25 September 2023

Balancing act: Why burnout is not a ‘lifestyle’ problem

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Rich Bellis* says there is a toxic message in Randi Zuckerberg’s new book, which frames work–life pressures as a prioritising challenge, solvable with a shift in mindset.

“We’re told to be great at everything in order to achieve some unrealistic level of balance across all areas of our lives,” Randi Zuckerberg (pictured) declares in the introduction to her new book, Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day).

“I’m here to burst that bubble.”

The Facebook veteran and Zuckerberg Media CEO is hardly the first to question the notion of “balance.”

Countless books and articles preach alternatives like “work–life integration,” and public figures dismiss the idea of trying to “have it all.”

Zuckerberg’s foray into this genre arrives more than six years since she first formulated Pick Three’s core insight, in a tweet framing the problem as “the entrepreneur’s dilemma”: founders can’t succeed if they try to focus equally on getting sleep, building a business, staying fit, and maintaining their relationships with friends and family.

Zuckerberg has widened her lens and expanded this into a book-length idea.

“If you want to be great at what you do [whether or not that includes building a startup], Pick Three and only three,” she writes.

“And don’t waste one minute feeling guilty or bad about the two you didn’t pick.”

“Because you’ll get another chance to pick them tomorrow.”

“Or the day after.”

“Or next month — it will happen.”

The trouble is that in the modern economy, the most pressing “dilemma” for many of us isn’t selecting the right strategy “to be great” at what we do.

It’s trying to make ends meet.

Lifestyle choices

Zuckerberg’s new book reminds me of a survey LinkedIn conducted with Harris Poll last November.

A PR representative shared those findings with me in similarly sunny terms as the ones Zuckerberg adopts throughout Pick Three.

The survey set out to investigate workers’ changing definitions of professional success.

As I noted at the time, “Traditional signs of success, like material wealth and enviable job titles, are now eclipsed … by hand-to-mouth concerns like paying off debt and hopefully someday not living paycheque to paycheque.”

Since the survey responses were even starker among women than men, I surmised that the gender pay gap was compounding pressures like these.

It’s for similar reasons that I’d also surmise that “feeling guilty or bad” about not doing everything fails to rank among the top issues most professionals worry about.

Yet Zuckerberg treats this not just as an urgent problem, but a cultural dilemma solvable with a personal shift in mindset.

“We’ve been taught that imbalance is a dirty word, but I think it’s actually the key to success and happiness,” she writes.

“The Pick Three lifestyle can help you nail life (and keep your sanity) by being, well, lopsided.”

“When you focus solely on the trio you choose each day, prioritising becomes totally manageable and you give yourself the permission to do those three things with the kind of excellence that will propel you further than weeks of half-assed focus.”

Pick Three’s entire premise hinges on three key phrases in this paragraph: “lifestyle,” “choose,” and “give yourself the permission.”

Don’t you see?

It’s a lifestyle choice!

If you don’t “choose” to focus on work for three days straight, don’t worry about what your boss will think.

If you “give yourself the permission” to ditch sleep in the name of business-building, your family will get by.

In this paradigm, not only are these decisions yours to make, but the consequences of such ruthless and freewheeling prioritisation — if there are any — won’t be personally, professionally, or financially catastrophic.

A much worse myth than ‘work–life balance’

There are two kinds of people for whom this is true: the very wealthy and the very well-protected.

Norwegians, according to Zuckerberg, have been wise to her philosophy “for years.”

She cites the World Happiness Report, which regularly ranks Nordic countries at the top based on six key variables: income, high life expectancy, family values, freedom, trust, and generosity.

Zuckerberg conspicuously fails to mention the other factors that Nordic countries tend to rank highly on, namely some of the most advanced social-welfare regimes and workplace protections anywhere in the world — from robust paid family and medical leave to equitable and affordable health care, effective and accessible child care, and, in Iceland, mandated gender pay equity.

Zuckerberg doesn’t pause to consider how such policies might affect the “dilemma” Pick Three sets out to resolve.

Nor does she sufficiently acknowledge how much easier it is to pick and choose your priorities when you have hired help, which Zuckerberg does.

Yet she reserves several pages, in the “Work” chapter, to share a personal narrative of self-determination: “From the day I could say the word Harvard, I wanted to go there.”

“Which meant working and studying all through middle school and high school,” she writes.

“My parents provided a wonderful, comfortable upbringing, and they paid for my education so I never had crippling student loan debt,” Zuckerberg admits, then rushes to assure us, “Yet I always had a little nagging voice in the back of my head saying, Randi, you can’t depend on anyone else in this life. Work hard. Earn things for yourself. Make your own money” (her italics; Pick Three is heavy on them).

This meritocratic apologue — downplaying privilege and material advantage, so as to avoid any charge of entitlement — is the same dollar-store libertarianism that Silicon Valley has been successfully repackaging as a billion-dollar empowerment gospel for decades.

It’s finally depreciating; anyone who still believes that the tech-industry successes Zuckerberg herself has enjoyed are equally attainable by every hard worker just hasn’t been paying attention.

This worldview isn’t just counterproductive, it’s actually toxic.

These days we need a social-responsibility gospel much more than a personal-responsibility one.

If offered a choice between Zuckerberg’s tips for “turning your to-do list into a ta-da list” and a slate of workplace policies on par with what all those happy Norwegians get, I’d pick the second one.

* Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company’s Leadership section. He tweets at @mr_bellis.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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