The Work-Life Balance: What is it? Is It Possible? Is It Necessary?

The relationship between people and their work is funny these days. A workplace has become a place that people try to escape from as soon as they get in, but then struggle to reenter as soon as they leave it. This would be fine if we were talking about an amusement park ride, but if our work, the core element of our lives, has become like this, isn’t something seriously wrong? What’s the problem? How can we escape this ridiculous hamster wheel?


Let’s study this laughable scene from a distance as if it’s not about us, as if we’re aliens from space merely observing the lives of humans.


People on the verge of a breakdown from being too busy vs. people with no work



In today’s age of speed, infinite competition, and frantically developing technology, I can’t help but think that “work” is like a soul-sucking satanic being for many people. From dawn until late at night, you can constantly keep yourself on the move, collect information from different places, read, go to meetings, and work endlessly in front of a computer, but you will still be swamped, trapped in an infinite pile of work that keeps on surging in. Your body will be at its limits and you will skeptically think, “Was I born to be worked to death like this? Why am I working this way?” However, even that’s only momentary, and the average modern person will continue to work diligently to keep up with the pressing surge because even the time spent thinking such things is dismissed as wasteful laziness.


On the other hand, different groups get very upset at the people who express their tiredness, request improvement from their employers and society, or seek another path. They say these people should “count their blessings”. They say they’re unemployed because they don’t even have the kind of jobs that these people complain about, that they would work themselves down to the bone with whatever task they were given, that they can’t work even if they want to due to a lack of jobs, and that these people are complaining because they want to be more comfortable even though they’re already making a lot of money at a good job. The people who violently criticize, curse, and revolt whenever a news story regarding unions appear are not employers or rich people but rather the poor and unemployed. I often think it’s very ironic that they criticize labor unions more vehemently than employers and the rich.


The younger generation vs. the older generation


The younger generation struggles under the pressure to earn a lot of money. There are more than a few holes they have to fill with the money they earn. That’s why they dismiss even the thought of not wanting to work as a luxury and work silently like an ox ploughing a field or work violently or desperately like a soldier in a battlefield even when they experience illness of the body and the mind, their self-esteem is hurt, their character is insulted, their dreams grow dimly distant, and when it goes against their beliefs. They only have one dream left: to retire. To rest leisurely after retiring with the money they’ve saved. To travel, golf, read, spend time with friends, and just live slowly and idly for the first time. To not be forced to see people they dislike every day at work and to live only seeing who they want to see. To live without being criticized or punished by anyone and to give their spouses and children all the love they’ve yet been unable to give. That is the dream of the working younger generation. In short, the dream is to escape “work” as soon as possible.



picture2By contrast, how do you think the lives of the recently retired are? Are the people who golf for four to five hours three times a week really happy? (You’d have to be tremendously rich to golf like that in Korea, but it’s not such a difficult thing to do in Canada. It’s much cheaper.) The fact is that they’re envious of the working young people. I’ve heard them say that they wish they had a job and that they don’t mind if it doesn’t pay a lot; they just want some work to do. Those who’ve found such work are happy and those who haven’t found work do volunteer work. Looking at the cases of people from the church I attend, I’ve noticed that they volunteer in the field of the work that they used to do when they were younger. Volunteering with the knowledge of the field you know best is, of course, an obvious thing, but what should I make of these people continuing to work, which they used to want to quit as soon as possible, this time for free?


I think all of our, our society’s, and our generation’s misconceptions regarding work arise from this contradictory attitude of ours regarding work. I think if God or aliens visited our lives to study in detail and asked us a question to better understand our lives, they would surely ask this question. “What is ‘work’ to you?” How would you answer?


The passive income craze


In 2009, a man named Timothy Ferris published a book about passive income.



Although it seems like this concept isn’t yet widely known in Korea, it has gained sensational popularity in North America. Passive income is very similar to Korea’s concept of unearned income, but without the negative nuances. Compared with active income, which you earn through active effort and time, passive income refers to income earned with almost no time or effort invested. The most well-known example of this is income from interest. Once you put your money in a financial institution, the interest that comes out of that is passive income because it’s income that you earn without having to do anything. However, if passive income was a concept referring simply to interest or stock dividend income, nobody would have paid any attention to it. Someone who can live solely off of that kind of income has already accumulated a lot of wealth and will be well off even without this concept. The reason this concept became such a sensation was because of the explanation that if you create a good business on the Internet, the website that you made will work hard on its own even if you barely touch it and can earn you money even while you sleep. It’s literally income that you earn without working.


There’s a fable that’s often cited to illustrate the concept of passive income. It’s not a story from Ferris’s book and it might not be an actual historical event, but I’m just going to write it as I remember it. (This is, of course, something from another book, but it’s the most popular story explaining passive income.) A long time ago, an Italian village had no well, so someone had to go to the banks of a stream to collect water and bring it back. Two young cousins did this work and one of the cousins thought, “What if instead of repeating this same task of going to collect water every day, we install a pipeline from the stream to the village?” That young man told this idea to his cousin who fetched water with him and suggested they implement the idea together, but was rejected. He was asked why they should do such a tough job when their income from fetching water was already decent enough. The young man then did the additional job of connecting the pipes every day by himself after fetching water. Finally, after the pipe installation was complete over a period of a few years, this young man was able to sell water without having to go to the stream to fetch it.


What do you think? Did you like this story? Aren’t you suddenly motivated to challenge yourself? (It might have lost a bit of its impact because I’m a bad story teller, but this story actually incited amazing reactions from a lot of people.) Whether or not this story was a historical fact isn’t really important. What’s important is the concept that the story delivers. This is why the concept of passive income spread like wildfire and took over the Internet. Everybody started pondering, “how can I set up a business like this today?” and the craze of trying to build a pipeline that earns money without you having to do anything through creating Internet businesses this way was started.


However, when judging it today with a clear head, I think this concept is considerably overrated. The concept itself is a really good one, but it has a lot of pitfalls. Examples of businesses that the advocates of passive income like to cite are as follows:


  • Real estate rent

  • Patent of inventions, trademarks, etc.

  • Royalties on books, songs, and other publications

  • Revenue from advertisements on blogs or websites

  • Share profit from various financial instruments

  • Interest from bonds or savings

  • Pension

  • Franchise earnings


As I’ve said before, if we exclude those of the above examples that can only be put into practice by people who’ve already earned a considerable amount of money (real estate rent, stock dividend, interest, pension, franchise earnings, etc.), there’s really not much left. The rest of the items are very good things, but one thing that’s clear is that these are definitely not “passive”. If you think you’ll become rich from advertisement profit if you just create an Internet blog and write a few things on there, you have to wake up. If you don’t have great expertise in your field, it’d be better not to start at all, and even if you do, you have to back yourself up with a tremendous amount of research and effort, the likes of which people at regular jobs can’t even imagine. Of course, once that’s done, there are quite a lot of people who achieve great success. This is a new phenomenon made possible by the Internet age and knowledge industry era. But what is clear is that this is definitely not “passive” income but the fruit of all the blood and sweat poured into a foundation of professionalism.


I don’t mean to say that the concept of passive income is useless. However, I’m saying that you must start after knowing the concrete truth. Trying to find a new and original passive income business that nobody else has created and rummaging through various ideas as if searching for a gold mine with the goal of living comfortably thereafter without moving a finger or with the goal of working four hours a week is, to put bluntly, a waste of time. Although the Internet is a great market, that kind of thing is only possible when you’re backed by profound expertise and insane effort, so trying to comfortably earn money through the Internet from an idea that nobody else thought of without any real expertise is nothing but chasing a mirage. (Even if there was such a business idea, wouldn’t thousands of new competing businesses appear every week?)


The balance between work and life?


The third thing I want to think about with you is the concept of the balance between work and life. Not so long ago, Naver (a Korean Internet company) was running a campaign about work-life balance. It’s a good thing. But what exactly does the balance between work and life mean? And why is it necessary?

It’s most likely something along the lines of, “We’re all working too much and don’t have enough time to pursue our dreams or take care of our health, family, and neighbors. Therefore, we must reduce our workload if we want to be happy.” I’m assuming this because I’ve never heard anybody claim we should increase our workload while talking about work-life balance.


So then, what measures can we take to balance our work and life? Reducing our work hours would be the most typical step, wouldn’t it? I still vividly remember a copy machine commercial I saw a long time ago. The slogan of that commercial was, “Bring dad home!” That a faster copy machine will bring a working dad home faster is no small stretch in logic, but the fact that such an advertisement was made reflects on the wishes of many people to somehow reduce work hours at least a little so that dads can return to their families earlier.


On the surface, the ‘work-life balance’ is a flawless concept. Because balance is a good thing. Because working too much is not a good thing. Because working too hard makes people feel victimized and is a burden to the body and mind. And because working too little will result in financial problems. Also, because it can’t promise promotion or development. So, the concept is probably trying to say we should make it so that our work and lives are balanced, working just the right amount, just enough to have your cake and eat it too. They’re not saying we shouldn’t work.


But there’s a problem. I’ve yet to meet a single person who claims to have achieved the work-life balance. Have any of you?


[bctt tweet=”I’ve yet to meet a single person who claims to have achieved the work-life balance.” username=”HappyKoreas”] 


This is because whether you can afford to pursue such a balance is a really big issue, and even if you’re the one-in-a-million person who can afford to pursue that balance, you don’t know where that balance point is and nobody else knows either. A more serious problem is that even if someone were to discover his/her own balance point, decide on it (working 6 hours a day, for example), and work just that amount, there is no guarantee that that person will be happy. How can anybody guarantee that working like that will lead to a happier life or that you will successfully advance? Honestly, couldn’t it just as well be possible that you’ll want more time for hobbies, time to spend with family, to do fun activities, and to rest, while the quality of your work drops or you don’t have enough income? In other words, isn’t it possible that your balance doesn’t properly satisfy either side?


In the end, in this way of thinking, the time you spend working will be taken out of your life while your work progress will be slowed by every hour you spend not working, so no matter what you do, you will feel anxious, victimized, and irritated. The work-life balance is often talked about as if it’s a prerequisite to happiness, but in fact it’s an insubstantial mirage that’s always out of reach whenever you try to achieve it. Ask the people who advocate it. Ask them what it is, if they’ve achieved such a balance, and if they’re happy as a result.


So far, I’ve talked about three things. One of them was the story about workers who hate work and the unemployed who are desperate for work, and the younger generation who want to escape from work as soon as possible and the older generation who miss their working years. Here we can see ourselves being confused about what “work” is in our lives. Another story was about the passive income craze and its reality. The fact that so many people went wild for the concept of passive income can also be seen as evidence of how much people hate working. In order to not do the work they hate so much, people desperately search for special business ideas and work like crazy for 100 hours a week to finally be guaranteed a future where they don’t have to work. (I’ve heard that you have to do around this much work to succeed in the Internet business.) Finally, we took a look at how the concept of the work-life balance is a useless mirage.



I think the core point is this: what went wrong was separating “work” and “life”. Once you separate work and life as being antithetical to each other, work is work and life is life. Work is not life and life is not work. Because those two things are like water and oil and don’t mix together, they play a zero-sum game. For example, if you work 8 hours out of the 16 hours that you’re awake, you will only have 8 hours for your life. If you work 10 hours, time for your life will be reduced to 6 hours. (Then someone will cry out, “work-life balance!”) At this point, it seems like work and life are more like mutual enemies.


This kind of thinking is exactly what I think is wrong. As long as you think this way, happiness will always escape from you like a mirage. Let’s pretend that, by some fortunate miracle, you are the heir to a business tycoon’s fortune or became someone who can just work 4 hours a week from following Ferris’s advice. Will you be happy then? Not too long ago, I listened to a radio interview of a person who earned millions of dollars at 28 years old and I heard that at 28, he sold the company he created (I think he developed some new technology) and then wandered around trying to fill an unspeakably large void in his life. He didn’t know what to do with the rest of his life from that point, and had no idea what he had to do to be happy… Those people who think a life without work is a happy life or that a pet dog’s leisurely life is the happiest need only think whether they seriously want their own children to do no work, to contribute nothing to society, and live as someone who never even needs to seriously understand the world until they die. Can that even be considered a life? I’ve also heard that newly retired men who no longer have to work don’t spend their life beaming with happiness but rather needlessly importune and pester their wives. Find the men who’ve lost their place for self-realization, men who feel as if their wings have been clipped and feel useless to society, and ask them if not working is really something to be happy about. When you don’t work at all, contrary to common and exaggerated expectation about retirement, your life also dwindles away and fades into meaningless existence whether you are young or old.


What I’m suggesting is to not separate work and life. Let’s not consider work and life to be mutually exclusive. Doing this won’t make work and life the same, but at the very least, we shouldn’t consider them mutually exclusive or two conflicting enemies that make up a zero-sum.


[bctt tweet=”We shouldn’t consider work and life two conflicting enemies making up a zero-sum.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


Work isn’t an enemy that we should reduce as much as possible or not do at all. Work not only sustains our lives financially but is also a place to display our creative energy and a passage through which we can positively contribute our lives, talents, and efforts to society. For that reason, work can be fun. No, we have to make it fun. (To do this, we must, of course, change our thoughts, change our attitudes, and change our system.) Also, life is not a sacred place that we have to protect from work. Our work is also a part of life, an essential part at that. A very important and meaningful element of life comes from our work and profession. The love and cooperation in our family can also be a part of the process of trying to do our work well. A considerable amount of your life’s meaning and enjoyment can be found in your work.


[bctt tweet=”A considerable amount of your life’s meaning and enjoyment can be found in your work.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


Your dreams are also realized through your work. Entertainment, reading, and social interaction can also be restructured and utilized as a part of your work (read this post and this post). When this happens, work and life won’t be separated. They aren’t mutual enemies. Rather, they fill each other with meaningful content.


[bctt tweet=”Work and life aren’t mutual enemies. Rather, they fill each other with meaningful content.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


Work will take its position as a natural part of life so there will be no need to artificially distinguish the two.


I try to live this way. Although it’s not perfect, I’m already more or less living this way. And I am that much happier. Work isn’t toil but is fun (though not always). And when it’s not fun, I think about why it’s not fun, and ponder about how I can make it fun, or whether I will only do fun work from then on and reform my life to do that. In addition, as I’ve said in another post, a considerable part of my recreation activities are things that can support me to do my work better. My favorite radio programs, reading, social activities, the movies I watch on Netflix, and even this blog have become a part of the virtuous circle that allows me to work even better. Work becomes a part of life and brings luster to life, and life makes work enjoyable and easy and embraces work inside it. 


[bctt tweet=”Work becomes a part of life and brings luster to life; life makes work enjoyable and easy.” username=”HappyKoreas”] 


This new thinking and attitude eliminates many of the problems we discussed earlier. You will no longer struggle to escape from “work hell” as soon as possible by working yourself to death when you’re young. So, you won’t have much stress. I have the will, attitude, and time to take care of my health (although I’m pretty much failing the “sexy muscular body project” that I planned at the beginning of the year, I’ve still made quite a bit of progress compared to last year. :D). You will no longer struggle to save a mountain of money before retiring or being fired. Money is always needed, but now you will know that money won’t bring you happiness, and you will have long ago parted ways with the foolishness of working yourself to the point of damaging your health to be able to vacation on a cruise ship in your later years.


Finally, you will no longer worry about the balance between work and life. Nowadays, I honestly don’t know how many hours I work in a week. It’s because the boundary between my work and my life is ambiguous. If you count the hours I spend checking my email, etc. as my working hours, I’m probably one of the people who work the most in the world. However, using a different standard, I also think I might be one of the people who work the least. Of course, the truth will probably be somewhere between those two. The important thing is that I don’t pay attention to such things. This is because my work and my life are no longer enemies, so I no longer need to care about my work-life balance.



So then how?


I thought about it carefully. I thought about what core element can bring about this kind of change. I think it’s difficult to conclude this big topic with one concept or one sentence, so I will enumerate some key elements that make up this kind of change.


1. Do work that you like

I really like that quote by Bob Dylan. “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” I think this should be considered before considering anything else. Do something that you like to do! There’s a saying. A genius can’t keep up with someone who puts in the effort, and someone who puts in the effort can’t keep up with someone who enjoys the work. No matter what anybody says, look within yourself and do something you really like.


2. Don’t work for others and run an independent business

No matter how much you like something, it’s hard to enjoy doing something you like when you have a “boss” telling you how to do it and when to do it. I thought this was only the case in Korea, but it turned out to be true anywhere else. It will be difficult to find the pleasure of working in a world where you have to do more work instead of being able to rest when you work effectively and finish early, where they don’t understand creative thinking or ignore it because it makes trouble for them, where you become a nuisance or the target of jealousy if you work well, and where people advance if they’re good at office politics instead of the actual work. Although it might be difficult, try to run your own business or work as a freelancer.


3. Continue to learn and put in the effort to do your work well

Intertwine your work and life and create a life system so that the things that you enjoy doing eventually become a foundation that allows you to do your work better.


[bctt tweet=”Intertwine work and life to create a life system that allows what you enjoy to greatly facilitate your work.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


If you separate your work and life and as a result begrudge the time you spend working or you consider everything besides “direct work itself” to be distractions to your work, it will be difficult for you to ever be happy. Put work and life close together and try to fuse them into one. It sounds grandiose, but it’s really quite simple: have ideas on how to make your favorite activities aid in your work and manage your time so that you can kill two birds with one stone. If I apply the above factors to myself, I find myself thinking of a freelance translator’s career. It might, of course, be different for you. But I think that if you’ve found my difficult–to-find blog and are reading this right now, you might be similar to me. You can also translate part-time while pursuing other things. However, I strongly recommend becoming an entrepreneur or working as a freelancer. It’s not an easy path and you’ll have a lot of mountains to overcome, but you’ll have a good chance of succeeding if you combine all the above three factors. The joy of building something up little by little even though it’s difficult, a structure that improves your situation as time goes by, a lifestyle that embraces work as a precious part of life instead of separating work and life and having them compete, a life where every day is already a realization of your dreams instead of a life swept up in fear marketing and trying to obtain mountains of wealth and then trying to relieve your stress from the process through destructive spending… wouldn’t that be nice? What is work to you? What is the relationship between your work and your life?


브라이언은 의료분야에서 한영번역을 하는 번역가입니다. 캐나다 온타리오의 작은 시골 마을에서 아내와 둘이 삽니다. 여행과 독서와 음악과 커피를 좋아합니다.

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