Work-Life Balance Is About Years, Not Days

Our lives are balanced like seasons, not like spinning tops.

When I was working on my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, I spent a lot of time reading about the lives of Nobel laureates, famous writers, great artists, and other admirably creative people. One of the things they taught me was that we think about work-life balance in too narrow a way. We often think of it as something that we should achieve each day: an ideal day would include hours of work, and hours with family, not to mention some personal time, and of course a healthy dose of sleep.

But lots of really creative people turn out not to live quite that way: their days don’t consist of juggling work and family. Their work-life balance plays out much more slowly, over seasons or years. During some periods, family clearly has priority; in others, work is the most important thing in their lives.

A great example is one of my favorite historians: the Australian cultural historian Inga Clendinnen, who wrote magnificent books about the Aztecs.

Inga Clendinnen

I read Clendinnen’s work when I was in graduate school, and was absolutely blown away: she was an incredible writer, and had a talent for reconstructing the inner lives of warriors and the details of ritual sacrifice. Recently, I found a marvelous oral history in which she talks at length about her personal and professional life. It’s the kind of interview that alternates erudition and a breathtaking frankness: when asked why she got married at age 20, for example, she replied, “We got sick of the back of the Peugeot.”

What I never realized was that her career as a researcher started when she was in her 40s. Before then, she had a teaching position at University of Melbourne (where her husband was a philosophy professor), but mainly was raising her sons. As she describes her life before she started writing,

I loved teaching. I had the two boys and found the most you have ever felt in that. Nothing seemed half as important as my extraordinary ability to produce these miracles, you know…. I was leading a very happy, a very busy life and I had no interest in retreating, as it would have seemed to me, from the world to do research and I only began to write and to research in history when I saw the writing on the wall, when the boys were adolescent….
[I]t really only was when I saw the hole opening up in my life, of the boys growing up, that I quite consciously shifted stride. You see it was ’81, I think, that I had my first publication of an international article and Steve would have been, he was born in 1960, so 21. Gone. And then I was obviously going to have to be a different person, differently engaged.

Clendinnen didn’t juggle family and teaching and research all at once. It was only after her children were grown and gone that she started doing serious academic research and writing. For her, the balance of work and life was one that played out over decades, not days.

Living that way — it wasn’t something she planned — made her a better parent, and it turned out to make her work much, much better.

Once she started writing, it was like a dam burst: within a decade, she had written two marvelous books, Ambivalent Conquests and Aztecs: An Interpretation. She would go on to write many more books, on the Holocaust, Australian history, and other subjects. Her work had an amazing depth to it that derived in part from her life as a parent. Clendinnen had an ability to write about the body that was unparalleled, and it was a talent that derived in part from her experience as a mother. “I was astonished and delighted by discovering I was an animal,” she said about motherhood. “I was amazed at how well I performed in labour, as if I was born to it.” Had she written about the Aztecs without that experience, her work would certainly have been quite different — and maybe not as good.

And her work would come to inform her later life. When she faced a life-threatening illness, she said her work on Aztec warriors provided her with “the vision of how one ought to be in conditions of challenge. Stoical, self-possessed, consenting, if it comes, to death as the only way to sustain your autonomy and your dignity.”

Inga Clendinnen

Clendinnen died a couple months ago at the age of 82. Thinking about the whole span of her life, it struck me that even though she didn’t publish her first article until she was in her forties, she spent half her life writing, and in those years produced an extraordinary body of work. For any historian, that’s a great record, and a life well-lived.

Would she have been better if she had started in her twenties, and tried to craft a work-life balance that required her to juggle the different parts of her life more frantically? I suspect not: having time to absorb the lessons of parenthood, and claiming the space when she was older to become immersed in her work, was essential to developing her singular historical vision and voice.

You see versions of this kind of work-life balance in other writers. James Herriott, who wrote so eloquently about life as a Yorkshire vet, started writing seriously in his forties — only after he’d acquired enough experience to inform his work. JRR Tolkien published The Hobbit when he was in his mid-forties, and The Lord of the Rings appeared when he was in his sixties.

So perhaps we should think of work-life balance as something that we achieve over the course of our entire lives, rather than something we need to do all at once. Assuming that we can and should build our careers and families at exactly the same times underestimates both how challenging each of those roles can be, and how rewarding and enriching they can be if we focus on them. And as Inga Clendinnen’s life teaches us, playing a longer game can also mean that we can put more into each of those phases, and get more out of them.