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Managing Ourselves

One Life and Three Sisters

Caringly questioning the model of work-life balance

In his lovely new book, A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib writes, “There are moments when I question what I am taking in with my eyes and ears, and if it is vibrating at the same pitch as what everyone else is taking in with their eyes.” I can relate. For better or for worse, there have been a fair-few philosophical approaches over the years on which my perspectives have evolved in ways that maybe are a bit, shall we say, a long way out from the mainstream?

The question of questions, as Abdurraqib alludes, is important. Peter Block put it well: “Questions are the essential tools of engagement. …if you want to change the context, find powerful questions.” Edgar Schein, whose superb book A Humble Inquiry helped guide me in writing the “Humility” pamphlet, says, “All my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that…what moves things forward is asking the right questions.” Clearly, as both writers suggest, when we shift the question we’re asking, we will alter almost everything that comes next.

The question on my mind this morning is one that much of the country asks regularly. It usually goes something along the lines of: “What can I do to achieve work-life balance?” I want to propose an alternative here, in the hope that it will lead us toward more holistic, healthier lives. Philosopher Susanne Langer said, “The way a question is asked, limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given.” When we allow a question to be asked in an unproductive way, she says, it’s almost impossible to effectively refocus the conversation. Telling someone that their question doesn’t quite make sense, Langer points out “is likely to be taken as provocation,” when, she says, “in reality we have rejected the question.”

In Langer’s well framed context, I realize that I’ve been rejecting the question of work-life balance for at least a couple decades now. To be clear, I’m not down on the intent, nor do I want to be critical of those who ask it. People who focus on work-life balance most certainly mean well. Most are trying to make their way thoughtfully through the difficulties of daily life. Many have jobs in very negative workplaces. And even in places like ours where we work hard to be positive in our approaches, imperfections—always—abound. Still, there might be a more effective way to frame the issue. Because as Krista Tippett, who asks good questions for a living on her podcast, “On Being,” says, “Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall to meet.”

The alternate questions I’d like to offer, I know, will not work well for everyone, but they have helped me and many others. Instead of seeking “work-life” balance, what if “work” and “life” were woven together into a single—and singular—wonderfully rewarding and enriching life? One in which our work, our relationships, and our self-management, could all come together to make for a single, unique, amazing, imperfect but uplifting existence? And, I wonder, what if we looked for inspiration to the model Native American farmers have long called the “Three Sisters”?

Here’s a bit of what I wrote on the subject in Secret #42 in Part 4:

One Life, No Balance, and the Story of the Three Sisters

With all due respect to the good people who are trying so hard to attain it, I’m not big on the idea of work-life balance. To me, it’s a win-lose model. I don’t believe it works. At least not well. I don’t mean, of course, that you should be working round the clock, that you should forego vacations, or that you should ignore your children or significant other. I just believe there are more holistic, rewarding, and effective ways to bring things together. The framing of work-life balance feels so limiting. As if our “life” and our “work” are somehow at war with each other and the best we’re likely to get is a ceasefire. It’s a funny construct. A little too much “life,” and “work” suffers, or vice versa. We worry that we work too much, and then we beat ourselves up for doing it.

I still smile every time I reread Wendell Berry’s articulate blast at the idea of work-life balance: “Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as ‘less work, more life’ or ‘work-life balance’ as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.” I couldn’t agree more. I want to bring as much life and liveliness as I can to every single thing I do. Life is short. Why waste it? Berry asks:

“Aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work? And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work? And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?”

When people talk about “work-life balance,” what most of them mean, in practice, is that they want to find quality time for their family while still effectively getting their work done. We need to reinsert ourselves into the equation. Instead of trying to make peace between two opposing forces, I prefer the idea of a holistic sense of well-being. I like harmony. Elegance. And positive energy. I like vocation (which is not, by the way, at all opposed to vacation). And I’m very high on the Three Sisters.

Three Sisters is the name for an ancient Native American model of agriculture. Instead of the modern industrial approach, in which farmers grow hundreds of acres of the same main crop in the interest of “efficiency,” in the Native ideal with the Three Sisters model corn, squash, and beans are planted together, each one right next to the other two. If you walk through a field, you’ll see “triads” rather than long rows. The Three Sisters model may look inefficient to modern industrial eyes. But it actually works well…

Instead of corn, squash, and beans, I see the three crops as myself, the other important people in my life, and my work. Each of the three supports the others. The better one does, the better the other two do. When one of the three falters, the other two can carry the slack while it recovers. Since each provides sustenance, I’m never dependent on only one working… All three elements—the personal, family, and work—support each other. The growth of each enhances the development of the others. When we leave work feeling good, our time at home is happier. When we learn job skills (such as visioning and energy management) that enhance the quality of what we do outside of work, all the better. When we make time for ourselves to get grounded, our decisions get better, we treat others in our lives more positively, and we generate energy that supports positive change in our work and with our families. When we have good relationships, when our home life is enriching, energy enhancing, and intellectually stimulating, we carry that positive input back into the workplace. Which in turn makes for better business. Instead of win-lose, we get win-win-win. When all three areas of life are healthy and working, the energy is hard to beat.

More succinctly, as I said in Secret #29 in Part 2 (which is all about our application of anarchism to progressive business), “It’s All One Life, and It’s an Artful One at That!”

Washington D.C.-based leadership coach, Jess Lilly, shares:

“Work/Life balance” for me usually conjures the image of a business woman running home to change “costumes” and make dinner for her husband and kids and then at 11 PM reading a book about self-care or using a meditation app. Work/Life balance has been turned into a way to trick people into buying “things.” More productivity, more “self-care,” performing the part of “having it all,” etc. I’m particularly sensitive to the implications that the Work/Life balance model for women—if only I were “better” at Work/Life balance then I could have the perfect family, body, job, income, partner, spiritual practice, etc. It’s a trap! I like the “all one life” model because it invites me to create integration and connections in my life rather than compartmentalizing things, and because it implies that we can all support each other rather than trying to figure it out alone.

Tartang Tulku is a Buddhist monk who escaped to the U.S. when Tibet was taken over by the Chinese government in 1959. His marvelous book Skillful Means (thank you to artist Adam Shrewsbury for the suggestion) is a lovely ode to the idea of “it’s all one life.” Pat O’Donohue, John’s brother, writes that “The interplay between farmers and the elements was a poem without words.” Tulku’s book might then be a poem that connects thoughtful people and their work. A testament and guide to weaving meaning into our work, and then weaving back what we learn at work, holistically and seamlessly, into what we do in the other parts of life. As Tulku writes:

Every kind of work can be a pleasure. Even simple household tasks can be an opportunity to exercise and expand our caring, our effectiveness, our responsiveness. As we respond with caring and vision to all work, we develop our capacity to respond fully to all of life. Every action generates positive energy which can be shared with others. These qualities of caring and responsiveness are the greatest gift we can offer.

To Tulku’s well-taken point, I will say that to my view, “work” is not limited to what we get paid for. The typical American adult spends 15-30 hours (and, yes, women still do 50% more than men) on work that’s done at home. I’m not talking about the pandemic-induced “work from home.” I’m talking about work “at home” that’s not paid—cooking, cleaning, garage-organizing, hobbies, or home gardens. Freed from the model of work-life balance, I believe it’s easy to see that we work hard at anything we care about. My relationships out of work take work. So too does working out, painting, poetry, pottery, piano playing, or parenting … if you do any of them and you care about them in meaningful ways, they take the same sort of work that goes into what you do for a living. Tulku writes:

As we respond with caring and vision to all work, we develop our capacity to respond fully to all of life. Every action generates positive energy which can be shared with others. …Reality is all-encompassing: the absolute nature is one. Although we may feel separate from the original uncreated reality—whether we call it “God,” “peak experience,” or “enlightened mind”—through awareness we can contact this essential part of ourselves.

Does this all make a meaningful difference in the day-to-day world? For me it has. As mindfulness teacher and performance expert George Mumford makes clear, to really make a meaningful change in your life, “you have to change the paradigm… you have to change how you see yourself.” Shifting out of the mindset of “work-life balance” into asking myself how I could create one meaningful life, designed around honoring my own “Three Sisters,” has the power to be that kind of paradigm shift.

How does it help me? There are many ways, but here are a few highlights:

1. Instead of focusing on pushing back against unwanted encroachment (of either “work” or “life”), this helps me to embrace what comes at me and look for the ways I can shift my view of it, even slightly, to contribute to the quality of my life.

2. Rather than building more walls between “work” and “life,” this approach helps me to actively work to see how what I am experiencing in one part of my life can help me in others.

3. It encourages me to seek out and develop the all-important connections that I wrote about a few weeks ago in the context of Natural Law #18: “Everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

Other examples? Going to therapy for personal issues turned out to be a great way to improve my leadership. New work skills like energy management, visioning, the spirit of generosity, etc., are wholly applicable outside of work as well. Actively supporting Tammie’s dreams of being a farmer has helped me learn about agriculture and the ecosystem, hopefully helped her in her life, and enhanced the quality of my eating at the same time! Building friendships outside of work has helped me manage stress and take in diverse perspectives that enhance my work in the ZCoB. Studying art and music led to the writing of “The Art of Business.” Writing The Power of Beliefs in Business led me to a greater understanding of agriculture and helped me to better help those in need in the community. Having dogs has taught me many lessons, and improved my public speaking (Sprout, one of our Corgis, and her fear of brooms became one of my most effective teaching points when I presented about beliefs). The shift has helped me to take, as Tartang Tulku says, the “opportunity to exercise and expand our caring, our effectiveness, our responsiveness,” and to bring love and care to everything—small and large—that I come into contact with.

If we take down the walls and make peace between the various parts of our lives, good things will likely follow. When we live holistically, we can lead more effectively. Shifting the question, from one of work-life balance to creating a holistic, meaningful life, can lead us a long way. It has the power to meaningfully improve the quality of our lives, and, in the process, the potential to positively impact our organizations and our communities in big ways. As John O’Donohue wrote, “There is no limit to the distance that a question can travel.”

Check out our webinar on “A Different Approach to Work-Life Balance” to explore this topic further!

For more on this subject, check out Secret #42 in Part 4 and Secret #29 in Part 2 and/or tune in to our Mindful Self-Management workshop!

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!