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The Myth of Work-Life Balance

Reading Steve Blank's blog post, Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves, and Chris Yeh's response to it, Workaholism is a choice (usually the wrong one), I’m experiencing a flashback to my past.

A few details of my story differ from Steve's. For example, in the entrepreneur part I played, I was the wife rather than the husband. And there were no kids. But the aspects about honesty and priorities in our scripts are essentially the same.

Steve writes:

What’s More Important – Me or Your Job?

If you’re are a startup founder or an early employee, there may come a time in your relationship that your significant other/spouse will ask you the “what’s more important?” question. It will come after you come home at 2 am in the morning after missing a dinner/movie date you promised to make. Or you’ll hear it after announcing one morning that weekend trip isn’t going to happen because you have a deadline at work. Or if you have kids, it will get asked when you’ve missed another one of their plays, soccer games or school events because you were too busy finishing that project or on yet another business trip. At some point your significant other/spouse’s question will be, “What’s more important, me and your family or your job?”

...I convinced myself that throwing myself into work was the right thing to do because I succumbed to the four big lies entrepreneurs tell themselves about work and family:

  • I’m only doing it for my family
  • My spouse “understands”
  • All I need is one startup to “hit” and then I can slow down or retire
  • I’ll make it up by spending “quality time” with my wife/kids

But none of these were true...

Like Steve, the day came for me when the lies I told myself had to end. My choices and actions spoke for themselves. But when my spouse asked me the same question, as I stopped to whisper the words, "my job", it was painful and sad. We both realized it was over.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Relationships

Long term relationships are uncomfortable and take work to be successful - especially the one with my self - which is the most important. Why so uncomfortable and hard? Well, it is lifelong, and it's a mirror. So, whenever I want to get away with something, I can tell myself one of these or some other lie and even start to believe it. But how crazy is that?!

Why is the relationship with my self the most important? Because in hindsight, I see clearly that the quality of all my relationships is directly tied to the quality of the relationship I have with me. After all the Comfortably Numb diversions, there really is no short cut or competitive advantage way around this fact.


My friend Chris Yeh’s movie message in his post is a good one. Michael Keaton’s character faces himself through his wife’s question:

Back in the 90s, there was a movie called "The Paper". Michael Keaton stars as a workaholic newspaper man who neglects his pregnant wife, Marisa Tomei. At one point, he tells her that she's more important to him than his job, and that he'd choose her without hesitation. She replies that life never presents us with a single big question, that every day, he's being asked to choose, and that each time he misses an appointment or doesn't make it home, he's making his choice.

This example is not to imply that there is a right or wrong answer to the choice question. It is about knowing the self and being conscious of actions taken in light of the self.

Another character I think of is Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino in the movie, Serpico. Frank Serpico was the first police officer in the history of the New York police department to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systemic corruption payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.

According to Wikipedia, a month after receiving the New York City Police Department’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, Frank Serpico retired and went to Switzerland to recuperate after being shot in the face at point blank range, then being abandoned by his fellow officers. He spent almost a decade there, living, traveling and studying.

Later, when it was decided to make the movie about his life, Pacino asked why he did it (reporting and testifying, etc.). Serpico replied, “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because… if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”

Who Am I?

As a musician, I know what Serpico means by his question. In my life as an entrepreneur, I often think of Serpico and ask my self, "Am I as true to my self as he was – in my work and in every relationship – not just with family and friends?" As a result, I am, always searching.

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Reader Comments (5)

NextNow once had an interesting gathering to discuss "work/life balance" versus "life harmony". John Adams (organizational transformation guru) was the w/l balance person and Kevin Wheelier spoke to harmony. It was very interesting. Harmony I think once out because some people are very happy working 90 percent of the time and using the other 10 percent whatever way they wish. They are very happy. Balance may not be exactly what we think.

Jun 17, 2009 at 12:52PM | Unregistered


Thanks for riffing on my post. I love the Serpico example. Another way I phrase it is to quote one of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster-Bujold, who once wrote about the distinction between honor and reputation.

"Reputation is what others think of you. Honor is what you think of yourself."

It's hard to hide from the critic in your head.

Jun 18, 2009 at 10:25AM | Unregistered CommenterChris

Entrepreneurs enable themselves because we do lie to ourselves and we are damn good at it so we start to believe our own lies. But the bottom line is, we need to dedicate lots of time to our business because that's just what has to be done for the research, advertising, phone calls, fulfillment, etc. to get done. It simply has to be least until you reach the point where you can afford to outsource.

Jul 26, 2009 at 09:40PM | Unregistered Commentermlgreen8753

Many regard the ways in which paid work can be combined or ‘balanced’ with other parts of life as an individual concern and a small, rather self-indulgent problem in today’s world. Some feel that worrying about a lack of time or energy for family relationships or friendships is a luxury or secondary issue when compared with economic growth or development.

Dec 10, 2009 at 09:36PM | Unregistered Commentereiweißpulver

Many a times it happens that we have to opt only one thing out of two things and both of the thing are as important. none of them are negligible. Now under such circumstances we tend to think no good option and we have to select the option which is in much more priority.These myth that you have shared with us can definitely help person to find a smart way out of the troubles.

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Jan 5, 2010 at 04:48AM | Unregistered CommenterHoly

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