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Professional Excellence and a Balanced-Life Can Co-Exist

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“What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing”

-C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

This post might seem a little “off topic” from the declared focus of this blog — “Insight & Commentary On Complex Business &Financial Law Topics.”  But I believe no matter how much “insight” we download as professionals, if we become too overwhelmed in life, both our professional excellence and personal lives will suffer.

So the proposition I put forward here is that professional excellence does not have to be sacrificed on the altar of the very amorphous concept of “work-life” balance.  Further, for those professionals that want to make being a “super professional” a priority in life, they can do so while also having a “balanced life.”  But that involves identifying priorities and making difficult choices as no one can have it all (indeed, the acceptance in professional circles over the past few decades that we can have it all is what has caused all the imbalance that exists — usually unknowingly — in many professional’s lives).

Before proceeding, I want to make clear I believe that there are truly different strokes for different folks.  Therefore, there is nothing wrong with those that choose to make their professional career the primary focus of their life …. as long as it does not come at the expense of others who never signed up for that.

Launching Point

The launching point for the discussion below is that all professionals must step back and start with the question: what is truly meant by the commonly used phrase “work-life balance”?

As the eminent Jack Welch stated a few years ago:

There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

I agree (with it equally applying to both men and women professionals)

In pondering this post over the last 24 hours, I came across numerous spot-on pieces written from personal experience who discuss the need to make choices, such as:

Then, as you will learn below, last fall @rashkenas Ron Ashkenas wrote a thoughtful article “Forget Work-Life Balance: It’s Time for Work-Life Blend” where he touched on many truths that I revisited first-hand just yesterday and which propelled me to write this piece:

“The reality for many of us these days is that our professional lives bleed into our personal lives. The boundaries are increasingly permeable and movable. We check our emails in the evenings and weekends. We delay or miss family events because we can’t leave the office. And when we do, we take our communications devices with us so that we can stay connected to work.”

I assume most of you reading this have “been there, done that.”  However, just becauseit is a commonly accepted practice to let our professional lives bleed into our personal lives does not make it right.  I think what often happens is that many professionals convince themselves for the sake of survival in an overly “marginless” world that letting our professional and personal lives bleed together is OK.  Yes, there are times and places where that will occur.  But it should be the exception – it is not a fait accompli.

My Personal Mea Culpa

So all of the above leads up to the following: yesterday, May 23, 2013, was my son’s yearly “Cardinal Field Day” at St. John’s Episcopal School, which is a day of fun-focused track and field events in a carnival atmosphere.  The school is split up between yellow, blue and red teams.  Parents and other adult family members are not only welcome, but encouraged to come and enjoy the spirited atmosphere.  As with years past and most of his school events, I made sure to attend.  But this year’s Cardinal Field Day was different for all the right reasons.

Last year, I was 100% physically present at Cardinal Field Day but sadly, in retrospect, spent most of the time trying to “balance” watching my son participate from just far enough away that the noise coming from the field would not be heard on the concurrent multi-party conference call I was participating on via my cell phone.  At the time that seemed like a perfect equilibrium since my son was definitely more interested in hanging out with his friends just far enough away from “Dad”.  But later that night it was emotionally divulged to me by him of how he interpreted things, specifically that to him “all I did was talk on the phone.”  The message was loud and clear: I might have been physically present, but I was not really “there” as he wanted me to be.

My first reaction, as if pulling from some “Better Something Than Nothing” handbook for lawyers, was a “IRAC”, legalist and presumably logically response to my son: “most dads do not attend Cardinal Field Day; … I was there watching you all the time.”  In my mind, the easy justification for that response was “work like this pays for you to attend St. Johns.”  However, that response was truly an “exercise in missing the point,” even if factually accurate.

What mattered was that my son had hit on the foundational point raised in a very enlightening post by @Ju_Summerhayes entitled “The Minimalist Lawyer”, which is that “[e]verthing has its place.”  For my son, my cell phone did not have a place during those 90 minutes of Cardinal Field Day.

That experience caused me to revisit the difficult question: even though I was a name partner at a small law firm I help found and thus controlled where I was for my conference call, was my perceived “equilibrium” really a work-life balance?  I thought it was and in most respects I feel that I have identified the right priorities and made the right choices with respect to balancing the professional excellence I seek to deliver with the personal life that I cherish.  But like so many things in life, and what is especially true for attorneys like me who spent most of their formative years in “Big Firm” environments (which can still haunt us even long after we left the halls of “Big Firm” life), is staying on top of:

  • what is meant by “everything has its place” for me and my family, each day as well as in the long run, and
  • once that is figured out, how do we put that into practice with respect to my professional life (as well as my wife’s professional life) and our family and personal lives?

Undoubtedly, these questions are very dynamic, perpetually changing moment to moment.  Fortunately, this year at Cardinal Field Day I 100% “got it” by putting away the cell-phone other than to take a few pictures of my son and post them to Facebook, like the one below. …. And I still was able to complete my legal work at the standard of “professional excellence” I set for myself.