The Work/Life Balance of a Pro

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Several weeks ago my husband and I were at a dinner party hosted by Percy, one of my clients.

“Mark and you are invited to a little dinner party,” the email invitation had read. Odd that Mark’s name came first; Percy only knows him because over a decade ago I designed and built the cabinets for Percy’s kitchen. But, you know, whatever.

I was out of town on business when the invitation arrived, so I replied that I would be there but couldn’t yet answer for Mark.

“Lovely,” Percy wrote back. “By the way, David and I were with Joe and Ava on their sailboat yesterday, then with them for dinner at a friend’s house last night. Were your ears burning?”

Knowing Percy as I do, I wondered what scandal he might be hinting at. Then I reminded myself that my life over the last decade-plus hasn’t produced any juicy gossip fodder and took another sip of tea.

“We got to see Mark’s berth!” Percy said with a wink, as though sharing a salacious secret.

“It’s not Mark’s berth,” I replied. “It’s the guest berth. Mark is there for one or two weeks every summer, but the rest of the time that berth is home to a rotating cast of Ava and Joe’s good friends.”

“Joe said Mark sails alone,” Percy continued. “We couldn’t believe it! ‘Why wouldn’t Nancy want to join you all?’ we asked. I mean, on a sailboat! On Lake Huron! With good friends, good food, and good wine!” To which Ava replied—here Percy went into drama-overdrive—”‘Nancy never wants to do anything.’”

Oh! So this was why my ears should have been ringing.

Well, no wonder they hadn’t been. I’ve been hearing this “criticism” for most of my life.

There’s heavy irony in a culture that simultaneously urges us to do what we love (promising that the money will follow; don’t hold your breath) and insists we maintain some kind of magical “work-life balance.” My response involves a pair of questions:

  • Since when is work is not part of life?
  • Since when is living something you do only outside of work?
Where do we draw the line between work and life? One key to “work-life balance” when you’re self-employed is to redeem the inevitable periods of stress and drudgery with delight and new ideas gained from visits to inspiring places. This is a detail of an ingenious swing-out drawer in the kitchen of sculptor Wharton Esherick, Esherick Museum

The notion of work-life balance seems to imply that work is, by definition, drudgery. It may well be, for people who hate their jobs. Even those of us who make a living doing what we love must learn to love (or at least make our peace with) the drudgery-filled portions of that work (the hours of sanding or scraping…the days of cutting mortise and tenon joints for a kitchen’s-worth of doors…the 20 trips outside in pouring rain to empty the dust collector bin…the days spent working on your knees while fitting doors and drawers on a jobsite). If you can’t make peace with the drudgery—if you can’t transmute those dimensions of the work into something at least bearable—you can’t “do what you love” for a living. Go back to the luxury of complaining about your employer.

To cite a recent example from my own life, I’m writing this on January 6th after a holiday season that included one day off—Christmas. The rest of the time, including weekends, had to be spent completing a kitchen in time for my clients’ return from six months overseas. The kitchen was just one of several jobs I have been juggling, all with deadlines.

Would I have preferred to take some time off over the holidays? You bet. Has it been stressful? In spades. Do I wish I’d been able to spend part of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day getting my books ready for the accountant, savoring the achievements of a wildly productive year, and thinking about goals for 2019? You know the answer. But when you run your own business, you do what you have to, and you find ways of deriving joy from both the doing and the meta-doing—pictures of the work, relationships formed with happy clients, opportunities for other satisfying work that usually come from a job well done.

Notice how many times the word “do” has appeared in this post about my purported disinclination ever to “do anything”?

Of course I’m aware that I tend to take remarks literally and respond in kind. What Percy meant to imply is that I don’t know how to have fun. But fun, like beauty, is subjective. For me, fun is not lying on a beach or savoring sunsets on a mountaintop. And, being something of a loner, I’m filled with panic at the very idea of spending a week on a small boat with other people; I need my solitude. What’s fun for me is sitting by the woodstove on a cold night reading a book with a glass of bourbon. Cooking a special meal for family or friends. Visiting an exhibit of work by Grant Wood or Wendell Castle at the Smithsonian when I’m working in the nation’s capital. Don’t tell me to do what I love, only to blame me for loving what I do. Because I will call you on your flawed logic.

Nancy Hiller is a professional cabinetmaker who has operated NR Hiller Design, Inc. since 1995. Her most recent books are English Arts & Crafts Furniture and Making Things Work, both available at Nancy’s website.

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