Acting on the belief that sometimes enough really is enough can tame self-induced stress and stop cycles of boom and bust

The real importance of work/life balance isn’t about taking vacations, having time off for family duties, or combining work with an active social life. It’s about setting a balance between people’s natural urge to do better and get more and their ability to support the drive to achieve. It’s about setting realistic targets and time-scales, not foolish ones.

Our consumer society runs on the premise enough is never enough. Whatever you have—wealth, status, possessions, power, fame—is only the basis for getting more. Every achievement is no sooner reached than discarded. You’ve done that; on to the next goal. Bigger, better, farther.

Every goal seems to be about getting to another one. You’re at point A, and your goal is now to get to point B. As soon as you reach that goal, you’re supposed to set yourself a new one. And not just a new goal, but one that is more demanding, more challenging, further out of reach. We fear monetary inflation, yet accept inflation of expectations as normal—even laudable.

If your performance rating says you’re “above average” (whatever that is), you aren’t allowed to enjoy that position, let alone accept it as enough. You now have to strive for “excellent.” Hit your budget and it will be raised. Hit it again, and it will be raised by an even larger percentage. There will never be a plateau or a point of rest before moving on. No time! Got to do better!

Much of the problem now facing the financial markets was due to exactly this mind-set. Whatever home you had, you were supposed to follow the urge for a bigger, better, more expensive one. I know elderly couples who bought new, 4000 square-foot homes within the last two or three years. Two people living in a home big enough for 6 or 7. And if you couldn’t afford it, never mind. Some company would “find” a way to make you a loan anyway. Now it’s all gone wrong, leaving many people in a worse state than they were before.

Isn’t it right to have high aspirations?

There’s a huge difference between having aspirations and driving yourself to the edge of disaster in pursuit of impossible goals.

Our society has erected achievement drive into a kind of god: a god that demands constant sacrifice and worship. There are realistic, helpful levels of drive to achieve—ones based on knowing your limits, exercising patience in reaching your goals, and knowing when you need to take a break and recover your strength before pressing on. And there’s achievement drive gone mad, forcing people forward with a continual sense of urgency and push. The kind that doesn’t even pause to enjoy what has been achieved. An obsession with more, faster, better, bigger.

When your natural achievement drive gets out of hand, the result is precisely what I’ve described. Once reached, every goal loses its value. You’ve been there, done that, won the tee-shirt. It no longer counts for anything. This is sad. Enjoying what you’ve achieved is one of the great pleasures of life. Does it make sense to spend hours and hours preparing a gourmet meal, only to throw it away as soon as it’s ready? Don’t you want to taste it? Isn’t it worth savoring?

Boom and bust: the natural result of over-extending

If you discount each achievement the moment the goal is reached, what effect does that have on others? Imagine a child coming home from school elated by some success, only to hear his or her parents dismiss the achievement instantly: “Okay, you did that. Big deal. What we expect now is . . .”

Far fetched? Not really. That’s exactly how many bosses behave. Achieve or surpass your current target and your instant reward will be a new target—bigger, tougher, less achievable. And that process will go on and on until you finally fail. It will force you to fail.

As long as people keep mindlessly pushing and pushing for more, we will face cycles of boom and bust: in business and in our personal lives. Every achievement will be dismissed and replaced by a demand for more. The only thing that ever stops the process is failure on a large scale. Then people are forced to fall back and lick their self-inflicted wounds for a while—before going right back to the same process.

In nature, whenever something extends too far for the circumstances, there’s a crash. Population growth in good years is followed by mass starvation or some terrible epidemic. There’s a sustainable level that nature enforces, often with savage means. Any species that gets ahead of itself is brought back into line.

You can see the same happening in the business world. Boom is followed by bust. Organizations reach a peak, only to be struck by a bewildering series of set-backs. At the peak of power and prestige, many people are seemingly overwhelmed by problems and upsets.

The real work/life balance

Do you give up? Drop out of the rat race and go back to oil lamps and horse-drawn wagons? I don’t think that’s going to work, do you?

There is an alternative. Slow down. Take a little time to celebrate and enjoy each achievement. Praise is worth far more than money. Say “well done” as if you mean it. Savor the pleasure of each achievement. Only when you’ve enjoyed what you worked hard to achieve, think about moving on. No pleasure lasts forever. There’s a natural point when people start to focus on recreating the pleasure by setting a new goal. Over-active achievement drive can be tamed. All it takes is thinking ahead, being realistic, giving yourself time, and offering genuine appreciation for success.

Unless your goals are realistic, they are going to produce self-inflicted problems and wounds. Realistic means:

  • Attainable within your current levels of experience ability.
  • Suited to your present circumstances, including your financial situation.
  • Possible with the amount of effort, energy, and and time you can—or are willing—to devote to them.
  • In balance with all the other demands on your life.
  • Not going to demand that you hurt others to attain them.

Patience has become almost a vice in the world of work, not a virtue. In our achievement-mad culture, to be patient is often dismissed as to be dull, boring, second-rate. Yet few important achievements are reached without it.

Remember Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare? How the arrogant, impulsive hare alternately rushed ahead, then idled and slept, while the patient tortoise plodded along at a sustainable pace to win the race? I don’t think there could be a better lesson for our current society, with its arrogant destruction of the environment, continual demands for more, and resulting cycles of boom and bust.

My bet is on the tortoise—unless the hares out there destroy us all before the race is over.

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