On Work-Life Balance...

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The concept of work-life balance is a useful one in that world of competitive workaholicism that so many First World people seem to inhabit these days. But it rather assumes that you can tell which is which. How you define 'work' is only ever unproblematic if you are in a full-time salaried post and - possibly more important - don't think about it too much.

The standard concept of 'work' as economic activity is tricky, as any feminist will tell you, for two related reasons. First, it devalues domestic labour; being a stay-at-home mum is not the same as 'not working'. Second, it renders the second shift of women in employment invisible, hiding the inequalities in relationships that persist in the face of ostensible equality in the workplace.

Musicians have an interesting variant of this critique, in that one's most artistically significant work is not necessarily the best paid. Particularly in your early career, the bread-and-butter routine work is there to subsidise those projects where you develop most as a musician, and make your most distinctive contributions. The most extreme example of this: you don't get paid to practise, but that's still the bedrock that all other musical activity is built upon.

So, if 'work' isn't simply your day-job, how, more usefully, to define it? I have been thinking about two different ways of thinking about the value of what we do:

  1. Paul Graham divides human activity into two categories: there's your life's work (what they'll write about in your obituary), and the rest is errands.
  2. David Wong makes the distinction between activity that meets the needs of other people,* and just being a drain on the world

The first is useful for decluttering your schedule. It keeps you focused on your priorities, and makes sure that the surface of your life isn't eaten by details that may be necessary in a day-to-day sense, but aren't fundamentally part of your particular and individual contribution to the universe. You can't do without the errands - they keep the world running - but you want them to claim as little as your attention as possible.

The second audits value from a less individualistic perspective, and offers a useful reality-check by making you ask: if I spend time and attention on this, who benefits? It helps both at the level of errands (do I need to iron pillowcases?), and at the level of your life's work (is this actually a good thing to dedicate my life to?).

It is thus a much broader definition of value, and - despite the target audience of the article of grungy young men - a view that gives rather more value to the way that many women live their lives. Home-making may not be directly economically active, but it is rich in value generated by meeting the needs of others.

Wong asks how much of your time you spend creating things for others versus consuming things which others have created. This is a good first question. But it's also useful to think about what kinds of needs you are meeting. Maslow's classic hierarchy gives a helpful classification to help identify this.

A day spent shopping and cooking for your family, cleaning the house, doing laundry is focused primarily on physical needs, blossoming up into safety and esteem needs as those you look after physically feel assured of your love and their own value. An evening spent rehearsing a choir is much more focused on esteem, cognitive and aesthetic needs (and self-actualisation when you really hit the sweet spot).

Now, your life's work can operate at any of these levels. It would be a mistake to consider the upper levels to be the most important and the lower levels to be errands, as the work-as-economic-activity model would lead us to think. Florence Nightingale was focused on physical needs (is this clean? is there a system in place to make sure it gets cleaned?), and I don't think that any of the people whose lives she thereby saved would say that she frittered her time away on errands.

Sphere of action makes a difference, though. It's not just how many hours a day you spend meeting others' needs that matters, but how many others' needs you address. Aspiring to affect more people's lives can legitimately be seen as a more significant contribution to the universe than never extending beyond your immediate social circle. Nightingale’s contribution wasn’t simply in looking after people she met, it was in using statistics to inform public policy that would affect far more people than she could ever nurse in person.

It seems to me (on the basis of nothing more than hunch), that just as people have all these different levels of needs, a balanced life is one in which you offer value to others at a variety of levels, and in a variety of spheres of activity. If all you do is offer information to meet cognitive needs, and never think to make someone a cup of tea, that feels like a less balanced life than one in which you meet fundamental as well as complex needs. Likewise, if all your activity and attention is focused at the level of international policy, without participating in decisions about what the kids will do in the school holidays, you'd have to start worrying about your work-life balance.

Is this the least musical post I've ever written? But lurking behind this is my own life's work of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.


* Actually, you don't need to specify people for this still to work. Gardeners and people who work in animal rescue add value to beings of other species.

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