MR Round Table: That Elusive Work/Life Balance

Is it real? And if so, how the hell does anyone achieve it?

12.04.15

Today’s Round Table includes two guests: Taryn Toomey of NYC’s The Class (which you can try at home with a series of GIFS ), and Lev Eldemir, an MBA student at Columbia University, former Wall Street Analyst and Amelia’s old roommate.

Leandra Medine: Something that keeps coming up at the Man Repeller office is the concept of work/life balance and whether or not it actually exists, how to achieve it, what work/life balance looks like if you have achieved it and whether or not you can have it all.

Lev Eldemir: When Amelia first texted me about this, my immediate answer was “There’s no such thing as balance.” But I do think that there’s a choice that you can make. There will always be an unlimited amount of work you can do, but you can choose to take the time to do something you enjoy, to take a break. I have trouble doing that.

Taryn Toomey: It sounds so easy, but there are so many other variables, like the pace that the city moves and the way things come at us. Doing something you enjoy seems like an exciting opportunity at the time but the next thing you know you’re in over your head. The whole reason you did it in the first place kind of vanishes because you’re so overwhelmed, you’re taxed, you’re exhausted, then you have to hold back and you feel like you’re doing yourself a disservice.

When the balance or scale starts to tip, there’s a choice to rein it back in or continue to push. That’s where it gets a little murky.

Amelia Diamond: My friend Gabby once told me that you have to schedule in your balance. You have to schedule your workout the same you would a non-negotiable meeting and that if your workout class is at 7 pm but you have more work to do, you still go to your workout class. She thinks that’s the only way to maintain the balance: treat it as you would your work.

But what’s frustrating about doing that (and I’ve actually been trying this week) is the fact that you’re scheduling or intentionally forcing a balance. There’s something in that — the effort of it –that makes it feel like it’s not balanced. There’s this perception that people who have achieved a work/life balance have a magical on/off switch, that they go to work 9 to 5 and then they turn their switch off and have their balance time. That’s not realistic. But when you don’t experience that, it’s frustrating.

TT: For me, it’s not so literal. It’s more about all the things that crowd the mind when you end up tipping the scale in one direction or the other.

LM: So you’re thinking about work while you’re working out and then you’re thinking that you should’ve enjoyed the workout more when you’re at work. But that’s the condition of a very particular type of person. I think I’m hard on myself and I’m really aware of the fact that I’m hard on myself, and it seems like you’re that way, too.

This is why, whenever people ask me for business advice, I always tell them – especially young girls with starry eyes and pencils in their hands – if you can be happy working for someone else, do that. You can live a very satisfying and emotionally fulfilling life operating under someone else’s franchise. Just because it’s “cool” to build your own business today doesn’t mean that everyone should do it. Doesn’t mean that I should have done it! That piece of the puzzle is interesting to me. I think it’s hard to consider what work/life balance looks like when you’re at the helm of your own thing, which is the case for you Taryn, and is the case for me, and is the case for you, Amelia because our team is so small, and is kind of the case for you Lev, because you’re in business school.

TT: We’re talking about work/life balance, but what falls into what bucket? Because my workouts are my work, so where does that land? Is that part of the balance of life? I’m also a mom, I try to be a wife and a friend, and colleague and mentor…

LM: Do you ever feel like a bad mother?

TT: No, because that’s really what I prioritize.

LM: So in my opinion, you’ve figured out work/life balance.

AD: When people close their eyes and think of what it looks like to “have it all,” they probably think of you, or someone like you. You represent that.

TT: Maybe with the exception of myself.

A: Well I think what’s so interesting is that you pull back and realize, fuck, if she doesn’t “have it all,” or doesn’t think she has it all, does anyone?

LM: Maybe that’s sort of satisfying in a vaguely masochistic way. It elicits comfort in you to think, “Well, if this person doesn’t have it all or seems to be going through something, I feel so much better about myself.”

Everyone feels that way about someone else, right? What does that say about our perceptions of perfection?

TT: But that’s just in a physical and material sense, you know? There’s such a different thing when you talk about work/life balance, which is much more emotional and subtle body stuff with how you feel being inside yourself. How it is when you fall asleep at night, what you say to yourself, what you believe about, what you do.

LM: And the capability to detach those thoughts from work. For me, socializing works. I’ll actually leave happy hour without having had anything to drink, but feel so loose and relaxed.

TT: I get the same benefit from that. What I really find is a decompression valve for me is getting down on the floor with my kids with no distraction, no phone, nothing on my mind for the next morning. Or going out with my girlfriends and just having those belly laughs and cheek pains because you’re laughing so much about nonsense. That’s really the release valve for me. And when we run and scream.

LM: Lev, I feel like the whole conversation about work/life balance happens so infrequently in the male discourse. Did you ever have this conversation with male coworkers? Do you ever talk about it with your male business school classmates now?

LE: No. When I was in finance it was very much: you do your work, you try to meet your sales goals (if you’re in sales), or whatever division you’re on, and then you go and get drinks. And that’s three or four drinks, every single night.

Because bankers work gruesome hours and often 7 days a week, it’s now policy at some banks, if not all, to have a “protected day” where an Analyst is essentially pardoned from working on that day. If a manager needs something to get done for a live deal and it’s really urgent, there is now a process in place where they have to get approval to ask the Analyst to work on their “day of rest.” It’s in place so that the Analyst doesn’t burn out. Banks have implemented this to achieve a better work/life balance, but it’s not enough.

A: “Work/life balance” feels like such a millennial-era concept. Did our parents think about having a work/life balance? Or having it all?

LM: That’s the thing I keep coming back to, this concept of “having it all.” That definition varies by person. For some women, having it all really does mean marrying a wonderful, helpful partner and having healthy children. And that’s a lot! That’s a fuck ton. You know what I mean? Whereas for other women, “having it all” means owning an apartment and having a job that they love to go to every day. When did we start falling into these pockets of definitions that we don’t even wholly agree with? Do I sound like Carrie Bradshaw?

A: Do you think having a work/life balance is a part of “having it all?” I guess having a work/life balance means you have figured out how to “have it all.”

LM: That’s what it is. One infers the other. I also believe that the ultimate goal and destination for both of those things is a sense of spiritual fulfillment and happiness. That’s what we’re all in pursuit of but it gets lost in the bullshit.

AD: I remember back when we first lived together, Lev, and we both had our first jobs, there were multiple weeks in a row where you would come home at midnight, go to bed, wake up at 6 am, go to work – it was like this endless cycle for you. Did you even try to find a middle ground, or was it impossible?

LE: I felt like I had to pay my dues when I first joined. I was also used to that grind; it was all I knew. I always wanted a job on Wall Street, so I spent my entire life working to get it. So for me, this work/life balance thing didn’t really come to fruition until recently.

TT: You were like, “I’m putting my head in the sand, and I’m gonna power through right now.”

LE: Yeah. I have bad anxiety, and at one point I was depressed. Eventually I realized that the rate I was going was unsustainable.

TT: One of the things to remember is that what we’re talking about — work/life balance — it’s just that: a balance. Balance doesn’t mean that it’s always consistently right in the middle. Balance is like a seesaw. It tips a little bit in one direction and as long as you catch it before it totally bottoms out, you can start to tip it back in the other direction. It’s about noticing it when it’s really starting to move in one direction, and then coming in with the balance to even it out. Or think of it like a pendulum: the more that you pull that thing back, the more you let it go, the more it’s going to swing into the other extreme. Working to stabilize it in the middle is the key.

LM: Do any of you feel like you have work life balance?

TT: At times, yeah. But you need to hit the…I almost want to say panic button, but it’s not the panic button…it’s the “Hold on a second, I need to take a moment” button, and then come back to that steady space in the middle, and then start to add some more movement again. The ideal thing would be to figure out the signs in yourself before that happens. Listen to the signs, and then act.

LE: I try to just not take myself too seriously. The recruiting process is very intense. I had a bad experience recently and I was feeling very down on myself, and I had another one shortly after, so I cancelled. I knew I wouldn’t get benefit out of it — I was aware enough to see the diminishing returns.

LM: There’s a little bit of shame around stepping back. People are embarrassed to stop.

TT: I keep thinking back to this thing that I asked at the beginning. What is a work life balance? Is it ever enough? Is it ever balanced enough? What does fulfillment of work/life balance feel like or mean? Sometimes I think that if we don’t know what it really feels like or means, we just never actually realize that we have it.

A: So who do you think has it?

TT: I’ve never thought about it in the actualized form. I don’t know anybody who says, “I have a work life balance.” It’s just always waxing and waning, it’s never settling. Is that just the way that society is — to talk about things as being “off?” Is it ever really gonna be “I feel good?” I wonder if our programming has made us unable to realize that on the whole. things feel pretty good. I like what I do, I love my family, I feel pretty fulfilled about my work, it’s my passion. Within that, there can be pressure, and it’s uncomfortable. It kind of presses your edges a little bit and pushes you on and then it kind of sets into the new normal. Then you’re in that new space. So, there’s not somebody that comes to mind. But I still have that question mark. What does that really mean?

A: Well, I think that the idea of finding comfort in the discomfort is probably the only way to really lay off yourself and achieve “it.” But I think that’s annoying because I’m like, “What the fuck? I was told someone out there has figured out this real balance.” I mean, somewhere we got it in our head this work life/balance meant you had it all, everything’s perfect. I don’t know if it’s intended to drive people or if it does the opposite.

TT: I also wonder if it’s an age thing. As you get older you have different perspectives on what matters. You’ve either had kids or you haven’t and they’ve grown and moved on, and there are all of these early-on pressures that we’ve put on ourselves that might get a little easier.

AD: Leandra, do you have someone that you look up to as the person who has it all?

LM: All of my career role models, I am realizing, are independent operators. Like Joan Didion and Cathy Horyn and Gloria Steinem. These are all venerated journalists and writers. These are not people who sought out to build their own businesses, really. Except for when Gloria Steinem started Ms. It really makes you wonder about what you’re doing. You know? Sometimes I think I could feel really happy and fulfilled just raising a family and cheerleading for them. But I also know that that’s not me. The stuff that I’m not even mentioning — the pursuit of a hustle, the inability to remain quiet and keep an opinion to myself, that’s the stuff that’s built into my identity. I wonder if you can create the balance while you’re at work.

LE: I feel like I don’t have purpose without working, I like that weight of something that grounds me.

AD: It’s totally a personality type — you’re either that type of person who likes to work or you’re not. But I think that most people are. When unemployment is down, national morale is down. People need a sense of purpose. It’s human nature.

But what also happens is that we experience a sense of pride…that may be the wrong word…in feeling stressed, having all this work and the lack of balance. It implies responsibility, that what you do is so important. And then we kind of brag about it without meaning to brag.

TT: I think a lot of it is a state of mind that you can talk yourself in and out of.

AD: Leandra said that today. Mostly I just talk myself into a frenzy and feel like I’m fucking stuck there.

LM: You can also talk yourself out using the same tactics that got you there!

You know what? I feel like I have work/life balance. My relationship with my husband is pretty strong. I don’t think he feels like I don’t give him enough attention. Maybe he does and he just doesn’t articulate it to me. And I have Friday nights with my family and I see them and I speak to them a couple times a week.

But then, as we are sitting here and talking I am coming in and out of the conversation because I’m remembering, “Oh fuck, I’m giving a talk tonight and I wanted to Instagram about it to make sure that people would come and I forgot to do that and I need to do that but I can’t because my recorder is on.” So I missed five minutes of this conversation because of that narrative. And then I come back in and five minutes later, I’m back out because I remember that I didn’t e-mail our social media director. But that’s not a balance. I think for me, work/life balance has always meant making sure the people at home are happy with how I’m treating them, and that the people at work are happy with how I’m treating them. It’s never actually been about how I feel. Does that make sense?

TT: That’s a lot happening at once, that’s what that all is. It’s not necessarily your work and your life is out of balance. You just have a lot to do.

LM: So here’s a question: what does work life balance look life for you or to you? In a perfect world.

TT: I’d have a normal day where I would drop my kids of at school, then I’d teach, maybe work until about 4:00 P.M. and not teach more than one class a day (which hasn’t been happening lately). Pick my kids up from school, and then have nothing on my mind so that I’m able to be present with my kids. Then my husband would come home and we’d hang out — not talk about how stressed out I am or how much I have going on, but just be present. And then start it again. It’s the “what do I have to do tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that” that gets me checked out and then I feel like I lose these precious hours with my family.

LM: That’s achievable. So what do we do to get there?

TT: You just have to set up boundaries. But the problem is that walls get knocked down all the time because you let them. And hopefully you feel them getting knocked down and then you reset the structure, but that doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t always get repaired.

AD: In my “perfect balance,” there are four different components. First there’s work, which is very proper. In at 9 am, leave by 7:00. Then you go home and have you time, you workout or read…for some reason, whenever I think of work/life balance I picture myself in my kitchen cooking and listening to jazz with a glass of red wine. I do not cook. But that’s part of work/life balance in my head.

Then there are friends. That’s the third part. And then there’s this fourth component that is creating or finding inspiration to enrich your work and your life so that you go in to the office charged up. What about you, Leandra?

LM: To me, that sounds like work/life balance is an illusion. That red wine and jazz music and cooking scene, that’s like straight out of a Helen Hunt movie. Doesn’t that mean something about our conceptions of balance? For me, it’s waking up excited, going to work, making stuff, coming home and then making other stuff, e.g. children without feeling like I am half-assing. But what is stopping us all from achieving our balance? Or our versions of balance. There’s a lot of execution involved. But if we really wanted these things, wouldn’t we execute?

AD: There’s definitely a general false sense of what work/life balance means.

TT: We also live in a crazy city. There’s a lot of pressure here.

LE: I’m looking to leave New York. I’ve realized I’m an anxious person, so I’ve made a conscious decision to go back to California. I had to realize that it was getting out of control and I was making bad decisions. You have to check in, and know when you’ve hit your limit. I hit my limit and I’m choosing to fix it — to make my life more chill. And I still will be successful because I’ll be much happier.

LM: Good for you for taking action.

TT: A couple of weeks ago I was with my kids and we were on our way to my daughter’s birthday party. I’d rented out this space she’d been wanting to have her party at for six years, and I had always been like, “This place is too expensive, you’re absolutely crazy, I’m not doing that. We can have it at the house and you can have five of your friends over, end of story.” And I finally did it. I worked hard and made enough money to rent this space. So I’m pushing the stroller down the street and it’s a nice day and I’ve got my kids, and I remember standing on the corner and having this crazy experience where I thought, “I feel totally fucking fulfilled.” I have my kids and they’re healthy, and I am able to do this because I work hard. Just standing on the sidewalk with this overwhelming sense of gratitude to be able to live in the city and have access to the things that I do and to feel overwhelmed in a good way because I have so much going on.

So that’s when I say: sometimes it really is a state of mind, you know?

Follow Taryn and The Class on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; Lev’s on Instagram too because who isn’t. Illustration by Maria Sainte. Follow her on Instagram here.

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