Last week as I was updating my Twitter account I noticed a link that fellow-Terry blogger Jody Wright had posted on a Tedx Talk on ‘Life-Work Balance’.

Hmmm…Balance”, I thought.

I followed the link and watched the ten-minute talk by Nigel Marsh, advertising CEO and author. Marsh described his decision to not pursue another position in  the high-pressure corporate world after being laid off as a CEO for a large advertising firm. Marsh talked about his quest for life-work balance (minus the work) in his year off, focusing on designing your own life,  making small changes instead of focusing on dramatic upheaval and the importance of finding your own balance.

I was silent. I re-watched the video. I googled ‘Nigel Marsh’. I ordered his book ‘Forty, Fat and Fired’ to my Kindle. I read in 6 hours.

Life-work balance is something I’ve never been good at. I’m not saying I’m all work and no play, because that just makes me sound boring. But after encountering Nigel Marsh and seriously assessing my daily life, I am all work and no play (AWNP). I’m also only 23, isn’t that sad?

Just a few of the readings I had to get through over 'reading break' while trying to find balance

Last year one of my favorite professors made us laugh when he testified to the effectiveness of coca-cola in pulling all nighters while studying for midterms. After the advice he made a very honest (and much appreciated) comment about how much more difficult it is being a student today. Within our field (International Relations) the expectations are higher and the competition greater than when he was an undergraduate, and as a result students are expected to have top grades, relevant volunteer and job experience, paid positions (to pay for rising tuition and living costs) and somehow find a way to get an edge amongst their peers. For those of us that really want to make it in the field (nearly 90% of our program) and  for law-school hopefuls like myself, even more pressure exists. This isn’t a complaint, this is just fact. I love my discipline, I’m passionate about everything I do in it, and I am resovled that this will be where I end up. So what if that means a little sacrifice?

Herein lies the problem: for the last few years I have dedicated myself solely to the development of my academic experience and future career. Nothing else.

I am mostly to blame for this, but I have to identify another factor in contributing to my AWNP lifestyle: the dogma that if you aren’t ‘all-IR-all-the-time’ (AIRATT- we IR students love our acronyms!) than you’re not credible, and you’re not going to make it.

I’ve felt this pressure many times throughout my degree, and have adopted the AIRATT dogma myself. Over the last year or so, a slightly contradicting truth began to seep in and reading Nigel Marsh has made it impossible to ignore.

I like other things.

Now obviously, I like other things- I like yoga, seeing friends, music, my dog Paige etc. but these things never took precedence in my life and were always knocked off the list as soon as a conference, opportunity or assignment came into the picture. But it was the inclusion of  ‘other things’ into my IR-world that first made me think differently. In a course last year, I was asked to make a graphic art assignment that in some way represented Canadian foreign policy.

“Art assignment? Oh dear God, ART!? WTF! How can I be seen as a future international law specialist if I have freaking paint all over me?…..Shit the paper is really long, I guess I’ll do the art assignment.”

After spontaneously combusting in the weird-foam-shapes aisle at Michaels and multiple anxiety attacks, I created a Canadian Afghanistan policy dye.

“Roll it and choose a policy in Afghanistan! God, I am so damn creative.”

I was shocked at how I felt after a few hours blending pastels and painting foam. I was relaxed. Calm. And had refreshed my knowledge on Canadian policy in Afghanistan. Hmm…I wasn’t reading, writing or debating but somehow I had enjoyed myself and was no less AIRATT than I was before. Slowly, I started to paint and fool around with art in my spare time. On the down-low, obviously. Couldn’t risk damaging my AIRATT cred.

About 6 months later I got my current position with Terry. I was excited for the job, but thought I might not have the skills to contribute to the project. The whole interdisciplinary-blogging-being-creative thing was a little scary and totally outside of my comfort zone. Than another interesting thing happened that shook my AWNP foundation- I got to know the Terry team.

Most people know Allen, Dave, Joanne and Chad when they see them at Terry events or in class, and know that these people are at the tops of their games. Running programs, holding high positions within the university, creating ridiculously unique and effective courses and programs, and huge professional success are all common factors amongst these four. “Uh, intimidating much? If there was ever a time to be AWNP, it was now.” But the team was…relaxed. They encouraged me to “take time off this weekend”, “don’t stay too late”, and “focus on your LSAT/school/conference prep, don’t worry about this right now.”

I resisted. “Let’s be honest I ENJOY work, whatever ‘work’ may be. I am only as good as my paper mark/K’Naan turnout/blog readership, so work I must do!”

But again, other things began creeping in. Hanging out with such a health-minded, creative and successful group started to affect me.  I began running a little more, I practiced yoga regularly, I read non-IR books, I started to enjoy blogging, I stayed home and slept for two whole days when I was sick. This began to worry me, and I pushed myself to step it up a notch:  finish reading The Economist on the bus, get up earlier, stay up later.

Then I watched Nigel and read his book, and thought about the success of the Terry team and what I’ve come to know about them this year. Despite holding a lot of responsibility with his position in VPS, Chad runs ultra marathons. Rain, shine, no sleep, Chad runs. In addition to the ridiculous amount of course work Joanne has with her new pilot project with First Year Science students, she trains for triathlons, and reads non-microbiology books. Dave, equally busy with the pilot project and other courses blogs for Boing Boing and spends his spare-time* thinking up incredibly popular and creative science things. In addition to full-time teaching and two substantive administration postions, Allen plays guitar and “cooks”. (“Cooks” as in “What’s an average weeknight dinner Allen?” “Well this week we had osso bucco and lobster risotto. No big deal.”) This month I also started working with a brilliant professor who has essentially become one of my idols.  In addition to teaching, writing, children and the millions of other things she has going on, she goes to yoga. At noon. Regularly.

I began to look around at my friends, especially VB, KH and KR, who were all managing to fit in friends, exercise, and family while juggling graduate programs, multiple jobs and high-pressure project management responsibilities. All of these ridiculously successful people did things outside of their official position and interests, and were actually BETTER for it. I don’t think anyone ever ‘achieves’ life-work balance, but I think they’ve come as close as any by doing what Marsh says is fundamental: Being responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries in our lives.

I’ve started to attempt creating these boundaries, and it’s not easy. My first ‘Marsh balance’ experience happened over reading break. Amidst the long list of schoolwork I had to do, I made myself attend yoga, walk my dog (who wouldn’t want to walk her) and hang out with my parents.  I’ve failed several times in successfully ignoring my blackberry emails after 9pm, but the times I do succeed give me a just few extra minutes in savasana, or coffee with a close friend. I’ve reinforced time boundaries by giving priority to things outside of AIRATT and slowly letting go of my AWNP lifestyle. We’ll see how the balance plays out now with school, work and the chaos of everyday life in Vancouver

Marsh made a comment that inspired the honesty in this post: he argues that if society is going to make any progress on this whole work-life balance concept, we need to have an honest debate. At the core of this debate is why certain job and career choices are fundamentally at odds with this idea of balance, and how we can change this.

*What the hell IS ‘spare time’ and how you do make it? Balanced people seem successful in creating it.

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