Finding the Work/Life Balance Classically

Lessons on finding balance from a world-famous violinist...

Posted Feb 28, 2011

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled famous Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, whose career is currently exploding due to her combination of brilliant, passionate playing and savvy 21st-century marketing (she is one of the first classical artists to hit big on iTunes). The title of the article is "Busy Violinist Seeks Balance," and I think everyone who has trouble finding the right balance of work and "real life" can be inspired by her example.

Late last year, after several years of tremendous success in the classical music world, Ms. Jansen canceled several months of concerts for reasons of physical exhaustion. Among her comments in the article:

It was just from crazy years of pushing myself... And of course I didn't notice, because when I am on stage I feel like I can climb Mount Everest... You always want to give more and more of yourself. But there comes a point when the body says, "Actually, I don't have any more, sorry." I know not to let that happen again.

Much of what I read on work/life balance focuses on the way that work consumes you, but more in a habitual, monotonous, acclimating sense—because even boring routines can be comforting and safe, especially if circumstances in our "real lives" are uncertain and frightening. But Ms. Jansen's example points to the euphoria of success, the thrill of work done well, that may be less common for most of us, but noentheless which many of us have felt at one time or another.

Speaking from my own experience, there are days, once in a while, when I get into a flurry of activity—writing, blogging, emailing, organizing, creating—I'm in the zone, I'm experiencing flow, I feel fantastic, and I just don't want to stop. But eventually I have to, because that state of rampant excitement cannot last; as Ms. Jansen puts so well, your body will tell you it's time to stop (if not your kids!). And if you don't listen (as she didn't, at first), you will crash, threatening the very success you were enraptured by in the first place.

Later in the article, Ms. Jansen describes reflecting on her life during the making of a documentary about her, during which the filmmakers followed her for three years:

I love making music. I've always been with the violin, so it's a big passion. Because of that it's a danger. . . . It's like, I'm getting such great chances. Of course I want to play here, and I really want to do this and that. But at some point, you run into yourself.

Again, I think many of us can identify with this, though in different areas of our lives and to varying extents. We work hard to get opportunities, but then those same opportunities can overwhelm us. They can become a curse, an embarrassment of riches, and we wonder why we worked so hard to get them!

What we have to do is not make those opportunities the be-all, end-all of our lives. We need to keep in mind why we worked for them in the first place, which was most likely not to get the opportunities themselves, but to get something out of them. And if pursuing and taking advantage of those opportunities starts to become more important than why we wanted them in the first place, that's when we know to stop and think. (I've been doing a lot of that lately, starting—slowly, but starting—to say no to opportunities that a year or two I would have jumped at.)

At the end of the article, Ms. Jansen says, "I will find balance." She's still working at it, and I'm sure that cancelling some of her concerts is just a start. And that's all we have to do if we're facing a similar problem: make a start, clear the desk a bit, make room for reflection, and then reflecting will become easier. But you have to make the decision, which as we all know, is the hardest part.


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