A friend and colleague said to me at a recent professional conference that she doesn’t believe in work-life balance, rather she looks for work-life harmony. If that didn’t capture exactly what I’ve been trying to say to students and other colleagues for so long, I don’t know what could! This is not a new concept, but one I’ve been trying to re-frame personally.
Then a few days later I read an article in Business Insider saying the exact same thing. The CEO of Amazon expresses some of these same sentiments. When you find your true calling and passion, it gets very difficult to turn work or life outside of work on and off. To try to do so is self-defeating.
The difference is not trivial. The clues are in the definitions and synonyms you find through a simple web search. Balance is about even distribution and equilibrium. It connotes impartiality. Harmony, meanwhile, is about agreement, combination, and even peace. What words would you rather choose or embrace related to the relationship between work and life? I really appreciated this author’s very personal and practical take on Balance vs. Harmony.
I’m curious how those of you reading this experience work-life harmony. Is there a real difference? What do you actually do to achieve harmony?
Whatever you feelings about this – know that it is OK that your work and non-work intersect. Embrace it; understand it is messy and sometimes confusing; and at the end of the day try to achieve harmony between the two. You spend so much time thinking about or doing work, it just seems to make sense that you seek harmony as opposed to some artificial sense of balance.
Big shout out to a critical colleague of mine at Oakton @DrGracia. She encouraged me more than she knows via Twitter. It’s tough to write daily – but I’m going to go, go, go. Thanks GNA:)
Tuesday was a good day. A long day, but one with more firsts and a great deal of learning. When I used to teach a student leadership course at the University of Louisville, there was a particular lesson about sustaining relationships that I really enjoyed teaching. In that section we would talk about the importance of “going places and doing things.” If you want to make an impact, if you want to clarify your values, if you want to create and sustain new relationships, you must go places and do things. Sounds simple, right? Well it is. I am fortunate to be able to go places far away and do things that require resources, but it wasn’t always that way. So hopefully this post, and all my posts, will allow you to go places and do things vicariously through me, while you also do your own thing.
The smallest and simplest things entertain and amaze me when traveling abroad. They help me put into perspective things I take for granted, and challenges me to think differently about what I do and don’t do, and why I do it. The ultimate hope is that I am a better person, educator, parent, and person because of all this perspective-taking. And then some things are just hilarious. Take for instance the size of the cups here in Holland. Mind you I am used to drinking 20 oz of coffee to start each day, and then I arrive here and see these baby cups that look like I should be using them with my daughter at a pretend tea party. Jerome always joked back in the states that our cups were huge, even the small ones. Well now I see why. Or take how I saw a traffic light that to me is yellow, so I commented “yellow light!” since I literally hadn’t seen one since I’ve been here – to which Jerome erupts in laughter and says in his Aruba/Dutch accent which is so endearing, “no man, that’s orange!” Of course we argue for 15 minutes about how the other is wrong, and the way the other does it in their country is crazy. This of course is all in jest, and we laugh at how some people are unable to overcome things even more banal than this in the real world. And so we laugh, and appreciate each other, and realize our differences are what make us the same in the end.
I continue to engage my Dutch colleagues in discussions about race, racism, and the challenges we face in the U.S. They are exposed to many of the same biased and incomplete media images that we are. I was happy when a colleague said to me “I didn’t even think about that, and I’m glad we talked” in reference to why “it” [race] still matters so much in the U.S. I was able to get reacquainted with the higher education system of Holland, which differs in many ways from the U.S. Most notable is how “layered” the system is, in that there are many choices after primary school that can lead students on many different paths towards post-secondary education. It also seems that the way the schools are funded, everyone has an equal chance at a number of tracks, and where they go largely depends on their own talent in school and/or their effort. It’s the closest thing to a meritocratic education system as it gets. Seems simple enough, but in fact I am confident there are problems and disparities that show up. In the U.S. the “meritocracy” doesn’t exist because students are not experiencing primary education the same way. There are vast disparities in resources and outcomes for lower-income people. That apparently is not the case in the Holland system because of the funding structure of the schools. Even so I learned where our system has values and faults, and so did Jerome. I am most affirmed in my belief that we (globally it seems) still rush our students to know what they want to do, well before they are able to understand who they want to be.That’s a dangerous practice.
I am coming to understand that what the Dutch call efficiency is not merely getting things done faster, but getting things done better. I don’t think the end goal is simply to move fast, I think its to move with purpose – and things that don’t seem purposeful distract from their goals; in this case teaching the students. It wasn’t very “efficient” for us to drive out to a gym (which had a bar by the way – yes can I have another) for Jerome to asses a students work in organizing a basketball tournament. But the experiential “learning in action, learning is doing” model at the Sports College, recognizes that its the best way to assess whether the students really get it. It was amazing to watch – not only that the student was demonstrating his skills and what he learned, but it also benefited the community members with which he worked.
It’s not necessarily efficient to have so many shared, flexible spaces. Yes it saves on space, but it robs people of the privacy that we in US spaces crave. We would argue that it causes distractions, and lessens our ability to “get work done.” But what I observed was a lot of work getting done – better work, collaborative work, open work, and social work. It’s the kind of work that keeps you coming back, and silently holds you accountable to both showing up, getting things done, and learning to respect and honor the work that others are doing. I am reminded of the Hive that my colleague GNA started at Oakton – and I think how that creates that space if only for a short time each week.
I also couldn’t tell who the “boss” was around the building. Yes people dressed the same, but it was more than that. There was a collegiality that pervaded the space, and I want to study that more as I speak with the formal leaders of the organization.
At the end of the night, me, Jerome and his partner Sandra continued a conversation that Jerome and I started in the car. We were talking about the efficacy of the social sciences, and how its impossible to know things with a certainty – and how dangerous it is to judge based on what we think we know about people. This is particularly relevant in our work as we are helping students to think through their own success, next steps, strengths, and talents in a way that is grounded in theory, but imperfect in practice. You understand people’s pedagogy when you spend time talking to them. I wonder how I can do that more with my colleagues at Oakton – to truly understand where their talents are and their challenges are as we try to do best by our students. Speaking of students…I love students – no matter where I go. I got to see the students in action, being taught, doing energizers, using their technology to create videos and present them at the end of the day. The students at the sports college are kinesthetic learners by nature, so sitting still and being quiet was a challenge to say the least. The instructors handled it with such patience and love.
I was particularly taken with a student leader who is a Level 3/4 student, who is also one of the country’s top athletes in his sport (Cycling) and who I mistook as a teacher. He was so mature, poised, and helpful. Jason if you are reading this, thank you for being you, and doing it really well.
Other students were also very good to get to know, the clowns (and liars – you know who you are Jop) and the more serious ones. Each had their own style, energy, and sense of purpose. One student wanted to do more and be more partly because his dad said he should. He was so sure about what he wanted to do, at least it seemed that way. Just like our students in the U.S., they are just trying to figure it all out.
Personally I am doing well. I had the chance to visit a Pancake House for some Dutch pancakes for dinner. These are more akin to crepes in my opinion. We agreed they were somewhere between French crepes and American pancakes. I wasn’t a fan, neither was Jerome, but the service was excellent and the scenery was perfect.
When I prep myself for international travel I am reminded of the courses I taught and led to places in the Caribbean and Asia. I am reminded how powerful and effect the loss of routine can have on your mental and physical well-being. Not having your nightly cup of water; having to brush your teeth at odd times; nothing having your favorite food or access to your favorite music or “things.” Those things are what can set people off, much more than culture or country shock. I’m staying flexible in the face of my losses, and trying to stay present at all times. This is too important to let any loss overshadow the tremendous gains I’m experiencing.
I’m going to write something everyday. I’m going to try hard to do this, so I can a) reflect on what I’m learning and feeling, b) remember it, c) share it. This will likely be the longest post.
It doesn’t take long when I travel to realize why I do it. The anxiety and stress of being away from home, the packing and preparation, the uncertainty. It all melts away when I board the plane. I boarded at around 6pm Friday night at Chicago O’Hare. The flight was uneventful, though I was reminded of one of my childhood dreams of being a pilot as I was able to listen in to the flight deck from my seat. A very cool feature offered by United. The food was ok, as was the wine!
I landed 7.5 hours later at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. I remembered suddenly how it was the first international location I’d ever visited (other than a Caribbean cruise when I was 14), and I was filled with gratitude. Partly because I arrived safely, and partly because I remember how blessed I am to even have the opportunity. I landed here 13 years ago for different reasons, but I was confident my trip would be just as special as my first time.
After waiting way too long for my luggage, I stepped out and connected with my exchange partner Jerome Wouters. It was like seeing an old family member. He was starring and smiling at a group of playing children, completely missing me come through – which is typical of him. He was waiting for like an hour anyway, so it was ok. Plus we picked right back up where we left off when I last saw him in the states in October 2014. It was nice to be back in Holland, this time as someone who would do more than visit – but really experience what it meant to live and work in there. I knew immediately my two weeks would be amazing.
Despite the rain and malaise of the weather, it was a great drive into Leusden-Zuid (South), which apparently is the “nice side” of Leusden as Jerome joked. His neighborhood and his home are idyllic. A dutch home in all its efficiency. It is three stories, my room is on the top floor. It overlooks the patio and garden area in the back, as well as a great view of more of his neighborhood. It is a scene from a picture book. I realize its normal here, and nothing special per se, but for me it is. It represents someone else’s life, which is different than my own, and is being shared with me. I also realize that there are places like this in the states, and in Rwanda, and in the Philippines, and in Brazil. Which reminds me of how much we share as humans – and how many humans don’t have this, in any form, because of the injustice of this world. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that later. Needless to say, the home and my room is perfect.
His wife Sandra, and their two children are just perfect. Sandra is highly educated, and clearly a loving mother and partner to Jerome. Immediately we click. We talked and joked over lunch, all of us that is, and did so again the next morning at breakfast. It’s nice to note the consistency of the meals – bread (brood), juice (sap), cheese, ham, salami, butter, some greenery, and this curry paste that is really good. Everything is fresh, and really good. Bread and cheese are a major staple, fortunately it is in Black southern US households too! Though admittedly not as healthy as this. Hearing the family talk in Dutch to each other reminds me of how privileged I am to speak English. To be understood is a powerful human need, and I have never traveled anywhere where people didn’t speak my language. I thought about my students at Oakton, some of whom don’t speak English as their first language, and their families who may not speak it at all. How can I make them feel understood? How can I support them better? I downloaded an app called Duolingo – which I learned about from their 10 year old daughter. It’s amazing – and I’m learning Dutch from it – like legit learning it – which I should have done a year ago when I knew I was coming!
Jerome is a big softball player here, and it’s a big deal here in Holland. He invited me to a game and BBQ, which I wasn’t about to pass up. I’m glad I didn’t. Not only did I get to see him in action, but I got to meet people – that’s my thing. I got to meet an airmen who came to Holland 30 years ago and stayed. He’s from Oregon. I met his teammates. And I met other fans who were hanging out. At the BBQ a younger guy, teenager, overheard me talking and asked where I was from. I told him Chicago, and he said his dad is from North Carolina. Ah, the way I lit up. I said, “me too!” And he went on to say you should meet my dad, he is from Lenoir, NC, which is very close to Charlotte. So I met his dad, and his mother. The farther I go from home, the closer I get. He invited me to his son’s American football game, which would have happened this morning. My jet lag forced me to sleep longer than I expected, so we committed to hanging out later this week, hopefully more than once. His son is quite the athlete apparently, and wants to go to school in the states. Another opportunity to empower a young person to create change in their world – and all from the Netherlands. Another highlight of going to the game – we rode bikes there. Me, on a bike, after some 15 years it feels like. But I didn’t miss a lick! It’s true – once you learn, you got it. It was exhilarating riding again – as crazy as it sounds. I look forward to getting back on bikes all this week and next, and then when I get back to Chicago. I had to come 4,000 miles away to remember how much I enjoyed it.
So last night at about 8pm local time I was wiped out. I went to bed, woke up and said a word of thanks to the Lord, and saw this beautiful view.
I have this bit of advice to share for all you new graduates – and some of us older graduates too:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
~Matthew 6:34 NIV
Whether you are particularly religious or not, whether you are Christian or not, my hope is that you can see the wisdom in those words. I’m actually practicing doing this more myself. In higher education, particularly leadership education within higher ed, we always implore people to be present. Part of the reason people are not present is because they are distracted. And many people are distracted not by technology but by their own worry and stress about tomorrow. This scripture reminds us of two important facts. One, tomorrow will worry about itself. And two, there are too many troubles to deal with today to be worrying about tomorrow.
So as you start off in your new careers, particularly in higher ed, remember that balance starts with realizing that for today, focus on dealing with today. Today really needs you. The students in front of you, the meeting you’re in, the program you’re planning. Those are problems for today. And as I always say to those in my workplace – that other stuff…that’s a tomorrow problem.
Having “officially” worked in the two-year / community college space for just over a year now, I want to re-affirm my total faith in these institutions, and hope to help others gain or renew their appreciation for what they do and can do. Instead of talking about attending them though, I wanted to share this great article from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by Rob Jenkins. For my colleagues, students, future students, etc. thinking about teaching – you really need to read this. I am thinking of a companion piece about working as an administrator in two-year colleges. I think it is equally awarding, particularly for those talented Student Affairs folks out there. Happy reading, and share your thoughts!