Memo from Jeff Bezos: Forget Work-Life Balance

Jeff Bezos made an outlandish and seemingly illogical statement recently. No, it wasn’t in response to President Donald Trump’s assault on Amazon with reference to the U.S. Postal Service being short-changed. After speaking about his business philosophy, the origin of ambition, the influence of his grandfather, unconditional love, and then his passion for space travel, Bezos ended the interview with the unexpected. It was absolutely fascinating and it came out of the blue.

In a free-wheeling interview with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company Axel Springer, the unconventional Amazon entrepreneur speaks of family trips with his wife and kids, and then was engaged by Döpfner with the following question: “You are a family man. Your kids are extremely important to you—you seem to be an ideal father. If we were to talk to your kids, what would they criticize about their dad?” Bezos quickly put to bed the ideal dad thing. He then made an abruptly off-topic but truly intriguing and profound transition. He stated, “If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy, and if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy.”

Don’t miss the significance of the order of these statements: Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, mentions his home first. His comments were made in the context of addressing the phrase “work-life balance,” which he boldly called a “debilitating” phrase because it pits each side against the other. A recent Harvard Business Review article on work-life balance described the intense pursuit of this balance by Americans who “vigilantly manage their own human capital, endeavoring to give both work and home their due—over a period of years, not weeks or days.” This pursuit is an obsession in the workforce today. Everyone talks about and longs for this sometimes indefinable and elusive sweet spot in their lives.

Millennials and Generation Z-ers are concerned about this issue, even hounded by it. These students want to be empowered inside and outside of work to make the world a better place. In the course of my preparing thousands of college students for job interviews one question always surfaces: Should I ask about or address the issue of work-life balance with this company? This is a pressing issue for the American workforce and a huge concern for college students.

There are many important aspects of life which intersect moment by moment. Whether Bezos realized it or not, he is addressing the challenging juggling act of managing the callings of life. Our lives are multi-faceted, with numerous responsibilities and priorities. The callings of life include family, vocation, church, and community (the common good of our neighbor). Our minds see them as rivaling commitments rather than elements in our lives that are interdependent and complementary. This is the major thrust of Bezos’s comments.

Bezos is implying that work and our callings should not be doing battle with each other, vying for singularity and absolute supremacy. He firmly believes that there is not a strict trade-off between work and life. The callings of life create a circle of completeness, the whole of a person’s total existence. With a thoughtful perspective, the differing yet vital parts of life are able to mesh in kinship and unity.

How would Bezos’s perspective apply in practical terms? First, think about the life mission or core principles that provide a measuring stick to evaluate your goals and priorities. Second, take an inventory of your life situation. See if your callings are consonant and provide energy one to another. Next, strive for harmony, not equality of time and energy, for all callings. Fourth, understand that different callings will take precedence at different times of your life. Finally, realize that there is no perfect formula for this pursuit, and like all of life, it is organic.

We all know “life happens” and technology potentially plugs us into our work 24 hours a day. The stresses, challenges, and difficulties sometimes overtake us. But don’t miss the office memo that the Amazon CEO just sent you. Bezos has an incredibly important message for us about work-life harmony: Healthy work and personal life callings can each feed off of the other’s positive energy, dedication, and commitment.

Evaluate whether you view the numerous aspects of your life as working with or against each other. If it’s the latter, strive to see them as unifying parts of a well-rounded, whole life. The result could be lowered stress and increased satisfaction, joy, and peace in your life.

James Thrasher

James Thrasher

Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Fellow for Vocational Guidance and the coordinator of the Center for Vision & Values working group on calling.

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