Seeking balance

Did you miss me? I haven’t been posting regularly the past few weeks because I’ve been slowly writing down thoughts that turned into a kind of manifesto. If you’re interested in my navel-gazing, in which I ponder a possible solution to the past six years of angst, do please read on. I don’t expect this to apply to anyone other than myself. But if you’re facing similar challenges, maybe reading my thoughts might help you begin to organize your own. So, here it goes: an essay on the meaning of life.


Recently I took my lunch break at Mission Bay Park. It was 80 degrees and sunny with a strong west wind. As I dipped carrots in hummus, I watched people walking, jogging, tanning, cycling, rollerblading, picnicking, sailing, windsurfing, riding scooters, kiteskiing, stand-up paddleboarding, and jet skiing.

And that’s just at one tiny beach on one tiny cove in this wonderful city.

I swapped my high heels for flip flops and squeezed in a brief 10-minute walk before it was time to drive back to work, where I would spend the rest of that glorious day sitting in a windowless, climate-controlled office in front of dual computer screens.

Really, I shouldn’t complain. With the help of my advantages (family, nation, generation) I’ve worked hard to establish a stable professional career despite this recession. We are taught that by devoting the bulk of our adult lives to career success we will find fulfillment and stability, which enables a happy life.

Maybe many people have found happiness this way, but I’m realizing that for me it’s not the full truth. Instead, days like this make me deeply and physically unhappy that I can’t spend more time on the things that matter — exploring my vibrant city and this amazing world, using my healthy body, enjoying my favorite people… living my life.

If you add up the time it takes to get ready for work, commute to and from the office, and do my job, I spend at least 12 hours a day on my career. Then I try to squeeze exercise, healthy cooking, homemaking, entertainment, relationships, self-improvement, creativity, and reflection into the remaining 4 hours before bedtime. I can usually touch on only two or three of those in any given evening. (And this is with no kids and a pretty average job — I’m no lawyer or doctor or investment banker.)

With this schedule, I can only truly focus on my priorities on weekends. Is that enough?

I’ve been contemplating whether it’s better to “live to work, or work to live.”

In the “live to work” mindset, it’s important to love what you do, create something meaningful, build a career arc with the help of mentors, and work passionately to get great results. Life and work are intertwined in one great, meaningful dance. You identify as a teacher, a designer, an entrepreneur.

The “work to live” mentality, on the other hand, sees work not as an end in itself, but as a necessary means to fund the truly important parts of life. Work may be enjoyable, but it’s not an intrinsic part of your self-worth or identity. You work as a secretary or waiter or groundskeeper, but it’s not who you are. You put in 8-hour shifts to pay the bills and then go home to your real life with your family.

I guess I — and maybe my whole generation — have been raised to “live to work.” Reach high, dream big, follow your passion, achieve great things. But what if I don’t have one overarching passion? What if, despite being educated and capable, I can’t figure out my one great purpose?

Over drinks a few weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about how our balance between work and life seemed off. One asked me what my dream job would be, and as I started to answer, I caught a glimpse of something really important.

I told him that I’ve never had a dream job. I’m interested in many things but passionate about few. I like writing and marketing, but I have trouble staying motivated at those things for 50+ hours each week. I love sewing and baking and hiking and web design and travel and even home maintenance, but I’d never want to do any of those all day, every day.

So I’m starting to see that my life’s passion could be balance. Maybe there isn’t one all-consuming calling for me. Maybe happiness can come from spending equal time on professional work to challenge the mind, outdoor experiences to exercise the body, recreation and relationships to raise the spirit, and self and home to soothe the soul. Maybe it’s time to throw out my rigid model of what a career looks like, and start sculpting a new one.

And maybe I can achieve all this by finally taking the plunge into self-employment as a freelancer. I’ve been flirting with freelancing since 2006. Even though it’s an uncertain livelihood, could it be the key to a more self-directed life?

Honestly, it’s embarrassing to think of abandoning my formal career. There’s an ingrained voice at the back of my brain, whispering that I shouldn’t even be considering the possibility. Why would I intentionally take a less certain and less socially acceptable path? Wouldn’t that make me ungrateful and wasteful of my education and potential?

But then I think about the freedoms it would grant me: Freedom from scheduled office hours, so I could take time outside during the daylight even if it meant working into the night. Freedom from location dependence, so I could work from anywhere in the world while visiting family or exploring new places. Freedom from office annoyances like small talk in the bathroom and food stolen from the fridge. Freedom to combine multiple sources of income into a more diverse workday and career. Freedom to create balance in my life.

I think it’s time to start breaking free.


9 thoughts on “Seeking balance

  1. good thoughts :) I think the skills you have would allow you to be successful as a freelancer over most others. But I totally agree with you on everything, and now with a kid it is even more difficult to balance things, but I knew that would happen haha. I was writing a friend struggling with this as well, just last night that I wish I would not have taken so long in school and that I should have asked the people who graduated before me if they felt grad school was worth it.

    • Thanks girl, I really hope so. Actually, helping with your dissertation felt like freelancing because I got to sit on the sunny balcony with bare feet while I edited. Anyway, you’re right on track to find a rewarding job that justifies grad school and hopefully offers a great life balance. But even if you go a different direction someday (like baker/confectioner!), you will always be a badass PhD and that’s totally worthwhile. Maybe we can put any regrets to use by teaching our kids how important it is to consider their desired lifestyle before choosing a career.

  2. Take the plunge Julie! I wish I could think things through as logically as you do and with such eloquence but I think I have a much more naive outlook on life and its meaning and in my naivete, I choose to side with the “live to work” mentality (coincidentally I happen to be a teacher but the two are far from being mutually exclusive as you’ve pointed out). But it is also you who told me that sometimes you think you really want something yet somehow, for whatever reason, things change and as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it might be to come to terms with this, it is truly just the beginning of something new. So I know whatever you decide, you will be on your way to happiness. :)

    • Whether your outlook counts as naive or not, I sure have a lot to learn from your optimism and passion! I spend too much time overanalyzing/being pessimistic. But yes, I really think I’m going to take the plunge. My freelancing website is updated and I’m going to start actively seeking work after the holiday weekend. It will probably take a long time to build up a list of clients. I’m equally excited/scared to get started. You gotta help keep me sane and positive :)

  3. yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes i’m crying yes yes yes yes yes not kidding yes yes yes yes yes yes yes no really where is a god damn tissue.

  4. Julie, This is really random (I linked here from your comment about push-button light switches at Making it Lovely!), but this particular post resonated with me, and I wanted to acknowledge that. I am in a different time & place in my career path (25 years experienced architect that started my own business 2 years ago), but am trying to figure out some of the same stuff. Yesterday was frustrating day and I was wondering why I am not working for someone else where would be making more money & I wouldn’t have to be the one making all the hard decisions. But then I wouldn’t have all the freedom I have either, to make my work be what I want it to be. Somehow your post hit something that made the frustration lessen. Even though it’s difficult, I am doing the right thing for me right now! Thanks.

    • Marcia, I’m so glad to hear this post hit the mark for you today! I haven’t updated this blog in many months, but the good news is I took the plunge — I’m now working for myself. Your comment reassures me that there are lots of other people who share our priorities. And it’s worth all the extra effort!

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