Work-life balance

Maybe entrepreneurship, consulting, and the priesthood of the original article are all vocations, and we are wrong to consider them as simply jobs.


31 January 2005

We’ve been thinking a lot about what you might call work-life balance recently, when we came across this piece is a completely different context, arguing that all professions are celibate professions; in other words, there can never be a balance in a true profession but you may be able to achieve it in a job:

ALL professions are celibate professions. Forget the movies you’ve seen and the profile pieces in the Sunday papers, and look around you. Every lawyer, every doctor, every professor (&c.) must make a choice between advancing in his field and attending to his family. Time paid to one is robbed from the other. True, some rare individuals are so talented that they can go on for years – or so it seems – out-distancing their professional colleagues on one hand and out-parenting the parents of their acquaintance on the other. But sooner or later they hit a ceiling – or the family implodes. In fact, the main difference between a true profession and a job is that the latter takes only so much of your time each day and then releases you to yourself, whereas the former never ceases making demands. Each new day sinks the professional deeper in debt to his field; even while he sleeps, other professionals are reading important books that he has yet to read, other professionals are writing important articles that he will never see. Even Nobel Prize winners are forced to make a compromise with mediocrity; they just make it at a higher level than others.

The context of the original article is completely irrelevant to our concerns, which are (i) the commitment required of the entrepreneurs and (ii) the (different) demands required to work in a global consultancy (i.e. our own people).

The summary above may have a point, and it certainly struck a chord, but I am not sure it has a helpful point. Not everybody can be completely dedicated to their profession. Your family is important, as is your wider commitments to society. Nobody wants to live in a world where everybody are only concerned for their work, and anyhow such a society will simply not function.

On the other hand, we must recognize that some occupations place extraordinary demands on people. Entrepreneurship is certainly one of these: if the startup is not your all-consuming family, then you will probably not succeed. I used to have a semi-joking line about the demands of the business consultacy style of work:

You are old when you are no longer able to move to a new country.

(This is in a European context where the countries are smaller than our North American readers are familiar with.) There is some truth to this, and an important part of consulting is to be able to uproot yourself, if not physically, then mentally, moving to a new business or industry with new values, norms, vocabulary and issues.

I don’t have an answer. Maybe entrepreneurship, consulting, and the priesthood of the original article are all vocations, and we are wrong to consider them as simply jobs. Maybe they are professions we should do in a phase of our lives when we are mobile, both physically and mentally, but then settle in to a “real job”. One could suggest that we are wrong to place such high demands on individuals at all, but given the benefits that at least the first and the last of the occupations bring to society, that is not something I can support.