Instead of struggling to balance responsibilities, we need to aim for finding our flow.
I don’t mean to be depressing, but you will never find “balance” between your work and your personal life. That very idea hinges on an implicit belief that there is some perfect ratio between time spent on work (and work-like activities, like checking your email) and time spent on everything else (like sleeping, or eating your lunch away from your desk, or helping your kids with their homework).
Your work and your personal life do not amount to a zero-sum game, where more of one means you’re compromising the other. In fact, the quality of your work and your productivity—your ability to create something of value and meaning for yourself and for others—is utterly dependent on the quality of your personal life.
How happy you are profoundly influences how well you do your job. Reams of research shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we do outside of work thoroughly influences the energy, motivation, focus, creativity, persistence, insight, and raw intellectual power we bring to a given project or task at work.
The better your personal life is, the higher your potential to do great work.
I can hear the war cries from Silicon Valley and Wall Street now. “But no one in tech or at a start-up or who is brokering a billion dollar deal has a life!!! And THOSE people are rich and successful!!” you protest.
Hah. While those professions are certainly rigged so that the [mostly male] people at the top take home more money, their success is deeply subjective. Are they wealthy in the things that matter to you? Brigid Shulte reminds us to “remember that the wolves of Wall Street bragging about those long hours at the office got us into a global financial crisis, and that 95 percent of startups fail.”
Our sense that the most successful and productive people—“ideal workers”—put in an insane number of hours is just wrong. But what does the real “ideal worker” ACTUALLY look like?
I’ve been pondering this question for five or six years now, and I’ve come to see that the real ideal worker has seven core qualities or skills, listed below. But before I lay them out for you, let’s remember: Those of us who cultivate these qualities are more than workers, of course.
We are the joyful people who are working toward fulfilling our potential for creativity, productivity, intelligence, and—most importantly—meaning, fulfillment, and connection in our lives. We are the people who actually enjoy the lives that we’ve worked so hard to create. We also happen to be very good at our jobs.
We can attribute our happiness and success at work to the following seven skills and abilities:
1. We are able to do our most important work first.
We work hard to decide what our priorities are. We seek to understand what work and relationships bring us meaning and fulfillment, and we schedule our time and our tasks accordingly. We understand the positive impact we are having on the world and other people, and this provides a tremendous source of energy and motivation.
2. We command our own attention.
In a world where corporations pay by the eyeball to capture our concentration and interest, we are able to build a fortress against all that interruption. We know how to handle temptations. We use our computers and tablets and smartphones strategically rather than compulsively, as tools that make us more efficient, effective, connected, and creative—not more distracted and drained.
3. We think deeply.
Business writer Eric Barker calls this “the superpower of the 21st century.” Georgetown professor Cal Newport writes in his treatise on focus, Deep Work, that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
4. We effortlessly generate creative insights.
We love to find innovative solutions to real-world, unpredictable problems. We value the activities that lead to creativity in a world that thinks we are behaving like children and slackers. We have the courage to nap, play, and stare into space while everyone else skips their lunch break in order to check their email.
5. We are authentic and emotionally courageous.
We are willing to feel what we feel, and this gives us access to the wisdom of our hearts. We are tapped into the power of our intuition, which speaks to us in emotions and bodily sensations. And because we are willing to experience difficult emotions, we are gritty—we are able to persist despite difficulty toward our long-term goals. We are able to take risks, have difficult conversations, and stay true to what we know is right.
6. We are flourishing.
We understand that cynicism is a marker of fear, not intelligence, and that when we prioritize positivity in our lives—when we consciously cultivate gratitude and love, happiness and peace, awe and inspiration, optimism and faith—we broaden our perception in the moment and build resources over time. Our ability to foster positive emotions allows us to access our most high-functioning, creative, and intelligent selves. We are more engaged with our work, our friends, our families, and our communities than our less positive peers.
7. We are connected.
We understand the transcendent importance of our relationships, and so we cast the net of our real-life friends and family both wide and deep. We are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping than people who keep others at a distance. We are the strangers on the street who smile at you. We are the people you ask for favors, because we love to help out. We are your best friends, because we know how to build—and repair—our relationships.
The “real ideal worker” is not a mythical, unattainable ideal. There are successful people all around you who aren’t working themselves to the brink of exhaustion and burnout. We aren’t perfect, but we’re dedicated to seeking the most joy possible out of our lives, including our lives at work. We are the people who know how to find flow. Personally, I’m hoping you will join our tribe. Aren’t you ready to reset your vision for what you want for yourself?
Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine Books, 2015) and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents (Random House, 2010). A former director of the GGSC, she served for many years as author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness.