Work-Life Balance Trap

I frequently use the term “work-life” balance when discussing the expectations people working in the arts have, especially potential executive directors.

Recently though, I saw one of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings about a book that questions the assumptions we have about the features of a work-life balance.

Popova writes that in his book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, “English poet and philosopher David Whyte aptly calls “work/life balance” a “phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves”…

She quotes Whyte:

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.


We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.


We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

She later offers a corroborating quote from author, Courtney Martin,

There’s never been more pressure to kind of parcel yourself… It’s never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places. Even just to feel like you’re showing up as your whole self in different settings is a pretty rebellious act.

This summarizes not only the societal pressures one feels in face to face interactions, but those in the social media sphere. Who you are is no longer comprised by your identity among co-workers, family and friends but also the identity created, voluntarily or involuntarily, among people we have never personally encountered.

There was one section from Whyte’s book that Popova quotes that seemed to describe the status of every arts professional out there:

Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed.

For most arts people, that passage I emphasized falls just short of being a self-evident truth. For us there is no unspoken vow. At some point in our lives, we have all recited aloud some version of “…and that’s when I knew…” Heck, even the introverts have probably told their version of the story a half dozen times.

While Whyte’s book is written for all audiences in general, my perception is that creatives have a relationship with their work that motivates them in an entirely different way from most people. The manifestation and definition of success can be far more internalized and intangible than that of a people who works in law, government, finance.

When you think about it, it is fairly clear how easy it is to become enslaved by the ideal vision of a work-life balance. It may be worse for creative people who live their lives enslaved to an idea already.

As a result, the depth of the conflict they feel while trying to achieve a work-life balance may not been fully comprehended by those around them. (i.e. How could it be, you are doing what you love? Why do you do this, you don’t make money from it?)

Since there is limited room in Popova’s column, it is difficult to know what Whyte’s solution is, if there is one. The exact steps are probably specific to each person. At the very least, one should be mindful of Whyte’s thoughts about it appearing easy to discard one aspect of your life, but ultimately being destructive to one’s self.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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