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March 10, 2009


What does it take to satisfy you career-wise? How much money do you want to make? How much are you willing to sacrifice for "quality of life"? Would you take a pay cut if it meant you could work reasonable hours? Would you rather be well paid to do a job you don't necessarily love, or make less while building the career you've always dreamed of? When you think of the term "work/life balance", do you think "not me?" A lot of high-powered people think personal time is a luxury afforded largely by trust-fund babies and academics; or as a corporate perk grudgingly granted to employees with children - often to the detriment of their careers. We're all supposed to want money and power. People who choose sanity, or less tangible forms of satisfaction, are often written off as dilettantes by their overachieving counterparts. So instead, we bite the bullet, work the endless hours, and feel bad about craving freedom. It's not like we have kids or anything, right?

The curse of being extremely ambitious is that satisfaction is so elusive. The more successful we are, the stronger the urge to accomplish even more. And coupled with that is the desire to do better than everyone else. Competitiveness can sometimes make our accomplishments less satisfying - especially when we have little personal investment in our work; or when we're working in businesses with a rapid rate of change. In Silicon Valley, for example, technology changes so fast that reaching a goal is often a letdown. There's always the chance that after six months of 18-hour days, your product will be outdated, ignored or deemed unimportant. So after spending six months in isolation, you find yourself back at square one.

Whether it's a desirable one or not, you've got some kind of work/life balance going. To determine how satisfied you are with that balance, consider what it is you are striving for.

How do you define success? Who are you working for?

What we consider to be success is usually determined in part by our families and our peers. And if you've put a lot of time and effort into your education, chances are that definition has something to do with money, status and recognition. That ideal often changes somewhat throughout our lives. The problem is that we sometimes forget to reevaluate - and we keep striving for something we may not even want anymore. ~For many people, it's hard to evaluate because they're not looking far enough into the future. In Silicon Valley, for example, people tend to be job hoppers. With nothing but short term goals, it's easy to make sacrifices. There's the attitude that "this is only for a short time." With hopes of hitting it big in a Valley IPO, anyone would be willing to work their butt off. But not everyone makes it - and the imbalance often comes back to haunt people. According to an article in The Ottawa Citizen, Silicon Valley psychiatrists see the effects of this all the time. Michael Cochran, a psychiatrist in Los Altos, notes that "I treat working 16 hour days as a form of depression, the way a long depression keeps people from growing in an appropriate way. If all you do is work, then something goes wrong, you don't have the communications skills, or the building blocks of family, or interests in the community, to fall back on." More critical than the threat of exhaustion is the threat of detachment from the outside world. Cochran tries to help his patients restore a sense of normalcy, and stop competing so much with their peers.

When evaluating your own work/life balance, ask yourself what your end goal is. Many of us have a quick answer to that - we want to move up, make more money, and be recognized for our accomplishments. It's the answer of the high-powered businessperson - but it's not the answer for everyone. There's nothing shameful about wanting a personal life. There's a difference between working your hardest and working the hardest. There's questionable glory in working longer hours than everyone else, or being the most stressed out.

Money, Money, Money

One byproduct of our flourishing economy is the rampant desire to push everything to the limit. Many thought stock prices couldn't get any higher, or companies couldn't squeeze any more profits out - but the innovative businesspeople running today's companies are doing it. They're putting in more hours, working in transit, and learning to function with less sleep. We're living in a time where people with six-figure incomes feel poor because their neighbors are millionaires. It's not enough that we can play the stock market from our desks, soon we'll be able to do it at night. Wall Street startups like Eclipse Trading and Wit Capital will soon be offering extended trading hours for individual investors on the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange. ~In April 1999, Fast Company conducted a worldwide online survey of 1,096 college-educated, employed adults, hoping to learn what makes high-powered people keep on keepin' on. One of the most important things they learned is that people know they have the option of maintaining a positive balance between work and personal life - it's just a question of what they are willing to sacrifice. While 50% of those polled claimed they feel they have "no control over the hours the work," an even larger percentage (87%) admit that finding a balance in life is really "a matter of responsibility" and the choice to make certain tradeoffs. The largest of which comes down to money. Given the option of a $10,000 raise or an extra hour each day to spend with family, 83% of those polled chose the money. What would you choose?

No matter how "enlightened" they may claim to be, few people will actually sacrifice their incomes for a "more balanced" lifestyle. It's hard to give up economic status, even if it means less stress. With that in mind, 77% of the respondents in the Fast Company survey admitted that they would quit or cut down on work hours if money were not an issue. And how could that "issue" be eliminated? Seventy percent of those surveyed said an extra $50,000 a year would alleviate their financial worries. Lest you believe the solution is as simple as waiting for a promotion, the Fast Company report also revealed that the higher one's salary, the more money they think they need to truly be satisfied. People with incomes over $100k were five times more likely to cite a huge number ($90k or more) than those with incomes under $40k.

My father always uses one particular cliche: "No one on their deathbed ever looks back and wished they had spent more time at the office." If you feel challenged, and you love your job - enjoy. If you can hardly get up in the morning, and you're always bitching about your boss, take some time out to examine your goals. Satisfaction does not have to be a luxury.

Nikki Scott is the Features Editor at


Filed Under: Job Search

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