Living with purpose: Or why I dislike the term work-life balance

Work-life balance. I don’t like the term.

It conjures up an image of a two-sided scale, with one side labelled “work” and the other “everything else.” As if the secret to achieving a satisfying and fulfilling life is to carefully apportion your time between the two opposing sides.

I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that overall well-being depends on allocating just the right amount of time between different areas of your life. A scale isn’t the right analogy here. Instead, it’s better to evoke the image of a sandbox.

In my childhood, I loved to play in the sandbox in our backyard. I would build elaborate sand cities, complete with buildings, roads, and other golden hued structures. I might have even made an airport once. Sure, I was hard at play. But I was also doing work to give shape and form to all that sand.

In a sandbox, there is no division between work and play. I was doing both, in pursuit of a larger purpose: to create something special, to accomplish something. Even if that something was a city made from sand, it was an important and worthwhile cause to me.

The morale of the story is this: when you have a clear purpose, and it guides your life, the dividing line between work and everything else fades away. Guided by a larger purpose, there is a oneness to all you do. And when you fill your days doing things that align with that purpose, the different areas of your life weave together in support of a greater cause. I call this living with purpose.

So how do you determine your life purpose?

The best way I know is to first identify your personal values. These are the principles or standards of behaviours that guide how you want to behave in your life. As an example, here are the values I try to uphold in my own life:

  • Adventure – be open to new opportunities
  • Boldness – think big and take risks
  • Community – connect with others
  • Contribution – make the world a better place
  • Creativity – bring new ideas to life
  • Fun – enjoy myself and my work
  • Growth – develop and expand my mindset, knowledge and abilities
  • Integrity – be true to my word and walk the talk
  • Leadership – lead by example, engage and empower others
  • Respect – show consideration for people and the planet

Collectively, I like to think of these values as providing a character sketch of the best possible version of me. I know that if I stay true to my values for more days than not, I will be the type of person I truly want to be, the type of person I can be proud of.

Your values will be different from mine. That’s okay. Values are highly personal, but here’s the thing, you need to believe in them. You need to feel they are important and worthwhile qualities that you can aspire to. You need to feel they paint a portrait of the type of person you want to be in the world. You will know your values are true when they make you feel that you’re looking at a reflection of an ideal version of you.

You can find a lot of examples of personal values on the Internet (here is one list). These samples provide a good starting point, but, from my experience, your values will be more authentic and empowering if you express them in your own words. This will take some time, but the investment is worth it.

Your life purpose should flow from your values. I have found the best way to express a life purpose is with a personal mission statement. Shaped by your values, a mission statement should succinctly describe your purpose, or, more bluntly, your reason for being. It’s like a blueprint for what you want your life to represent. Here’s mine:

My mission is to live with courage, compassion and contribution. I will have the courage to follow my heart and pursue my dreams. I will have compassion for myself and for others. I will contribute to my community and strive to make the world a better place. Every day, I will live with integrity to my values.

A mission statement provides a guiding light, or a true north, to guide your actions, decisions, and interactions with others. By grounding your life on your mission and values, you create a sense of unity in all that you do.

Getting clarity about your values and purpose, and then living them everyday, is one of the most powerful ways to gain lasting happiness and fulfillment. No longer will your job seem like it’s on one side of a scale, separate from everything else. Instead, all areas of your life – from work to family, friendships, leisure, service and spirituality – will feel interconnected and aligned in support of a higher moral code.

Just like a kid who creates cities out of sand, fulfillment comes from living in harmony with a larger purpose.