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Guest opinion: Work is like water

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2017 file photo a surfer walks out of the surf as the sun sets behind Ocean Beach pier in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2017 file photo a surfer walks out of the surf as the sun sets behind Ocean Beach pier in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
Gregory Bull, AP

I was an hour into my surf session when I looked at my watch. I had 15 minutes to catch a wave in, find my phone buried in a zip-close bag on the beach and dial into a conference call to my office in New York City. As I was getting out of the warm Pacific to squat on the hot sand for a meeting, a koanlike question bubbled up: Is this proof of work-life balance or of workaholism? Had I found a way to do what I love most while keeping my professional obligations, or had work completely invaded the sanctity of my hard-won time in the waves?

My life as a subpar surfer has brought me many gifts. Sometimes that gift comes in the form of a wave. More often, it’s in the freedom from having to surf well or meet any expectations or goals. The very opposite of our work lives.

Work — even if we find it fulfilling — is mainly about goals and performance. It’s transactional. For some it might be about making the rent and keeping the lights on; for others, the next promotion or accomplishment. In any case, we seem to be working more than ever, but where has it gotten us? Our work-life balance has us tipping in the wrong direction.

One of the most eye-opening things anyone has ever asked me was posited years ago by my then 10-year-old son, Gio.

“Mama, why do they make you work so much?”

I paused before answering, because in that innocent question was the shameful answer.

“They? There is no ‘they,’” I told him, instantly aware of my dysfunctional time management skills.

“Then why do you work so much and then complain about it?”

This was a great question. Clearly, I was failing to create work-life balance. Not much has changed with me in the eight years since then, but I have achieved a little perspective, courtesy of the thousands of hours I’ve spent paddling, thrashing and crashing in the ocean trying to catch a wave.

Work, like the water I spend so much of my time in (or wishing I were in), quickly spreads and flows to fill spaces. Without the proper barriers to keep it in its place, water’s special qualities help it to find the path of least resistance, and before you know it, it has traveled into unwanted and unexpected spaces where it can erode and destabilize otherwise sound environments or structures.

The properties of fluid dynamics make water difficult to control or predict. All surfers are confronted with this each time we paddle out. With the relatively recent we-can-work-from-anywhere mindset that modern technology encourages, work is becoming more like water: harder to manage and protect against. Before we notice it, work’s demands have permeated time we should have for our families, our communities and ourselves. Like water, it is stealthy and powerful. It can crack or wear away the strongest foundations. When work is like water, it can erode and destabilize our lives.

Around the same time as my son’s pointed question, I admitted to my husband my fear that if I kept working without respite or release, I would become seriously ill. I was recovering from a bout of pneumonia that I’d ignored too long and felt vulnerable to the ills that stress can cause. Less than a year later, I learned I had cancer. My desire to get back in the water was what kept me pushing through treatments and surgeries and to fight to regain my strength.

It turns out that play is a great bulwark against work and more.

Work can be something we enjoy. At best, it’s where we shine and excel and prove our worth. It’s something we seek to master. Play is different. It’s the release from having to master it that makes it play. But play can be hard because it means giving up being the master — or at least the illusion of it. That can be uncomfortable, and for some of us, frustrating and excruciating.

But when we play for playing’s sake, there is no directive or goal. Transcending our usefulness is the valiant and defiant protest against the demands of our results-focused lives. It not only provides a necessary respite but also serves as practice for the stuff that really matters, like being a more balanced human being. Too often, I’m ashamed to admit, that’s something I am not very good at.

The 18th-century poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller warned against being driven purely by work in his “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” He wrote, “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.”

When I am in the ocean and surfing, I am fully human. When work pushes past the tide line and blends with my salty haven — a conference call on the beach, for example — what do I become? What am I if I am not a human being in the fullest sense of the word?