Who thought of the concept of separating work from life? In psychology, but even more so in our understanding of everyday life, we come across the paradigm of work-life balance. This paradigm depicts a set of scales with two pans holding work and life separately, and the aim is to achieve perfect balance between them. It only takes a grasp of the metaphor to lose all other perspectives. This metaphor tells people with creative professions that they have a problem, and yet this problem only exists because of this paradigm.


Separating work from life allows for certain behaviours to occur during work which would rarely occur outside of it. We stay friendly, for example, even when the other party is not. We are obedient and compliant. Bending to the will of others is what we are paid to do in many jobs. And yet, no one would ever wish to trade lives with the majority of labourers around the world. Exploitation is becoming more and more severe, a fact  we have grown accustomed to. In order to see the results of morally reprehensible labour practices, you merely need to look at the clothes you are wearing: your sneakers were probably manufactured by child labourers in Vietnam, and the rest, made in China.

Most readers of sophisticated magazines would not even last seven days under the working conditions that prevail in these countries. When life is being destroyed by such forms of slave labour, we cannot speak of balance at all. Those who are able to mull over their work-life balance enjoy the most rewarding form of labour in the world. They can choose to work eight hours a day instead of ten, allowing them to have more free time for their children, partner, pets, or the tennis court. They feel less psychological stress (which is often caused by internal factors rather than external). The work-life balance paradigm should first and foremost serve as a frame of reference for developing and emerging countries in order to achieve fair labour. Because the labourers who are forced to keep the wheels of global capital turning have no life at all. What would we be without all the cheaply produced clothing and the relatively inexpensive food, smartphones and furniture?

Historically, we haven’t been separating work from life for very long. The idea of designated free time leads to the idea of work as a place without freedom. But particularly for creative professionals, what often limits their freedom are matters of “life”. It is the freedom of creativity that causes fear, frustration, and stress. Typically, clients have a hard time defining their requirements for a creative product or service. This is something  they entrust to the professionals who figure it out themselves during a complex process of creative thinking. And even for clients who have no idea what they want, the end result may differ widely from what they had hoped. Creativity requires a lot of room for personal action, but it also needs a framework within which that creative freedom can exist. This framework is rarely provided by the client, meaning that creative professionals must learn to establish it by acquiring the necessary skills through experience: self-organisation and self-structuring, mind-reading, predicting and presuming. How does one even prepare oneself for this kind of (un)creative work?

Finding suitable hobbies would not be the way. According to philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, creative professionals do not have any. He found the question about his hobbies insulting because he tackled everything that interested him with the same level of dedication, whether it was private or professional. Outsiders would simply say that he had turned his hobbies (reading, thinking, music, writing, art, theories, lecturing) into professions. But perhaps he was paid for his activities because he had gained expertise in the fields he was so enormously interested in.

Creative professionals do not have hobbies, because the concept of free time is lost on them. On the other hand, their work is freer than the monotony of the assembly line. Even the choice of work clothing can be as free and fashionable as they would like, seeing as creative professionals consider their time at the office as a way of life. Holding on to these liberties is a challenge because everyone around them still keeps work and life strictly separated. The question of when the workday ends, or at what point they leave the office, doesn’t apply to them either. As if a change of location means anything in the age of social media and digital networking! Emails can be read on the train, Instagram has become a professional promotion tool, and those who need absolute peace and quiet can work from home. The creative life can take place anywhere. This goes for other occupations outside the creative industries as well, such as pastors and social workers. As a member of the clergy, a pastor is on duty 24 hours a day. Is his morning prayer, whether said in his home or from the pulpit, something private or something public — his work or his life? Is his faith private or public? Can he have hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with his profession?

These are people who do not have a job but follow a vocation. And this vocation is what determines their lives. It does not compete with their free time, is not placed on either  side of the scale. Therefore, the journey to finding one’s calling often takes longer than a temporary job. This process can spiral out of control and become more exhausting than anything. In his world-famous novel The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro describes the impairment of mental health that can be caused by mistaking a job for vocation. Telling the story of a devoted English butler who dedicates his life to service, the novel  is a tragic portrait of a life of self-chosen slavery.

Joseph Beuys insisted on freedom instead of free time because the concept of free time allows for the perception that there is no freedom in work. And freedom will always be limited in any job, even creative ones. Creative work does not always achieve the rare flow state because it often consists of routine, service, and monotonous activities. It can be fun but consumes a lot of energy as well. This is felt by most, and  not just on Friday evenings, at the end of the working week. However, this sceptical view of work leads to the idealisation of what is left: the apparently free time we call life. For most people, this time is anything but free, and can be even more regulated than working time. People have so many to-do lists they don’t know which one is the longest anymore. A life with children, family, and pets requires complex logistics and creates stress, worry, and conflict. Life is more incalculable than any job. Once outside the office, people get to enjoy their “free time” by dealing with the stress of daily life in the midst of bad weather, overcrowded public transport, and school paperwork. And so, many people aren’t frustrated with having to go back to work on Monday, because they are glad to have dealt with the stress of the weekend. Today, work is freer than it has ever been, but life seems to become more constricted and challenging. Not a fact, but a feeling – we are fortunate to live in a free society after all.

How we perceive our world is determined by the distinctions we make. Instead of separating work from life, it would make more sense to distinguish relaxing from stressful, pleasant from unpleasant, encouraging from discouraging, and healing from destructive. This would radically alter our perspective. These are the things we should achieve balance in — not only in our jobs but outside of the workplace, too. No job is completely creative, and no life is completely free; there can always be too many weights on either side of the scale. In order to achieve balance, we sometimes need to take a step back and think about our boss, partner, private surroundings, and life itself, as theoretical objects. When one area is under pressure, all others are affected. There is no such thing as an imbalance between life and work because life is all we have. Work is important, perhaps even the most important part of life, especially for those who follow a vocation. To be working is to be part of a community that shares the same values, and helps shape the world. Even greater than the fear of working too much is the fear of having no job at all – not because we long so much for the exhaustion and fatigue that comes with a job, but because a large part of life would be missing (not simply money, but also mean-ing). If we turned matters of work into important life matters and expanded the art of living through the art of working, there would be no need for a work-life balance paradigm. Those who manage this accomplish more than most people in the world.

This was an essay by Frank Berzbach which was first published in PRESENT Issue 1
Frank Berzbach is an author and psychology teacher who has worked as a scientist, journalist, bicycle courier, technical draughtsman, psychiatrist and bookseller.