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Balance is Overrated

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Balance is the word that most people use to describe the challenge of blending work with everything else we do. Balance is an overused word, and a metaphor that is too simplistic.

Any presentation about work/life balance includes a slide with an old-fashioned balance, a tool to measure weight. It is a bar with a fulcrum and a basket at either end. Work weighs down on one side, while family, leisure or anything personal counterbalances on the other side.

Who lives a life this simple? This image implies that if one spends more time and energy on work, then one must spend more time and energy on other pursuits as a counterbalance.

My life is more complex and intertwined than that, more like a web of interconnecting strands, each impacting the other. The strength of one aspect of my life can shore up the temporary weakness of another. Balance is overrated.

Do What You Love
I gave up balance a long time ago. Now I think about what I am passionate about and what I wish to be doing with my time. Each of us has a style that maximizes our gifts, so think about how you function best. My most efficient days are busy and slightly pressured, but manageable. Right at the edge of the cliff is where I get the most energy. When I operate with the right conditions, I enjoy my work, I am a better parent, and I chose to participate in extra activities for better-than-average reasons.

My Aunt Lois was a great mentor to me. She was the chancellor of three colleges in the San Francisco area, and had a wonderful grip on what was truly important. She quipped to me one day, "No one cares who does the laundry."

Her comment is poignant. As a parent, a spouse and driven career woman, I cannot possibly do all the tasks required to manage my life. We intuitively know which tasks in our lives are important or necessary for our families. For me, such activities include attending my children's violin and cello lessons and running a 5K with my eight-year-old.

Many jobs can be delegated without anyone noticing. I delegate every job I can think of that doesn’t need my personal input, and laundry is first on the list. I also don't bake. No one will need therapy in 20 years because I didn't do the laundry or make chocolate chip cookies. Instead, they'll remember that I was there for their events and achievements, and when they needed a shoulder to lean on.

Words of Wisdom
I recently asked three Academy leaders, each of whom has impacted my career, to reflect on their own professional journey. I want to share their words of wisdom with you.

  • Gary S. Schwartz, MD, participated in the inaugural Leadership Development Program 10 years ago. He then served on the Academy Board of Trustees and is now Associate Secretary for the Annual Meeting. During these years, he married and had his first son while a trustee of the Academy. Dr. Schwartz chooses carefully. "I can pick the projects I truly want to do rather than feeling that I have to say yes to everything I'm invited to do."
  • The immediate past president of the Academy, Harry Zink, MD, gives related advice. He says, "Never try to be a leader for something you don't believe in."
  • Susan H. Day, MD, former president of the Academy and of the American Academy for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, thoroughly enjoys her work in organized medicine. Recently, in need of a slide with a photo of Dr. Day, I looked through the photographs from the 2005 Annual Meeting when Dr. Day was president. In every single picture she was not just smiling, she was beaming. Her comments do not surprise. Dr. Day says, "Know your passions, act on them and dream big!"

As you'll see, there is a common theme: You must care deeply about the things you chose to spend time on. Choose wisely.

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About the author: Ruth D. Williams, MD, is the Academy Secretary for Member Services. She is a glaucoma specialist at the Wheaton Eye Clinic in the Chicago suburbs. She is married to an ophthalmologist and has three children.