Beyond Work/Life Balance


As I prepare for my last semester of college, I’ve been getting a classic piece of advice  from the adults in my life – “enjoy your time in school while it lasts.” Usually, I just laugh and nod in response, but really, I can’t stand hearing it.

Why? Because, to me, this seemingly well-intentioned remark implies that college is as good as life’s going to get. What’s even more maddening is that students all around me have accepted that this is how it’s supposed to be. They are living in the moment now because they’ve been convinced that post-graduation means 40 hours of cubicle monotony per week for the rest of their professional lives. How depressing is that?

In my opinion, there’s something wrong with a culture that embraces such an outlook. I’ve considered what leads us to spend the rest of our lives wishing we could be back in high school or college: Maybe its that the people who do not take school seriously (but have a really good time) end up with careers that are unfulfilling—but I’ve realized this is an arrogant and limiting view. As I’ve thought on it further, the real problem, I think, is that many don’t realize that alternatives to this corporate monotony exist.

Previous generations have looked at work as a paycheck, a necessity to provide for one’s family, a means to an end. Now, there are clear ways for people to pursue a career that has more than financial gain—a career that actually gives back and creates positive social impact. Our view of work has changed, but the systems we work in have not.

Much has been written on why so many millennials seem to be enamored by social change. I think a great deal of it has to do with the pursuit of a fulfilling career and an impatience for existing business and industries to provide it. I think that millennials see their careers as not a part of their lives, but rather what they do with their lives – and life is so much more than making ends meet. It’s social, emotional, physical, and spiritual. It’s about pursuing your passions, building relationships, and giving back. CSR initiatives and the growing buzz around intrapreneurship show us that the corporate world is taking notice and trying to change, but these efforts are fragmented and still developing at best. Until our careers reflect our lives, we’ll be left wanting.  Think beyond the idea of work/life balance where the two are looked at as separate pieces. Instead of balancing your personal life with your work life, it’s time to integrate your passions into your career trajectory.

Now to be fair, I’m 21 years old and maybe haven’t had enough lessons in the school of hard knocks. Maybe life after college really is as difficult and unappealing as so many of my parents’ generation make it out to be. There’s a possibility that I’ll eat my words and regret not taking more time to enjoy the time I had in college.

But despite that possibility, I have absolutely no intention of making these the best years of my life. I’m driven by the belief that it’s only going to get better from here on out. I’m going to accomplish things and solve problems and make a positive impact in the lives of others. I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of what I’m capable of doing and experiencing in my life. And besides, I’ve been working too damn hard up until this point for it to go any other way.

A former teacher once told me if you live for the weekend, you waste 5/7th of your life. I think millennials understand this better than most. Armed with a firm grasp of an interconnected world and a growing number of new and exciting possibilities in social change, more of us will take a pass on careers that only offer a paycheck. As far as I’m concerned, the days of the split between working and living–working and pursuing your passions–have passed. Businesses and organizations that realize this and adapt will flourish – the rest will fail.

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8 thoughts on “Beyond Work/Life Balance

  1. Bravo, Ryan. I am 10 years out of university and agree with everything you’ve said here. Your being a 21 year old new grad does not diminish the truth of what you’re saying.
    That being said, I have spent the last 10 years struggling to make my passion my career, to have meaning in my work, to be fulfilled and fully leveraged in my skills and abilities. It’s a tough road. The path of least resistance is to shut up, sit down in your cubicle, and go with the flow. Despite some efforts in the direction of more meaning in the corporate world (as you mention), the system is still mostly designed to turn us all into mass-production automatons who don’t make waves and live for the weekend.
    That may be why so many people give up, look for fulfilment elsewhere, and just get by at work. The other path is harder. Insisting on making the most out of your work time is swimming against the current.
    This is not to say it can’t be done. I know several people who doggedly stick to doing what they care about, and find a way to pay the bills, too. But they are the few, the brave, the determined, and the lucky. And most of them struggle and sacrifice A LOT.
    I’d like to see a shift in society, in education, and in the workplace that bucks this trend. I’d like to see every person surrounded by support and encouragement to find and do work that lights him on fire, that makes him excited to get to work every day, that makes the most of his particular talents, abilities and interests.
    Imagine how great this would be for the world. Imagine how much wasted potential is sitting in cubicles right now, waiting for Friday and saving up for a jet ski. Imagine what that potential could do if turned to the right purpose.

    • Thanks so much for the response, Nadine. I really appreciate the perspective of someone a little older than myself. Even as I look for my first job, I see what you mean. There are just not many options that really align with what I believe. Having said that though, I often wonder if it matters less where I go and more about my commitment to cause social change once I’m there. Obviously some work environments are better for this than others, but those employers who are most stubborn are also the greatest opportunity for radical positive change. Maybe we should be focusing less on creating more socially aligned options and focusing more on how to create positive social change no matter where you are.

  2. Brilliantly put Ryan! I’m finishing up at University this semester too and I cannot affirm any further what you’re saying about ability to foster change and stay financially sound.

    Times change-systems change and millennials have the resources to lead for change.

  3. Nice perspective Ryan. I’m learning from you as a mellennial! You’ve always had the capacity to assume a large degree of responsibility while enjoying diving into it at the same time. So you are obviously ready to implement change and I’m excited to see where you go and what you do. What if folks just said, ‘enjoy your time in school’ and leave it at that..just my experience, but its likely more intended to be a comment relating to degree of responsibility at this point in time rather than a prediction on future quality of life.
    Regarding the generational stereotyping, tread lightly… while probably true, I think there are a ton of folks from prior generations who graduated ready to tear it up with social change and are still doing so. Society has continued to evolve and it got there somehow… Think of a professor or 2 just as an example, or people you have run across in your jobs so far.

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