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Work – Life Balance, a perspective

These are days of speed, instant gratification and everyone being in a hurry to get to the top of the ladder in terms of professional achievements. In a world with all this emphasis on these parameters, one key aspect of life that gets sacrificed is what is commonly referred to as ‘work life balance’. The term itself is a bit of a contradiction – almost as if ‘work’ and ‘life’ are independent. I would like to start this piece with the observation that this term is possibly wrongly articulated – ‘work’ is an essential component of ‘life’ and it is really not appropriate to talk about a hypothetical balance between work and life. Instead, let us call it a ‘balanced life’ wherein all constituents of life – work, family and friends are all given reasonably equal importance.

To understand why there should be a ‘balanced life’, one can probably start with the assumption that the very purpose of existence is to lead a happy and purposeful life. And it has been established for centuries, in spiritual circles, that material success alone – assets accumulated, power, money etc. – do not make for a happy and contented life. But the cynics may well ask the question “has there been any scientific study that has been done in recent times that can corroborate this centuries-old wisdom?

It would be of great interest to everyone that, as a matter of fact, there has been one, and in no less an institution than the Harvard University. A group of researchers at Harvard did undertake such a study, called the Harvard Grant Study. They followed the lives of 268 male undergraduates from the batches of 1938 to 1940, some of whom are well into their 90s, for 75 years, and collected data from all the aspects of their lives through all stages of their life, from childhood to old age. And the conclusions from this study are compelling as well as universal – irrespective of whether the individual was born in a rich family or brought up in a struggling family in a downtown poor neighborhood, or a big city or a rural village, or, for that matter pursued a high paying professional program like law or was in a seemingly low profile program like arts and the pure sciences.

The universal truth that emerged was that ‘connections and relationships’ were the most important contributor to a happy and contented life. In the ‘work’ part of life, feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making more money. With that established, let us turn to the other two dimensions of the non-work life, or the ‘social life’ – family and friends. The Harvard Grant Study found out that people with stronger and more fulfilling genuine relationships had a far higher happiness quotient than those who had weak relationships with family and friends and this dimension was very low in people who led isolated lives and were classifiable as recluses.

This research ties in with all kinds of subsequent studies that one’s ‘social ties’ has a strong correlation with lower stress levels, longevity and an improved overall well-being of people.

So, what does all this mean to the average person? I have the following three life lessons that I have learnt which I would like to leave as some thoughts for all the readers to consider :

Work is worship : One has to give one’s work his or her all, but in a passionate sense of the term, and not by putting in long hours which, unfortunately, becomes the barometer of hard work these days. Stay engaged and connected to your work, give it your best in a sincere way, strive for excellence in whatever you do, and do everything in a planned manner, and you will find that you don’t have to put in those long hours, and a lot of time wasted in unplanned activities and re-working the poor quality of the initial output get saved.

Spend time with family : As one progresses in life, especially as one starts a family in the initial stages of one’s professional life, there are many occasions when the dilemma appears – should I be at the concert that my wife is singing at, should I be at my children’s annual day function at school where they are performing or the sports day where they may be participating, or should I skip that in favor of ‘impressing the boss’ that I am committed far more to my work. I personally believe that time and tide wait for no one and the precious moments of family members’ achievements will not wait for you to be ‘free from your work’ ever. Later on in life, these are the memories that one cherishes and are irreplaceable. Having said that, there might be times when one has to take the hard decision to make the deadline at work, but then the family will understand that as long as it is not the default behavior.

Invest in relationships when nothing is at stake and it has a way of paying you back when something is : In this fast paced world, unfortunately, people have forgotten the art of building relationships and the power of a friendly smile at a colleague, or a pat on the back for a child or the power of a tight hug to friends who might be going through rough times to let them know that you are there for them. Every second of time spent is analyzed with the question “what is in it for me?” The sad truth is that life doesn’t work that way. You have to invest in and build relationships with the sincere intent of ‘just being there’ and the same relationships will come back to help you in the most unexpected manner when your chips are down and you need some propping up.

This philosophy of a ‘balanced life’ has been wonderfully captured in this song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” sung by Harry Chapin in his album “Verities and Balderdash” in 1974 which was a Grammy Hall of Fame Award winner:

“Cat’s In The Cradle”

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw”, I said “Not today
I got a lot to do”, he said, “That’s ok”
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
“Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while”
He shook his head and said with a smile
“What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
You know we’ll have a good time then

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
We’re gonna have a good time then!

Beautiful words, all of us will agree! A balanced life should, therefore, be priority from a young age, and one must not postpone pursuit of happiness in relationships on the personal front for the sake of professional achievements, because when you finally think you have the time, the others may not!

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