My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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does work/life balance exist?

Reading the NYTimes over my Puffins (yes, I failed at staving off that addiction), I noticed this article: In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop. The article is painfully sensationalist and fails to really highlight the core issue regarding blog culture: bloggers do it cuz they wanna and cuz they lurve it. By and large, blogging is part of geek culture. Just like those who code, bloggers go late into the night doing their thing out of passion. Personally, my health improved when I switched from coding to blogging. I no longer down 2 2-liter bottles of Mt. Dew every day. I now have a gym membership and visit semi-often. And if you think that I’m pale now…

Underneath the sensationalism, there’s a core point here: those who are passionate about what they do do it to extremes. And when there’s the perception of a race (even if it’s self-imposed), it’s far too easy to take the extremes over the edge. I certainly spent my 20s running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying not to miss a single thing. It wasn’t for my blog per say – it was for “research.” I had to know everything the moment that it happened and I followed web developments like a hawk. My blog turned into the space where I spewed all of my pent-up energy out.

I can’t help but wonder if all of this is leading us down a dangerous path. The young and highly motivated turn into self-competing workaholics, often fueled by stimulants – legal (e.g., coffee), illegal (e.g., cocaine), and prescription (e.g., Provigil). Older folks and those who want to “have a life” look at this insanity with horror and back quietly away trying not to startled the hopped up beasts.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t playing into professional culture more broadly. Increasingly, only those bent on workaholism are valued as employees. Those who don’t push it to extremes are disregarded as lazy in many industries. There is pressure to work 24/7 and there are plenty of folks who take this seriously, even if it’s not in their best interests let alone the rest of society’s. I get so ravingly mad at my (primarily male) colleagues who work 14 hour days even though they have small children that they never see. It’s one thing to be a workaholic as a single 20-something; it’s another thing to be a workaholic as a parent. I get to see the flipside of that one – teens starved for attention, desperate to please in the hopes of being given attention and validation.

The problem is that the corporate world values workaholism. Those who do pull away from 24/7 lifestyles “because they’re getting older” find that there is huge ageism in many sectors of American business. If you can’t work 24/7, you aren’t getting that promotion. Fuck your kids, fuck your family, fuck your life. That ain’t so good for any of us and it seems like a recipe for disaster. It’s one thing to get paid many millions of dollars as a sports star, knowing that you’ll burn out by the end of your 20s and can then “retire.” It’s another thing to get paid an upper middle class wage only to burn out with no savings.

Of course, I’m saying this from the POV of a workaholic who is trying to ween her way off of that lifestyle. Or rather, is hoping to ween her way off of that lifestyle once the dissertation is over. And who realizes that she’s said that at every stage like an addict – I’ll do it when XYZ. But still, I can’t help but wonder – is it possible to really be in the flow and have work/life balance? Or will I find that, at the end of the day, I have to walk away from my work culture to have a life?

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27 comments to does work/life balance exist?

  • The US seems to represent the extreme of this mentality. Oversimplifying of course, but I blame our hypermarketing culture that goes all the way back to post-WWII days. Media focuses on celebrities and bling. Children are bombarded with marketing messages and feel that they must have it all. Elective cosmetic surgery is booming. Positional goods are not a new phenomenon to our species, but you have to wonder if we will ever truly become civilized. The sad part is that many of the people who are burning away their 20s and 30s will regret the lost years only when it is too late.

  • Over the summer, I interviewed at a bunch of other people’s startups and cringed at the idea of working each night into tomorrow. I’m a big work/life balance guy. I want to go out and play softball, kayak on the Hudson, make time for friends and family.

    Since I started Path 101, I see my friends less, and I get out less, and I routinely walk out the door after midnight… and I’m not even on the development team.

    And you know what? It’s wonderful. A year ago, I hated my job and was miserable. Now, I work my ass off, but I’m doing it to pursue a passion.

    Passionate people overdoing it is an issue–definitely, but I think those people figure out at some point that they work better when they’re healthier. Plus, their passions often grow bigger than them and they can afford to offload.

    The bigger problem, and the reason I even got into building a company around helping people with their career is the dispassionate people who trade their lives for work… the people whose 80 hour workweeks suck the life out of them because they get no job in return. It’s a huge problem in this country. No one tells college kids or anyone else for that matter to do what they really love–so they go work in cubes filling out TPS reports and wonder where their youth went. Booo to that.

  • A big part of the problem is that both employers and employees have the factory as the frame of reference. For those of us not producing commodity physical products on an assembly line, we can’t elegantly inherit all the standards worked out by generations of union organizing in the factory context. I think it really does help to stop and remember that its been a LONG, hard slog to get good working conditions for American laborers, and it will take a similar level of commitment (but hopefully far less time) to work out standards for us pixel-stained techno-peasants.

  • Wow!. This is really central point Danah!.

    Here in Chile everybody is accepting the US way as a form of life.
    But you got a great point about to be in the “flow” when you arre blogging.
    My life is better since I began to write in my blog.

    I think that there is a fundamental contradiction between work and family time. We have to live with this contradiction. For me it is similar to everything. If you want the reality you need the oposites (as in the ancient philosofy of Tao).

    So it is not too bad to “flow” in every thing that we do. In this case, to be fully present with the family and fully present at work.
    Every little thing that I do I try to do it full of passion but there with my five senses presents with my actions.

    As usual, thanks for your thoughts,

    Juan Felipe

  • Laura Zurowski

    I read the NYT article today as well – thought it was ludicrous and sensational. So some bloggers have neglected their health, worked too long and too hard, and they died. Can we also talk about the medical students in residencies that work for days at a time without a break? How about the fresh law school grads? Or the business folks putting in 70+ hour weeks… this type of behavior can be found in every employment sector not just technology.

    I follow several different blogs in the technology area that are well written, informative, and interesting and the folks who run them aren’t working around the clock. It would have been nice if the journalist had presented both sides of the story – those bloggers with workaholic tendencies and those without. Oh well, I guess there’s not much room for “nice” anymore…

  • What, pray tell, is a Puffins?

  • Somewhat on topic here… I’m reading the following article for a class Thursday:

    Levy, D.M. (2005). To grow in wisdom: Vannevar Bush, information overload, and the life of leisure. Proceedings of the 5th ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, pages 281-286.

  • some of the best commentary on the NYT article…thanks Dana…

    awhile back, I noticed much of what you have about workaholism and corporate culture. and I noticed how endemic it was in tech (and blogging, being part of tech, well, in blogging too) when I became friends with an up-and-coming game company. It was strange to watch the tide of the company shift as the core group got further into their 30’s and actually wanted to spend time with their families…

    And you can lose a bit of ground if you’re not constantly writing, constantly schmoozing, constantly finding the next conference and the next connections, constantly trying new things, etc., etc., etc. But, if you’ve got yourself pretty well established, then you can take a breather every now and then. It helps, too, to go to places where you can’t be contacted (hence my love of Bar Harbor, ME.) I also don’t compare my success to the success of others–I evaluate me in comparison to where I was when I started. Sure, some will go farther than me, but can I live with what I’ve accomplished from pretty much nothing? Yes, I can.

  • Puffins: “Low fat and lightly sweetened, all four wheat-free Puffins cereals are great in milk or straight out of the box. Four taste-tempting varieties get your day off to a flying start – just like puffins, the colorful and quick seabirds.”

    Attempt at nutritious breakfast cereal… Much better than Lucky Charms which I used to eat every day.

  • Steve

    danah,

    It is rare that you post something so much to my own way of thinking that all I can is OMG Yes! Thank You! Your point about teens with workaholic parents is exactly that. Please say it again. And again. Please make yourself obnoxious and controversial until the assholes get it.

    We live in a society where all too often, as a teen, the people who are supposed to have your back are the people you have to watch your back against. Upper middle class workaholism is not by any means the whole story – but it is a major piece. Pull on that thread and you will be amazed and gratified at what unravels. Ask why. Keep asking why at every step. And one day you will just see.

    It is no accident that teen music with lyrics written in the voice of the young person who is made to feel continuously inadequate in the face of parental standards of perfection is rampant.

    It is not too much of a leap (well for a scholar maybe – you folks in the academy are not encouraged to leap – but I try to approach these questions more like a poet) to imagine a generation of parents who want the perfect kid(s) to show off alongside the house, the car, the job. And the obsession with “success” and “winning” is the common thread connecting the display value of the perfect child with the workaholism of the ambitious parent.

    I know you may not agree with my notion of why your point is so important – but thank you anyway.

    -Steve

  • Danah, the NYT piece is sensationalist, but it is really talking about those who blog for a living on a piecework rate (The first Information Blue Collar Workers?) rather than those (like us) who blog but earn a living another way.

    In essence, the problem the “Blog For a Living” crowd have is they compete with us – we blog for fun, know our subjects (more or less), and most critically blog for free – which crashes the economics of any “Pro Blogging” play! As they can’t easily up the quality, they have to up quantity.

    More detailed thoughts in my blog posts here

    http://www.broadstuff.com/archives/833-Bloggers-vs-FreeConomics.html

  • Hi Danah. It is the same play, over and over.

    Men are fighting for higher social status. This is a struggle for power, because power attracts women (or did so for millenniums). More work = more power = more women = more children = more genes dissemination. This is an evolutionary psychology theory I think.

    Often things calm down after a baby or two. But not always, men used to be polygamous, back in the caverns. So, some me keep working, keep dominating, keep fighting.

    workaholic women is a different story. No evolution based explanation there. My guess is that, because nature loves diversity, some rare people are widely different. I suspect that there is a rather high concentration of such people in the top bloggers population. Including you I suppose. :-)

    Of course this evolution theory might as well be total bullshit. I am no specialist.

  • Reminds me of all the stories about young Koreans dying whilst online gaming 24/7.

    Except, as you say, it plays into the work world by encouraging everyone to be connected and productive 24/7, 365.

    I’m quite lucky now that I’m able to consciously have the odd weekend where I keep the laptop off, and try and jump out of the flow for a while. But I always feel overwhelmed when I get back into it on a Monday…

    The short answer is that I don’t think anyone has an answer yet,

  • I think you can look at workaholism as a symptom of bad management. Your immediate line manager needs you to be able to work on the next project as well, so it’s in her interests that you don’t overdo it. The problem arises for everyone who either doesn’t have a line manager, or isn’t savvy enough to be their own line manager, or has a line manager who has a bad line manager above them…

  • A breakfast cereal. Damn.

    I’m not going to mention how long I spent trying to find some sort of wireless / e-reader / mobile computing device called a Puffins.

  • Well, for what it’s worth, I feel as though I’ve been able to achieve a work/life balance that I’m really happy with. So yes, it’s possible.

    I made a conscious choice to live in a smaller city, and work at a “less prestigious” university, so that I could achieve that balance. We can live comfortably on an academic salary, and I don’t have to deal with constant ‘publish-or-perish’ pressure. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to carve out a professional niche for myself that I’m very happy with.

  • I do think that there’s social pressure, though, among bloggers to continue blogging. It’s something I’ve grappled with in deciding to take a long break from writing online, and then in deciding to return to it: how do I avoid the peer pressure? Maybe it sounds silly, but there you go. There’s a lot of competitiveness to blog — mention your book, your latest article, the coolest find, your latest thought — and it’s not just because of the lurve.

  • IQAmsterdam

    As an expat based in Europe, I empathise with the tough work ethic of Americans. Here (Amsterdam, NL) a 4 day week is the norm and work/life balance a closely guarded (almost) birth right. Competition, information overload, the do-or-die need to be number one…it all pales in comparison to wanting to live life in balance. I think it pays to step outside the box, love what you do but keep it in perspective. Is it all really going to matter in a year or two from now?

  • In my mind, this is about underpaid workers being squeezed to produced something creative, with the cover for the squeezing being that they’re among the lucky few to make a living writing — not about otherwise-employed academics who wrestle with how much to devote to their blog. It’s like how in the old days pro baseball players worked for a pittance. Heck, at least they weren’t stuck in a factory. But they ended up burnt out, used up, and tossed aside.

    The per-piece pocket-change wage is one prevalent and growing model for online journalism, and that’s indeed a problem. And it should be troubling not just for the the poor ol’ blogger, but for anyone who thinks that good journalism is one of the legs upon which modern society stands.

  • When (if?) people realize that the often self-imposed imperative to succeed (relative to others), compete (with an often unknown foe), and win (a game with ever-changing rules) – almost always measured against a predominantly economic rubric – is a throwback to the early 20th century and before, they may decide to change their ways.

    Good ol’ Frederick Winslow Taylor taught us how to be paid for piecework, and follow best practices before they were so named. And despite the fact that many aspects of our society are no longer in the industrial age, modern institutions stubbornly remain firmly mired in their Dickensian workhouse roots.

    It is, I think, incumbent on those of us to claim to understand the effects of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity – that to my mind describes the world as we wittingly or unwittingly experience it – to consciously enact a change to the imposed paradigm of constant competition, continual economic expansion, and the myth that there is some sort of dichotomy between work and life.

    Ideally (and yes, I understand the critical and problematic issues surrounding what I’m about to say), what one does to maintain one’s economic viability should be entirely entwined with living integrally and authentically. The more apparent the issue of co-called work/life balance becomes, the less integrated it is with one’s life, suggesting that a reconsideration might be called for.

    Took me (what I estimate to be) half my (total) life to figure this out and begin to enact it. Losing the paradigm of “money as scorecard” helps. So does being entirely present and engaged in whatever it is one is doing or with whomever one is at the moment, as well as embracing one’s uncertainty with as much gusto as embracing one’s passion.

  • Bonjour danah

    This is just to tell you that i translated your post into French on my blog.

    From my POV of a woman who has been working full-time since 1973, got married with two children, and tried hard to achieve that famous balance, i very truly understand your concerns and worries. As you and your readers point out, they are universal (countries, ages, genders). Thank you.

    Most of the time i feel that i have not been enough of a “femme de tête” and that i missed many professional opportunities. But in the meantime i am pretty sure that my significant other, my family, my friends, and even my children now that they are almost adults, they all think that i found that famous balance between my job and… them. At the end of the day, i am simply happy to believe that what they think about me is true.

  • I’ve heard work/life balance exists! ;-)
    I think this issue is especially salient for those of us in careers with professional obligations that never really end (like academe) and for those of us for whom work can happen any time, any where (like…. um, academe). Lots of women I know (myself included) went through a period of feeling guilty when working (because they weren’t with kids), and guilty when with kids because they weren’t working. I think I’ve figured out things a bit more now. I agree there’s a distinction between those who are passionate about their work and those who are forced to work out of economic necessity. Same symptom, dramatically different cause (and “cure”).

  • In my experience, it goes like this:

    How do you achieve work-in-one-area / work-in-another-area balance? What if you like to think about social networks but also play the bass in a band? What if you are a programmer who also writes comic strips?

    The answer is this: the work-centric peer group has no problem at all with work/work balance or work/play balance. There are plenty of successful models for that.

    What we have is a taboo in this society: Childrearing, householding, and community work are all intellectually relevant topics, but unfortunately remedies for barfing 3 year olds is not considered as sexy as how to balance the demands of your band with your work.

    The underlying conflict, I believe, has to do with a rigid sense of control. I can control my band schedule, my art and cooking classes, my off-grid-mountaineering-travel schedule. If it’s too onerous, I can always just walk, after all. But I can’t control my child suddenly having trouble at school. We have a problem in this society not with work/life balance, but with allowing ambiguity and chaos of life to upset our rigid pursuit of whatever we’re after.

    When we’re in our 20’s, we’re driven by our own interests and the thrill of our freedom. But as we take on long term responsibility for others, we increase in our skills at mediation, motivation, inspiration… but at the expense of always being able to pursue our own schedule.

    That’s what this is.

    It’s not work/life balance. It’s how to handle responsibilities beyond ourselves as we age; how to enjoy that this makes us stronger and how to mitigate the risks that it can exhaust us.

  • In my experience, it goes like this:

    How do you achieve work-in-one-area / work-in-another-area balance? What if you like to think about social networks but also play the bass in a band? What if you are a programmer who also writes comic strips?

    The answer is this: the work-centric peer group has no problem at all with work/work balance or work/play balance. There are plenty of successful models for that.

    What we have is a taboo in this society: Childrearing, householding, and community work are all intellectually relevant topics, but unfortunately remedies for barfing 3 year olds is not considered as sexy as how to balance the demands of your band with your work.

    The underlying conflict, I believe, has to do with a rigid sense of control. I can control my band schedule, my art and cooking classes, my off-grid-mountaineering-travel schedule. If it’s too onerous, I can always just walk, after all. But I can’t control my child suddenly having trouble at school. We have a problem in this society not with work/life balance, but with allowing ambiguity and chaos of life to upset our rigid pursuit of whatever we’re after.

    When we’re in our 20’s, we’re driven by our own interests and the thrill of our freedom. But as we take on long term responsibility for others, we increase in our skills at mediation, motivation, inspiration… but at the expense of always being able to pursue our own schedule.

    That’s what this is.

    It’s not work/life balance. It’s how to handle responsibilities beyond ourselves as we age; how to enjoy that this makes us stronger and how to mitigate the risks that it can exhaust us.

  • I know the Randy Pausch lecture etc. has been around for a few months and is doubly doing the rounds now, but i think he has some excellent things to say with regards to work/life balance, managing our time, prioritising our tasks, becoming more efficient in order to have more time for the ones we love and ourselves… and also educating and inspiring those around us with regards to the value of our time. He’s also dying of pancreatic cancer so has very very little time left, making his words and guidance all the more compelling and prescient.

    Video of the lecture here:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5784740380335567758

    Slides here:

    http://www.alice.org/Randy/timetalk.htm

    ps. love the comments so far and your response to the NYT article Danah.

  • Spencer

    As a recovered workaholic, married to a current workaholic, I’d say that the quest for balance rests in the recognition of one important fact:

    THE WORK WILL STILL BE HERE WHEN WE’RE DEAD.

    Our family, friends and our own joy matter more than some task. When the kids are grown, our time to train and nurture them has past. “I-love-yous”said to the dead are never heard. Furthermore, if I’m hit by the proverbial bus, my co-workers will take only a moment to feign mourning before fighting with each other over my position and its salary. The work will go on without me. It’s that simple.

    I came to this realization after nearly drowning on a camping trip 15 years ago. Since then, I traveled abroad, learned about wine, learned the guitar, worked on my chess game, became a pretty good cook, met my wife of 11 years and became father to 2 delightful children. I’m a more contented, appreciative and well-rounded person. I don’t want to go back to the way I was. You don’t have to drown yourself in work to learn the value of balance. Just choose to invest your time in the pursuits that bring the greatest return.

  • Yadgyu

    Being successful is more important than being a good parent or spouse.

    Things cost money. Staying at home doesn’t buy things. Going out there and making as much money as possible is the best thing to do. Everyone wants to live the good life. But the good life costs. So what if you can’t make it to the softball game or the ballet recital! If you are bringing home big bucks, you are doing more for your family than any amount of time will.

    How can a kid be cool if mom or dad only works 40 hours a week but brings home diddley squat? I would rather work a ton of hours and make a ton of money than come home at the same time and sit in the house with a nagging wife and bratty children. A family has to understand that having things is more important than being together. Working less is not an option!

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