the different parts of their lives.
You can achieve a kind of integration that will, in turn, help you have the impact you want to have and lead a life in which you stay true to yourself, serve others, and grow as a person. This integration is the key to leading a meaningful life—the one you want.
It starts with three principles: be real, be whole, and be innovative.
1. To be real is to act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important to you. It’s your answer to this basic question: What matters most to me?
2. To be whole is to act with integrity by recognizing how the different parts of your life affect each other. This means identifying who matters most to you at work, at home, and in the community; understanding what you need from each other; and seeing whether and how these needs mesh.
3. To be innovative is to act with creativity by experimenting with how things get done in ways that are good for you and for the people around you—taking realistic steps aimed at scoring four-way wins. These principles come alive in skills you can practice every day. (Take the Total Leadership Skills Assessment on TotalLeadership.org.)
As someone known as “that work/life balance guy at Wharton,” I get push-back just about everywhere I go, especially from high achievers. How can you have a substantial impact without making major sacrifices in your personal and family life?
I set out to find familiar societal figures, role models who have practiced, wittingly or unwittingly, the skills for integrating work and life and who could help teach us all how we can cultivate them. These stories of much-admired (though certainly not universally liked) people illustrate the skills that allow any of us to be real, be whole, and be innovative.
There is no way, of course, that these few can be fully representative. I chose them as illustrative models. You may not immediately identify with them, but their stories will open you up to new ways of thinking and acting. These are naturally occurring illustrations of people who did great things by discovering—usually through trial and error—ways to integrate the different parts of their lives so that they reinforced and enhanced each other.
True, these are not everyday people. But if you think that their success derives just from great luck, think again. Not one of them was born into a life of high privilege. They have strived to achieve their own kind of greatness and, one way or another, to make themselves into who they are now. Each has suffered disappointment, frustration, doubt, and loss. They’re human, after all.
Their stories show how accomplishment in a career is achievable not at the expense of the rest of your life, but because of commitments at home, in the community, and to your interior life. Each of these people has had a significant impact on the world beyond family, work, and the private self. All have made choices that integrate the different parts of their lives. This, in turn, results in both professional success and a full life that inspires them and enhances the lives of others.
Skeptics, take heed. The lives of these sterling men and women in business (Tom Tierney and Sheryl Sandberg), in public service (Eric Greitens and Michelle Obama), and in sports and entertainment (Bruce Springsteen and Julie Foudy) defy the myth of the zero-sum game, in which success in your career means failure in the rest of your life—and vice versa.
All of them, like the rest of us, have struggled, and their examples help us see how you can cultivate a life in which values, actions, social contribution, and personal growth exist in harmony, like a great piece of jazz music. This is a life in which disparate pieces fall into place, not every single day—that’s the impossible myth of “work/life balance”—but over the course of time. Like these six, you can attain significant achievement in a way that fits who you are. Indeed, you have to, because, as these leaders prove, your own way is the only way that will work for you.
Stewart D. Friedman, author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life and Total Leadership, is the practice professor of management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and the founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project. He is author of the best-selling book Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life (Harvard Business Review Press).