by Brennan Randel
What some refer to as “work-life balance,” I call “life balance.”
Work is never really left at work, and home is never really left at home. It all falls under one umbrella—life. Who you are as a mother affects who you are as a leader. Who you are as a colleague affects who you are as a spouse. And who you are as a woodworking hobbyist affects who you are as a soldier.
I don’t recall quite when, but at some point over the last two years, I realized the balance of my life was out of whack. Wherever I was, my career consumed my thoughts. Sometimes it was about pressing work issues, but often it was self-learning or networking designed to set me up for some ambiguous tomorrow.
If I’m going to be successful, then I’m going to need to read The Economist.
Or, I’ll never get accepted to business school if I don’t start reading The Economist.
Or, I should try and write a guest piece for The Economist. That will be a great resume bullet.
(I had a weird obsession with The Economist for about a year. After a period of intense self-reflection, I am happy to report that I reluctantly canceled my subscription. I read at least two full issues.)
Whether it was The Daily, Radiolab, or The Defense and Aerospace Report, podcasts filled my ear at virtually every unobligated moment. Listening to these podcasts, of course, was going to make me a world-class something.
What, exactly, wasn’t important. But all my preparation would surely pay off someday, somehow.
My focus on professional development made me a distracted dad and distracted husband. In February of last year, I stumbled upon a journal entry I wrote as a cadet. In the journal, I laid out how I would measure my life’s success.
In 2012, I wrote in part, “I believe I will be successful in my life if I have a loving family who cares about each other and who support each other through good times and especially bad times. Having a loving, supportive family is the thing I value most in my life.”
At the time I wrote it, I didn’t have a family. I just assumed family would mean a lot to me someday. Well, there I was, eight years later, married and a father to a four-year-old and a six-month-old!
So how much did my family mean to me if I stole moments with them to obsess about and prepare for some abstract future?
By looking twenty years ahead and thinking about the great colleges I could afford to send my kids to and the luxurious his-and-hers-closets we would include in the blueprint for our custom-built house, I was missing the intimate moments. I was missing the fleeting moments that never come back.
Master Yoda—a fan-favorite from the Star Wars universe—spoke about Luke Skywalker in a way that resonated with me. “All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was,” he said.
It’s important to acknowledge the significance of professional ambition in our lives. Earning more income is an obvious incentive for advancing professionally, but there are many reasons why we aspire to climb the professional ladder. For some, it’s the opportunity for greater impact. For others, the opportunity to mentor and inspire younger generations is compelling.
To achieve professional success, we must work hard. This requires taking actions in the present that draws us away from our families.
But while success requires sacrifice, I learned there are ways I could be meaningfully present in the daily routine of life even when busy. Instead of making dramatic overhauls like deleting my social media profiles, I focused on more realistic changes.
For instance, when executing my daily duty of putting my daughter to bed (brush teeth, potty, read books, sing songs, and a game of rock, paper, scissors), I leave my phone in another room so I won’t be tempted to check an email or scroll Twitter during a lull in the action.
I’ve also developed a habit of saying “yes” to her anytime she asks to play a game. Sometimes it’s, “yes, but I just have a minute because I have some work to do!” But it’s still “yes.”
When my wife asks me to do something, I try to do it right then or ask if I can wrap something up before getting around to it.
As with anything that requires discipline, I am not perfect. I’ve found, though, that when I’ve consistently been present in the daily moments, my children are much warmer towards me. And nothing makes my wife happier than feeling heard and seeing my efforts to be present and create memories.
After I read my definition of success last February, I updated it.
It now reads, “I am committed to remaining a loving husband and father. Work is an important and defining fixture of my life, but I don’t want to be present for just the major life events—I want to be present for the daily routine of family life as well.”
Looking back on the updated definition, it still isn’t quite right—what’s a loving father and husband, exactly?—but it’s better. It adds the component of daily presence. It also acknowledges the significance of my professional work while keeping it framed within the more important focus on family.
Framing balance in terms of life, as opposed to work-life, helps me better understand how and where I want to spend my time each day. It has informed my decision framework when deciding whether to stay in the Army after command or depart for different pastures.
For now, I’m staying. I love everything about my new assignment. I love the fulfilment I enjoy every day with my family. But if that changes in the future, I know how I’ll decide what to do. I’ll look at the daily moments and determine if they still support my definition of success.
Brennan Randel is an active-duty aviation officer and Leadership Fellow for the Army’s Center for Junior Officers. He is currently pursuing a master’s in legislative affairs at George Washington University, and you can follow him on Twitter @BrennanRandel.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.