If you’re overwhelmed by work and your life seems completely imbalanced, don’t fret. Work-life balance is a silly notion, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College, London. Workaholics have higher social status, exceptional achievers live longer, and the 10 most workaholic nations in the world produce most of the world’s GDP. So embrace hard work.
And if you’re bugged by how much technology has overtaken your life – you always seem to be on your cell phone, even when in social engagements with others – face reality. Technology is just exposing how boring your life and work has been, he says. Now you can keep yourself busy and amused with the instantaneous gratification technology provides.
Those provocative thoughts caused outrage when Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic presented them recently on Harvard Business School blogs. Debate raged, as some defended him but far more readers took offence at his call for us to view work-life imbalance as positive.
Yet he’s unrepentant, convinced we have become self-indulgent and pampered, so much in the thrall of positive psychology and the search for well being that we have lost sense of the value of hard work and achievement. “Yes, a lot of people feel burned out and their jobs don’t seem to help them do fulfilling things. But what we hear is that they should mellow out and not work as hard because work is not that important. But work is important and if people paid more attention to their careers they would get pleasure from it,” he insists in an interview.
He’s not surprised at the fuss. He likes to watch public discussion and provide alternative opinions when he feels we are succumbing to clichéd thinking or urban legends. Ten years ago, he suggests, what he is saying – that we should find enjoyment from our work and careers, and give them our full energy – would not have seemed remarkable. But positive psychologists, business schools and consultants, he feels, have hijacked our thinking, and are pushing a narrative that well being trumps achievement.
It used to be, after all, that growth in our careers was considered essential. “But that came to be considered self-indulgent and got replaced or distorted by the self-help gurus trying to make people feel good about their failures and inability to achieve things. If you don’t enjoy your job [those gurus say] you have your friends and if you don’t have them you have yourself,” he says.
He argues that in rich, Western nations people are less ambitious than they used to be and we punish ambition. “Gen Y is dispassionate on everything but technology. They have a sense of entitlement and are unwilling to do the work. When they have the ambition it is without the willingness to do the work, which is a recipe for disaster,” he says.
I suggest that baby boomers, when they were young, had a similar cynicism about work and were concerned with self-fulfillment, but something changed over the years. Today they are derided for not having proper work-life balance and for being slaves to work. He tends to agree, but doubts that pattern will repeat with today’s younger generations in the workplace: “My prediction is that they will drive down the general level of ambition.” He notes that if you go to China and East Asia, Gen Y is totally different, consumed with ambition, very similar to post-Second World War Americans and Canadians, who took advantage of a booming economy to set out to run the world. Now, in tougher times, ambition is withering. “We’re behaving like people who say that we don’t like chocolate ice cream because we can’t get chocolate ice cream. In the rest of the world, they want chocolate ice cream,” he notes.
So in the blog post and interview he asks you to rethink balance:
Acknowledge that hard work is an important career weapon: Hard work distinguishes you from others, and allows you to accomplish great things. Society progresses from such achievements.
Focus on engagement: If you’re engaged in something, working hard, that’s a good thing. “Put simply, a little bit of meaningless work is a lot worse for you than a great deal of meaningful work. Work is just like a relationship: Spending one week on a job you hate is as dreadful as spending a week with a person you don’t like. But when you find the right job, or the right person, no amount of time is enough,” he wrote.
Don’t be so negative about technology: It has enabled us to find meaning and discover how the world works, through Wikipedia, Facebook, and the like. “It satisfies our intellectual curiosity in a way we couldn’t before technology,” he says. So it shouldn’t be unusual, or negative, to see two people sitting across from each other both focused on their mobiles, and the world those mobiles open up. “Nobody is forcing you to check Facebook when having lunch with someone or accessing e-mail when doing something else. People are very curious. They need to be at different places at one time,” he says.
Focus on careers: If you’re lucky enough to have a career, you probably won’t have work-life balance. You’re achieving, engaged, probably fulfilling a higher purpose. Be happy.
Stop being self-indulgent and complaining about your work-life burden: A lot of people complain about how hard they work as a way to impress others and to get friends or relatives to feel sorry for them. The really big problem is actually people who don’t have a job to complain about.
“In the rich, Western world we are very spoiled. If you want a lot of wealth and resources, you have to work hard to generate it,” he concludes.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter