A Tale of Two Circles

Why it’s dangerous to get too much identity or too little meaning from work

Shane* was frustrated with his work situation, and it was starting to show. He was one of the most talented and professionally passionate software developers I had ever known, but his large employer lagged significantly on best practices, tooling options, and creative freedom. I knew he would be happier working elsewhere, and yet he agonized over leaving his well-paying job with great long-term benefits. Using a common visual framework, I helped Shane see that he desired more overlap between his personal passions and his occupation. He decided to change employers and today happily works for a smaller technology company in a mutually-beneficial arrangement.

“Work-life balance” seems to be an evergreen topic of debate. Some refer to it as “work-life separation.” Jeff Bezos reframes it instead as “work-life harmony.” Regardless of the exact verbiage, this issue and debate boil down to one essential question: how much should our personal interests and professional pursuits intersect or maintain a healthy distance, for the pleasure and benefit of each?

Venn diagram depictions of this abound because the intersecting two circles is a helpful framework for understanding our predicament.

The first circle represents our occupation — what we must do (or choose to do) to make money, pay bills, put food on the table … survive.

The second circle embodies the stuff that makes living life meaningful and fulfilling to us, the things we personally care about most deeply. This is our interests, passions, and perhaps hobbies.

In each of our lives, we have these two things in play, both at the same time: work and self — what we do to earn our living and what we find most interesting.

Most sources of “work-life advice” suggest that these circles should overlap whenever possible. But to what extent should they overlap?

I advocate that the very best situations for employer and employee result when these circles partially overlap. At the intersection, you have mutually-beneficial win-win: great value being delivered by a worker who has a personal passion and interest in the work. Both gain the benefit of the employee finding the work meaningful and fulfilling.

Now, if these circles don’t overlap at all — if they become separated — employers end up with workers who just show up and usually don’t care much more about work quality or improvement any more than the minimum needed to keep their paycheck coming. Mediocrity and apathy results. The lack of personal investment may also yield an absence of long term thinking, which can compromise business plans and employer results.

You might assume, as many sources suggest, that the antidote is to have these circles overlap as much as possible, but that is not at all what I actually recommend as it can breed equally dangerous outcomes. With no separation between work and what a person finds all interest and fulfillment in, he or she may stake everything on what happens on the job. They may be unable to separate their personal worth from activities and decisions there, and that also can be where disappointment, frustration, and inflated self-focus emerges.

With so much personal identity in the game, there’s no room for the others: colleagues and customers. Risks can also become either fearfully undertaken — “I can’t afford to mess this up! I’d be a failure! I must avoid anything that could go wrong!” — or desperately overtaken — “It’s my baby! I can’t let go! It must turn out the way I want!”

Pat* was a coworker who had a hard start in life and, out of that insecurity, sought to find security and identity all within the professional work sphere. People hated working with Pat, because Pat would compete with everyone, including subordinates, out of desperation for the assurance of worth and security. Pat drew too much significance from work, expecting the circles to overlap 100%.

Shane had a lot of personal passion and particular opinions on software development, but he had little influence over those practices at large in a big corporate entity. He likely never would be able to move the whole company, but he could alter his own expectations or replace his employer. Note that we only have full command over the “self” circle because most of us will never have total control over all aspects of our employment. (Even self employment has its limitations on control.)

Each worker has to set a reasonable expectation of how much he or she will expect and accept those circles to overlap. Shane wanted them to overlap more, and once he recognized that, he made a change to satisfy those expectations.

That’s exactly why I counsel mentees, as life and work circumstances change, to periodically reevaluate how much they need and expect those circles to overlap and how much they can tolerate them being apart. At various times, I have made career choices intentionally to pull the circles more apart or push them closer together. There is wisdom in recognizing that nothing is static, that both employment circumstances and our own passions and interests can change over time.

There is also maturity in recognizing that, at some point, work must just be done to earn a living — that it can’t always be 100% preferred and seamlessly aligned to personal interests and pursuits, but perhaps it shouldn’t ever be so. Striving to perfectly overlap our work and personal spheres can be a misguided and often harmful approach. Shane was beginning to annoy his peers and interfere with collaboration. Pat’s contentious workplace behaviors and attitudes eventually led to removal from the company. Pat never learned that it was okay to make changes to those circles. Shane fortunately did, for his own benefit and those at his former company as well.

The lesson learned from the tale of two circles is that, while it’s best to have some overlap, it’s also good for work and self simply to be “close enough” — to ideally give us interesting (and perhaps even meaningful) income-producing work but also the healthy freedom to be more than just our job.

*name is a pseudonym

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