Skip to main content

In 2002, Nigel Marsh suddenly skidded from being a high-flying advertising executive, running the Australian operations of a United Kingdom agency, to an at-home dad, after being fired. The native of Plymouth, England, was terrified. He was 40 years old, unemployed, 25,000 kilometres from home, with four kids under the age of five and a wife who didn't work outside the home. "I basically thought my life was over," he recalls in an interview.

He had always ignored talk of work-life balance, wondering what the fuss was all about. He was a classic corporate warrior, eating too much, drinking too much, and neglecting his family. But with all life and no work, he decided "to turn the telescope around and properly reengage with my family and properly contribute to the domestic chores. It was exhilarating, challenging and life affirming."

Yet he still had qualms. After all, he had been a success – a big success – in the world of work. Now, he felt marooned. Even the chance to re-engage with family seemed cheapened by the situation. "I found it easy to balance work and life when I didn't have any work," he jokes. But in retrospect he feels it was the most successful year of his life. It saved his marriage. He connected with his kids "in a permanently glorious way." He gave up alcohol, got fit, lost 40 pounds, and most surprising of all wrote a bestseller, Fat, Forty and Fired that has been translated into numerous languages and is being made into a film.

"The main lesson would be how sad it is that so often it takes a redundancy [job loss] bereavement, divorce or injury to get us to pause and reflect upon our lives and how we are living. The simple fact is that life is about human relationships. Having a successful career but a lonely old age full of regrets is not the way to go, yet so many fall into that pattern," he says.

In 2010, he gave a lecture in Sydney, Australia as part of the TED Talk series on how to make work-life balance work, offering four key points for us to consider. It starts with the need for society to have an honest dialogue on the issue. "But the trouble is, so many people talk rubbish about work-life balance," he says, because as a species humans are hard wired to be attracted to easy answers. He argues that all the discussions about innovations in the workplace such as flextime or dress-down Fridays mask the core issue: Certain job and career choices are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis with a young family.

To solve a problem, you must acknowledge reality. And he says the reality is that "there are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don't need to impress people they don't like." Getting the chance to go to work on Friday in jeans and a T-shirt may make work friendlier, but it doesn't address the fundamental issue.

His second point is that we need to face the truth that governments and corporations won't solve this issue for us. "Stop looking outside. It's up to us as individuals to take control and responsibility for the types of lives we want to lead," he says. "If you don't design your life someone else will design it for you, and you may just not like their idea of balance."

It's particularly important, he says, that you never put the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial corporation. And he stresses he is not just talking about "the bad companies, the abattoirs of the human soul," but all profit-seeking companies, since they are inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with. "It's in their nature, in their DNA," he notes.

Putting child care in the office, for example, may seem wonderful but he says it just proves to be a nightmare as you spend more time in the office. "We have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries that we want in our lives," he says.

His third observation is that we need to be careful with the time frame we use to judge balance in our lives. In particular, you can't expect to have every day balanced, with all the good things you want in your life neatly fitted in. We have to elongate the time frame in which we expect balance without falling into the trap of thinking we'll have a life when we retire – "when my kids have left home, when my wife has left me, when my health is failing," he says. "A day is too short, 'when I retire' is too long. There has got to be a middle way."

For him, the time frame by which he judges is a month. At the end of each month he takes time to reflect on how he is doing and how the next four weeks is shaping up.

Finally, he advises, we need to look at balance in a balanced way. He shares the story of an executive who worked 10 hours a day, spent two hours commuting, and had no relationships. Her solution was to join a gym. "That just makes her a physically fit office rat. It's not more balanced. It's more fit," he says. We must seek balance, instead, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

But we should do that in small, but meaningful ways – a balanced approach – rather than grandiose commitments. He tells of the time he picked his kids up after school, they played in a park, had dinner in a restaurant, walked home together, and he read them a story before bedtime. One son remarked that it was the best day of his life. "I hadn't done anything. I hadn't taken him to Disneyworld. I hadn't bought him a PlayStation," says Mr. Marsh.

He's a fan of adding small incremental changes into his life. He has one "Daddy Trip" a month, in which he takes one of his kids off alone for an afternoon. He exercises at least three times a week. He forces himself to jump into the ocean once a week, since however unbalanced he feels a dip in the ocean never fails to lift him up. He makes a conscious effort to keep up with old friends in other countries. "Basically small things that on their own don't look like much but when added together they saved my life," he declares.