The Guilt Lurking Behind ‘Work-Life Balance’ Questions

On a podcast interview, someone asked me how I make sure my work doesn’t harm my family life.  There’s something lurking in this question that I’d like to unearth and cast out.

Guilt is one of the worst shackles.  It takes away personal freedom and fulfillment and replaces it with bitterness and self-loathing, most of the time without detection.  It lurks always, and it’s easy to let it drive us to needless suffering and slavery.

I think questions about work-life balance are predicated upon a subtle, persistent guilt that permeates our culture and our ideas about work.

If it’s merely that work and family are two important areas of life that we’re trying to balance, you would expect to hear questions not only like the above, but also the reverse:

“How do you make sure family life is not harming your work?”

We never hear the question asked in that direction.  No one seems concerned about the person who ruins their career because they can’t say no to family, only the other extreme.

This reveals a strange feeling most people have about work.  They think it’s bad.  Family, or “life”, is an unquestioned good, while business or work are seen as dangerous, though perhaps necessary evils.

The unquestioned value ranking of work as the lowest thing on which to focus and family the highest means we feel guilty when we’re working.  Oh, and we also feel guilty when we’re watching Dora with the kids and secretly wish we were working.

This strikes me as a stupid situation all around.  This idea that you’re bad for liking what you like is dangerous and useless for anything but increasing the surface area from which you can be manipulated and made miserable.

I don’t like dividing up my life into work/family/fun etc.  I prefer to think of my overarching purpose or goal in life as the thing I’m always up to.  For me, it’s to live as free as possible, help others do the same, and enjoy the process.  Then I consider all my activities in light of how they help do this.

I also ask myself, in the words of Dan Sullivan, for whom I want to be a hero.  For me, it’s concentric circles, starting with myself (if I’m not proud of who I am, none of the rest matters), my wife, kids, Praxis teammates, customers, potential customers, and finally fellow travelers/readers/listeners.  In my pursuit of my mission, these are the people I care about.  So if something wins me tons of points with someone outside these groups, I ignore it unless it’s very low cost.  Or if something is valuable to fellow travelers but costly to family or team, I’m less likely to focus on it.  If something scores points with any of these, but makes me less proud of myself, I don’t do it.

Everything – from playing LEGO with my kids to running a workshop for Praxis – is part of my life mission, and the balance isn’t about work/life, but about who I’m being a hero to and whether it’s who I care about.

Not dividing things up into work/family is helpful in many ways.  Being a hero to my kids, for example, might not mean going to the park, it might mean growing the business or giving a talk or staying up late working on something meaningful to me.  They see who I am and what I do, and seeing me live a life I believe in is just as important as going for a bike ride with them.  In fact, if I’m bitter about the bike ride and really wish I was finishing that spreadsheet, it’s probably worse to model a life of unhappy obligation than to focus on what I think helps me live my mission best in every moment.

The point isn’t to define your life into separate segments and decide which is more important, the point is to stop framing life as a tug of war between things you value.  Instead, try to think of your core goals/values/missions/purposes, let everything from earning a paycheck to backyard BBQ’s tier up to those, and define who you most want to be a hero to so that you can ensure your activities aren’t chasing vanities but hitting your intended market.

I try to live my life in such a way that, if asked, I honestly can’t always tell whether I’m working or playing or doing family time or whatever else.  My goal is to always be doing something valuable to me, that moves me closer to who I want to be, and that creates value for the audiences I care about.  Sometimes it’s Play-Doh, sometimes it’s an email marketing campaign.  They don’t seem so different to me.  They’re both meaningful, fun, hard work.

Seeking Advice, or Avoidance?

Probably 80% of the time, advice-seeking is a way to avoid acting on what you already know.  Another 10% it’s seeking attention.  But the 10% of the time when you have a tight, clear, specific conundrum and a tight, clear, specific person whose take you value, it’s one of the most valuable things in the world.

The challenge is that it’s not always easy to identify which motivation is driving you.

Ask Better Questions

I like browsing Quora and answering questions.  If you do, you’ll notice that many people ask bad questions.

It’s not that the content is bad, or the thing they’re trying to get at, it’s that many questions feel like no pre-work was done to drive them to the question.  Or the asker hasn’t considered the best way to get the information they want.  Or they have no idea what it is they want or why they’re asking the question.

Questions like this:

Should I become an engineer?
What can a startup do to succeed?
What’s the best career to have?

These questions are so vague and context-less that it’s hard to imagine really useful answers.  The questions are general questions about the world at large, rather than specific questions about the individual’s specific goals and challenges.  They don’t demand accountability, and they smack of searching for guarantees, off-the-hooks, or just dilly-dallying.

I was thinking about the importance of specific vs. vague questions the other day when someone found out I knew someone else and asked for an email intro.  I said sure at first, then when I went to draft the email, it felt incredibly burdensome and like I’d be burning a lot of social capital for unclear reasons.  I went back to the person and said, “I can intro you, but what specifically are you asking of the person?”  They told me they didn’t know, and I said come back when you do and I’ll do it.

I’ve been on the other end.  An email with a specific, relevant ask is not hard to answer.  “Can you tell me what software you use to record your podcast?” or “Where do I submit a guest post to the Praxis blog?” etc.  A generic ask is the worst.  It eats up so much mental space.  “Hey, we have a lot in common, here’s a bunch of info, we should connect”, or, “Meet person A, they’re really cool and think similarly to you.”

What can I do with that?

I’ve had the temptation to be really general myself.  When someone I respect opens a line of communication, I feel like I have to use it somehow!  But if I don’t have a real, clear, specific ask, it’s worse to keep the line open then to let it close.

Ask questions you really want an answer to, and make them clear, specific, concise, and contextual.

Incentives, not Motives or Training

I saw an infuriating video of police arresting a nurse who refused to draw a patients blood at their request.

Comments on Twitter included a lot of, “Why are police so nasty and brutish?”, and most responses were, “They need better training and to be nicer.”


The incentive structure dictates the result.  As Lord Acton said, power corrupts.  Put a good man in a role that requires him to do bad to succeed, or turn a blind eye when others do, and either you’ll attract only bad men or good men will become bad.

Police misconduct is ubiquitous not because they lack training.  It’s because they face no competition, have no threat of losing money or position, and don’t need to please customers.

Remember the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment?

Now imagine if the prisoners got to choose the guards among several groups?  Of course guards could choose whether they wish to offer services to the prisoners too.  Guards would only get compensation and maintain their role if chosen.  How would treatment change?  Guards would be competing with each other for the most humane experience.

It’s not that complicated.  Government services are always worse than everything else because they don’t have to earn customers money, they just take it.  Incentives are powerful.

When Does Tradition Become Tyranny?

Traditions emerge for a reason.  Society is impossible without them.  Traditions provide lenses, rules, norms, and expectations that help make sense of the world, harmonize competing aims and interests, provide stability, and enable long-term planning.

But tradition can be tyrannical.  Traditions can oppress, restrict, stagnate, and destroy individuals and society.

So where’s the line?  When does tradition become tyranny?

I offer simple test for the tyranny of a tradition.  Does it rely on violence?  When those who would deviate from tradition are threatened with violence, or a tradition must initiate violence to sustain itself, it has become tyrannical.  The beneficial aspects of the tradition are now outweighed by the harm in its maintenance or expansion.

Imagine a deeply religious society, in which a strong tradition of weekly church attendance has emerged.  Whatever you think of this tradition, it’s not tyrannical so long as attendance is voluntary.  When that society begins to mandate church attendance, or prohibit other activities during services, the tradition has moved to the dark side and become tyrannical.

Some liberators come along to break the chains of the tradition-turned-tyranny.  They succeed in ending the use of violence to support religious activity.  In the process, they gain considerable power and social standing as leaders of the secular revolution.  In time, the tradition of churchgoing strengthens once again, and more and more people choose to attend.  The secular revolutionaries, now threatened by the peaceful emergence of the formerly deposed tradition, employ violence in repressing it.  Church attendance is illegal, in order to support their “liberal” aims.

This hypothetical illustrates that the tyranny of a tradition has nothing to do with the tradition itself, nor do the intentions of those who support or oppose tradition determine whether it’s tyrannical.  Again, when violence is relied upon to force a tradition – even if the tradition is the rejection of older traditions – it has become tyranny.

Transition into tyranny is not always so visible and obvious, because the state obfuscates violence.  In state legal codes or edicts, violence is slathered with noble intentions and shiny rhetoric, and the perpetrators are several steps removed from the advocates.

Traditions upheld by state violence are harder to identify, but they’re tyrannical nonetheless.  When money is forcibly extracted from people and used to subsidize a tradition, for example, it’s moving decidedly in the tyrannical direction.  It may be a small tyranny at first, but it’s tyranny.

Anything from educational traditions and institutions, norms around work, language, or movements in art, when they accept the succulent temptation of government largess,  cease to be noble traditions and become tyrannies.  Accepting the fruits of violence positions a tradition to rely on violence to maintain its power.  Ironically, the stronger the violence used to maintain a tradition, the weaker the tradition.  Strong traditions don’t need boots on necks to survive or spread.

If you advocate a tradition, resisting the temptation of the violent fruits dangled in front of you – whether state subsidy, mandate, or prohibition – is necessary for preventing its morph into tyranny.

So long as it’s poisoned with violent supports, it’s impossible to know the true worth of a tradition.

A great many good traditions have been turned tyrannical because they follow the allure of ill-gotten gains.

NFL vs. NCAA Football

I love sports.  Football is my favorite to watch, and the NFL is my preferred league.

A lot of people sing the praises of “amateur” college football, where the NCAA and government funded schools ensure 18-21 year old players can risk their livelihoods forever but cannot make any money, while the institutions risk nothing an make millions.

It is fun to watch.  The talent disparity between teams and individual player is huge, but the emotional maturity is so low that anything can happen.  It can be wild and crazy.  I enjoy college football.

But nothing comes close to the NFL.  Because the talent is so, so much better than college, it means you can’t win on flukes, emotion, or raw athleticism.  It takes a higher degree of strategy, and especially psychological toughness, consistency, and chemistry.

I love the chess match of the NFL, and the mental challenge of the best players to rise above mere talent and become something more.

“But There Are Limits!”

If you advocate free speech, free movement, freedom in exchange, and freedom to engage in any peaceful activity an individual desires, you will hear an objection.

“But surely there are limits!”

The most important limits are limits on violence.  Yet these are the limits most people show least concern with.  At the first fear of the results of freedom, most people are ready to sanction violent repression of peaceful behavior, via government edict.

The limits that deserve our attention are limits on coercion, not peaceful behavior we happen not to like.

127 – Part Two of TK Coleman’s Career Journey

This is the second part of an in-depth conversation with TK about his career path.

We finished the last episode with TK moving to LA to pursue acting. Part two starts with the story of launching an entertainment start-up before continuing all the way to working as the education director for Praxis.

TK’s roundabout career path shows the importance of focusing on doing well in whatever work you are doing. It is almost impossible to know what opportunities will come your way in the future. The job you will want in ten years most likely doesn’t exist yet. You don’t have to have an elaborate plan to build a great career, as long as you show up and do good work it will serve you in the long term and help you attract great opportunities.

In this episode:

  • What did TK want to do for a career as a kid?
  • Joining the founding team of an entertainment tech startup
  • Going out to raise funding around the time of the financial crisis
  • Knowing when it’s time to give up
  • Getting a shot at film production
  • Never working from a position of desperation
  • How doggy day care almost led to a movie
  • Creating without permission
  • Blogging for three years straight
  • TK’s key takeaways from his career


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