Why there is no such thing as work-life balance

December 4, 2012: 11:17 AM ET

Eric Sinoway's Howard's Gift explores Harvard B-school legend Howard Stevenson's distaste for that particular HR cliche along with his novel ideas on achieving a satisfying career. 121204033449-work-life-balance-gallery-horizontal

By Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- Howard Stevenson,a professor who started the now-legendary entrepreneurship program at the Harvard Business School, was walking through Harvard's campus one day when he suffered a massive heart attack. Luck had it that he fell to the ground near one of only two university buildings that had a defibrillator and that someone who knew how to use it just happened to be there to bring it to his side. Not only that, an EMS vehicle that day was driving nearby and an excellent hospital was only two miles away. The 66-year old survived -- as one doctor put it: "a one-out-of-100 chance."

When a friend, Eric Sinoway, visited the professor in the hospital, he asked him whether he had regretted anything in his life. Besides ruining his favorite sports coat during his fall, Stevenson said "not a one." This made Sinoway, the founder and CEO of the consulting firm Axcess Worldwide and, at the time of Stevenson's heart attack, a fundraiser at Harvard, realize that he had almost missed a huge opportunity. Over the years, Stevenson and Sinoway had spent hours talking about life, careers, family, and entrepreneurship; if Stevenson hadn't made it on that fateful day in 2006, Sinoway would have missed a chance not only to thank the older man for all his sage advice but also to record his ideas so others could benefit.

That was the genesis of Howard's Gift, Sinoway's new, thought-provoking book (written with Merrill Meadow). Think of it as Tuesdays With Morrie for MBAs. The strength of this book is that it doesn't try to hit you over the head with over-simplified or obvious advice, like so many other tomes in this genre. Instead, you follow in-depth conversations that delve into real-life career issues and use them to subtly examine different ways to achieve a satisfying path -- pursuing what Stevenson calls your "life's work."

Adding a few additional layers to work-life balance

Stevenson, writes Sinoway, scowls at the term "work-life balance," arguing that it's much too simplistic. He likens one's life to "juggling an egg, a tennis ball and a knife while walking on a balance beam -- at the Olympics." He says we all struggle to live at least seven lives: the family self, the social self, the spiritual self, the physical self, the material self, the avocational self, and the career self.

MORE: Treasury and the SEC: Who should be in charge?

Most of us, Stevenson argues, try to get an A+ in each of these categories -- a noble pursuit, but one that inevitably leads to burnout. As one entrepreneur quoted in the book said, "I wake up every morning wondering who I'm going to disappoint today." Life is a dynamic process where one is constantly making choices and compromises among those seven selves. The trick, Stevenson says, is to constantly assess which groups take priority at different points of your life, and then shift the emphasis as your situation changes.

To know where to place the emphasis among your seven selves, you have to figure out what's important to you at various stages of life. At one point, Sinoway tells Stevenson about a friend of his, a successful entrepreneur who had sold his company for a large sum of money. He had managed to lead a life where he balanced work, family, and his golf game, and was at a point where he could do anything he desired -- but he still felt lost.

The mistake he and many other people make, Stevenson says, is that "they fall into the trap of not asking simple questions, like, 'Do I really want the same things today that I wanted last year? Are the reasons I took this job five years ago still valid now?'" The disgruntled entrepreneur eventually figured out that he didn't really want to do anything new. What really gave him fulfillment was what he had been doing before: providing for his family. So he shifted more emphasis to his "career self" and started a new company.

Considering your legacy

howard-stevenson

Howard Stevenson

Another way to figure out how to balance your seven lives, says Stevenson, is to start thinking about how your life will be perceived after it's over. What's your legacy going to be? Stevenson says people often find a mentor and then try to replicate their careers. This path, he argues, is bound for failure.  "As compelling as another's vision might be, you can't make it wholly, truly yours. A legacy is tailored to fit just one person," Stevenson says.  The better approach, he suggests, is to use a role model's perspectives as a catalyst to promote your own deep thinking about what's truly meaningful and satisfying.

Once you have found what you think will make you happy, you have to be constantly on the lookout for what Stevenson calls  "inflection points," moments that can catapult you in a new direction. To illustrate, Sinoway uses the example of a middle level executive named Michelle whose boss was fired in a restructuring. She said that she was going to lay low and wait to find out what her new role would be in the department. She had invested 10 years in the company and was hoping for the best.

Stevenson says she was wasting an excellent opportunity for growth. His advice: she needs to step up to management, and offer her ideas for restructuring the department and her new role in it. She might be rebuffed, but at least it would give her some valuable data about her career and prospects. And if it worked, she'd suddenly have an exciting new job.

The most challenging task of all: Being honest with yourself

Another common mistake people make is what Stevenson calls "cheating at solitaire." A former Harvard Business School student of Stevenson's named James was frustrated in his job working for a real estate investment trust. He was smart and the hardest working person in the office, but he wasn't rising to the next level.

Stevenson says that James was cheating at solitaire -- that moment when you've been winning the game but know you can't get the one last card you need, so you slip it out from under the pile. James thought he'd be a good project manager at the REIT but he lacked the negotiating skills and emotional intelligence to be a team leader. He was missing that one card but wouldn't admit it -- he thought he could win the game even though he lacked a crucial skill he needed to move up in his job. Once James truthfully confronted this fact about himself, he was able to move into an analytical job better suited to his talents, which ultimately reduced his frustrations.

MORE: Robin Chase: Zipcar's founder shifts to a new gear

As engaging as these conversations between Stevenson and Sinoway are, one drawback to the book is that each chapter ends with a mini profile of successful people written by Sinoway -- including Bob Pittman, who launched MTV and VH1 and later became the president of AOL (AOL); and Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America -- focusing on how they managed their careers. The rub is that those profiled are already either very wealthy or very famous, giving them career options most of us don't have. It's a lot easier to be thinking about your legacy or taking bold new career steps when you're sitting on millions or are at the top of your field.

With that said, anyone who feels even slightly discontent with the status quo could benefit from career insights and life lessons from a wise man who escaped death.

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.