Is work-life balance attainable, or are we dreaming the impossible dream?

By Warren Holleman

To me, work-life balance boils down to three things: (1) finding satisfaction and meaning in my work; (2) finding love and happiness in my family and among my friends; and, (3) finding time to take good care of me. And finding it every day of my life–not at some far-off point in the future.

This isn’t easy. Notice how many things we have to “find” to make this happen! And we have to find them because often they become lost, ignored, or tossed aside by the busyness that is our lives.

Which is a shame. Meaningful careers, loving relationships, and a healthy lifestyle aren’t merely important. They are absolutely essential if we wish to live a truly “good” life.

At this point I hear Shakespeare saying, “Aye, there’s the rub.” Three ambitious goals that seem to work against each other. To excel at one, don’t you have to sacrifice the other two? And, if that’s the case, aren’t you wasting your time talking about work-life balance? It’s merely an ideal. An impossible dream.

Obviously, that’s not what I believe.

What if we stopped viewing work-life balance–and living, for that matter–as a zero-sum game? What if by investing energy into one area we gained energy in all the others? Imagine this possibility: that as human beings we’ve been hardwired to thrive when we have “balance” and wholeness in our lives? And to shrivel up and die when we don’t?

This may come as a shock to some corporate executives and their boards, but we humans are not worker ants. We are designed for far more complex and wonderful lives. Our thoughts run deeper, our love spreads wider, and our spirits soar higher.

As Pope John XXIII put it a generation ago, we are “integral” beings. We have material needs but also spiritual. We need solitude but also community. We need to accomplish things on our own but also to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We need fulfillment in our jobs, love and happiness in our families, and time to care for our physical and mental health. Take away any of these, and you take away not only our happiness but also our humanity.

As Martin Buber stated so poignantly, we are “thous,” not “its.” Every human being has innate dignity and personhood, and we only function fully as human beings when we recognize that dignity and personhood both in ourselves and in every other human being. When running on all cylinders, the human community is a community of “I-thou” relationships, not “I-its.” If you’re looking for God, you’ll find God in the space between the “I” and the “thou.”

So, for those caught up in busy professional lives, how does one resist the temptation to treat other people as “its”? How does one break through the tyranny of the mundane and resist the daily urge to reduce life to a “to do” checklist of mundane “I-it” activities? How does one restore this sense of balance, wholeness, and humanity? In my experience, one key is having the humility to rethink your personal notions of “more” always being better. Another key is having the courage to challenge our cultural notions of career success being defined by status and income rather than meaning and satisfaction. Third, find like-minded friends and colleagues to support, encourage, and share the journey. Finally, you must consciously and publicly adopt the belief that work-life balance is important, essential, and worth fighting for. Achieving work-life balance takes tremendous courage and humility, and if you don’t believe it with all your heart, you won’t do it.

If this seems overwhelming, then take a vacation, turn off your cell phone, and give yourself some time to think. When you come back, seek out people who have made the transition from “workaholic” to “work-life balanced,” and ask their advice. Spend time with your family and fall in love all over again. Spend time at the gym or running out on the trail, and feel the power of those endorphins. Write down what you learn and how you feel. Write down where you’ve been and where you’re going. Share it with friends and family.

And, if you wish, share your thoughts with me and others who read the blog. We’ll learn from each other, and together we’ll discover the joy and fulfillment of finding balance and wholeness in our lives.

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#balance#Buber#Pope John XXIII#Shakespeare#vacation


  1. Blake H - August 18, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

    Congratulations on the blaunch (blog launch?) – can’t wait for future posts!

  2. Georgia Thomas - August 18, 2015 @ 8:10 pm

    Thanks for starting this blog, Warren. I look for wonder and meaning in my daily life and almost always find it, often in surprising places. I find maintaining that curiosity and awareness of the other dimensions of life helps me to maintain contentment, even when things might look terrifically out of balance to an outside observer.

  3. Stefan - August 19, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    Thanks Warren for sharing your many years of experience gained caring for colleagues, family and friends! Yes, rather than a work-life balance, where present-day work is supposed to hopefully will be balanced some day by a steadily post-deadline-postponed life, we’d need to believe in the power of a balanced work-life, where work and life merge and nurture each other, every moment of every day. This path requires courage, self-awareness and curiosity — and its beginning might just be as far away as the off-switch of your electronic device.

  4. Kevin - August 20, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    Nice job with the blaunch! I think everyone in academic medicine and science needs help with being the “integral” person Pope John XXIII describes. Integrity means “to remain whole.” And it’s not easy to be fully present in the moment – even for a single moment! As far as I am concerned, advice on how to remain whole in the face of the fragmented enterprise that is academic medicine and science is welcome.

  5. MsMrsDr McD - August 20, 2015 @ 7:29 pm

    Warren – Wonderful blaunch and quite timely inaugural post! As you can see, I toyed with my ?handle. While it does not reflect all of me, it is my attempt to embrace my own life-work balance (purposefully transposed). Before I became a wife or had a terminal degree, I was – and always will be – me (for better or for worse)! Looking forward to more entries!!!

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