The keynote speaker for the 2017 AAEP Convention was Nigel Marsh, whose Ted Talk on work-life balance (ted.com/talks/nigel_marsh_how_to_make_work_life_balance_work) has the cachet of being the most viewed ever of those given outside the United States. Marsh spoke at the AAEP Convention from the heart, beginning his talk by relating a personal story about a card his son gave him on Father’s Day. He said that, as is often the case with those in kindergarten, cards with the phrase “My father is…” were completed by the small children. He related his surprise to receive a card that said: “My father is…a very short man.” This began his realization that his life was imbalanced.
Marsh is English, and at the age of 5 years was sent to boarding school in another country, as was the custom in his family. Later, he spent three years studying theology in college before joining the advertising industry. He was married with a young family when his job was moved to Australia. Despite the upheaval to his family, he chose to make the move with them, but was devastated not long after when he was terminated abruptly from his position after a company merger. This crisis motivated him to reflect upon his life, and he made a decision to henceforth always have his loved ones at the center of his life. Subsequently, he wrote a number of books and began to share with others his passion about the importance of “living a life you find fulfilling, inspiring and meaningful.”
Marsh said he believes that “work-life balance” is an overused and trivialized term, and he dislikes the fact that it seems to suggest that there are only two parts to one’s life experience. He continued by explaining three myths about work-life balance.
The First Myth
The first myth, he said, is that work-life balance is “soft,” indulgent, not truly serious, and not a life-and-death concern. To the contrary, he said, it is absolutely serious, and that is made very clear in the veterinary profession by the high rate of depression and suicide. That said, he stated that the biggest risk in having poor balance is that a person will have a “living death.”
The speaker recommended the book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware as a primer to understanding the risks of an unexamined life. He related that the regrets that were relayed by hundreds of dying people are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Marsh emphasized how important it is to consider these regrets against how you are currently living your life.
The Second Myth
The second myth, according to Marsh, is that work-life balance is not possible in your profession. No matter whether a person is a politician, a banker, a doctor or in the military, all think that their profession is special in its requirements and stress.
But in fact, he said that achieving balance is about attitude, not the external things. “Your profession is not uniquely hard. It is uniquely different,” he continued. You can choose, he insisted. It is a crisis of choice and imagination, not circumstances.
The Third Myth
The third myth is that if you want to get to the top of your profession, this is just the price that must be paid.
However, Marsh said that many of the most successful CEOs are those with the best balance. In addition, he said, evidence shows that rest and recovery drive creativity and productivity.
Next, the speaker shared six important lessons. The first is that technology is not the answer. He cited a speech entitled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” given by John Maynard Keynes in 1930. It predicted that technology would mean that the grandchildren would only need to work 15 hours a week.
Instead, he said, the Harvard Business Review reports that workers now monitor their cellphones and emails 80 hours a week. Because of that, until you have sorted out the fundamental priorities in your life, technology, time management and efficiency are not the answer to your dilemma.
The second lesson is that a proper period of reflection is necessary to “take stock of your miserable existence.” You must determine the gap between your desired life and legacy, and the reality of your current situation.
Sadly, Marsh related, most people do not take this step until they suffer job loss, the death of a loved one, disease, divorce or some other life crisis. It is his passion to encourage people to do this reflection before these dark times. Arising from this deep thinking will be recognition of what you are running from, but he said it is more important to know what you want to be running to.
Looking for solutions in the media or in the lives of others is a mistake, and that is the third lesson. Marsh said your work-life balance is an individual solution to your hopes and dreams in your own individual circumstance, and cannot arise from a fixed daily solution.
Instead, flexibility in a longer time frame is needed. He described the soul as having intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual components, and said that all four need attention. By thinking monthly about whether these needs have been met, proper attention can be paid, if needed, to prevent neglect of a certain aspect. But all cannot often be met on a daily basis, he said.
The fourth lesson that Marsh imparted was to start with small things on the journey to improving your work-life balance. He cautioned not to replace one singular focus with another, and said that simple, small changes can have a remarkably transformative effect.
He then shared the small thing he had chosen first in his period of change, which was to pick up one of his children after school once a month. He related how he picked up his young son, and after they went home, they had a snack and played a game. Later, at bedtime, his son said, “Daddy, this has been the best day of my life.” The impact of that day was large.
By adding another small change each month, gradually but indubitably his life became very different, and much more fulfilling. He said that too often, when people can’t do everything, they do nothing. His solution? Do a series of small things.
He said that a person’s motivation to change must come from within. This is the fifth lesson. This is because sometimes other people don’t really want you to change, and they might even resent your improvement. You must “listen with the ear of your heart,” he said. If the motivation for change is only external, it might never be the “right” time to change. However, if the desire is internal, it is always the right time.
Lesson six is the realization that work-life balance is not an intellectual problem. It must be solved in real life, and real life is messy. He recommended being realistic and understanding that life stages create constant change. In addition, he said, all industries have some unchanging realities, so if you are trying to change things that cannot be changed, you need to understand that this path leads to frustration and insanity. Concentrate on changing the things you can change.
After relating these lessons, Marsh turned to asking why people persist in overworking. First, he said, some make obscene amounts of money. Others feel intense guilt if they aren’t working. Many see overwork as a twisted status symbol, saying with pride, “I work 130 hours each week!” as though that is laudable. He suggested that we all need to learn to respond to that statement by saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Then he spoke about the responsibility that we all have in fostering lives of fulfillment.
The responsibility, he said, is to model appropriate behavior and legitimize having a good life. As leaders, we model the way, and it is essential that our children and our employees, especially the younger ones, see us living in a balanced way.
That responsibility extends to enabling people to have a reasonably balanced life. He suggested that many people wonder why others should have easier lives than they did. And if you worked 15 hours per day coming up in your career, you might ask yourself, “Why should they get to be successful working 10 hours per day?” Nothing will change if nothing changes, he insisted. “If you can’t do it for the individual,” he said, “do it for the profession. We need to collaborate, and we need other people.”
In closing, Marsh said, “Being more balanced doesn’t mean dramatic upheaval in your life. With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life.
“Moreover, I think it can transform society—because if enough people do it, we can change society’s definition of success away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he or she dies wins to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well-lived looks like. And that, I think, is an idea worth spreading.”