The term Work-Life Balance suggests a tradeoff between time spent on work and on life, with one borrowing from the other and a balance providing the silver bullet of happiness and contentedness. This is at least a little bit misleading, because while the tasks at work and home are different, how we feel at any moment in time is harder to compartmentalize to a certain part of the day.
What I've found more effective to strive for is better Task-Satisfaction Balance. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, it is much more likely because of the type of tasks you're doing, rather than because of the number of hours you're putting in. At work, doing the types of work you really enjoy are likely to help you do the work faster, whereas that which you find less enthusing or fulfilling consumes all time you have available. The is also true at home. To stop walking the path to burnout, I've found myself needing to catch myself spinning my wheels on mundane tasks and pivot fast.
Companies recognize the emotional appeal inflated titles have on our egos, and far too often have no difficulty presenting prefixes like "Staff" or "Principal" as part of our negotiation, even if the expectations and compensation are no different than less senior roles at the company. It serves as a good reminder that seniority is gained not simply by tenure or checking a few boxes, but by changing how we approach our work:
Labor vs. Influence
When you start your career, a majority of your work product is a function of your own labor. As you grow, while this is still important, your own output is secondary to your ability to work with and influence others, because this allows you to multiply the amount of work produced relative to that which you can produce yourself.
Deliverable vs. Outcome
In the earliest stages of your career, you often take on work that has well defined parameters (scope, timeline and end-state), and your success comes from delivering this as expected and on time. As you advance, there are fewer boundaries set, but more for you to solidify. Next in your career, by knowing just the outcome, you know to define the pieces of the puzzle on a seemingly blank canvas. And finally, you’re defining outcomes rather than being handed them, and because this is more ambiguous to everyone apart from you, you need to set up others to succeed, just like you were in the beginning.
A remarkably simple heuristic from the WhatsApp team to decide if your feature is ready to launch yet:
... design and build features which are obviously useful. If the feature needs explanation, it’s not ready.
I’ve found this guidance from a past manager to be durable to this day, and I often relay it to people who need to contextualize their own performance reviews:
Your performance review with increasing seniority is less a reflection of skill level, but more a reflection of whether your values align with the organization you are within. Take a bad performance review not as a measure of your aptitude, but as a decision point: whether to shift your values to align with the same organization or move to an organization that aligns better with your own.
Jon Lax's speaker notes from a presentation last year is something I'm able to finally parse and apply in my work. Lots of wisdom, that allow to me be slightly less sloppy while framing how we arrive at desired outcomes, digest large and ambiguous scope into meaningful short-term impact, and perhaps most importantly, push back to try to deliver enough value to have people use the product even after the novelty wears off.
Here's a tidbit about showing more intention in our answers:
“It depends” is a terrible answer. But it feels good to say because we exist in an industry that values rapid iteration and changing its mind. It depends preserves option value.
Think about hearing “It depends” as an answer to questions, what you would take away?
Q: Captain, how do you fly your plane? A: It depends
Q: Dr. how will you perform today’s surgery? A: It depends
Q: Do you love me? A: It depends
There are two problems with answering a question with “It depends”.
First, it implies you have no conviction that you know how to do what you are great at. It means that you haven’t detected any discernible pattern that repeatedly delivers a successful outcome.
Second it isn’t true. There are a whole set of things you do, instinctively; to solve problems, write, design, research behavior, collect and analyze data. You just haven’t codified it by identifying the consistent patterns that exist.
I have been in this constant state of introspection these past few months and have tried to dig a little bit deeper about what makes me happy. Really enjoyed re-reading this comic from the Oatmeal today, which serves as a good reminder that happiness is a gradient. As humans we're constantly raising the bar for what peak happiness might mean – it just might be something we look forward to, something that helps drive our motivations, but not necessarily a state of being.
This interview with Obama in Vanity Fair was a nice read, but here's an excerpt that resonated with me:
Early in my presidency, I went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world. And in the afternoon, after the speech, we took helicopters out to the pyramids. And they had emptied the pyramids for us, and we could just wander around for a couple hours at the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the pyramids are one of those things that live up to the hype. They’re elemental in ways that are hard to describe. And you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images.
And I still remember it — because I hadn’t been president that long at that point — thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know today are the pyramids.
Sometimes I carry with me that perspective, which tells me that my particular worries on any given day — how I’m doing in the polls or what somebody is saying about me … for good or for ill — isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?
I'm lucky to be friends with very exceptional and motivated individuals who've discussed having the same feeling with me. It's sometimes really hard to articulate how our work is all additive, all paving the path to a more ideal world. Time and again, I realize how quickly I find myself thinking about the future without taking a moment to breathe and celebrate the past and present - that's something I've been wanting to change.