On Life and Work Balance


“It is all about the decisions you make,” says Simon, while we walk on a dirt road heading back to our hostels after having snorkeled with various fish in a nearby lagoon.

Simon was a lawyer and his partner Jayne was a teacher. As Marina and I soon learned, Simon and Jayne were at the end of their 7 month trip through South America. They both quit their jobs, rented out their home in England, and decided to travel for over half a year – according to them, 7 months is just the right amount of time for a decent trip.

Apparently, we had met people who were crazier than us.

Naturally, we became fast friends. It was incredibly refreshing to meet like-minded individuals, who despite being our parents’ age, seemed to have a thirst for adventure and exploration that rivaled our own. It was also reassuring to learn that it is possible to live such that one’s career and life were in balance.

Simon, for example, worked so that he would have the ability to take many trips with his wife and two sons. In other words, he worked to live, not the reverse. Unfortunately, the latter idiom reflects the mentality of most Westerners, and is one of the reasons why both Marina and I became disillusioned with the academic life – it was simply too all-consuming.

Simon, too, confessed that the partners at his law firm were equally obsessed with their work. They could only stomach a maximum of 2 week’s vacation per year, whereas Simon wasn’t satisfied with anything less than 2 months!

His colleagues would often comment how they don’t understand how he can afford to take so much time off, not to mention traveling all over the world to boot. This is a comment we have also heard. Over the past 6 years we have been living off of modest government scholarships, and yet have managed to travel for at least 3 weeks every year. As the energetic Englishman suggested, it all comes down to the decisions one makes. You can choose an expensive lifestyle, purchasing every material possession which catches your eye regardless of need, and despite a high paying job, you could always be struggling to make ends meet. In this situation, one has simply chosen to accrue things in place of experiences. Different people place different values on these two things. Over the past number of years, I have come to understand that experiences carry a much higher personal value than do possessions. I don’t mind not having cable tv, or buying a new car if it means I will be able to afford a trip down the road – it’s a sacrifice I make easily.

I have not always felt this way. In fact, I remember a conversation with my good friend Travis, during which he confessed that he’d be more than happy working at a small university, making just enough to afford a modest home, to feed the family, and to have the time and the resources to pursue things he loved much more than work – in his case: running, biking, and even joggling. At the time (some 3 years ago), I was fully convinced that the only way to be happy in life was by driving an Audi (a V6, at the very least), living in a home which was larger than necessary, wearing Armani suits (pardon my naïveté, I assumed then, and still do today, that these are expensive suits), and always being busy attending important functions.

Over the past two years, as I grew into the role of an up-and-coming scholar, I began to notice the personal cost this rise to ‘academic stardom’ required. Sure, I had accumulated a robust curriculum vita, filled with many publications in good medical journals, along with highly-coveted oral presentations at large conferences. Unfortunately, in the process, my guitars began accumulating dust; my relationship with Marina became stagnant, if not strained; I had almost completely stopped reading for pleasure; I stopped learning about things outside of my field of research; I had lost contact with many good friends; and I became even more irritable, critical and jaded than normal.

In essence, all the things that used to define who I was, became overshadowed by one thing: work.

I began to dislike who I was becoming. What began worrying me the most was the potential influence I would have on my future children; that is, the father I would become, if I stayed on my current trajectory.

After this realization sank in, Marina and I made a collective vow to not let work rule our existence.

Sometime in January of 2010, while we were both in the depths of thesis writing, we decided to guide our decisions in life by the following question:

“You are sitting with your grandchildren on your lap. What stories of your personal exploits through life are you sharing with them?”

Simply put, we wanted to live a story worth telling.

If not a full novel, then at the very least, accumulate a few personal novellas worth reading. We wrote the above on a sheet of paper and taped it to our front door, so that every time we left the house – we were reminded of our new found purpose. It was this silly note that reassured us we were making the right decision to travel South America without a clear itinerary before making any decisions about career, and life in general going forwards.

This single notion continues to guide the decisions we make about our careers, and more importantly, our lives.


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