Work/life balance is a terrible goal
We have all heard about work/life balance. Most of us have probably read a book about it or even sat through some sort of seminar or workshop on the topic (probably called something like “7 Easy Steps to Balance Work and Life”) by some guy who has it all figured out. He has a framework. He has a picture. He has 7 easy steps. Maybe he wrote the book.
But, the paradigm is corrupt. As presented, work exists on one end of a continuum; life happens on the other. And, our goal is to find the balance and personal nirvana that is supposedly somewhere in between.
Here are a few critical problems to consider:
Problem #1: The work/life duality is zero sum and linear. The nearer I am to work, the further I am from life, and vice versa. One side takes from the other. As such, it promotes identity schizophrenia, anxiety, and even guilt. In other words, the diametrically opposed forces create potentially paralyzing external pressures rather than generative, internal motivation.
Problem #2: Life, in and of itself, is entirely non-linear and is its own “balancing” act of an endless number of variables, one of which is work! Work and life aren’t distinct, but rather collectively come from and reinforce (or, worst-case, dismantle) our sense of self.
Problem #3: Work and life require different energy and different types of investment and skills. One doesn’t really take from the other, but they all do come from the same source (the self). So, cultivation of the self is the source of balance, if such a concept actually applies.
Who we are and who we are trying to become is complex. It’s messy. It’s emerging. It evolves over time in all kinds of (broadly defined) work and amid the relational and existential craziness that is often called life. However each is defined, work and life (not to mention play) are just different contexts for who we are and what we are becoming. It is about us (not about them).
If we are focused on cultivating our best selves, then we will recognize when our current work becomes a barrier rather than a facilitator of that process. Alternately, we will acknowledge when things happening in our relationships, or otherwise in our personal lives, are inhibiting us from becoming who we want/need to become. We then must have the discipline and courage to adjust our course as needed.
But, our goal should not be work/life balance.
Our goal should be finding life in our work and work in our life.
The Policy Lobotomy
During a workshop a few months ago, Michael Burcham said: “Every time you make a policy for something that is common sense, you take a little piece of everybody’s brain.”
I chuckled at the candor (and the image), but have been digesting it ever since.
It seems to me that policy, best used, establishes a safety net for the organization (or a community of people of any sort). It sort of says: if our people or our actions fall below this basic level, or beyond this broad range of acceptable behavior, then there will be consequences. If there are uncertainties for the individual member where he needs guidance from the organization, there it is.
In these cases, policy is intended to be behind-the-scenes and not an explicit part of everyday interactions (except for the HR directors and the like who manage them for the organization). Policy should provide a baseline, or set of parameters, that most successful employees don’t spend much time hovering around.
But, for many, particularly larger organizations, instead of providing broad parameters, policy is perceived to define the accepted level of execution. It has moved from covering the organization for the worst-case scenario to codifying expectations of daily performance. So, people at a decisive moment defer to policy rather than their common sense.
And, this, according to Burcham, is where we lose a piece of our brain, and (according to me) our soul.
So, we must decide if we want policy-driven organizations or people-driven organizations (or likely an effective balance of both). The former leverages the tools of the organization, the latter the tools and creativity of all of its members. The former slows and systematizes organizational function, the latter helps it remain nimble and open to new inputs. Either in the extreme exposes the organization to a different set of threats.
Which brings me to another quote from Burcham that day: “Your people should grow at a faster rate than your company.”
So, there is the real challenge! When you look at your company or your organization, are the people who make it up growing faster than the entity as a whole? Are they pushing you for new opportunities for personal growth? Can they execute without micromanagement? Do they surprise you with their problem-solving? Are they generating innovation and developing ideas to drive you forward?
Or, are they waiting on direction? Acting only if policy is there to guide them?
If it’s the latter, they may have experienced a policy lobotomy.
East Nashville: A (personal) brief history of how we got here and some concern about where we are going
Today, the city celebrates East Nashville.
It's a hotbed for new business. It's a creative hub. Its housing prices and businesses are now a critical part of the city’s revenue and sustainability. Its increasing wealth means increasing social, cultural, and political power. 39 years ago, when my parents bought our home, the area had been red-lined by banks and no one would make loans more than $5,000 to do work in East Nashville.
Today, it draws people from parts of the city who would have never dreamed of coming to East Nashville 20 years ago, families and friends whose children were not allowed to play at my house as a child. It wasn’t safe. They wouldn’t even cross the river to go to their own kids’ sporting events at Stratford High School.
It draws people from around the country and even around the world for its music, its festivals, and its spirit. It is chronically featured in national magazines and newspapers. Alternately, the only national press I recall growing up was a blurb in Sports Illustrated about the number of armed robberies there had been at Shelby Park Golf Course.
When I was a child, East Nashville was ruled by slumlords. The historic structures now so celebrated locally and nationally were being torn down or subdivided into as many as 8 or 10 slum apartments and many were used as halfway houses. In the previous decades, the city had done its best to destroy the historic fabric under the moniker of urban renewal. The city cared little for East Nashville except as a dumping ground for parts of its economy, social structure, and education system it didn’t want to deal with.
But, a few neighbors took exception. They saw something greater for this part of town. These neighbors fought for everything from regular trash pickup to sidewalks to historic zoning. There were no stop signs for blocks, which made Russell Street, for one, a drag racing strip until people crashed at the surprising 90-degree turn at Warner School. There was a phone booth in our front yard used predominantly by pimps and prostitutes.
Ever vigilant with a vision of what this neighborhood could be that few others in the city could even conceive of, the neighbors knew that if one more historic structure was allowed to fall then any could fall. They knew if one slumlord could subdivide a single-family structure, then any structure could be subdivided. They knew if one halfway house could move into the residential neighborhood then anything could. They knew that special exceptions did not remain special or exceptional through time. So, they watched and fought and advocated tirelessly. They succeeded in getting stringent historic zoning, the first in the city.
And, today, the city loves East Nashville.
Make no mistake: if the historic fabric had not been protected by these neighbors and their allies in the Council and the Mayor’s Office, then we would not be celebrating this part of town today.
When the historic fabric was derelict, businesses were not opening. When the homes were run-down and owned by slumlords that lived in other parts of the city or in other counties, political power and tax dollars also lived elsewhere. No one was advocating for better schools. When the alleys were trashed and the streets unsafe and houses and vacant lots on each block were full of prostitution and crack dealers, we weren’t getting new coffee shops and galleries and restaurants.
Neighbors, with a vision, with discipline, and vigilance were the key. Good Council members were the key. Mayors who understood the importance of urban neighborhoods were the key. And, it still took time, decades.
The East Nashville of today certainly didn’t happen by accident or as the result of natural “market forces.”
Now, through short sightedness, lack of neighborhood political representation, a Mayor’s office largely disinterested in neighborhoods, and the use of SP zoning, we are starting to break down this fabric that took so long to reclaim.
Just as the neighbors in the 70’s and 80’s knew that one halfway house or slumlord meant many more of the same, so does one SP exemption for a high density unit in single-family neighborhoods, or a commercial property in the midst of residential, mean that any lot not currently occupied by a historic structure can and will be used that way in the future. Not just vacant lots, any lot.
Today, we SP zone a vacant lot. Tomorrow, the precedent is set to tear down a non-historic structure wherever it is and replace it with another SP zone. Today, we SP zone a quiet retail business in the midst of a neighborhood; tomorrow it could be a not-so-quiet music venue.
In the gloss and glamour of new media attention, growth, and an explosion of city-invested, shiny objects around downtown, we need to remember that people live here, that their voices need to be sought, heard, and respected. We need to remember that good neighborhoods make a city livable and sustainable. And, good neighbors make good neighborhoods.
We need to seize today’s unprecedented opportunities not by dismantling the decades of work that made them possible, but by building on them. SP zoning and tools like it should be used when it is right for the neighborhood, not just the outside developer seizing the opportunity created by the tireless work of neighbors, including those neighbors who are developers.