The False Idea of Work/Life Balance

Work Life Balance

The “work/life balance” is one of the saddest, most corrosive buzz-phrases of our time. To me, that phrase seems to come down to this: when you’re working, you’re supposed to feel guilty that you’re taking time away from  your “life,” by which most people mean their family; but when you’re spending time with your family or in some leisure activity, you’re supposed to feel guilty about not working and advancing your career. Work-life balance? According to a 2014 Harvard Business School survey of nearly four thousand C-suite executives, most women plead guilty to neglecting career or family. Most men simply slink out of the courtroom.

“When you are paid well,” a successful woman executive told a survey interviewer, “you can get all the [practical domestic] help you need. What is the most difficult thing, though—what I see my women friends leave their careers for—is the real emotional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The guilt of missing out.” A successful male executive, in contrast, boasted to interviewers that the “10 minutes I give my kids at night is one million times greater than spending that 10 minutes at work.” Male executives readily confess that they “don’t prioritize their families,” but they’re just not bothered much about it. Instead, they “praise their spouses for taking over the homefront entirely.”

Two things really bother me about the Harvard survey. First, while women accounted for 46.9 percent of the US labor force in 2012 and held a whopping 51.5 percent of management, professional, and related positions, both men and women tend to see the work/life balance as a woman’s problem. Second, while women cop a plea and men flatly refuse to stand trial, both appear to be more concerned about being judged guilty—or about feeling guilty—than they care about actually shortchanging either family or career. So, it isn’t really that work and life are out of balance. It’s the majority’s view of work and life that is way out of whack.

Let’s recognize right now that the work/life balance is less about divvying up hours between career and family than it is about feeling guilty no matter how we apportion our time. The “crime” is neither neglect of family nor compromising your career. The crime is guilt itself. And who needs that?

Feeling guilty poisons both career and family. You cannot divide yourself mathematically between the two. Instead, get into the moment every moment. When you are working, devote 100 percent to the job at hand. When you are with your family, they get 100 percent from you. As far as time goes, understand that being an entrepreneur takes plenty of effort and time, but it typically gives you more control over your time. This is one of the most attractive things about starting your own business. Putting yourself at the mercy of a schedule dictated by a boss or a board or a quarterly earnings target relinquishes control. Working for yourself gives you control of all of your time, but it’s up to you to deliver 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, in an effort to be the greatest entrepreneur, the greatest spouse, the greatest parent, the greatest grandparent—the greatest at whatever means the most in your world.

Adapted from Fran Tarkenton’s book, The Power of Failure: Succeeding in the Age of Innovation

Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton is an entrepreneur and NFL Hall of Famer, and the founder of and Tarkenton Companies. With a passion for small business, he’s started more than 20 businesses during and after his NFL career. Fran is a small business coach for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing advice and guidance through sites such as,, and more. He has written about business issues in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. New and World Report, and USA Today, along with regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. You can follow Fran on Twitter @Fran_Tarkenton.