What Successful Work and Life Integration Looks Like

Too many people believe that to achieve great things we must make brutal sacrifices, that to succeed in work we must focus single-mindedly, at the expense of everything else in life. Even those who reject the idea of a zero-sum game fall prey to a kind of binary thinking revealed by the term we use to describe the ideal lifestyle: “work/life balance.” The idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores that “life” is actually the intersection and interaction of four major domains: work, home, community, and the private self.

From years of studying people in many different settings, I have found that the most successful people are those who can harness the passions and powers of the various parts of their lives, bringing them together to achieve what I call “four-way wins” — actions that result in life being better in all four domains. My research has shown that there are ways for everyone — from the managers of sales teams, to executives in government agencies, to computer engineers, to florists, to coaches — to achieve professional success without always having to sacrifice the things that matter in their personal lives.

And yet as someone known as “the work/life balance guy,” I get pushback just about everywhere I go, especially from high achievers. “Stew, it’s nice to try to balance it all,” they say to me, “but in the real world, c’mon: How can you have a substantial impact without making major sacrifices in your personal and family life?”

So in writing my new book, I set out to find well-known people who have practiced, wittingly or unwittingly, the skills for integrating work and the rest of life and who could not only show that it can be done, but help teach us all how to do it. In the end, I settled on six people. I’d argue that these six people are successful at their work not despite having full lives outside of it, but precisely becausethey do:

  • Tom Tierney is the cofounder of Bridgespan, the best-known advisory firm for nonprofits. Throughout his career, he has sought creative ways of fitting the different domains of his life together, including learning from his children about what really matters. He has built organizations that encourage personal growth by rewarding results — not “face time” — and by motivating people with a vision of contributing to a greater good.
  • As COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg has been redefining what it means to be a leader. Her candor about the challenges she faces in resolving conflicts among different parts of her life — as an executive, a catalyst for social change, a friend, a wife, a sister, and a mother — and about the non-traditional means she employs for doing so, has made her a persuasive role model and an outspoken voice on women and leadership.
  • Eric Greitens, humanitarian, author, and non-profit founder, attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and completed his doctorate before becoming a Navy SEAL. For his service in Iraq he was awarded a Purple Heart and went on — after a difficult search for a meaningful next step to take in his life — to found The Mission Continues, an organization that helps heal wounded war veterans by guiding them to be of service in their communities.
  • Michelle Obama, the 44th First Lady of the United States, explains that she considers her daughters to be her first priority, even if this stance rankles those who would have her do more in seeking broader political and cultural change. In making sure her own children were receiving the most nutritious food possible, she began to advocate for better nutrition through the national initiative Let’s Move!. Her policies have won national acclaim.
  • Julie Foudy is a soccer champion who, in 1991 as a member of the U.S. national team, won the first Women’s World Cup. She was also part of the iconic U.S. soccer team that garnered Olympic gold in 1996 and again in 2004. She has since led an array of organizations that promote athletics for young people, empower young women, and advocate for social causes. Foudy’s success is an outgrowth of her ability to fuse all the important parts of her life — her soccer teams, her family, and her advocacy for worthy causes.
  • While it may seem counterintuitive to think of a rock and roll hero as an exemplary leader,Bruce Springsteen has said that he creates music “to make people happy, feel less lonely, but also [to be] a conduit for a dialogue about the events of the day, the issues that impact people’s lives, personal and social and political and religious.” With his hard-won clarity of purpose, derived from years of painful self-scrutiny, it follows naturally that he makes clear what he expects from the people around him, whether they’re members of his band or members of his family — he’s called “The Boss” for a reason.

Lest you think that their success derives just from great luck, think again. Not one of them was born into a life of high privilege. They have strived to achieve their own kind of greatness and, one way or another, to make themselves into who they are now. Each has suffered disappointment (half of them are on second marriages), frustration, doubt, and loss.

But in each of their stories I found naturally occurring illustrations of people who did great things by discovering — usually through trial and error — ways to integrate the different parts of their lives to reinforce and enhance each other. They show how accomplishment in a career is achievable not at the expense of the rest of your life, but because of commitments at home, in the community, and to your interior life.

Each has identified a life’s work that is important to them, and each both draws on and gives back to their families and communities in order to make that life’s work succeed. They exemplify how one can cultivate a life in which values, actions, social contribution, and personal growth exist in harmony. It’s a life in which disparate pieces fall into place, not every single day — that’s the impossible myth of “work/life balance” — but over the course of a lifetime.

Yes, these six people are extraordinary – but they use skills that all of us can use to make ourselves a bit more extraordinary, too.

Start by considering three principles: be real, be whole, and be innovative. To be real is to act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important to you. To be whole is to act with integrity by recognizing how the different parts of your life (work, home, community, self) affect one another. All this examination allows you to be innovative. You act with creativity by experimenting with how things get done in ways that are good for you and for the people around you.

Doing this means thinking and talking about what truly inspires you, whatever that might be. It requires figuring out how to take incremental steps that are under your control and that move you in the direction you want to go, while bringing others along with you. It’s not easy (and I never said it was). But like these six people, you can attain significant achievement in a way that fits who you are. As these leaders show, your own way is the only way that will work for you.

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