Work-life balance. Everyone talks about it. And everyone struggles to achieve it.
Yet finding a reasonable work-life balance is easier than you think. While it's true the equilibrium point is constantly shifting, most of the same attitudes, perspectives, and skills apply to both "work" and "life."
So why not take advantage of that fact? Pick the right "life" pursuits and they inform and enhance your professional skills--and add a healthy dose of perspective and humility along the way.
In my case I like to take on extremely difficult--at least for me--physical goals. (Granted my approach to goal achievement in general is a little unconventional. Just like Fight Club, the first rule of achieving a goal is you don't talk about achieving that goal. And achieving a goal has a lot less to do with the goal itself and a lot more to do with the routine you develop to support that goal.)
So a few years ago and after just four months of training, I rode the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo, a 92-mile, four-mountain ride that included 11,000 feet of climbing. (Those four months felt like a lifetime, though, since pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop trained me. But then again I never would have been ready without him.)
After a few years of cycling I got tired of being cycling skinny--6' tall, 150 lbs is not a particularly good look--and decided to see if I could pull off some semblance of the "movie star becomes an action hero" physical transformation. I gained over 20 pounds, lost a few percentage points of body fat, and got a lot stronger. (That training sucked too, since Jeffrey Del Favero of Bodybuilding.com created out my program, but then again I never would have done it without him.)
So why do I do take on "unusual" (feel free to insert your own adjective) personal challenges? And how does that help me professionally? It's all about the habits, skills, and perspectives gained:
1. Success is ultimately based on numbers.
Sure, you can try to "hack" a goal. Sure, you can look for shortcuts. (People have built entire careers off the premise.) But eventually achieving a huge goal is all about volume and repetition.
Want to eventually ride a tough gran fondo? You'll have to ride hundreds of miles along the way. Want to go from only being able to do three pull-ups to eventually being able to do four sets of twenty? You'll have to lift a ton of weight along the way.
The same is true for professional success; it's largely based on doing the work. Want twenty new customers? Expect to cold call two or three hundred prospects. Want to hire a superstar? Expect to screen dozens and then interview ten or fifteen people.
The surest path to success is to do an incredible amount of work. If you're willing to do the work, you can succeed at almost anything.
2. Armor that protects us eventually destroys us.
We all wear armor. That armor protects us but also, over time, wears us down.
Our armor is primarily forged by success. Every accomplishment adds an additional layer of protection from vulnerability. In fact, when we feel particularly insecure we unconsciously strap on more armor so we feel less vulnerable:
- Armor is the guy who joins a pick-up basketball game with younger, better players and out of insecurity feels compelled to say, "I don't get to play very often... after all, I'm the CEO of Big Time Industries."
- Armor is saying at the start of a presentation, "Look, I'm not very good at speaking to groups... after all, I spend all day running my huge factory."
Armor protects when we're unsure, tentative, or at a perceived disadvantage. Our armor says, "That's okay; I may not be good at this... but I'm really good at that."
Over time armor also encourages us to narrow our focus to our strengths. That way we stay safe. The more armor we put on the more we can hide our weaknesses and failings--from others and from ourselves.
We use our armor all the time. I use my armor all the time--I feel sure more than you. But I get really tired of wearing it.
When I ride a bike the guy who passes me doesn't care if I've ghostwritten bestsellers or drive a fancy car or live in a nice neighborhood. At the gym, the guy who lifts more than me also doesn't care about any of that stuff. He's stronger and fitter than me. Period.
In those situations no amount of armor, real or imagined, can protect me. I'm just a guy on a bike. I'm just a guy at the gym. I'm just me.
Being just me is pretty scary.
But being who you really are is something we all need to do more often. It keeps things in perspective. It reminds us that we can always be better. It reminds us that no matter how good we think we are at something there is always someone who is a lot better.
And that's not depressing--that's motivating.
3. Grace is an awesome feeling... and one we never experience enough.
Outstanding athletes exist in a state of grace, a place where calculation and strategy and movement happen almost unconsciously. Great athletes can focus in a way that, to us, is unrecognizable because through skill, training, and experience their ability to focus is nearly effortless.
We've all felt a sense of grace, if only for a few precious moments, when we performed better than we ever imagined possible... and realized what we assumed to be limits weren't really limits at all.
Those moments don't happen by accident, though. Grace is never given; grace must be earned through discipline and training and sacrifice.
I want to ride up a mountain and experience the feeling that I can climb and climb and climb and I don't have to think about anything because I can just go....
I want to struggle with a weight and experience the feeling that I can do a few more reps because I know, without a doubt, I always have a little more in me...
And I want to sometimes write almost effortlessly and without thinking because years of effort and practice have brought me to a place where occasionally I am the writer I would like to be...
All those are moments of grace. They're awesome. They're amazing.
And they feed off each other because the confidence you build after experiencing a moment of grace in one pursuit helps you keep pushing when the going gets tough in other pursuits.
4. With work, "then" is always better than "now."
"Now" and "then" are wonderful words when they appear in the same sentence.
When you work to improve at something--especially in the beginning stages--"now" is often a terrible place. At one point my "now" was riding like an asthmatic hippo. At one point my "now" was doing four dips and feeling like I was tearing my chest apart.
But with time and effort my "now" was transformed. I rode with more speed, power, and confidence. I worked up to sets of ten, then twenty, then thirty dips. I was able to look back with satisfaction at a "now" I transformed into a vastly inferior "then."
Think about something you wanted to do. Then think about where you would be now if you had actually gotten started on it then.
When you do the work, then always pales in comparison to now: family, business, and every aspect of your life.
When you don't do the work, now is just like then--except now you also get to live with regret.
5. Quitting is a habit anyone can learn to break.
We're all busy. Each of us face multiple, ongoing demands. Every day we are forced a number of times to say, "That's not perfect, but it works... and I need to move on to something else."
Stopping short of excellence is something we are not just forced to do but are also trained to do. Most of the time we have no choice so we get really good at "quitting."
I'm really good at quitting. I raised wonderful kids and did a good job... but I know I could have done more. I've built a decent business... but I know I could have done more. I've tackled challenges before and tried really hard... but I know I could have done more.
Where physical challenges are concerned there are hundreds if not thousands of times I want to quit. Training is hard and only gets harder. Balancing family and work and everything else is hard and only gets harder.
At weak moments, struggle shatters our resolve and make us want to quit.
It's hard not to stop, by choice or otherwise, at "good enough." But sometimes, if the goal is big enough, we have to be great: not great compared to other people... but great compared to ourselves.
That comparison is the only comparison that really matters and is the best reason of all to try to accomplish more than you--or anyone around you--ever thought possible.
When you succeed, you become something you were not.
And then you get to do it again, becoming something else you once were not... but definitely are now.