You have a better chance of finding a unicorn than work-life balance, and that’s OK

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Angela Blackwell
  • 1st Special Operations Medical Support Squadron Commander
Stephen Covey once said, “The challenge of work-life balance is without question one of the most significant struggles faced by modern man.”

In fact, the subject of the elusive work-life balance is so socialized that a simple web search yielded countless articles, excerpts and discussions regarding the best way to balance our unbalanced lives.

In the search for “balance” of another kind, I recently participated in a study on gender diversity in my career field. Our charge was to identify if there were any actual or perceived barriers for women advancing to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel. When interviewing more than 50 active duty female officers, one of the resounding barriers identified was the struggle to achieve this mystical creature referred to as “work-life balance.” While only a small number reported this as a direct, although self-imposed, barrier to career advancement, almost all participants echoed concerns about the challenges of dedicating oneself to career progression, while trying not to sacrifice family and/or an enjoyable life.

The more I read about this, the more I realized the focus of these work-life balance discussions seems to villainize work as the less appealing option every time. No offense to Covey and the others, but I think noted author Alain De Botton said it better when he said, “There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”

Think about that for a minute. Maybe we’re putting too much focus on balancing and not enough on enjoying each unbalanced moment.
We make many choices every day, some more important than others. Do I skip a crucial conference in order to attend the school play? Do I miss a soccer game today, so I can prepare for a strategic meeting that may gain more staff tomorrow? Do I go to the gym tonight or just skip dessert…forever? Each of these choices has two sides, but neither side is necessarily a wrong choice – except maybe the skipping dessert one.

I’ve served in the Air Force for 28 years, first as an enlisted member, then officer, mother, wife and friend. I’ve had my share of long days in the office, a few missed soccer games, and more than one difficult choice to make between my career and my personal life. However, unlike Covey’s quote, I don’t think of these as competitive choices of “work” versus “life.” I prefer to think of them as all one beautifully, messy, unbalanced part of all the things that make up my wonderful life. Perhaps instead of focusing on finding this unicorn of work-life balance, we should all accept that work is a key part of our lives, but not something that should be considered the opposite of living an enjoyable life.

The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, hit it home for me when she said, “Framing the issue of work-life balance - as if the two were dramatically opposed - practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” The answer to this rhetorical question is me and my brothers and sisters in uniform because we love what we do. We embrace our profession and fight for it as a key component of our overall, gloriously unbalanced lives.