Kristin's Executive-MBA program seems to pride itself on caring about the whole student. The program obviously centers around fostering academic and business growth, but also claims to care deeply for the personal and spiritual concerns of the student as well. To demonstrate this, they let everyone know back in August that students are required to bring in a spouse, friend or significant other for a half-day in November. In preparation of the half-day seminar we were given some questionairres about work/life balance and a couple articles to read (written by the professor) about the "happy workaholic".
I take the whole "work to live" philosophy pretty seriously and had great interest in the topic for the day which was going to be a discussion about achieving a balance between work and family, or for some people, whether it was okay to embrace their workaholic lifestyle at the expense of their family and social lives.
The day started with a lengthy hour-long pre-Thanksgiving turkey lunch with some of the trimmings. We sat at a table with a fellow student and her brother and a gay couple who are renovating an old Tudor style home in the city. They all seemed very nice. It was your typical polite never-met-you-before conversation. After lunch we headed into the same room where the pipe had burst back on the Welcome Reception -- no hydro-dramatics tonight -- where the professor immediately brought all of the guests up to the front of the room for one of their famed team-building exercises.
We stood in two rows facing one another with our index fingers pointed out in alternating pattern "like a zipper". The prof then put an extended tent pole on our fingers and told us to work together to lower it to the floor while making sure the index finger on each of our hands stayed in contact with the pole at all times. Of course this caused the people at the opposite end to push upwards on the pole, thus lifting it higher into the air instead of lowering it to the ground. The guy to my let it be known over the course of the afternoon that he was resentful of his Mr. Mom status and that he hated being there and soon got frustrated enough with the pole-lowering exercise that he just walked away and sat down. As ridiculous as the exercise was and, dare I say, brain-dead half the people standing at the front of the room, his walking away and sitting down was one of the most pathetic things I had ever seen. His wife must have been humilliated. Anyway, me and the lady across from me were having a great time laughing at the situation but eventually, after allowing the others to drop the pole, lift it into the air, and hold it place for a while, finally got a bit louder in our commands and took over the situation. We finally had the damn thing on the ground and could go and sit down.
We spent the next couple hours talking about the challenges the students and the guests face with regards to their ability to balance work and life, including an example from one of the articles that talked of a guy who voluntarily scheduled a business trip the weekend both his sons were playing in football championship games in high school. From there, the discussion meandered towards the idea of the man's decision "not hurting anybody", an idea I found rather preposterous. I know few people who don't resent their father's lack of involvement in their lives as a child. One woman brought up a similar example centered around her father. I had no idea her dad was sitting next to her when I spoke up to politely argue her point. This lead us down a path to the main point I was hoping to raise -- the dad eventually spoke up saying that he didn't feel it was possible to truly be successful while maintaining the type of balance I was talking about. His definition of "success" was quickly called into question. I also suggested he read the article we were given, especially the part where it talks about the company SAS.
Doug 1, Other Guy 0.
The rest of the afternoon was spent discussing various studies regarding worker productivity, happiness, and facts and figures concerning women executives. We also spent a bit of time talking about exercise and its positive impacts on worker productivity and health. All the while, the guy to my right continued to make comments and create an uncomfortable situation for everyone at our table as it was clear he didn't want to be there and was visibly annoyed with his wife for making him come. I wasn't happy about having to be there because I was under deadline and had a lot of work to do, but I was enjoying the discussion.
Eventually we came to the final exercise. This had Kristin and I draw a timeline over the next 25 years showing the proportion of hours we expect to spend daily on work, kids, housework, elder care, personal time, together time, and sleep. This was enlightening. Kristin and I banged it out in a couple minutes, both of us thinking as one and in full agreement right down the line. It was easy for us because we spend a lot of time sitting and talking with one another. We talk about stuff like this all the time. Looking around the room, however, was depressing. It was clear from the looks on peoples' faces (not everyone, of course) that there were a lot of couples much older than us who seemed to have never really thought about this work/life balance thing at all. They never thought about the future. Or how they were going to spend their time. Not now, not in five years, and not in 20 years. Some couples left to fill out the form someplace private. The couple to my right returned as an incomplete set, the woman commenting that the exercise brought attention to something they didn't know about. She seemed slightly distraught and clearly jealous of the timeline Kristin and I drew up.
Finally, we went around the room one at a time talking for a couple minutes about what we were taking away from the day's seminar. I can't remember exactly what I said word-for-word, but I essentially said that I was both pleased and feeling slightly vindicated (I didn't use that word though). I spoke of my unique work situation and said that I take great care to place equal emphasis on spending time with Kristin and on myself as I do with my work and that the conversations had shown that the time Kristin and I spend together seems to result in a teamwork and mutual understanding that a lot of couples with workaholics don't seem to have. I also said that the day's conversations give me some sense of hope. I talked about my desire to never again have to work a typical corporate job, but knowing that business schools like Seattle University are placing emphasis on teaching this work/life balance in their leadership program, does make me rest a little easier. I was pleased to see so many of the students -- albeit, primarily the younger ones -- taking this issue so seriously.
The best moment of the day though came when Kristin told the story about threatening to quit her job as QA Manager if she was going to be prohibited from spending her lunch-hour at the gym (she was allowed to continue her lunch-hour workouts). Those at our table were very impressed with her bravery and dedication to her ideals, but none moreso than I. I think she really inspired the people we were sitting with that day, even if only in a small way. And I can't help but beam with pride whenever she tells that story. I know some of my bad habits rub off on her, but it's good to see I have some positive influences every now and then too...