I tend not to believe in the concept of work-life balance. Indeed, I feel like I’ve written more than a few screeds against it on this here blog (all of which I’m too tired to dig up right now, but long-time readers should remember that this is something to which I’ve objected for a good long while).
Historically, my objections have boiled down to the following: Just like working too much can be bad for the soul, so too can making oneself feel guilty for not achieving some elusive “balance” be bad for the soul. Further, when people talk about work-life balance, particularly when women are the ones who are supposed to be finding the balance, I always feel like they are trying to impose some impossible-to-achieve perfection of housekeeping, homemaking, and relationship-maintaining on me, and that “work” becomes that “selfish” thing that I’m doing not only to my own detriment but to the detriment of others – indeed, to the detriment of society in general. Who has balance? For more than like a day? How dare you demand that I aspire to balance? I resist!
But, as my last post indicated, I think I’ve achieved a kind of balance in my life in spite of my theories. (But let’s note for the record: that “balance” does not involve yoga, meditation, or anything that I would describe with the phrase “self-care,” although of course my version of balance does involve taking care of myself, clearly. I may finally be achieving some balance, but I still hate the ideology of balance. I haven’t changed that much, at least not yet.***) And after seeing some of the comments to the last post, I guess I actually want to talk a little bit about what that “balance” means in my version of it, and how I’ve managed to get there, albeit without ever aiming to in a conscious way.
First things first, for any of you readers who feel intimidated by the stuff that I seem to get done, even with my teaching load, I need to communicate some things about how I manage my life. Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I had a fantastic mentor (who was actually a teacher at a high school 3 states away, whom I met because of my work on my high school newspaper). She was talking to me and a friend of mine (her student), and she introduced me to a concept that I’ve never forgotten and that I embraced immediately: The Wheel of Neglect. Imagine all the stuff that you have to do as being one slice on a giant wheel that you spin – like the Wheel of Fortune (as in the game show). There is no way that you can do all of the things on your wheel – well, not if you’re like me and you always take on a whole bunch of things. So, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you spin the wheel. And whatever comes up, you neglect it without guilt. Not forever – just until you get some other things done. And then you spin the wheel again, and then you neglect something different and get the thing you’d been neglecting done. And so on.
My point is this: I’ve become good at putting things on the back burner. It helps me not to get overwhelmed, which actually helps me to accomplish more in the long term, even if something has to suffer in the short term. Thinking about it through the metaphor of the Wheel of Neglect helps me to distance myself from the decision, even though obviously I end up selecting what I neglect – it’s not really random. This has been true for me since high school. But what has changed in the past two years is that “life” things now get a spot on the wheel. They are part of my wheel of things that I need to do, whereas before they were always extras, and that makes a difference.
Going along with my acceptance that I will neglect some things every now and again is that I have learned (and this is definitely learned – not something natural to me) that the perfect really is the enemy of the good, or good enough.
I tend, innately, toward an ugly perfectionism. The most evocative example of this is a story that my mother tells about me in kindergarten. Apparently, tiny five-year-old Crazy had been working on some sort of drawing or construction paper project or something, and she was Dissatisfied. And she threw a giant tantrum and ripped whatever the thing was to shreds, sobbing. Mrs. McNamara (whom I remember as being the most awesome teacher in the whole world, and I vividly recall – my own memory, not a story – how she taught us the song McNamara’s Band and we marched around singing it) called my mom in for a meeting. And the conversation went something along the lines of “Crazy is not a kid that you need to push, She’s a kid you need to nurture, because she is really hard on herself. She will push herself. You need to teach her that it’s ok not to be perfect at everything.” (Aside: this was surely a speech my mother needed to hear, as the mantra I remember her repeating over and over throughout my childhood was “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” She still repeated that over and over after this Incident, but she added the addendum that what mattered was that I tried my hardest – not that I always did the best in the end. And when I was being a perfectionist freak she would tell the story about Mrs. McNamara and my kindergarten meltdown.)
Now, I’m still hard on myself, and I still expect a lot out of myself. (More recent example: My dissertation adviser said to me early on in the process, “I don’t need to give you deadlines or ride you about this project: you do that work for me.” And the same was true the entire time that I was pre-tenure. So.) But I do think that I’ve embraced that I can’t always do everything perfectly, and I’m ok with that. I’d rather be a person who does lots of things well, while doing some things not so well, than being a person who aims for perfection and who never really does anything.
And so do my students get short shrift sometimes, if I’ve got other pressing things for a week or two? Yes – even if I hate it. Does research fall by the wayside during especially intense times during the academic year? Totally – even if I hate it. Do I half-ass service stuff that can afford to be half-assed? Most certainly I do, and with a song in my heart. What I think I’ve finally learned is that if you’re intentional about making those concessions, it really all does turn out ok in the end. The problem is when you don’t consciously decide to say “fuck it” to something that’s not an immediate priority, you feel like shit and you still do a shitty job with the thing. Much better to be conscious and decisive in your choices, even if they are crappy ones, so that you have a hope of making up for it later. Or at least that works better for me.
All of this is a long way of saying: I really do not believe that it is possible to work at optimal capacity and performance in all areas on the tenure track all of the time. The best that you can hope is that you work at optimal capacity and performance in each of the areas some of the time, and that at the end of the day everything will somehow come out ok. And once I finally accepted that, it really has helped me to forgive myself for my failings, to set some priorities that privilege the things that I do best and that I enjoy best, and to put my life on my list of things to do.
But also: all of that wouldn’t be possible (for me) without the permanence and security of tenure. What being in a tenure-track position – and then securing tenure – did for me was it allowed me stability – in my teaching schedule, in my sense of the expectations of just one institution, in getting to know an institutional culture, in getting to become part of a community – that I’d not have had otherwise. And being in the same position since 2003 has meant that I’ve been able to find a routine, and to find some consistency.
Here’s the thing: my first 3 or 4 years with my 4/4 load were murder. I came into my position having only taught one course independently – composition. In my first few years, I had to develop something like eight or nine different classes. From scratch. Which I’d never taught before. That was motherfucking brutal. All the while, I was figuring out what sort of assignments and course policies worked with our student population, so in that time I basically abandoned 90 percent of what I’d come in with from grad school (which wasn’t much, but it was all I had!) and totally revamping everything I did and thought I should do. At the same time, I felt very isolated, I went on the job market, I started a blog because I felt so isolated, I did research that I got to listen to colleagues disparage in the hallways, I got sucked into tons of service stuff that was intense and back-breaking… Yeah, those were not good times. Not.
The privilege of being on the tenure-track was that I was able to work my way through those rough years and to actually walk into the light at the end of the tunnel. I learned, first, that once you teach a course a few times over a few semesters that you get some set assignments that work and that you don’t reinvent the course every time that you teach it – even if you make slight adjustments – and teaching gets easier.
I also learned that the more that you publish, the more opportunities come your way, and it doesn’t really matter what your asshole colleagues say in the hallway, because that work matters not just for a line on your cv but because they enrich you as a thinker and a teacher.****
I learned that research can really enhance teaching, and I learned how much that work matters to mentoring students into careers (alt-ac careers, non-profits, and more) and graduate school (law school, library science programs, and yes, even PhD programs, though my former students are so much more aware of the situation of the job market and what you have to be willing to do and to give up in order to succeed than I was at their stage, which I think is the best I can hope for).
I have learned my strengths in service, but also I’ve learned that it’s really ok to say no when you’re not doing something that is working for you, and I have learned that while I’m a great leader, I’m a really crappy consensus-builder and administrator.
I’ve learned that it’s possible to choose the best thing for me to do – in teaching, research, and service – and that I can excel if I’m doing the best things, and that leaves me room for a life outside of work. I don’t typically work on weekends now. I don’t typically work at night. I’m, like, an actual person. It only took me 38 years.
You know what’s hilarious, though? I made my schedule for the completion for the second book manuscript today. It’s really in the home stretch – not that I won’t have to work on it a lot more, but I can see a full version that is ready to submit for review by January (and since I’ve got a good press interested, I’m even more motivated to keep to this schedule). And that with writing a solicited article in the middle, as well as a conference paper. But when I made that schedule today, the thing that I thought was: you know what? This is the absolute most important thing in my life right now. Perhaps I care more about this than about socializing, dating, whatever. Because you know what, 4 months is not that long of a time, in the grand scheme of things. This book can’t wait, and the other things can!
Am I going to be a hermit in that time? Surely not. But what I realized today is that I care more about my book than I care about anything else. And that’s pretty awesome actually, and really a luxury to feel that way – that an idea can be the most important thing in your life. That there is nothing else that must take priority. So you know what? It’s all book all the time for the next four months. Because my next book is going to be motherfucking AWESOME. And I can worry about dating once it’s out to readers 🙂
***I am not saying it’s bad to meditate or to do yoga or anything, if that’s what works for you. It’s just that stuff has never been my thing, if you know what I mean, and I don’t think that balance requires the embrace of those things.
****I can’t thank my dissertation adviser enough for bullying me into writing a dissertation that was “close” to a book, as much as I hated him and resented him at the time. I could never have accomplished what I have accomplished (which, let’s note, is modest) as a scholar in this job without having been given this leg up at the start of my career.