Work/life balance is a Faustian bargain and we should run from it
Morphine is wonderful.
Yet because it comes packaged with a lovely list of side effects, we'd never prescribe everyone with a daily dose.
Similarly, prescribing a "healthy work/life balance" makes sense for a burned-out person working a job they don’t like - it provides the space for them to regroup and make a plan.
But it's currently being recommended as an aspirational lifestyle for everyone... without any chat about its (horrendous) side effects.
So, using my experience and insights from a brilliant Russian-American philosopher, I’m about to expose it for what it is: a misguided idea that actively prevents the development of confidence and freedom.
While I'm at it, I'll propose a (much) better target.
I'm at risk.
For starters, I work from home. Then, I often have meetings at both ends of the day. Finally, I follow David Perell's 90-minute rule - the commitment to write for 90 minutes every day, even on holidays.
The hours always push upwards of 40 per week, which, according to every second SaaS blog out there, is a recipe for burnout. It even has a diagnosis: The always on lifestyle.
But here's the thing. I’m happier than ever. And it's because of my unbalanced working life, not in spite of it.
So, how can the same thing simultaneously be my recipe for happiness and someone else's nightmare? It's thanks to a key difference.
Now's the time to introduce you to Atlas Shrugged.
It's a classic story from 1957.
And while it is fictional, Alice O'Connor (going under the pen name Ayn Rand), wrote it to demonstrate her very real philosophy, called Objectivism.
Take a look at the story’s central characters:
The final scene finds them all together. The fire is roaring, and here's what they are doing:
Like me, all meet the criteria for "running themselves ragged and never switching off". Yet O'Connor makes a point of describing just how happy, fulfilled and motivated they all are. And here's why:
Each of them has discovered work that simultaneously makes them curious, challenges their intellect, and delivers a much-needed service to others - something I'll refer to from here on as the beautiful overlap.
If you wanted a hypothesis behind Elon Musk's 17-hour workdays, there you go.
After discovering the overlap myself, I can say that it redefines the meaning of work. It is no longer a chore for generating income. Instead, it's the opportunity to follow your curiosities and challenge your intellect whilst solving problems for others.
Before we explore the incredible second-order effects of undergoing this transformation, let's understand how work/life balance actively sabotages ever finding it.
"Everything in moderation"
A mandatory part of each person's journey to finding "The one" is relentless experimentation. Practicing skills, solving problems, and trying careers until one sparks the fire.
Those hours do not harmonise with "balance". Failing fast and often is the game, and people concerned about "not overdoing it" will hold back from leaning into the necessary chaos.
That's the price of finding the beautiful overlap. Now let's talk about the rewards.
The second-order effects of finding the beautiful overlap
Adlerian psychology posits that the root of confidence is providing service to others: It stems from the knowledge that you're valued as a net contributor to society rather than a taker.
This means you can expect giant leaps in confidence once you've discovered work that makes it a joy to be of service.
The beautiful overlap is also the road to freedom:
Every profession contains layers of complexity. As learning them becomes progressively more difficult, the people who are intrinsically curious will continue to learn, while those motivated by external factors (like money or status) will give up. Over time, the enthusiastic then become capable of solving the most complex problems in their domains.
When you're one of the few who can solve complex problems, you're a scarce resource. People are so grateful for your help that they don't mind when you wake up, what you wear, when you take breaks or what hours you work. And that is how most people define freedom.
So, understanding that work/life balance holds back the very process that leads to confidence and freedom, let's talk about a more beneficial approach we can recommend to young adults and people looking for more.
How to help more people find the beautiful overlap
For me, it took me a five-year maelstrom of cold calling, reading books, and online courses. But, looking back, it's hardly a surprise that copywriting (writing to sell) would become my game. I grew up with passions for reading, creative writing, and public speaking (selling ideas).
How might that process have been fast-tracked?
With a tweak to high school.
During my time, we were all encouraged to set our sights on high-earning professions like engineering, medicine, and law, with those who weren't up to it being triaged along the way. A better approach would be for parents and teachers to swap this for a new expectation: Finish high school with a shortlist of skills that simultaneously excite your curiosities and deliver service to others.
The second-to-last year could reinforce this with an investigative assignment: Produce a report into the "daily lives" of four careers you're curious about.
And for those who've left school?
For them, finding the overlap is first a matter of connecting the dots, then trial-and-error. Here's an approach I'd recommend:
1) Understand what you naturally gravitate to.
Sam Ovens has an exceptional 30-minute video explaining how to use your YouTube history and bank statements to figure out where you naturally invest your time and money.
2)After identifying skills or unsolved problems in these areas that you care about, it's about creating a shortlist of possibilities, then trying them until one fits. It's like Matthew McConaughey says, you learn who you are by learning who you aren't.
By experimenting with new norms like this, I think there would be far less chat about work/life balance, because fewer of us would be operating on the belief that work is energy draining.
Perhaps then, we'd have more of us coming together to pursue our passions together in our free time like Halley, Ragnar, Francisco, Hugh, and Dagny.
In fact, it's what I'm doing right now.
It's a Saturday, and after a morning of mountain biking, I'm writing next to Cadby while he edits videos. We're doing it by choice because it doesn't feel like work at all.
Picking up what I'm putting down?
Then subscribe here to get the next one straight to your inbox.