Growing up, I often heard people I respect say, “trust God, and work hard.” That saying epitomizes the American dream: the idea that with a combination of hard work and providence we can accomplish whatever we set out to do.
I grew up with parents who believed in a hard work ethic. They put everything they had into their work. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and my dad was a chemist. But to them, their jobs were far more than just a paycheck - they were a calling - a venue at which to spend themselves in the service of others. And over the years I watched as they spent themselves fully on their work.
All Work And No Play
As much as I admire and respect my parents for their work ethic, I also realized they were not perfect people. Sometimes that dedication to work seemed to go too far. There were times when I wished my parents simply didn’t work so much, both selfishly because I wished they were around more, and also out of concern for their own well being.
Ironically enough now, as an adult, I’ve found myself in that familiar scenario of being drawn toward working more than may be healthy, and also wishing I had not been so quick to judge my parents for similar tendencies!
I love what I do, and my work is more than just a job to me. It’s a calling - I have a passion for honing my skills and putting my talents to work to do good in the world.
And yet I find my natural tendency is to work more than is healthy. I struggle with finding that mythical unicorn called “work/life balance”.
I certainly believe in working hard and being diligent, yet I often fail to strike a balance between a healthy level of hard work, and being consumed with my work to the detriment of myself and those around me who need my attention (a.k.a. my family).
A Balance There Must Be
“Why can’t I just work all the time?”
I’d never actually say that, but my behavioral patterns reflect that that question is very much alive within me.
Maybe I think that if I’d simply work more, I’d be more successful. Or that work is really the most important part of life.
While diligence is certainly a critical component to success, so is efficiency. Diligence without efficiency leads to mechanical failure.
Human beings are like complex, living machines. From intellectual capacity, to cellular structure - any biologist will testify that the human body is one of the most brilliant specimens of engineering on planet earth.
But we are engineered for more than just work. And even machines built solely for work have their limits. As holistic beings when we lack balance we tend to suck in those overworked areas, not excel. Research has shown that people who work less can actually be more productive, so balance is a critical part of productivity.
In many non-western cultures, leisure and recreation are regarded quite differently than in America.
Don’t get me wrong - when we play, we play hard.
But that is exactly my point. We often treat fun and recreation as just another thing to accomplish, to perfect, to compete at, and to excel at. In other words, we treat it like work.
Recently I was talking with a friend about some of the deeper things of life. In the midst of my attempt to discern the correct course of action in a certain scenario, he reminded me of something I had not truly considered. He reminded me that, “sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.”
It’s a reality that I’d certainly heard before, but somehow never taken to heart. I started to think, what if I truly took that perspective seriously? What if I actually valued my experience as much as the result of it?
What if I stopped always focusing so hard on results, and allowed space in my thinking, in my emotions, and in my behavior for the process to be just as important as the result?
What if when I apply myself to something fun, or recreational, I allowed it to be the refreshing, refueling, inspiring thing that it is in that moment when I’m doing it, rather than being so focused on the end result that I do not truly experience it?
The Dead Sea
I once heard an illustration that really stuck with me. The illustration describes a body of water that has a source, but no outlet, and according to this analogy, such a body of water cannot sustain life. However, a pond with both a source and an outlet can have a flourishing ecosystem.
The point of the illustration is that if we are to flourish in life - both for our own benefit and for the benefit of those we have the priviledge of being in relationships with - we must not only be receivers, but we must also be givers.
The reverse is also true. The idea that we can constantly output without a sufficient source of input is just as crazy as thinking we can go through life taking and never giving back.
Not just as professionals, and not just personally, but we as human beings need both input and output in balanced measure. Too much input, and we are not productive. But too much output, and we risk burnout.
My suspicion is that for many of us, not enough output is not our problem. Many of us have found great motivation to achieve our goals, and an amazing environment in which to labor over manifesting those personal and professional goals. What we are really at risk of is drying up entirely before we ever realize our goals because we spent too much of ourselves without establishing a source from which our output flows.
Easier Said Than Done
Such a simple problem with such a simple answer, and yet so complex.
The question we must answer is, “what things in my life fill me up proportionately to how I am spent on the things which take a toll on me?” Or in other words, “What refuels me?”
Answering such a question requires:
- an acknowledgement of how much I spend myself daily
- an understanding of what measure I am spent
- an understanding of what fills me up.
An even more simple way to look at it is to just ask, “What do I enjoy doing or like to think about when I’m not consumed with work?”
For me it is quality time with my wife and kids, it is meditating on God and matters of faith, it is playing my SNES emulator, working on illustrations for my next tattoo, writing blog posts, cooking dinner with the neighbors, and a handful of other things.
For other people it might be coffee and a good book, rock climbing with friends, working on an engine, or crafting something with your hands. The things that refuel us look different for each person.
And sometimes the lines blur a little, and that is okay. What refreshes you from your daily grind may look like work to someone else.
What’s important is that you are stimulating a different part of your mind and using creative energy that you don’t normally get to engage in the course of where you are spending yourself.
What And Who
None of us wants to turn our backs on hard work, because for most of us hard work is what made us who we are today, and it’s what will carry us far into the future we seek to build. Well that, and a lot of providence.
But here’s hoping that as we work hard, we too take time to stop, rest, drink in the moment, and remember that the journey is just as important as the destination. Because who we are, the memories we make, the relationships we build in life - these are all just as important as what we do professionally, and what we make with our lives. Maybe more so.