What about when work *is* balance?

I keep running into a common story about work-life balance. It’s a story about how ‘no one wishes they’d spent more time at the office,’ and ‘it’s not the most important thing’ and ‘I wanted to spend more time with family’ or ‘on the things that really matter.’ To go along with these stories, there are lots and lots of internet articles about how you should never check email before going to bed, or right when you wake up. You should let family time be family time, turn off the phone or turn on airplane mode, be present with your loved ones. Leave work at work. Also, you should meditate, and exercise, and eat healthily.

That’s common sense. That’s what we should all be doing, should all aspire to.

Right?

Right?

Shouldn’t we?

Family and life are more important than work. Work should be neatly boxed up, set aside.

Shouldn’t it?

I’ve pretty much believed that for my whole career, which is (wtf?!) a sizeable number of years at this point. Early on I worked hourly jobs, and that meant I had a baked-in mindset of either being ‘on’ for work or ‘off,’ rarely or ever in-between. I don’t generally work nights or weekends; I rarely checked work email in my off hours.

Then last year happened.

Last year was tough. It was tough on the family side and tough on the life side. Nothing went the way I planned. Bad stuff happened (and is still happening). I didn’t know – I still don’t know – what to do about most of it. I don’t know what will happen next, or where things will go. Some number of things will probably not end up in any way I think is OK. I’m not OK with how things are going, and I’m doing my best to turn them, but that’s hard, and in some cases just not possible. It’s exhausting, and it’s miserable, and I don’t want to be doing any of it. I am hanging on, but it’s not comfortable or fun, and it takes effort.

And none of that – not one single thing – has to do with work.

Work, in contrast to everything else, has been pretty much entirely lovely. I like my team. I like my job. It’s interesting stuff, I’m competent or good at it, it’s pretty much squarely lined up in the area of work I like best, where I think it’s important and I have some ideas but I don’t actually know how to do it yet – and I like the people I work with. I have solid professional support of various kinds and a network that I enjoy working with and I am actively looking forward to the next several months.

In other words, work is a real bright spot right now.

During one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, I started checking my work email right when I woke up, before I got out of bed. At first I felt bad about doing this – I should have work-life balance! – and then I realized that after checking my work email, I felt better. Calmer. Happier. More myself. Work email was a reminder that life wasn’t just the pile of rotten I was currently dealing with. Work email was a reminder that I was something other than the person dealing with that pile. Work email was a moment to slip into my other role, into the effort I wanted to be doing, into the person I like being, before taking a big deep breath and, strengthened, diving back into the rest of my life.

When the rest of my life was really tough, work was my lifeline.

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this. Things are so tough in California right now for so many people that I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am – and I want to express gratitude to the universe for that. I am fortunate to like my work. I am fortunate to like the people I work with. I am fortunate to like & get along with my family.

I am fortunate that when things are tough for me, I have this mental refuge to turn back to.

I know that many people don’t have that. I’m grateful.

And I’d like to remember and remind myself that common stories, even if they are often reasonable guideposts for life, may also be totally off-base for specific situations.

That’s all.

Fifteen Years

Disclaimer: I work at Google; the opinions expressed here are my own, not Google’s.

I just passed the fifteen year mark for working at Google. This seems crazy to me – how can it have been that long? That’s longer than I’ve done just about anything.

When people I’m interviewing ask me what I like about Google, why I’m still there (although admittedly not many interviewees think to ask about how long that actually is), my usual answer has two parts:

1. The people
2. The variety

Google has grown immensely since I started working there, and with that growth has come a bunch of new projects. When I started, Google had about five total products (Search, Ads, AdSense, News, the Toolbar, Images, and maybe one or two others I’m forgetting). Now it has… I have no idea how many. Lots. Hardware & software. Cloud stuff. Enterprise stuff and small-business stuff. Consumer stuff. Video stuff. Mapping stuff. Lots of stuff!

And with that variety has come the ability to move around, to change projects, to experiment and try things. My estimate is that I usually spend about two to three years in any given role (sometimes it’s hard to define what a role change really is; some shifts are more obvious than others). I’ve worked on sales tax systems and enterprise administration systems and mapping and search and news and partnership stuff and abuse and payments and for a brief moment while I was trying to figure out what to do next, hardware. In addition to projects, I’ve changed job roles. I’ve taken two leaves of absence and been part of I-don’t-know-how-many teams.

There are areas I haven’t worked in – most noticeably, ads & core search (the big ones!).

Some of my favorite people from the early days are still around. Some aren’t. That’s okay – I’ve learned that the people I most want to stay in touch with, I mostly stay in touch with, and some of the brand-new-hires turn out to become some of my favorite people too. I’m pleased that some of the people I first met on a difficult project over ten years ago are people I work with on a completely different project today.

I’ve always been officially based in Mountain View, but I’ve travelled to offices in Australia, India, Israel, Japan, and in the US, New York. Later this year I expect to travel to Indonesia.

Every so often somebody asks me, “what was it like when…?” and I find that my answers are mostly lightweight. Most recently, somebody asked “was that in your Noogler orientation?” and I replied, “we didn’t have Noogler orientation,” without realizing initially what a big shift that really represents. We didn’t have orientation, or videoconferences, or a homegrown Calendar app, or multiple cafes serving three meals a day, or Android. We didn’t always have enough desks.

But overall, we were held together then, as we are now, by the threads connecting each of us to each other. (Also an enthusiasm for food. We used to have lobster pasta at lunch sometimes. And donuts, dammit!) We are in my experience an opinionated, vocal bunch of well-intentioned people trying to build and do interesting things. We argue, we debate, we try hard to get it right. We put in effort and time and intention. We care.

And I think that’s why, when somebody asks me, “how was it different then?” that I always come up short on an answer. In a lot of ways, of course, it’s very different. The company is something like sixty times bigger than it was when I started. Of course it’s different.

But in a lot of ways, it’s very much the same. And I suppose that’s why I’m still there.