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On Work-Life Balance

I am standing on a BOSU ball at the gym and my legs are starting to quiver. Have you ever seen those things? (BOSU balls, I mean; not my quivering legs.) They are composed of a circular plastic platform glued to the top of half a blue rubber ball, like a child’s drawing of Saturn with the top half of the planet sliced off. You stand on a BOSU ball to improve your balance. Or in my case, you stand on a BOSU ball to observe in horror as your legs take on a life of their own, shimmying and shaking in a vaguely obscene St. Vitus’ Dance.

The muscles of my legs fire off in rapid pulses. They are not just quivering now. Through some tragi-comic harmonic sympathy, the quivering has become vibration, has become bouncing, and now I am standing on a fast-motion pogo-stick. I have become a hideous hybrid creature: BOSU-Ball Jack-Hammer Man.

A few thoughts come rushing at me, shoving and slapping each other as they vie to squeeze through the narrow threshold of my consciousness simultaneously. Let’s call those thoughts Moe, Larry and Curly.

Moe thwacks me in the head, glares at me, and hisses: “You idiot! You look ridiculous. You’re no good at this. You’ve got no sense of balance. You’re making a fool of yourself.” He gives me a two-fingered poke in the eyes to ensure he’s driven home the message.

Larry looks in the mirror, notes that I do in fact look ridiculous, and then cries in pleading tones: “My legs! What in God’s name is happening? This is not normal. This hurts. This is hard and I want to stop!”

I rather agree with Larry. He may have a point; I could be doing myself some real damage here. It doesn’t hurt exactly, but it is very uncomfortable, this unfamiliar and possibly pointless exercise of standing atop a shivering semi-Saturn. I could fall and crack open my skull. And of course then, as Moe points out, I’d look even more ridiculous.

I am considering stepping off the BOSU ball to stop the madness when Curly pipes up: “Hey fellas! Hey fellas! Look at me! I’m balancing!”

I look in the mirror. Although all three thoughts are valid and correct in their own way, Curly’s is the observation that really matters. I have climbed atop this BOSU ball because I want to improve my balance and, yes I look like an idiot, and yes, this shaking is bizarre and uncomfortable. But guess what? I am balancing. Barely. Badly, like just-born Bambi, but I am balancing.

Then I start to laugh. I no longer look like an idiot. To anyone in the gym incautious enough to risk eye contact with me, it is evident that I am insane and quite possibly dangerous, laughing maniacally to myself as my body continues its strange, jellified flailing. But it is funny. So I laugh. And I relax. I am balancing, after all. Nobody said it had to look pretty.

In our busy lives, if there is one golden ring that we all yearn to grasp, one Holy Grail we quest for, it is that elusive, perhaps mythical state-of-being that, by mutual agreement, we refer to as “balance”. HR directors and recruiters lure us with the siren song of “Work-Life Balance”. Through bitter experience, most of us have come to equate the term with snake oil.

In 2013, Laurel Bellows, President of the American Bar Association, went further, proclaiming: “Talking about work-life balance is fraud.” So not only does work-life balance not exist, but apparently just speaking about it is now somehow criminal. There are in this world many types of balance, but beware “The Balance that dare not speak its name!” The consensus seems to be that, like Nietzsche’s God, work-life balance is dead.

And if by work-life balance we mean perfect equilibrium, a steady state of undisturbed harmony famously analogized in soft-focus, black and white inspirational posters of rounded rocks piled atop each other in a delicate but sturdy tower, then yes, work-life balance is no more. If we are imagining the scales of justice, balanced out equally with a stack of items on one side marked “Life” and a stack on the other side marked “Work”, then yes, work-life balance is a fraud, a honey-trap to tempt the naïve, the unwary and the desperate.

As busy human beings buffeted by the reality of clients, co-workers, family, friends, personal interests, worries of all shapes and sizes and the whole wonderful, messy business of being alive, we must realize that we cannot, once and forever more, achieve a “state of balance”. In a system as complex as life, balance is not a state; balance is a process. It is not a destination; it is a continual striving.

That slight shift in perspective is vital in gaining comfort with the practice of balance. Because to get better and more comfortable at the process of balance, we have to become aware that balance must be practiced. No one can simply grant us balance and it is certainly not something that a law firm or a company can provide. The best we can hope from any organization is sufficient enlightenment of policies to allow us that extra bit of space we need to begin consciously practicing the process of balance.

I’m back on my BOSU ball, laughing and jack-hammering and clearing more and more people from my proximity. Then, tired at last, I step off the ball. I shake my head, smiling my “isn’t that just the darnedest thing” smile, which causes the remaining stragglers to shuffle quickly away.

Then, a remarkable thing happens. I wait a few minutes, my legs acclimatizing to life back on terra firma. Just for kicks, I step back on the BOSU ball. The frantic shimmying is miraculously gone and I am far more stable. My brain and my body have sussed something out. They have discovered some secret of balancing on that bloody contraption, entirely without my conscious input.

We overestimate what we can achieve consciously while wildly underestimating what we are in fact achieving in each moment entirely without the help of our conscious minds. We place far too much emphasis on the process of conscious learning and we punish ourselves mercilessly for not achieving what we expect to achieve in the timeframes we set ourselves. We measure by results and too often we don’t measure up to the standards we set ourselves. Like Moe from The Three Stooges, we are brutally critical and keen to give ourselves a good smack in the head or a poke in the eye.

We rarely – if ever – acknowledge those many, many days when we trawl our way through piles of emails, managing difficult clients, difficult colleagues and difficult decisions while simultaneously fighting a half-dozen fires. We tend not to look in the mirror while our legs are bouncing furiously and say to ourselves, “Hey, look! I’m doing it!” But we are doing it. Day in and day out.

One of the beauties of coaching is the objective, external perspective that it helps to provide. Coaching grants us that mirror that allows us, like Curly, to stop and acknowledge what we truly are achieving and to allow ourselves some credit for it. By quieting Moe, reassuring Larry and encouraging Curly, coaching first helps us to acknowledge the frantic shimmying we may feel in our lives, which in turn gives us a certain permission to accept, and that acceptance provides a type of mental rest. Like the tiny micro-muscles firing away in quivering legs, much of what we feel and how we react to those feelings is outside our conscious control. But those micro-muscles (and their analogous counterparts in our brains that develop those tiny, repetitive routines that eventually form our habits) are learning, whether we are consciously aware of the learning or not. So in the process of awareness, acknowledgment, acceptance and rest, we can teach ourselves the behaviours that help us to feel more balanced. And by practicing, we get better at it.

Time spent in coaching is like stepping off the BOSU ball. Amazing things happen during that period of rest. Coaching does not necessarily teach us to achieve something. One can never say, “Hey, I’m done: I am totally and completely coached!” The process of coaching teaches us first how to be coached and then, to a degree, how to coach ourselves. We gain a different perspective on our life’s shimmying, accepting it not as something scary to fear or as some shameful weakness, but rather as the natural result of standing on the BOSU ball. We have chosen to be on it and while we remain there, we can learn both to enjoy the ride and to get better at it. And from time to time, a little coaching provides just the rest and perspective we need.

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