The Truth about Work-Life Balance

Balance doesn't mean what you think it does.

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Until recently, I considered the pursuit of work-life balance to be the apex career goal. With 168 hours in a week, we shouldn't spend 50% of our time, or 80+ hours per week, working. We must work to live, not live to work!

I wasn't alone. This idea of "work-life balance" has taken my generation by storm. You have seen it in the great resignation. You have seen it in the refusals by many to return to the office. The youngest class of workers has a different set of priorities than generations past.

It makes sense. We have an oh-so-finite amount of time on this blue sphere of ours. Do we really want to spend every waking hour working? You can't take the money with you, after all.

While I was right about the last part (you definitely can't use that money post-mortem), I was wrong about everything else. I was wrong to oversimplify "work" as a necessary evil, because the value of work varies from person to person.

Work-life balance isn't black and white.

The Dichotomy of Work

Some people love their jobs. Some hate them. Some view their career as their calling, others view it as nothing more than a paycheck.

Our perception of "work" lies on a sliding scale. On one end of the scale, work is a means to an end. On the other, work is the end itself. The importance of "balance" depends on your location on this scale.

If, for you, work is simply a means to an end, then you view it as a contractual obligation where you are sacrificing X hours for X money.

If, for you, work is the end itself, then work is an integral part of your life.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either side of the "work" debate any more than there is anything inherently wrong with preferring pizza or tacos. But your attitude toward your job will influence your opinion of "work-life balance."

If you view work as a necessary evil that simply provides you the money needed to support your lifestyle, then work-life balance (or more accurately, work minimization and life maximization) will be really important.

If you view work as an integral part of your life, the idea of forcefully "balancing" work and life just sounds weird.

Earning the Right to Balance

This tweet from Zach Weinberg was a lightbulb moment for me.

Your likelihood of professional success is largely determined by your ability to put in the reps early in your career. As Zach says, you *earn* your balance by working hard and learning early.

Being overly focused on "work-life balance," especially when you are just getting started, will limit your outcomes over time.

Now again, you might not care all that much about "success." You might want to do your job, earn your paycheck, and call it a day. And that's okay! Actually, it's a good thing that many people feel this way. If every single person in the labor force had a singular obsession with success, Linkedin would be insufferable and office politics would be downright toxic.

It's okay to choose more free time over extra effort early in your career. But you do need to be aware of the tradeoff. There is an opportunity cost associated with the pursuit of free time.

But if your career isn't a "necessary evil?" If it isn't the means to an end, but the end itself? Then obsessing over "work-life balance" too early can be detrimental to your progress.

Say you are writing a finance blog 2x per week. Maybe this blog is called Young Money. And maybe you want to eventually make a living writing this blog. Without putting your content behind a paywall, the most effective way to make money is through advertisements.

To make money from advertisements, you need a large audience, which means that you won't make a dime from your blog until you build that audience.

And it can take months, if not years, to build that audience.

You might write for a year or two before making a dime for your efforts, which means that you will have to find time for your blog on top of your day job and other life responsibilities. You will also have to figure out how to market your content to gain more exposure. Hours and hours of research, working on cross-promotions, and experimenting with new growth drivers.

Oh, and you still have to produce quality content every single week, or none of this matters. The one constant, whether you have 100 readers or 100,000, is the need to produce quality content.

And then when you want to monetize? You will have to email dozens, if not hundreds of potential sponsors to land any business. And they'll probably want to pay a lot less than what you are asking for.

To make this work, you will probably spend a year+ working at least 20 hours per week on top of your day job and other obligations, while making $0. No balance to be found.

But then somewhere along the way, you'll make a few dollars. Then you'll make a few more dollars. You will automate some of the growth channels. Sponsors will reach out to you. The ideas will flow easier, and you will write more quickly.

Three years in, with an audience of 100,000+, all you really have to worry about is writing quality content. Growth is now organic and/or automated, sponsors are 100% inbound inquiries, and you have pricing power.

This writing thing is now a lucrative gig that gives you control of your time. An overnight success three years in the making.

If you had emphasized balance too early, if you had refused to work on nights and weekends, succeeding as an independent writer would have been impossible.

This isn't just a writing thing, it's an everything thing.

Whether you are a writer scaling their audience, an asset manager expanding their client book, an athlete honing their skills, or an attorney building their reputation, you will have to invest a disproportionally large amount of time and effort now to make a disproportionally large amount of money later.

That's just how this game works. It takes countless reps to get really good at anything. Plus, you can't work-life balance your way to the upper echelon of your craft because your competition doesn't give a damn about balance.

The key, if success is what interests you, is finding a career where you wouldn't want balance in the first place.

The problem we often see is individuals chasing "success" in fields that they don't care about.

What Work-Life Balance Isn't

A common career trajectory across white-collar jobs:

Work 80 hour+ weeks doing something that you don't really like that pays you really well. Make more and more money, and hopefully work fewer and fewer hours, as you move up the ladder. X number of years down the road, after you have saved up X amount of money doing this job that you never really liked, you quit this job and finally do what you want.

In this example, you sacrifice a decade of your life to make enough money to buy "balance" later by quitting your job.

But this isn't balance at all. It's a sudden shift from work-focused to work-repulsed.

You are spending thousands of hours doing something you dislike, to make more and more money doing something you dislike, until you eventually have enough money to quit doing the thing you dislike.

You could simply just not do the thing you dislike.

In this scenario, you sacrifice the freedom associated with work-life balance for a "prize" that you never wanted.

Pursuing financial success on a path that you despise isn't ambition. It's an acute form of self-loathing. 

Choosing balance is okay. Choosing success is okay. Sacrificing balance to succeed in a job that you plan to immediately quit is insanity.

This is where the ideas of "success" and "balance" become so skewed. We see the individuals complaining about their long hours working tedious jobs, and we shout for balance.

But we overlook the individuals investing the same hours carving their own paths, because they are too engaged with their pursuits to complain about something as trivial as "work-life balance."

The optimal level of work-life balance isn't any specific number of hours. The optimal level of work-life balance is the lifestyle most aligned with your goals. Work-life balance is a framework, not a number.

Whether you work 20 hours per week or 80 hours per week is irrelevant.

What matters is whether or not you are doing what you want.

- Jack

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