Be honest with yourself
As a communications person (obsessive!), I am conditioned to try to come up with short, memorable ways of getting my audience’s attention and keeping it long enough to deliver a message. I’ve made a career out of three point lists. Elevator pitches. Soundbites. 30 second videos. Tweets. Executive summaries. Headlines. Bullets points. One slide overviews. Well-crafted emails.
There is something deeply gratifying about boiling down a complex series of thoughts or a strategy into a few key words, phrases or pledges. There’s a reason New Labour 1997 pledge card had only five policy promises or why advertising slogans are short and snappy. I have tried to apply this sort of thinking to work-life balance and my lived experience of trying really hard to get it right and, despite periods of success, getting it colossally wrong.
I’ve spent much of the last few years – even before my breakdown my and change of approach to my life and work – reflecting on work-life balance. Trying to find the right formula that allowed me to thrive at work and live life to the full outside it. To be a rounded person. To be a great colleague and a great boyfriend, friend, partner, son, brother, husband and father.
So, I’ve alighted on five principles.
Before we had our daughter the focus was on getting the balance right so I could spend time with my wife doing the things we planned to do; holidays; dinners out; cool London living stuff; just being together. Life after daughter (LAD) presents different pressures in every 24 hour period but still the same ambition; to be be around as much as possible and to succeed in my work and in my home. Easy words. Who could say they don’t share that ambition? Who could say they don’t want the right balance for them whatever their personal circumstances? But my experience tells me that whilst people mouth the words, they very often are kidding themselves and those around them.
It is rarely malicious and mendacious – although I have seen examples of that – but it is so often because, although they say they want to get the balance right – which means they have to make choices and prioritise, they really want everything. They want the next promotion but be at home by 6pm. They want to earn more money but work less hours or certainly no more hours. They want that new car, house or holiday, whilst at the same time not wanting to accept those new responsibilities at work or that new challenge. In reality, so many of us want all the benefits that life has to offer without the pain. The trade-offs. The sacrifices. The choices.
Or put another way, they say the want the right balance but something has to give – something is compromised to feed their ambition. More often than not it isn’t the work but the life part of the equation that takes the hit. They do chase the promotion and the pay rise and therefore do the extra hours, bigger roles, more complex projects and the like, and let their life, relationships, health and wellbeing take one for the team. They start believing they can have it all but they are just deluding themselves and when this realisation dawns they double down on work at the expense of life.
I am not judging. I am in no position to judge. But I am in a position to say that I’ve seen this happen so many times I’ve done some of it myself.
My first principle to achieving and maintaining the right work-life/life-work balance for you is to be honest with yourself. It is a cliche but also a truth; honesty is the best policy. When it comes to work-life balance, it is the starting point and without it all is lost. I have lost count of how many people have asked for help, advice or just talked to me about their efforts to secure a better work-life balance who are starting from a position of lying to themselves about what they want to achieve. With the benefit of my personal experience and that of countless people I have worked with and/or know, I believe strongly only by having an honest conversation with yourself and those who matter to you can you stand any chance of getting the balance right.
My failing at PwC – and it was a failing that left me on my back, looking up at the ceiling in hospital in excruciating physical and emotional pain – was that I told myself I could become a Partner, earn that life-changing amount of money and emotionally support my wife with her own highly-pressured career and ambitions, whilst being present for my new daughter (Miss J was born 46 days after I joined PwC), not missing bath time, story time and bed time. And in fact I only missed three nights in ten months – until I spent the next five in hospital – the longest I have still ever been away from her extraordinary face and personality. But in those months and many before it I was – to coin a phrase – present but not involved.
I was in the room. In the house. In the family. But I was never in the moment. I was never truly present. I was there is body but not in mind. I couldn’t be truly present because I was answering the phone. Replying to endless emails from different time zones. I was feeding the beast of my ugly ambition and the egos and insecurities of those around me – and more often from those above me. I was saying all the right things about being at home and getting the balance right but I was really prioritising my career by pandering to every whim and demand made of me. I will write in the next four posts about my other principles – which I am danger of touching on here when we get into boundaries and remembering only the word “yes” in response to a request, but let’s leave that for another day.
For now, let me just say that the bit I missed out in this period of my life was the bit were I was truly honest with myself and my wife about what the reality of my work-life balance was going to be. To achieve the ambition I had set – in this instance to make Partner in one of the world’s iconic professional services firms – and it doesn’t matter what your ambition or goals are this principle applies to every walk of life – was not compatible with getting home every night by 6pm and then being actively, properly and seriously involved in my family’s life without it putting a monstrous stress on my body and mind.
I was getting up at 5am at home to work for an hour to then see Miss J before I left for work. I would then work on the train for 60 minutes, get into the office before 8am, sweating, nauseous and in physical pain. As I have written before, I didn’t pay attention to these symptoms of my impending breakdown – I used to just say “it’s hard work and intense but I’m enjoying it” and I would just suck it up and keep going. I even kept going when in the month before I ended up in hospital I was going into quiet rooms or empty Partner’s offices to shed tears before wiping my face, taking a deep breath, doing a lap around the glass maze of More London by Tower Bridge, and then back into the office for more as if nothing was wrong. I would get home before 6pm. Go through the motions of family time and then get back to my laptop and phone (which never left my hand) until 10/11pm and then collapse into bed to start it all over again. As the old joke goes, and you call that living?!
I wish I’d had been more honest about the cost of my goals and the way I was trying to achieve them. I was saying I wanted to be a fully present member of my family, home every night for baby time but, whilst I wanted that, the allure of personal achievement at work was intoxicating. I had spent all of my life to that point setting goals and meeting them. School. College. University. Getting a job. Getting promoted. Running for parliament. Buying a house and on and on. I was addicted to to climbing ladders. Addicted to my goals.
When I said I wanted to be there for bed time I meant it but I also was secretly feeling the heavy weight of a brick on my chest because all I really wanted to do was to sit at my desk and send emails, review slides and write proposals. My to do list was burned on to my mind. A constant source of pressure.
Part of my work-life balance strategy was to refuse almost all the evening work engagements I was offered – mostly dinners – all because I had decided that the right work-life balance was being home by 6pm every night. This decision added even more pressure. I didn’t see that attending these dinners was a price worth paying for some breathing space. Instead by opting out of these events I was drawing more attention to myself and applying more pressure to succeed. If you step out of the mainstream in big organisations – if you are an outlier in your approach – you have to be successful on the measures that matter to them – usually money – otherwise your “maverick” ways will not be tolerated. I was seen as a maverick by some not just for the working hours but because I didn’t wear a tie! If I had a pound for every time that was commented on at work, I would have a healthy kitty for my trip to Cheltenham next week.
I was trying my best but I wasn’t being honest. Not with myself about what really mattered to me and what I was prepared to do to make it happen. I wanted to be a great dad but I wasn’t prepared to make the choices necessary to make that happen. I tried to do it all. I tried to be a superhero. I tired to be all things to all people. I tried to win at everything.
I worked with some people who were more honest than me. They made choices I wouldn’t make – but they consciously and openly put their careers and their own ambitions ahead of bath time and other family time. That was not for me but as least they were being honest about it – they were the people who went away for ten day business trips and admitted publicly that they liked it because they got some proper sleep and rest. They didn’t pretend they wanted it all. They were more honest. They were successful. I tried to have it all and ended up with nothing. Until the wheels came off and my reset began.
I am reminded of the magnificent blood oath scene in The Untouchables when Malone asks Ness what is he prepared to do to catch Al Capone. Elliot Ness answers: “Everything within the law”. And Malone – in Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning but shocking Irish accent says: “And then what are you prepared to do?”. My failing – and the failing of so many people I know – is to try – with everything they have and all the courage they can muster – to keep work and life in perspective – to get a healthy balance between the two – but without being truly honest with themselves about what is really important to them. If being at home for 6pm is what you want to be happy then do it – but don’t secretly want to be the CEO too – it really isn’t possible.
Be honest about what you want and grab it. Don’t say ‘work-life balance” just as a means of being seen as a good person who has his or her priorities right – say it and mean it. Say it and make it happen. Making honest choices means deciding something is more important than something else; be prepared to sacrifice some career and financial progression for more time at home if that’s important to you. But don’t kid yourself. Don’t kid your loved ones. Don’t do what I did. Be honest about what you really want. Make a choice. If you want to be untouchable, be honest with yourself.