Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Work-Life Balance: What the Jews can learn from a Monk

Last February, I was a speaker at the Training Magazine Conference and Exposition, sharing some highlights from "Corporate Universities in the Non-Profit Sector," a chapter I wrote in a business book (or as my mom put it: "dry") The Next Generation of Corporate Universities (Mark Allen, ed.) One of the best things about speaking at conferences is that you get to attend the rest of the sessions for free, and I found myself in a session with a captivating speaker, Kenny Moore, former monk and present-day business executive. Talk about bashert -- he is the Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at KeySpan Corporation (now National Grid), where my husband works!

Anyhow, Kenny, author of "The CEO and the Monk" and host of the website wrote a great piece in an email about Work-Life Balance that I am reproducing here, with not just his permission but his blessings (I mean, he was a monk...). BTW: He told me he loves the website!

So keep reading...

Work-Life Balance: A Conspiracy of Optimism
By Kenny Moore

Work-Life balance is, at best, a fabrication. At worst, a cruel hoax.

It's time to stop believing all the hype. As adults, we well understand that it's never been a question of balance. It's always been a question of choice. As the Spanish proverb reminds us: "Take what you want, says God, just pay for it."

Living with the Consequences

Sharon Edelstein has a young daughter named Rebecca. Sharon came home from work one day and found her jumping on the bed and told her to stop - she was going to get hurt. "I won't get hurt" Rebecca said, and continued bouncing. Her mother repeated the warning and added that she might also break the bed. "No, I won't," Rebecca insisted. Her mother gave up. "Fine," she said. "Do what you want. You'll just have to live with the consequences." Rebecca immediately stopped bouncing. "I don't want to go and live with them, Mommy," she said. "I don't even know who the Consequences are."

As the ancient seers stated so well, we don't get to do everything in a single lifetime. We merely get to make choices. Not all choices. Only some. And we pay a price for the one's we choose. Sort of like being at a buffet luncheon without your cardiologist. You can eat anything that's available; you have only to deal with the aftereffects.

Growing old gracefully provides more than ample opportunity to get clear about what we consider important and then make our decisions accordingly. In this journey called life, we're all free to do whatever we want. And like Rebecca, we need only live with the consequences.

But don't expect to get balance. What we'll get is stress: that dynamic tension of trying to creatively live out our lives in a less-than-perfect world. And we're required to do it all as frail, flawed and frightened mortals.

Want a high-flying business career? Go for it.
Might you desire to get married, raise a family and live in conjugal bliss? Good for you.
Maybe you'd prefer to use your artistic talents and create a world of new possibilities? God bless.
Perhaps you'd want to be independent and care free? I'm envious.
But if you expect to have it all, get ready to play center stage in your own exciting Greek Tragedy.

Finding Help in Unusual Places

I've got a wife who works full time and two teen age boys who are experts at disrupting the status quo. I spend most of my days behind a desk in a corporate job. I haven't yet found any balance. Mostly, I've found chaos. But alas, on a good day, some insight.

I no longer look to Jack Welch or Oprah Winfrey to give much help in discerning life's mystery. Rather, I look to the poets. Freud got a few things right and he was certainly on to something when he said: "Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me."

Making choices and living out the inherent tension it creates requires a focus on "being" rather than "doing." The ability to be silent, ponder the deeper possibilities and creatively craft a life-response are aspects of maturity more closely akin to the work of a Poet than a CEO.

Fostering this poetic outlook requires a personal discipline that may not be to everyone's liking. For those not yet ready to embrace it but prefer an addiction to cell phones, e-mails and non-stop meetings, e. e. cummings offers some practical words of advice:

Poetry is being, not doing
If you would follow,
Even at a distance,
The poet's calling,
You've got to come out of the

Measurable doing universe
Into the immeasurable house of being.

Nobody can be alive for you.
Nor can you be alive for anyone else.

If you can take it, take it and be,
If you can't, cheer up and go about
Other people's business, and do and undo
Until you drop.

Wasting Time: a Portal to the Divine

There's been a spate of books about Atheism surfacing of late on the New York Time's Best Seller list, but I don't think it's gaining broad acceptance. For most people, it's not a practical choice. It seems Henny Youngman's experience continues to hold sway: "I thought about becoming an atheist, but I gave it up. There were no Holidays."

The real threat for modern folks is not a lack of belief. It's a lack of time. We're so busy being productive and trying to get balance in our lives that we're in danger of missing the Divine when He shows up.

Being busy may work wonders for our Professional life, but it wreaks havoc on our Interior one.

If we want to find some semblance of sanity and advance in our Spiritual Journey, we may need to slow down, risk being less productive and indulge in the ancient rite of "Wasting Time."

In my earlier days, I spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. I remember once reading about "The Good Samaritan Experiment" with 40 seminarians at Princeton Theological Seminary. After waxing eloquently about their dedication to God and all His people, they were asked to deliver a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. For those lacking the rigors of monastic studies, it's the story told by Jesus about a man who was set upon by robbers, beaten and left on the side of the road. A priest walks by and offers no help. Neither does a Levite, another religious leader of the era. It's a lone man from Samaria, hated by the local gentry, who goes out of his way to offer assistance - hence the title: Good Samaritan.

In the Princeton experiment, when the seminarians had their homily prepared, they were asked to walk to another part of the campus and deliver their sermon to waiting students. Half were told to hurry, because they were running late. The others were informed there was no rush, they had plenty of time.

As they journeyed across campus, the experimenters arranged to have an actor slumped as a "victim" strategically positioned along their route so that the seminarians were forced to step over or around the man.

So, who stopped to help ... and who didn't? They were all budding "men of the cloth" on their way to deliver a sermon on just such a situation.

What the experiment revealed was that those who were in a hurry passed the "victim" by. Those with time to spare, stopped and helped. It seems altruism and our commitment to our fellow man is less connected to our religious beliefs and more closely aligned with having some free time.

When the Divine shows up, most of us are busy being too productive to even notice His presence. Maybe God doesn't care whether we go to church, temple or mosque. Maybe He's already out in the world waiting to meet us, but we keep passing Him by because we're in such a hurry.

Paying a Price for Living our Lives

Since leaving the monastery, I'd had two near-death experiences. The first was with "incurable" cancer. The second, a heart attack. Both were not-so-subtle reminders that my time's running short.

We're not going to be around forever, and we're not able to have it all. Acknowledging this will generate more than ample disappointment and regret. And we'll pay a price for it: Guilt.

But don't be dismayed. Guilt doesn't necessarily mean that we've done something wrong. It's more an indication that we have said "no" to some larger authority: parent, teacher, boss. Guilt's an indication that we've chosen to live our own lives and not someone else's.

Stop trying to achieve balance and start learning to enjoy chaos. Discovering and relishing one's imperfect life sooner rather than later is what's available.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that most of us go to our graves with our music still inside. So, forget about work-life balance and let go of the need to please everybody. Rather, get out there and make some choices and let your music resonate.

The guilt won't kill you and you'll do just fine if some folks don't like you.

And you certainly don't need to have it all. For as Steven Wright reminds us: even if you did, where would you put it?

P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at


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