Stephanie had joined the psychology department as an assistant professor immediately out of graduate school. Now she was up for tenure. She had excellent research skills with a list of publications that exceeded the number she had been told would be required for tenure. Most of her colleagues liked and respected her, although many felt that they didn't really know her well. Her teaching ratings were average or above. Letters from outside reviewers suggested she had the potential to make a significant contribution to her field. All in all, she had reason to be optimistic about her tenure review.
Her outlook changed after meeting with the chairman of her department. He went through her CV item by item. Several of her articles were published in refereed journals but not ones that her department considered sufficiently prestigious. Subtracting these from her list of publications left her numbers below the norm. She had several articles under review by important journals, but unless these were accepted and in press when her case came up for a vote, the outcome seemed uncertain to him. If she could get a couple of other articles published in good journals, the chairman told her, she might have a chance.
Stephanie was astounded to discover that her prospects were so bleak. She devised a schedule that would enable her to write up new data she had recently collected into articles and submit them to the journals suggested by her chairman. But there was one significant obstacle: She had no interest in this line of research. She had inherited her research program from her graduate-school adviser. At the time, she'd been flattered to be selected as his protégé and the opportunity to work with him had offset her basic lack of interest in the research itself.
Having endured hard times before, Stephanie had well-honed survival skills. She did what was necessary to avert disaster, and later that year her department, and the university, voted in favor of her tenure.
But the following summer, Stephanie resigned from the university.
In her struggle to earn tenure, she had learned something about herself: She was far more interested in applied research and clinical work. Offered a position at a research-oriented clinic, she took it and gave up her tenure. At the clinic, she'd be able to exercise her nurturing strengths and use her research abilities in the service of goals more meaningful to her than meeting the numerical requirements of a university.
As you might imagine, her colleagues were flummoxed: How could she have managed to grab the brass ring only to trade it in for work they considered far less exalted?
A New Look at Balance
We usually take a time-oriented approach to balancing work and life. We think of having enough time to "have a life." We speak of the "time famine" and the difficulty of fitting all the varied demands on our time into the constraints of a 24-hour day.
But there is an entirely different -- and perhaps more useful -- way to think about balance. Balance implies harmony. Biologically, you're in harmony when you are experiencing an optimal amount of stress. Continuous and chronic stress debilitates us -- it makes us vulnerable to depression, weakens our immune system, and is associated with early death.
Trying to balance competing demands on our time usually just causes more stress. You may feel bombarded, overwhelmed, unable to focus. Every part of your life is interconnected, so stress in one area bleeds into the others. While the Food and Drug Administration gives us guidelines for a balanced diet, there is no easy formula for a balanced life.
Instead of a time-oriented approach, try to think about balance in terms of what would need to happen for you to feel in harmony -- i.e. for you to feel that you're at your peak, experiencing relatively more positive than negative emotion, feeling in control of your life, focused on meaningful goals of intrinsic importance. There may be considerable juggling going on from the "big picture" perspective of your life, but from moment to moment, this is how balance feels.
From this perspective, it's easy to see why tenure wasn't a sufficient reward for Stephanie. She had made time for everything, but the motivations for her work were primarily external. The connection with her adviser, although satisfying in and of itself, was not intrinsic to her true interests.
Her chairman's emphasis on counting publications gave her little satisfaction and provided her little support in the face of meeting the tenure challenge. Instead, it simply created additional pressure -- distracting her from her goals rather than helping her accomplish them. When we operate on the assumption that life is about the struggle to survive in a world of limited resources, we're unlikely to experience much balance.
Balance and Personal Control
Fundamentally, harmony and balance derive from a sense of personal control over our work and our lives. By personal control, I mean the sense that you can influence the outcome of significant events. Feeling like you can choose among outcomes and cope with the consequences also defines personal control.
Research indicates that across a wide range of work settings, people enjoy satisfaction with their work when they are able to use their talents and skills, when they have autonomy, when they are involved in decision making, when they are clear about what is expected of them, when they have supportive managers, when they have good relationships with colleagues, when they have adequate privacy, and when they feel their work is meaningful.
The common perception that academic life grants enormous autonomy often creates public confusion about the difficulty of balancing work and life demands in academe. Yes, academic freedom allows you to study what you choose, but sometimes politics are involved in the choice. Areas of research wax and wane in popularity and a once-prized research program can fall out of favor with the addition of some new faculty members with very different views about what constitutes worthwhile scholarship.
Balancing Positive and Negative Emotions
There is no life without adversity. How, then, does one bounce back and regain balance? Resilience is a fundamental part of balance. Resilient people experience a sense of personal control about their lives and their work. They are engaged and committed to their work. Their focus on self-chosen, intrinsically rewarding goals allows them to persevere and adapt when things go awry.
When we experience negative emotions like fear and anger, our thinking is limited to what is essential for survival. In this "alarm" state, we assume a narrowed and intolerant view. When life in the academy becomes a win-lose battle for tenure, power, money, or allies, then negative emotions are a likely consequence. A department in the throes of such tension is not a good place to experience balance.
Positive emotions, in contrast, broaden our intellectual, physical, and social resources. When you're feeling positive, you are expansive, creative, tolerant, and open to new ideas and experiences. Students as well as faculty members are likely to absorb, discover, and communicate more knowledge when their emotions lean in the positive direction.
We often think that our emotional state is dependent upon external events. But one way to strive for greater control and balance is to work at generating more positive emotion in yourself. Appreciating and savoring the good events in your life can broaden your thinking and build reserves that you can draw upon during difficult times. Instead of moving on automatically to the next thing on your list, savor the moments of completion and accomplishment. They may not be the kinds of things you can list on your CV, but appreciating the good events in your life will lead to greater balance.
Using Your Strengths
Even tenure wasn't enough to compensate for the absence of opportunities for Stephanie to use her strengths and talents. Being aware of our strengths and being able to use them every day is an essential component of a balanced life.
The academy will define you according to what it values. In this way, it is no different from most work environments. It's incumbent upon you to keep in mind that you are much more than the person represented on your CV.
Balance, then, comes from your vital engagement in, and personal striving toward, goals that give your life a sense of meaning and purpose.
When I ask myself, what makes my role as a parent meaningful, I think of giving my son opportunities to discover his strengths, to be grateful for the good things in his life, and to be able to form close and loving connections to others. What makes my work meaningful is the opportunity to empower people toward personal striving, to balance setbacks with successes and adversity with gratitude, optimism, and engagement.
When I am doing these things, my life is balanced. When I'm distracted by what is ultimately trivial, but seems momentarily urgent, I lose my balance. Fortunately, balance is a process. I can always shift my focus -- and thereby regain my balance.
So can you.