Busting the myth of work-life balance

AO Spine Chairperson S. Rajasekaran challenges the traditional dichotomy of work versus life. Talking to AO Spine, Rajasekaran champions a positive vision of individual choice, challenge, and inspiration and shares some of his favourite timeless quotes around the topic.

What is your take on ‘Work Life Balance’?

The concept of a conflict between "Work" and "Life" is recent. We were all brought up with the concept "Life is Work and Work is Life”. People always chose to do what they loved and there was no problem.

However, when love for a particular work was superseded by financial emoluments, a disconnect between life and work developed. The term "Work–Life Balance" is unfortunate because it indicates you are struggling to balance two opposite things—work and life. There is also a lot of stuff on the internet which can make a young surgeon feel that work is somehow bad, and relaxation and entertainment is real life. This is unfortunate. Only when we stop seeing work and life as opposites can we integrate them.

"The term 'Work–Life Balance' is unfortunate because it indicates you are struggling to balance two opposite things."

Work gives us everything in life—our profession, satisfaction, self-esteem, and the daily wants of our life. It also helps to achieve our ambitions and dreams.

If you look at any successful person, anyone who has achieved anything substantial or left a legacy, you will find that their profession was their life, not mere work. There are numerous examples: Steve Jobs for Apple, Bill Gates for Microsoft, Michael Jordan for sports, Picasso for art, Mozart for music. For all of them, there was no disharmony between their life and work.

How did you develop your own perspective of "Work Life Balance"?

It is critical, whom you draw your perspective and inspiration from. You must learn from people you look up to and people you consider great mentors rather than from social media. I think one’s parents, teachers, and professional mentors are most important for orientation in this aspect of life.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “parents are your best teachers, and your teachers are your second parents”.

I was fortunate to draw inspiration from my own parents. My father was 51 when he founded a hospital with 17 beds and two operating rooms. He was 75 when it expanded to 420 beds. At the age of 79, he registered for a PhD in Tamil Literature, completing it at 82, the oldest PhD candidate in the university. My mother manages our institutions; she powers and steers the organization. Now at over 85, they are still young and happy, always engaged in constructive activities, and perfectly balanced. I can only say one thing: work made them who they are.

Why is hard work important?

It is important to have a positive look on work in life. Excelling in one’s profession is one of the most important requirements for lasting happiness.

Richard St. John has interviewed over 500 extraordinarily successful people from different walks of life. He said, that if he had to conclude his findings into a single sentence, it is that successful people work very hard. Period. Bill Gates said he worked most nights until 10 pm and took only two weeks off in the first seven years. Oprah Winfrey said that she would never see day light as she would arrive at the office at 5:30 am and finish at 8 pm when it was dark. When a famous surgeon was asked about his success, he said that most days he never fell asleep the same day he had woken up, indicating that he worked beyond midnight.

"If you want to be a leader in your profession, not doing hard work is not an option."

If you are a world leader, you must naturally work harder than others. This is nothing new. H. W. Longfellow already wrote: “The heights by great men reached and kept, were not attained by sudden flight; they while their companions slept, were silently toiling up in the night”. It depends on your aim and ambition. If you want to be a leader in your profession, not doing hard work is not an option.

What made hard work possible for you?

Hard work cannot be enforced on anyone, it will not be sustainable. You must be driven by Vitamin P, passion, and not Vitamin M, money. Richard St. John found that the driving force for successful people could be many different things—personal ambition, mentors, love for risk taking, and so on—but common to everyone was an intense passion for what they were doing. There is so much truth in the saying “love the job you do, and you will never have to work for another day in your life”.

Passion for what you are doing makes everything possible. People who work hard are not "working for someone else" or "just for money". Beyond that, there is a passion that drives them, that gives them satisfaction and happiness.

"Invariably the main factor that powers hard work is the passion in one’s heart in what you are doing."

I will narrate a small story about this: There was once a sculptor who erected a tall, engraved pillar in front of a temple. When the work was almost completed, he noticed a small flaw in one of the figures at the top of the pillar. The sculptor started to redo the whole thing, which would take weeks of hard work. People asked him why he did this, because the pillar was 80 feet tall and no one would ever notice the flaw from below. The sculptor replied that “no one would see the flaw, but I know it” and he went on to remake the pillar. He did not think of it as work because that perfection was the passion that gave him the satisfaction in life.

There is talk that hard work kills people and breaks families. That is worrying, is it not?

I would like to forcefully disagree with this because this is total misconception created in the social media. There is confusion between hard work and stress, and it is important to realize that these two are as different from each other as the North and the South pole.

Hard work with achievement makes people happy and live longer, whereas stress kills. The sooner a young surgeon realizes this, the better it is for them. If a surgeon feels stressed at work, then they should introspect, find the cause for stress, and remove it so that their day to day working becomes pleasurable again.

So, when does work become stress, and do you have any tips to avoid stress at work?

I think there are a few points that make you stressed at work:

1) Work becomes stress if the work does not interest you.

"'Hard Work' and 'Stress at Work' are completely different. Stress isn't working 15 hours in a job that you love—it is working 15 minutes in a job that you dislike."

Stress isn’t working 15 hours a day in a job that you love, it is working 15 minutes in a job that you dislike. If you feel stressed every day, ask yourself if this is the job you will be happy doing for the rest of your life? If the answer is not a firm "yes", then you need to do a lot of self-searching. Often, people choose by financial prospects and not at what gives them satisfaction, and they end up in jobs which may pay them a little more but leave them dissatisfied and stressed.

2) You need to be doing new things and progress to satisfy your mind.

If there is no progress in your profession and you are doing exactly the same thing at 45 that you were doing at 35, it can lead to monotony, professional fatigue, and stress. Steve Jobs nailed this perfectly when he asked, "When was the last time you did something for the first time?" If you are not improving, trying new things, or throwing new challenges at yourself, work can become a big stressor.

3) Stress comes also from poor performance at work.

This is important but unfortunately not fully realized. We have a team of more than 250 doctors, and I have observed poor performers look more unhappy and stressed. There is happiness from the satisfaction of doing things to perfection and there is a deep-rooted unhappiness in the opposite. We all know this from experience: We never feel stressed when things go right during surgery, even if we are doing many surgeries a day. However, there is a lot of stress when things go wrong even when there is one small and simple surgery to perform. So, it is important to make sure that you are performing well at work.

What about the notion that hard work breaks families?

Family is very important; our lives outside of work are absolutely important. Health, family relationships, friends, social contacts, stable finances, learning, recreation, love, faith—these are all important foundations to build our lives on. It is important to have all of them intact and robust, because if you struggle in one aspect of life, you will struggle in other aspects too.

"Irrespective of which part of the world you live in, your role in the society, or your profession, stability and happiness at home are critical for high performance at work."

There are a few tips to succeed in this. Your spouse or partner is the most critical person who also determines your work-life balance equation, and it is important he or she is aligned with your aims and ambitions. With shared dreams and agendas in life, most of the problems are overcome, and the sacrifices you would have to make will be common. In fact, the support that you will receive from your partner will go a long way to make your work more productive. I can tell this from experience, and I see this in all successful people.

It is also not the amount of time but the quality of time that you give to your family, which is critical. Being at home, sitting in front of the TV or doing solo activities is not family time. Having dinner together and leisure time with the family is more important than just any time at home. If your life partner is a professional, too, then it is so important that you pay as much importance and provide support to their ambitions and dreams. So, at different times in life, one may need to be slightly off balance and contribute towards the needs of the other.

That was great, thank you, Raja. Any last advice for us?

Just like happiness is a very individual thing, I think "Work-life balance" is also an individual thing and will differ from person to person. Everyone’s capacity for work, their passion in profession, and their level of ambition and motivation in life is different. Work will not mean the same thing to everybody.

Similarly, the concept of relaxation, hobbies, and passions in life is also different so what is meant by "life" is also different.

"Be wary of an 'expectation–performance gap' that can lead to a lot of unhappiness."

A balance that will work for one person and their family will not work for everyone. Early in life, one must have a clear concept of which professional orbit you want to live on—an ordinary surgeon, a faculty head, a nationally recognized surgeon, or an international leader in your profession. Each of these require a different level of commitment and sacrifice in life, if you like, and you must be ready for it.

Be wary of an "expectation–performance gap" that can lead to a lot of unhappiness. A clear idea of the goals in life and a clear agreement and understanding of the same between you and your life partner are essential for success.

Newsletter 27 | November 2020

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