Series on Work-Life Balance: Trade-offs

Bill Gates, in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, revealed that he was so driven during the early years of Microsoft in the 1970’s that he couldn’t help but keep tabs on which Microsoft warriors stayed vigilant along the front and which ones had retreated home for the night. Gates said eventually the fanaticism didn’t last forever.

Gates said, “I knew everyone’s license plate,” he told the BBC, “so I could look out in the parking lot and see when did people come in, when were they leaving.” Gates admitted, “I was quite fanatical about work” during those early days. “I worked weekends, I worked weekends, I didn’t really believe in vacations.”

Gates said the fanaticism didn’t last forever. “Eventually I had to loosen up, as the company got to a reasonable size,” he said. And he said that meeting his wife, Melinda, also changed the equation. “She arrived at kind of the perfect time, and we fell in love … Now we actually take quite a few vacations. I’m sure myself in my twenties would look at my schedule now and find it very wimpy indeed.”

But it’s unlikely Gates would ever have found the worldly success that he enjoys if not for that “beginner’s hunger” that drove him in the early years. Beginner’s hunger drives people who aspire to do great things in every realm of human endeavor—entrepreneurs, artists, rock stars, politicians, military leaders, social-justice workers, prophets and priests.

These people don’t want work-life balance. They want to be imbalanced. It’s what makes them feel alive. They constantly make sacrifices to reach their goal, even without realizing they’re sacrifices. And if and when they reach their goal, that beginner’s hunger dissipates, and they shift into a less frantic, long-term mode. But first comes the single-minded fanaticism, often for many years and often at the expense of many other things.

And so comes an either-or choice:

1.You feel you need to gamble everything on achieving greatness in some area; or

2.You commit yourself to balancing out your career with your family, social obligations and personal interests.

If you choose the first option, you need to accept that there will be trade offs — you will miss children’s piano recitals, lose relationships altogether, and miss out on some of the most deeply fulfilling but passive aspects of human existence.

If you choose the second option, you have to get over the idea that you’ll go as far in your career as the talented, fanatical rivals who are working three hours longer per day and who are far readier than you to pounce on a new opportunity. You accept that you may achieve at best a good station in your career but not a great one.

Yes, being a single-minded workaholic isn’t psychologically healthy. Frankly, great people usually aren’t psychologically healthy. They don’t know how to be, and that’s the source of their fanatic’s advantage. It becomes our job, then, for each of us to decide whether to be fanatics who risk it all for greatness … or to be balanced people who find all the greatness we need within the very act of balance.