On that television staple of my childhood, "The Ed Sullivan Show," there seemed to be an endless supply of acts featuring old vaudeville guys who kept a series of plates spinning on the ends of long sticks. (It was a simpler time.) The trick was to keep them turning steadily, rhythmically, so they wouldn't crash to the floor. Invariably, while the spinner was tending to a plate at one end of the stage, another plate at the opposite end would wobble dangerously. Sometimes he was fast enough to save it, sometimes not.
Pretty tame stuff compared to today's reality TV, but it provides a handy metaphor for any of us striving to achieve a balance in our lives, paying attention to work, home, family, friends, community, self.
Most days we have a pretty good feel for the way the plates spin and a good sense of which one is about to topple; but every now and then the telltale sound of broken crockery lets us know it's time to adjust.
Some days there seem to be an awful lot of work-related plates demanding attention. It can be hard to determine which ones to save, which to let fall.
Claire Lewis Arnold, founder and president of Leapfrog Services, Inc., which provides IT support for small- and medium-sized companies, has a solid record of achievement — and a sure sense of balance. She is a wife and mother of three grown children, engaged in her second successful business enterprise. She is a member of the board of directors of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and was honored by the chamber and Atlanta Business Chronicle as the "Small Business Person of the Year."
What she has to say about work habits, work ethic and that all-important sense of balance comes from experience. She sees the pace quickening.
"I've seen people work almost incessantly in the last few years, mostly people involved with technical businesses and support businesses," Arnold says. "All the electronics we have allow people to be in touch all the time, so it's hard to get away from work.
"What has amazed me," Arnold says, "is the intensity of before-work and after-work meetings. I could go to something every night of the week if I wanted to. Personally, I don't think that's healthy. "When you set a pace like that, it's easy to get sucked into it." And hard to get out of it.
Particularly for younger workers just establishing themselves, she says, "My fear is that once you set a pace you can't break out of it." Then personal time or family time takes a backseat.
"You can't work all the time," she says. "You can make a much better contribution," to a job, a company, an industry, "when you have that balance."
As an employer, she works hard to promote balance. When employees work weekends, they are given comp time. She likes to be understanding when people need time off. In fact, she once went up to an employee whose child was sick and asked, "Why are you here? You should be at home."
Clearly, there are companies and professions where the path to success requires long hours, where weekends at the office are the norm and personal time is in short supply. Some workers take to that kind of environment, some don't.
Arnold says she is intrigued by some of the young people she has met who are more or less taking a breather. Perhaps influenced by the slow economy, they are backing off the total career-immersion route. "There are some, in their mid-20s, who simply are saying, 'I'm not going to do that.'" They take a year or two years to opt out — they are self-supporting, but not necessarily moving forward on some prescribed career path. "Many of them say, 'I'm not going to have another time in my life when I can do this.'"
Sometimes striking the right work/nonwork balance — and keeping those plates spinning harmoniously — can be as simple as figuring out what makes you happy.
Arnold, who grew up on a farm where hard work was a daily reality, suspects her strong work ethic was developed early. "I just like working," she says. "I do get a respite from work responsibilities at home, with my family, or from the boards I'm on. But I'm happier and more fulfilled when I'm working."