We were waiting for the luncheon speaker begin. He sat to my right, a small, energetic man in a sports jacket and an open-collared light blue shirt. As strangers will, he asked me what I did. My answer was that I am writing and speaking about what it takes for a good 50 year old to become a fabulous 80 year old here in the New Normal when education, work, retirement, family, health, and financial condition are being simultaneously struck by the lightning of discontinuous change Somehow, I hit a chord because Tim’s response was very thoughtful. Here it is:
“I might have figured it out earlier if I had been self-employed, but I can’t know that for sure. All those years I had a job with a big engineering company I thought of myself as selling a part of my life in exchange for income and benefits. There was work. There was my life; my real life with my family. I thought about work/life balance all the time. Sometimes I was pretty resentful.
Now that I am 77 and have failed retirement twice, I can see that it wasn’t a competition between my work and my life. It was all my life. The competition was between my control of my time and anyone else’s control of my time, especially my employers. It’s often about control, isn’t it? Even when I’m clever enough to call it something else, there are the dark, beady eyes of control staring back at me.”
Tim blew himself out of his employer when he was 58. Senior Management wanted to go one way. He thought their decisions were ill informed and said so. The company paid him to go quietly away, a small separation package that would keep him afloat financially for 90 days.
“Was my wife, Judy, ever surprised when she found me standing in the kitchen at 2 pm. She was even more surprised, and concerned, when I said I wasn’t going back. Ever.
A small subcontractor of my previous employer immediately hired me to be a project manager. I stayed for 7 years and retired the first time at 65. What was different about my new employment situation? Low on rules, high on individual and team responsibility. The owner and I knew, respected, and trusted each other. I liked my work. I never thought about work/life balance through those years. Judy liked to see me happy and never complained about longer hours. She did warn me that I should begin to develop more interests and that she had no intention of becoming my retirement entertainment committee. Then I retired.
I lasted 7 retired months; 2 months of the joy of no responsibilities, 5 months of Judy and me coming to agreement that excessive leisure (which looked good in my dreamscape) was a terrible fit for me on a daily basis. Having socked away my 90-day salary settlement and adding to it over those 7 years, I was able to buy a retail food franchise upon retirement. Working my rear end off for 3 years I made a huge success of it and sold it for much more than I had expected. In the beginning, it was rough. I hadn’t realized how much important work and how many crucial decisions – retirement planning, health care coverage, vacation policies, professional development, financial stability, strong vendor relationships, financial institution support, human resources – I had unthinkingly outsourced to my employers. I never thought of work/life balance during those early entrepreneurial years. Why? It wasn’t about balance at all. It was about the fact that I had control over my time, long hours and all. And I loved the challenge.
After selling the retail food franchise business, Judy and I took 9 months to travel. We flew and sailed and drove and went by train all over the place. For the first 7 months, we were deliriously happy. Then I began to complain. My work/life balance was out of kilter. I had too much life and not enough self-employment. Balance was important. So were challenge and deep engagement. We returned home simultaneously triumphant and disturbed. After intense and happy research, we started an online camping equipment business. Judy loves to camp. I don’t, but I love equipment generally and her enthusiasm.
Here we are, 3 years later with a significant online camping equipment business. Judy is our face person and also our big generator of ideas. I am the back of the house, negotiating with vendors and making sure that we didn’t have to invest in inventory, warehousing, or shipping facilities. I learned a lot from watching Amazon. Instead, our business model involves paying suppliers well and they drop ship directly to our customers. Judy works closely with the vendors to develop new products. I work closely with customer feedback and finance to make sure we’re delivering real, consistent value. Neither of us thinks about work/life balance. We chose this way of life – knowing what to anticipate and not much about the many, many surprises in store for us.
At 77 and 76, we see ourselves as entering into a new phase with new conversations. We love what we are doing, especially doing so much of it together. Yet, there will be a time when – just to be realistic and pragmatic – we will have a tough decision to make. Do we want to keep going, knowing that when something happens to one of us the other will be left to do all the cleanup and liquidation/selling of the business OR do we want to do that together soon so that neither of us has to face that burden alone?
We haven’t decided which of these alternatives we’re going to choose but we’re definitely hot and heavy into discussing it. Either way, we left the lie of work/life balance far behind us as soon as we admitted the real struggle we were having wasn’t about work/life balance at all. It was about having control of our own lives and living like grownups with our own decisions.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think what we’ve done is necessarily for everyone. We do think, however, that it would be much less stressful for most people in long term jobs to accept the realities of their choices rather than carrying on about work life balance.
We have cell phones and texts and email and scanning that invade our time just like most other people have whether they are freelancing, self-employed entrepreneurs, or long term employees. The world of work is still about jobs but not just about jobs. The workplace revolution is well underway. We think the solution is to find or create the right match for ourselves, not to struggle for elusive control in any situation in which it’s unlikely at best.”
What are your own thoughts about work/life balance in our New Normal? How is it working for you and what have you chosen to do about it?