Work-Life Balance: Lessons I Learned From my Dad

We all have at least one family member whose example inspires our view of work. Whether it be our busy mom, hard grafting grandfather, or workaholic uncle, witnessing first-hand how they handle work shapes our attitude more than any words we could ever read in a productivity manual.

My dad was a hard worker. Amazingly so. An ordinary guy, who never stopped putting in long hours doing manual jobs to provide for his family. Not for him the shirt and tie, desk and computer kind of employment – he liked to get his hands dirty.

A Strong Work Ethic

As a 15 year old schoolboy, my dad started fixing tractors for local farmers and this passion continued through to his many years spent as an auto mechanic. I remember when he played with me and my two brothers, his hands were well worn and sometimes looked sore.

Later on, I joined him when he took on a dairy business, waking up at 5 a.m. to deliver bottles and cartons of milk around the doors of the local neighborhood before school. I was 13 – and loved this chance to earn my own money and be financially independent at such an early age. After the morning shift, my dad would continue his long day serving behind the counter in the store that was part of the business.

It was tough. Everyone in the family did as much as they could to help out. Eventually, the early starts and late finishes, along with the other pressures that come with being self employed, took their toll. One morning, my dad suffered a stroke. He was 49.

Over the next decade and a half, he found it very difficult to come to terms with the new life that had been forced upon him. Although still able to get out and about, his disability meant that work was out of the question. For someone who had taken immense pride in his strong work ethic, this was a bitter blow. Coping with the physical condition was one thing, but he never quite recovered from losing the ability to work. Sadly, my dad died earlier this year.

A Legacy of Life Changing Lessons

I admired and respected my dad’s attitude towards every endeavor he tried. I guess it’s only natural for me to be influenced by his example. But, as I grew up, I wanted to learn from his experience and apply the positive aspects to my own approach to work, and to lessen the potential negative effect on my wellbeing. Without a doubt, this way of thinking has helped me come closer to achieving the healthy work/ life balance we all aim for.

Here are three life changing lessons I learned from my dad and his relationship with work:

1. Work hard and passionately, but not at any cost

To my dad, long hours and working to your limit were simply seen as inevitable side effects of doing your job properly. You did everything necessary to get things done well. Nowadays, we recognize that it’s possible – and indeed preferable – to be productive by working smarter and efficiently completing the critical tasks.

Of course, it’s fantastic when we’re able to be passionate about our work. But, there’s a fine line between enthusiasm and obsession. If we’re not careful, our desire to produce excellent results can consume us. It’s sometimes difficult to resist the temptation to go beyond our capabilities.

Have you ever pushed yourself too far because you were fired up over a project and wanted to do well? Do this all the time and you run the very real risk of suffering from burnout. Take a break, no matter how important the task.

2. It’s not selfish to put yourself first

Like most parents, my dad always aimed to provide for his family. What he didn’t do so well was to focus on his own needs. After the stroke, to keep busy, he enjoyed playing a gentle game of bowls at the local church or trying out other leisure activities. At long last, circumstances meant he had to concentrate on himself. Everyone wished he’d done this sooner.

There are many competing demands for our attention. With everyone from clients or colleagues to family and friends wanting a piece of us, it’s easy to give too much to others and leave little for ourselves.

One of the basic lessons I’ve learned is to never feel guilty about putting yourself first. All too often, we sacrifice our own wellbeing at the altar of satisfying others. Do whatever it takes to switch off and restore the balance between your own needs and the expectations placed on you by others.

3. Your work doesn’t define who you are

My dad came from a background where a solid work ethic was worn as a badge of honor. It marked how other people viewed you and defined your contribution to society. On losing the ability to work, my dad believed the knowledge and skills he had gained over many years were suddenly of no use.

Our reputation is valuable to us – we all want to be (and be seen as) a success within our own particular area of expertise. It’s important, however, that our sense of self esteem isn’t totally tied up with our work accomplishments.

Validation of who we are comes from the variety of roles we play in the lives of our family and friends or in the satisfaction we get from outside interests. It’s not a good idea to rely on a single source for our sense of self worth, just in case it’s taken away. What are we left with then?

Witnessing my dad’s experience, I know that the old saying: “there’s more to life than work” is true and very real. It’s never wrong to have a strong work ethic and to always strive to do your best in the work you do. There does need to be a balance. Finding the happy medium between the benefits you get out of work and the rest of life is essential to our general wellbeing, both physical and psychological.

Perhaps, William McIntyre never quite managed to get that balance right for himself, but he’s helped me understand how I can achieve it… and that’s a powerful legacy in itself.

Which member of your family has most influenced your attitude towards work/ life balance? In what ways have they been an example to you? I’d love to hear your views in the comments section.

Scott McIntyre is a great believer in the ability of ordinary people to do great things everyday. He writes about how you can live a colorful life – right now – at Vivid Ways. You can also add color-in your life by following Scott on Twitter.

(Post image from Flickr user NickPiggott)

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4 Responses to “ Work-Life Balance: Lessons I Learned From my Dad ”

  1. Great post Scott!

    Both my parents greatly influenced my work ethic greatly. Though my late mum’s influence is probably more prominent, it’s 4 little words of my dad’s that defines work / life balance best for me:

    Work hard, play hard.

  2. I agree we shouldn’t identify with our work. We should be proud of what we do and the contribution that we make to others through our job. But it ultimately isn’t who we are.

    We’re much greater than just our jobs. Our contribution to our progeny, friends, family, world is something we can do every moment of the day by working on our character. On how we interact with others.

    The sentiment ‘we are the world’ is so true. And our being citizens of this world and having impact on it is well beyond the scope of our job.

    • Hi Bamboo,

      Yes, having impact on the world goes beyond being employed or the work we do. Sure, our sense of self is made up of many aspects of our life and work is an important feature of this.

      But, it’s not all there is and, as you say, we have to recognize and appreciate our wider value and contribution to society.

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