BALANCING ACTS

Living with a BlackBerry Addict

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg writes about how her husband, Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg, never lets his BlackBerry leave his side.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

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Her name is Bond Girl.

My husband, Gary, refers to her simply as his BlackBerry, but I know better. Bond Girl has become the awkward third wheel in our relationship. She sleeps on Gary's bed table and wakes us each morning. When he reaches to silence her, he can't resist scrolling down her sleek silver body to check for last night's e-mails. Bond Girl joins us when we dine and sits on the sidelines at our kids' soccer games, purring randomly. She knows all Gary's secrets and contains all his memories. She alone knows where he'll be today, tomorrow, and ever after.

My normally calm husband turned quietly frantic when he misplaced Bond Girl a few months ago. She turned up after a 15-minute search, and I joked that it would be interesting to see just how long he could live without her. Not missing a beat, Gary replied, "I think you just did."

Over the 25 years that Gary has been in business, we've marveled at each new technology. I remember my amazement at our first PC in 1985 and first fax machine in 1987. Then cell phones came along. But none of those affected the texture of our relationship the way Bond Girl has. Although the barrier between work and the rest of life has been eroding steadily, it's taken the BlackBerry to shatter it altogether. Her incessant buzzing -- Check me! Check me! It just might be important! -- slices into our family cocoon. The way some mourn the loss of wilderness, I grieve the loss of quiet space, free of electronic intrusion and interruption. Bond Girl gives Gary constant access to the world. But more disturbingly, she gives the world constant access to him.

Entrepreneurial businesses are colicky babies that never stop screaming for their owners' time, energy, and imagination. Their families are in a constant battle for attention. For the entrepreneur, maintaining work-family balance involves managing guilt on both sides. Enter the BlackBerry. It beguiles both the entrepreneur and the family by creating the alluring illusion of freedom. The entrepreneur can be surrounded by family, untethered from the office -- but always accessible to work.

Nowhere is this truer than on our vacations, which Gary believes Bond Girl makes guilt free. But I would argue that his laptop freed him more effectively than Bond Girl has. This is not hair splitting. Before the BlackBerry, Gary would work on his computer each morning to lighten his load before we left to play for the day. Because the laptop is comparatively bulky and doesn't mix well with sand, sea, and piña coladas, he would leave it behind in the afternoon. But Bond Girl goes everywhere with us: She's in the restaurant and at the tennis court, on the boat and at the beach. On the surface, these family times "count" as leisure time spent together. But in my mind, Gary's not truly in nature if his BlackBerry hitches a ride up the mountain on his hip. If his BlackBerry's at the dinner table with us, then he's not.

Most of us lack strategies for dealing with the seductive power of these new technologies. Bond Girl is an irresistible superwoman: She brings e-mail and Internet; she is an alarm clock, phone, camera, and calendar keeper. The problem with this concentration of power is that she has become too big to fire. In the old days, if Gary needed to wait for a call while we were on the beach, he'd bring his cell phone. But because Bond Girl is also his phone, while he waits for the call, it becomes all but irresistible for him to check his e-mail, too.

Though Bond Girl distracts Gary, he'd also be distracted without her -- wondering when and whether to check in with co-workers and business associates. She does help Gary dispense with important items quickly and ignore the rest. Recently, he took our daughter Danielle college shopping and afterward told me that without his BlackBerry, he'd have spent hours on the phone with work during that precious daddy-daughter time. Because of Bond Girl, interruptions were minimal. What confounds me is that the device that allowed Gary to leave work for this trip is the same one that ensures he's always working.

I decided Gary and I needed some advice concerning Bond Girl. So I called an expert on the relationship between humans and machines: Sherry Turkle, an author and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Turkle agreed that BlackBerrys and similar devices exact a psychic toll: Most of us now feel anxious when we disconnect from the world. She said we're losing the knack for solitude and the desire to "be here now." If we stay in the present, doing just one thing at a time, we feel like we're falling behind.

Turkle doesn't pass judgment on our new technology. "It's not good or bad -- it's here," she told me. "That ship has sailed. But it does pose a question: What are our human values? Is it important to give full attention to whomever you're with or to whatever you're doing, no matter how seductive the technology? I'm not saying to stop using these devices. But we need to be more reflective about their use."

Recently, I sat in on an executive M.B.A. class at the Wharton School, taught by Stewart Friedman. Friedman's course is about the relationship between "work/life integration" and leadership. He preaches about the importance of being fully present no matter what you are doing -- e.g., when you're with your kids, be with your kids. Give your family, your community, and your personal life the attention they deserve, and your work will benefit also.

Friedman asks his students to try a series of experiments related to this concept. Many students, not surprisingly, start by placing some controls on their BlackBerrys. I spoke with one of Friedman's former students, Sam Allen, founder and CEO of ScanCafe, an online photo scanning company. Sam told me that his experiment was to turn off his BlackBerry and ignore work for two hours when he got home to his wife and young son. "At first, I thought this would stress me out even more," he said. "But it helped me focus, and I was rejuvenated from the two-hour break. And my wife was happier." Sam has maintained this discipline while building the company to 625 employees.

Gary and I have decided to try some experiments of our own. He doesn't bring Bond Girl to soccer games anymore. She has been banished from the dinner table as well. Now that I've reclaimed the kitchen, I'm optimistic about the bedroom.

As for my experiment, I'm trying to mentally recast Bond Girl as Miss Moneypenny -- an indispensable sidekick but not one to make me jealous. In case that fails, I've started searching the globe for vacation spots with sun, sand, and piña coladas -- where satellites don't reach.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is a writer married to Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, a maker of organic yogurt in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

IMAGE: Esther Pearl Watson
Last updated: Jul 1, 2009

MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG | Columnist

Contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is the author of For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at mhirshberg@inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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