Balance is a process, not an end-state. In academia, I believe it is not something to achieve as much as it is something to work toward. No matter how we define balance, we need to be thoughtful, to decide what balance might look like for us, what we need in order to achieve emotional stability, and how our conception of balance might change over time.
I look at balance through the lens of identity. A unidimensional identity is potentially problematic. You define yourself in an exclusive way—think “athlete” or “business executive.” All goes well until the athlete has a devastating injury or the business executive is laid off. Identity theorists favor fostering multiple identities, and that is where I turn when considering how to balance work and other aspects of life.
In the world of academia, we can easily develop a unidimensional identity. Being a professor, researcher, or faculty member is not just something we do, but who we are. We don’t step out of this identity on weekends, on planes, or while on vacation; we don’t ask for or receive overtime or work nine-to-five. We faculty members commonly immerse ourselves in our work to such a degree that we use terms such as workaholic.
The academic world also rewards and values productivity, publications, grants, effective teaching, and service to our professions. To achieve these goals takes considerable time, which doesn’t change once we reach those milestones of tenure and promotion. So how does one navigate the space between being a productive faculty member and achieving balance? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but a good start might be in thinking about the process before you get so far into your career that it becomes impossible to discern other components of yourself from your academic self, which is a recipe for that unidimensional identity.
Think about who you are today – your current self. What is important to you? Think across domains—social, family, hobbies, academic, service, religion—any and all areas of your life. Write these identities down and include what you are currently doing to maintain those aspects of yourself.
For example, as well as a professor, I am an active person, a gardener, and a beer snob (among other things). I maintain and confirm those identities through my actions (exercising, gardening, drinking good beer), through the friends I associate with, and even through the clothes I wear (I have too many articles of clothing from breweries I’ve visited). Once you recognize your identities, think about how these might change after you leave U.Va.
Will a new job change who I am today? What am I willing to give up?
What is important to keep?
These can be difficult questions but are well worth thinking about. As I often say in my classes, you can’t change your behavior until you have a good idea of what that behavior is. The concept of self-awareness is key to identities and to balance as well. Without self-awareness, we can quickly fall victim to our work, at the cost of identities that may have been very important to us.
I don’t mean to imply that I have this down. There are weeks, even months, when my identity is pretty narrow, times when I have doubted my ability to maintain other identities. I too often eat lunch at my desk and bring work home. I occasionally skip a social event because of work commitments. I have learned that I can see these things through and bring balance back into my life. It’s all about valuing those various components of my identity—of acknowledging that, yes, I love what I do, but if things were to change drastically, I could find contentment in other pursuits.
Balance is about planning, but it’s also about enjoying the moment. It’s being able to take advantage of that 70-degree February day, knowing I have the tools to get done what I need to do. Balance isn’t easy, but if we don’t think about it and work at it, it is unlikely to look for us.
I wish for you the courage and conviction to purposefully integrate balance into your life. You deserve it.