From Arlene: The Big Lie About Work-Life Balance

From Arlene: The Big Lie About Work-Life Balance

Leadership | Posted by - February 23, 2017 at 12:30 am

If only we could figure out a way to achieve work/life balance, we'd be so much happier in every sphere of our lives, and so would the people who love us. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway.

I've done a lot of thinking about this and I can't say I agree. In fact, I believe we've been looking at this issue through the wrong lens. As a result, all we've accomplished, at least as far as I can tell, is to drive ourselves crazy. So here's my two cents: I don't think entrepreneurs can achieve work-life balance. What's more, I don't think we should even be trying.

When you're an entrepreneur, you don't have a job--at least not in the conventional sense of that word. You have a calling. And unlike a job, a calling defines you as a person. It's who you are.

That's why it's not realistic--or even advisable-- to ask an entrepreneur to shut the door on work at the end of the day. It's like asking someone to shut the door on their entire being. We don't become different people when we get to the office, so the idea that we can chop ourselves up into schizophrenic bits when we leave just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Those of us lucky enough to have a calling love what we do. We don't view work as something to be escaped or sloughed off at the end of the day. And that's something to celebrate, not feel bad about, in my opinion. Loving what you do every day so much that you don't want your workday to end—how awesome is that?

When you have a calling, you're always going to be juggling time and commitments. That's just the way it is. And you're not going to think about the various parts of your life as separate compartments, because, as I said, they're all fundamentally part of your identity. That's why it's frustrating to pick up a magazine and find articles about how entrepreneurs can and should juggle the various parts of their lives. Just once, I'd love to see an article that acknowledges the fact that there isn't any separation--and what's more, there shouldn't be.

The problem with the entrenched thinking is that it instills guilt. Buying into the notion that work and life are separate and should be perfectly, evenly balanced is a great way to make you feel that there's something wrong with you for failing to achieve it.

You'll read those articles and you'll figure there's some magic answer you're missing but that everybody else has figured out, and you'll decide that they must be better parents, partners or entrepreneurs than you are, because you're always falling short—so you'd better try harder. Well, I've been down that road and I'm back with some news from the front: that way lies madness.

A while back, when Nora Ephron passed away, I re-read a speech she once made to young (and all female) graduates at Wellesley College, her alma mater. Ephron said something that beautifully captures the way I feel about life and the entrepreneurial lifestyle: "Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I've had four careers and three husbands."

I love the idea of embracing the mess. I honestly believe that once you do your life will improve inordinately. Why? Because you'll be doing something that makes you feel happy and fulfilled, and in my experience when people are happy and fulfilled, many good things flow from that contentment, not only within their own lives, but outward, to the lives of those around them.

So what do you think? Do I have this all wrong? Should we still focus on trying to achieve that elusive balance between our professional and personal lives? I'd sure love to hear from you on this one.

Tags: arlene dickinson, dickinson, blog, work, balance, commitment, embrace, mess, business, work life balance, time management, stress, mental health, entrepreneur, business advice

Arlene Dickinson

Arlene Dickinson is one of Canada’s most renowned independent marketing communications entrepreneurs. As CEO of Venture Communications, her creative and strategic approach has turned the company into a powerhouse with a blue chip client list.  She is also the CEO of, a company she founded in 2012 that is dedicated to serving and investing in entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial lifestyle. 

Dickinson is best known to Canadians as one of the venture capitalists on the award-winning CBC series Dragons’ Den, The Big Decision and marketing expert on Recipe to Riches.  She is the author of two books, the number one bestselling book, Persuasion and her most recent best-selling release, All In. 

Haley Evans
October 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I couldn't agree with you more Arlene. Entrepreneurs can't work a set schedule. Trying to balance your work and personal life by taking weekends off etc. is only going to hurt your business which in turn will hurt your confidence as an entrepreneur. Learning to "embrace the mess" is the only way to keep your business on top which is what will ultimately make you happy at the end of the day!  

Debbie Ruston
October 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I agree with most of this Arlene....doing what you love, embracing the mess, the feeling of instilling guilt if it isn't all perfect.....  When I first became an entrepreneur 26 years ago, the feeling of overwhelm was very prevalent.  How could I be a great wife and mother and also run a successful business?  For me, it boiled down to time.....getting control of it.  A simple solution has served me extremely well for these 26 years - a daytimer.  Sounds simple, and could be why so many overlook it.  I have used this for all of these years and put everything in it, scheduled out....personal commitments, fitness commitments, business commitments and learned to develop the missing link that many miss...the discipline to stick to it.  When you have the discipline to stick to your schedule and have a very keen focus  it eliminates the guilt and the feeling that you are out of balance.  Of course there will always be the odd time that something has to be changed (perhaps you have a family illness and have to change a business meeting) but these are exceptions.  If you stick to the commitments you make to yourself most of the time, you will be less stressed, more balanced and happier.

Marc Babineau
October 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm

13 years old...friends are going to the beach...playing ball...I'm working....hold I really working...nope let's qualify that...I am following my own passion, creating my world, let's call it accelerated learning as all my futur is being modeled from that base...I guess what I am trying to say is that the true entrepreneurs I know don't worry about that...and the ones who are entrepreneurs because they think its an EASY way to make money end up worrying about that constantly. The entrpreneur in me is now used to seeing the opportunity...and seizing I guess when it comes to the personnal parts of my life it is the same...although they may seem short periods and sometimes rare...they are lived fully....the 2 corny ways to say it differently is living in the present and quality vs quantity...but they do hold true for the entrepreneur. I have the luxury of the best of both worlds today i.e. entrepreneurship and a JOB coaching entrepreneurs in productivity improvement. There is nothing bad with being busy! This life is too short to sit and watch it go by. One last thing...I have learned from my clients many of which is if you strive for work life balance you will always be striving for work life balance...but if you plan your company well and arm your employees with your trust and the tools for problem may just benefit from not having to be there ALL the time...go life balance is a result not the primary focus!!hmmmmm!

Erin Rayner
October 22, 2012 at 4:30 pm

While I agree that we, as entrepreneurs need to accept and embrace the 'mess' I also think that the term 'balance' itself needs to be redefined socially. We have this view that 'balance' means 50/50. That's where the 'myth' comes in. Balance in nature is not 50/50 so why should we strive for that? In an ecosystem each species balances with each other. One year there may be a lot of rain, therefor a great crop of grass so the rabbits flourish. The next year, with the huge population of rabbits, the coyotes have a great year. But the drought in the next year changes everything. To me, this is balance - it is a fluid concept. Some times it is 80/20 sometimes it's 40/60 but I've found that if I give up aiming for it completely, the whole picture suffers. Thanks for sharing and cheers to embracing the 'mess' and keeping one eye on the 'balance bulls-eye'

Tim Ray
October 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm

One of the best articles on the topic I have read! I agree completely, although I would have one caveat: it is beneficial to have interests that you are passionate about outside of the rigours of entrepreneurial endeavours to relieve stress and clear your mind. I.e sport, travel, cooking etc.- "work hard, play hard".

Tyler Beck
October 22, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I find that I am closer to achieving a LIFE / WORK balance as an entrepreneur.

14 Years working in the mess of Information Technology for an financial company. Countless hours of overtime, off site or out of town trips. Daily commute to and from work. Though that time I ran a small business on the side offering a variety of technical services. I taught myself multiple programming languages, Marketing, Photography, Video Production and a number of other things. I still managed time for my family but I was very difficult and I was stressed and burnt out.

2 years as a solo entrepreneur I have gained hours in my day. I can now work on my business though the day. I can pick up and drop my kids off at school, I can be home to make dinner, I can tuck my kids in (most nights). Later at night I can educate myself, plan and get ready for my next challenge. Its not perfect and there are times that I have to choose work over family.

- When it comes time, I throw myself 100% into LIFE and turn off all work. (This is one of the keys work Life/Work Balance, and one of the hardest to achieve.)

As hard as it is to be an entrepreneur, I still consider this my retirement. (I am doing what I love to do and I hope to be doing something new and challenging until the day I die.) 

This topic can be an Epic Book, battling both sides of the fence.. Thanks for starting it Arlene !

April Almeida
October 23, 2012 at 11:58 am

Brilliant Arlene. And Nora! I'm learning to embrace the mess....with three children, toddler still underfoot while I grow my real estate business....not easy and obstacles pop up hourly. But, when I can sit back and think on it all, focus, I know I love what I do. Money is tight, time is never enough, but....I love it.

Ralf Chlipalski
October 23, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I'm not an entrepreneur, but I play one on TV. I've never had a problem with work/life balance only because I've usually had problems finding work. I've always greased the squeaky wheels in my life but lately I'd like to have them all replaced. They're too noisy and take up all my time. Freedom is the cradle of accomplishment; once you shed  your responsibilities you are free to pursue your dreams. Usually that freedom comes as a result of divorce or moving out of your parents house or moving to a new town or graduating or ignoring your kids as they grow up. I'd think retired people should be the freest but something about old age prevents most of us from doing something with it.

Debbie Pires
October 23, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Arlene, thank you so much for writing this I get so tired of people thinking I sit around and have tea parties all day (seriously I have been told that).  It has taken allot of blood sweat and tears to get were we are today. We have taken some hard knocks but always come back swinging. I can't just close it off I live and breath it 100% of the time but what I do cherish is my ability to flex my hours to be there for the important things in my kids life. I have 2 wonderful kids ages 5 and 7 and my oldest has special needs which is what caused me to leave the corporate world in the first place.

 People think I am nuts as I am known to work thru the night a few times a week but as a trade off I am able to be  there for every therapy and doctors appointment, school trip and recital.  I work really hard but I could not do it without the love and support of my husband and my kids they are the first to cheer me on and are proud of what I have accomplished.  Do I believe that there is work life balance... not really but I relish the flexibility it has given me to be there when it counts something that I know many of my fellow special needs parents would give anything for and support they just don't get from the corporate world.

Vanessa McWilliams
October 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I have defiantly got some guilt trips in the past about trying to 'balance work and life'. Most recently this summer a family member tried to remind me 'don't work to hard, your boys will only be little for so long before they go into school'. I thought to myself, are you kidding me? I am working so hard replying to emails, booking appointments and putting together orders (I am a stay at home mom with a 2 and 5 year old) during the day (as I trip over toys and make grilled cheese sandwiches) and even harder in the evenings and weekends when my husband is home. I was almost offended because I thought to myself, I need to do this. My business is my calling, and in no way, shape or form do my kids get neglected,  go hungry or go without love and time from me. I cannot devote every waking hour to them, but I sure as heck try my best. And that's 'balance' as I know it right now. It's hard, I will admit to be a new entrepreneur, but that's what makes it even better when you get to where you want to be and you can look back and think 'Wow, I made it!"

Natalie Stephenson
October 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Though I understand what you are saying Arlene...I actually believe you CAN have Work-Life Balance.  You just need to shift your perspective on SUCCESS.  I was born an entrepreneur... had my first business at 16 years old.  I had always sought out this desire to be a BIG ENTREPRENEURIAL leader.....oh..and to be rich doing it. After approximately 12 different businesses (many good, many not-so-good) I have now found success!  It wasn't at all what I thought it would be!  The best part is that this business came to me; it grew completely organically.  I have not even had to promote my business.  I didn't know this was my definition of SUCCESS until I got here.  I was able to leave my full time job in April, move into my dream home with a detached office, and set out my own hours of operation.  I close my home-office at 5pm on weekdays and do not enter it on weekends.  I now get to enjoy more time with my family & spend more time working on other things that make me happy.  Oh..did I mention that I'm NOT rich.... I make enough money to make ends meet (with some to spare)... and decided that success does NOT equal money...  At the age of 39 I am no longer chasing my entrepreneurial tail around in circles... I am happy to say I have found my work-life balance! ;-)

Susan Rochefort
October 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm

FINALLY! Someone says it, thank you Arlene! I was walking into our local fitness centre to watch my son practice Lacrosse last night and I see a group of women in their matching soccer outfits and I thought to myself "if I had enough time to play sports on a women's sports team, would I?" And without finishing the thought, my heart said, no way. My business is my team sport, it's my Friday night date night, it's my past time, it's my life. Two years ago I realized that this is just who I am and I stopped feeling guilty about the amount of time that I put into my business. I love your statement about this being a "calling". A few years ago, I listed the home of a retired pastor and he looked me in the eyes and said, this is your "calling", this is your "ministry". I had never looked at my business in that way before but that was my ah-ha moment and everything that happens in my business makes perfect sense to me now.

Joyce Boudreau
October 23, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Embracing the mess is balance if you are fullfilled and passionate about what you do. 

Part of what I have found for myself is that my internal world is more important than my external world.  With peacefulness inside I can often find balance even in the chaos, when that happens, it is pure magic.  If my internal world is at peace like the eye of a hurricane I am in balance no matter what is going on around me.

Karyn Climans
October 24, 2012 at 1:19 am

Couldn't agree more. I wrote the following blog post on the topic:

Zulubear ~ Annette Young
October 25, 2012 at 1:35 am

Arlene Dickinson wrote...

"When you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t have a job--at least not in the conventional sense of that word. You have a calling. And unlike a job, a calling defines you as a person. It’s who you are."...

 Thank you Arlene.

I never knew this until you wrote it. Your words are revealing and calming. The way you write them into this context is profoundly balancing.



October 25, 2012 at 4:30 am

I agree with you that it is very difficult to find that balance between our personal lives and our work, but I think that means very different things for different people. For example, for me, finding that balance means controlling the amount of time I spend in front of the computer or checking my emails obsessively on my iPhone. I got into the habit of listening to music while at the gym and periodically (every 5 minutes) checking my emails. That was just obsessive and ridiculous and I realized I needed to stop doing that. It's not like I could have received many emails in 5 minutes and really, that could wait. So for me it was more about drawing the line between productive work, or doing things out of habit. I don't think there is anything wrong with staying up until 1AM, reading blogs like this and learning from different points of view, but I do see something wrong with going out with my friends and completely ignoring them because I am too busy reading and replying to emails. That is where I draw the line, and where I think work can wait until I come home.

Ron De Silva
October 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

All entrepreneurs should read this write-up....I previously, was one who had the "guilt" about not being a good "work/life balancer" I don't even try. I simply prioritize-on-the-go....and take 2, one-week vacations with my family, a year.... no guilt-related stress anymore.... :)

Katrina McKay
October 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I couldn't agree more.  I think the idea of "balance" is overrated.  The people I admire the most are those who do exceptional things and live adventurously... and none of them (myself included) have time for "balance"!

Nicole Misura-Leitch, CGA
October 29, 2012 at 3:18 am
Thank-you! I have been running my accounting firm for ten years now and in the meantime have had a baby and am adopting my three step-children.

There have been so many times over the last ten years where I felt inadequate; at being a mother or a wife or a entrepreneur or a boss. Its encouraging to realize this doesn't just happen to me and it's probably not something that I'm going to figure out and everything will magically change.

It's refreshing to have someone verbalize the calling that I live with everyday. I can't stop working on my business; I feel like it's as much part of me as breathing. I truly love what I get to do each day; it makes me who I am. I have lived with a lot of people questioning that calling and wondering when I would relax and just enjoy the ride. But my enjoyment comes from looking for the opportunities and growing with my business.

Thank-you for challenging me to see that through a new lens; this article hit me close to the heart.
Kris Sieber
October 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I believe this eloquent quote from L.P. Jack from 80 years ago not only parallels your thoughts Arlene, but also the the reality of the truly successful entrepreneurs of today.

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

Amanda Rainville
October 31, 2012 at 3:45 am

Try to do it all and embrace the mess - I love that! Last week at a leadership retreat for my student entrepreneurship society a quote came up that we all connected with: 'Get comfortable with being uncomfortable'. When you're outrageously busy but you're working on things you care about it's just you creating your new normal and it doesn't feel like doing any less is an option.

Karen Holman
November 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Thank you Arlene.  Although I have always believed the same things as you, I have been guilty of feeling that I just didn't measure up to others because I live my business, don't take breaks and never feel that there is any balance in my life.  I am my business, and it is me.  I am a single mother of 3 and it is hard to keep everything moving forward but I love every minute of my crazy life ... my business, my messy desk, my messy house, and, most of all, my children!  Again, thank you for reminding me that I am "normal".

November 5, 2012 at 10:17 pm
There is no such thing as work / life balance. All there are, when you are an entrepreneur, are choices. And at least when you are self employed, you have those choices. When you are an employed person, very often, you do not have the ability to control your own time. For parents, or people caring for elderly parents, or whatever else you have in your life, this makes every day living much more difficult. So while entrepreneurship IS all encompassing, it is also about a lifestyle. I'll take that life any day and twice on Sunday ;)
Richard Podsada
November 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm
Thank you for finally saying what I've been secretly suspecting and unable to explain. It seems that society views entrepreneurship or a professional calling as a negative quality, subservient and adverserial to the value of friends, relationships and family. Everybody says that in the end, your work won't matter. But this feels like a societal view that's forced upon those afflicted with a deep drive to pursue our craft. Much like the ostracism that those who choose not to have children face from the populace. But what is truly right and wrong? What if your desire to pursue your craft is so deeply embedded in your soul that nothing will stop you from doing it? Maybe your legacy is not always friends or family. Maybe it's to contribute to the world in different ways. And if those ways aren't aligned with society, but end up making a significant contribution, is that wrong? I think not. You need to take care of yourself, of course, or you won't live long enough to see the fruits of your labor. But making your calling your ultimate priority is not inherently flawed.
Ralf Chlipalski
November 7, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Such opposite messages between Arlene and Brett Wilson. Is family a burden or a support structure to success or the most important thing that defines success? I find friends and family are constantly clamouring for attention and I find it really stressful. Does anyone come from a family where the kids say, "You go mom, don't mind about us, we'll make our own peanut butter sandwiches?" Or "Honey, you just stay at that office, we'll see you in July for our family vacation, if you can get away that is." Or does anyone come from a family who actually gives honest opinions and doesn't amplify your delusions. Over the years I've wanted to escape my social life and have been cutting off as many people as I can but some doggedly remain. I don't think the question is should you feel guilty but do you feel guilty and I'm one of the lucky ones who doesn't.

Darlene Loewen
November 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm

I think it is so important to look at this life-work balance thing through a different lens. My husband and I are entrepreneurs together and it absolutely permeates everything we do.  Our children laugh and tell us that they have been through business school sitting at the dinner table.  And while we don't really strive after this mythical life-work balance, we are aware that we compromise ourselves and our business when business becomes the our only focus.  Supporting our children by going and watching their sports events is important to them and to us and guess what?  We've made some cool connections at those events too because we are still who we are even though we're outside of our work environment.  

Carol Glover
November 18, 2012 at 3:41 pm

I prefer to think of it as work/life integration. Living with the thought of imbalance isn't just an affliction for entrepreneurs; nearly everyone left in a downsized organization feels it too (for example). What I am constantly trying to live and teach is that it's all about choices. I use the concept of filtering out the 'stuff' that doesn't contribute real value to my life or my business. The skill of filtering out the fodder we think is necessary - by habit or by society - is a key one to learn if we truly want to feel that "ya, I've got this" confidence.  

Laura-Jean Bernhardson
December 22, 2012 at 11:34 pm

I agree.  My head office for 3 fashion boutiques is in my home, and the times when I am most effective and most at peace are when I just go with the flow and accept that sometimes I have to send some emails on a Sunday morning or bring my son with me to visit the stores.  Thinking I *should* have a better balance is the things that makes me craziest, and when I just accept things as they are I find the right peaceful and powerful space. I just couldn't have any other kind of life- I created this glorious, hectic, crazy, exciting and inspiring mess to be my unique and authentic life path and that's that.  :)

Lisa Vanderkwaak
October 26, 2013 at 7:21 pm
I absolutely agree and teach these in my workshops and with my coaching clients. The creative process is often messy before it produces a masterpiece. As a speaking coach I can attest that it is from the messes of our life that come the greatest messages. Thanks Arlene for posting this.
Kimberley Richardson
October 28, 2013 at 3:52 pm
A great post with many interesting insights Arlene. There is a Chinese proverb that says, "wherever you go, there you are." As someone who has been delivering seminars & keynotes on work/life balance for over ten years - I've come to believe that it is no longer about balance at all but rather the integration of our values into our lives and living authentically. As entrepreneurs we have the freedom to actually live our values not just talk about them and to choose how we want to spend and manage our time. To be able to be true to who we really are and live life on our own terms, is an extraordinary privilege and gift. Does it get any better than that? :)
Manon Pelletier
February 17, 2014 at 5:15 pm
Finally! Someone who can articulate how we have all been feeling as entrepreneurs. Congratulations to Arlene for being pioneering this paradigm shift. "All In" is a fantastic - must read book!
April 3, 2014 at 10:28 am
Nice Article...
Janise Bachler
June 2, 2014 at 5:42 pm
I have been saying the same thing for years! Balance is hogwash. Life hands us all kinds of challenges and change is a constant, so why drive yourself crazy trying to be "balanced"? If you get sick, your health becomes a priority. If you daughter starts failing algebra, then your family becomes your priority. If you get a huge sale, then your work becomes your priority. I say, "Go with the flow, ebb and flow."
Joanne Macdonald
November 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm
What a good discussion point! Yes I agree that if you are inspired about your work and you are the type of person who does not choose to compartmentalize work and the rest of your life - then shutting it down at the end of the day won't likely serve you. The big question we must ask ourselves is, how is this making me feel? If you feel guilt for not for not being fully present with family, or if there are apparent negative impacts to the blending of your work/life, that's when a possible adjustment could be made. What is balance anyways and why should we worry so much about striking the right one? Right for whom?? Remember to do the gut check. Ask yourself truly, does this feel right? If so, there's your answer, keep working the project into the night, check the emails when you feel the need. However in our uber plugged in world, making time to unplug can indeed offer valuable time for recharging. Forget about achieving perfect balance and remember to check in with your heart and your gut to find what's right for you and your family.
Mark Morin
March 13, 2017 at 7:09 pm
Thanks Arlene. You mentioned '' I'd sure love to hear from you on this one. My feeling is Yes, absolutely we should strive for balance. The Operative word is strive. Why should it be any different to dare dream about balancing work life with personal life, despite the fear of failing and what others may think if you seemingly do? I feel overcoming that fear or guilt when we do fail is equally as important as overcoming that fear of a new business venture fail or any kind of achievement... Be it in the sports or arts arena. Failing to achieve the kind of balance everyone hopes for yet fails, while trying and learning from it , ought be equally proud even when they "seemingly fail. Others should be ashamed for making you feel guilty when you do. There is a term I like called "failing forward" .... Nobody arrives in this planet knowing how to walk talk and even feed themselves without making mistakes. For its those who fail to try for fear of falling backwards ( concerned what others will think ) who will likewise seemingly fail. It's up to the rest of us to "show the way" ... They too will learn from such fails thinking... ( perhaps a result of a broken past .. Who are any of us to judge? )

When it comes to any kind of balance perspective is everything...

A wise man, Solomon
( the son of king David who concurs all fear... Even a bully Giant ) once said "there is a time and season for everything under the sun" including work and play

Another wise man, a great friend of mine wrote this recently...

Rory Butler | Jul 8, 2015

Featured Members
Greg Schreeuwer
Be Who You Wanna Be International…
Deborah Darling
The Presentation Pros Inc.
See All   ► Recent Activity Recent Activity
Dustin Boehm joined YouInc
parth solanki joined YouInc
Home Appliances Plus joined YouInc
shagunsweet joined YouInc
teenachris35 joined YouInc
bruceshogans joined YouInc
saqibkhan joined YouInc
Insight Health Apps joined YouInc