On Life and Work Balance

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“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.

Peter




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4 Comments

  1. Hello Peter and Marina!

    I simply love this website and you guys :-)

    I’m currently a PhD student in engineering and, having had your same ideas about academy, work and life overall, since half a year I’m trying to figure out whether it would be possible to become a “true” PhD nomad, meaning somehow a nomad *while still being* a PhD student. I’ve already been able to travel shortly every now and then and to “exploit” my period abroad, but I know it’s difficult and maybe not really convenient at a later stage; this is why I was looking for someone who could have (or have had) a similar thought… and I landed here :-)

    I’d like to know what do you think about such an idea and what has been your experience. Also, I’ll follow your blog as I enjoy reading your adventures, plus I’m planning to do exactly the same you’re doing as soon as I finish :-)

    Have a happy life and see you!

    Reply
    • Hi Nick! Thanks for stopping by, and glad you enjoy the site. Quite interesting to hear from another aspiring PhD nomad:) While I don’t completely understand your specific situation, from our personal experience, doing our PhDs would not have been possible while also being nomadic. We both had to be in the laboratory to do our research – either with animal or human subjects. So these tasks we couldn’t really perform remotely. We still managed to travel every chance we got, but it was only for a week or two at a time. I think the better option would be to plow through the PhD and then be truly free and travel as far as your finances allow. I think that leaving the program would only make the completion of your degree that much more difficult. You can also take the next little while to plan what you will do once the PhD ends – how will you support yourself, where will you go, etc. Just my two cents as always, take any advice with a grain of salt. Best of luck!

      Reply
  2. Hey there. I don’t know if you would call us nomads, but we are now away from our respective home countries for over 5 years (close to 6). We’ve lived in Denmark and now Japan. While not truly nomadic (kind of tricky with a baby), the plan is to keep moving to other countries to make a long, long world trip.

    The problem is not to let my work overshadow this plan! How do you guys go about getting grants without having a solid place to stay? I’m struggling to write a paper a year, even in our semi-stable situation. How do you manage to write on “holiday”?

    Cheers,

    B.

    Reply
    • Hi Brian,

      Apologies for the VERY late reply. Some of these comments have fallen through the cracks. It sounds like you and your family are living a very interesting life indeed! to be honest, there is nothing magical about our few months per place approach. In fact, I’m starting to think a longer and slower approach might be less stressful and more rewarding. Working while traveling is really difficult, despite how I might romanticize it on the site. It allows us to live this way and keep exploring, so I am willing to make some sacrifices and work my butt off when I’d rather be exploring my local environment. Once I get into a writing project, I get pretty obsessed about the work and can push away the urge to be a tourist for the moment. On the other hand, I can sometimes be thinking about the work I need to do when I should be having fun doing something touristy. It remains a very difficult thing to balance. Hope you and the family are doing well!

      Reply

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