Back on the Chain Gang


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A circumstance beyond our control

The phone, the TV, the News of the World

Got in the house like a pigeon from hell

Threw sand in your eyes and descended like flies

The Pretenders, Back on the Chain Gang, 1982


As with many of the songs from the ’60s and ’70s, debates rage about what this song actually means or refers to. That’s not what this post is about. When it comes to meanings of songs, I take heart from the story of the Doors fans who wrote deep and searching treatises about how the band, and more particularly Jim Morrison, used the imagery of Mojo in dark and satanic ways, especially in the repeated incantations of Mr Mojo Risin’. And everyone accepted that. Until a little old lady wrote in and pointed out that it was nothing of the sort. She and her husband lived next door to the Morrisons when James was a young lad; it was her husband who came up with the name “Mr Mojo Risin” for the lad. Why? Because it was a perfect anagram of Jim Morrison.

Back to the song. The phone…. Got in the house like a pigeon from hell.

It was around twenty years ago that the “business” mobile phone invaded the house, and to some families it felt like that pigeon from hell. And then , for them, things went from bad to worse, as push e-mail and Blackberry became pervasive. Objections and uproar followed, debates about work-life balance ensued afresh, but that was about it. I didn’t see anyone send back their OBEs in protest.

Work-life balance. Now there’s something I’ve never quite been able to understand. What a strange dichotomy. Is work not part of life? Early on I decided that I mustn’t be pedantic about it, and so every time I heard the phrase I interpreted it as “office-home balance” or something similar.

That still left me with a problem. I think about “work” all the time. I think about my family all the time too. And come to think of it, I think about my friends and music and food and books and my faith all the time as well. [Okay, okay, no one ever quite multitasks, so when I’m thinking about my family I’m not actually thinking about work, except in those cases where the two touch.]

I’d never heard the phrase all the time I’d lived in India, but that may have been for a multitude of reasons. I was 23 when I left India for the UK, six months after my father’s untimely death at 49. Except for two three-month stints (with Martin Burn and with Capital Magazine) I’d only ever worked for my father, while still at school, at university and after I’d graduated. I couldn’t really understand what people meant when they used the phrase. I had neither the experience nor any other way to conceive of the meaning.

I tried. I tried hard, by looking at my own life, how my father lived and worked, how his friends lived and worked, how they conducted business and pleasure.

Let’s start with physical separation. My father worked from home. There was a partition of sorts, a wooden structure maybe six feet tall, with a door stuck somewhere in it, painted a gaily yellow on one side, and, on the other side, stocked with volume upon volume of bound magazines (our family livelihood enshrined in leather). When he was this side of the yellow, he was at home. And when he was not, he was at work. That was the theory. In practice it was closer to “whatever was the most important thing to get done got done”. Sometimes home things took precedence, sometimes not. That was his work-life balance.

Although there was a physical separation between work and home, they were adjacent, and the partition in between was somewhat flimsy. So, even as a 12-year-old, I wouldn’t have been able to understand this work-life thing. And it wasn’t as if it was something new and modern and free-thinking, this integration of work and home. The house I was born in was the place where my extended family lived, the place where we ran the family business from, the place we printed and published the magazine from.

No real physical separation.Work and home were both in the same place.

So I looked at time. Did my father separate out his day into a “work” half and then a “home” half, with sometimes a “golf” half or a “club” half instead of one of the other halves? Not really. One night he’d be home with us, the next night he’d be over at the printing press putting the week’s issue to bed, and the night after he may have been out with friends playing poker. He’d come to school some afternoons, to watch us play an inter-school match, and then go back to work. He often worked Friday nights …. the magazine needed to be at the Post Office, franked and bound and ready to post, before 430am on Saturday. That was our “slot”, take it or leave it. I’d seen him work on a Sunday. I’d seen him relax with the family on a Tuesday. I’d seen him stay sleeping at 7am, and stay working at midnight.

I couldn’t use time as a distinguisher between work and home.

I moved on to activity. Could I use the nature of what he did to figure out some way out of my confusion? He spent a lot of time talking to people. And listening to them. Never taking notes, but listening intently. Sometimes he would do this at home, sometimes in restaurants, sometimes at the “office”. If he wasn’t in conversation, he’d be writing. Sometimes a stenographer came in and took dictation. Sometimes he typed it all out from scratch, in one seamless “take”, no edits (my preferred style, ostensibly influenced by him). And if he wasn’t in conversation or writing, he’d be reading. Food would enter the equation here and there, though latterly he was known to prefer what they loosely termed a “liquid diet”. Talking to people. Writing. Reading. Sometimes with food, sometimes with drink, sometimes neither. That’s what he did when he was with family, with friends, or at work.

Nope, I couldn’t tell the difference.

I tried everything else I could think of. Whom he spent time with. What he was passionate about. It didn’t matter. The answer was the same. If I looked at what my father did, then work and home and everything else was hopelessly intermingled. The principal way of separating one from the other was “priority”, in terms of both importance as well as urgency. If I cut open my eyelid in a fight at playschool, he would come home to see me; if there was a problem at the printer’s that’s where he’d be. Priorities. Getting what needed to be done done.

That was how I used to think about “work-life” balance. So when I started work myself, I came with a view that my working life and my home life didn’t need to be kept separate. I came with the view that I would keep doing the things I enjoyed doing, that I would keep spending time with people I enjoyed spending time with. The origins of my relationships could be labelled and analysed, and there words like “family” and “work” and “church” and “school” and “pub” and “club” all meant something.

Initially I kept all these groups separate. And that had an unintended consequence, I became a different person in each group. That was a nightmare: I landed up in a situation where I had real conflict as a result : a part of me wanted all these groups to merge (why have separate non-overlapping groups of friends?) and another part of me blenched at the thought of the merger (everyone would see all the different “me”s in one place). I had to work very hard to become one consistent person independent of environment, something I would not wish upon anyone else. So after a while I began to merge the groups.

Initially I kept my activities and locations separate as well. Work was work and home was home. But what happened when your work mates came over to play contract bridge at home in the evening? What happened when you went on vacation with a work mate, to spend a week playing golf? Was it wrong to spend time “socialising” with the people you worked with? Soon I was back where I started.

When the mobile phone entered my life, I didn’t find it a problem. Child has an accident at school, my wife calls me, I drop everything and go home to help. It’s early Saturday morning, there’s a problem at work, Slammer’s spreading like wildfire and we have to get everything back up in time for the Tokyo open? Hey-ho, it’s off to work I go.

Priorities. Getting the job done. Outcomes. Timely outcomes. Sometimes the job to be done is connected to your “employers”, sometimes it’s to do with your family, sometimes it’s about your friends, your community. All of it. At the same time.

It’s a bit like Maslow’s Hierarchy versus Nohria and Lawrence 4-Drivers. There was a time when people thought that needs were hierarchical. So we had Maslow and sequential thinking. Now it appears to be that we have multiple parallel drivers: a drive to acquire, to bond, to learn and to defend. All operating at the same time. But not with the same intensity at the same time.

Incidentally, I’m just freewheeling here. It’s Saturday night and something triggered a desire in me to write this, and to learn from your comments. If you want to read more serious stuff on the same subject, try danah boyd’s recent post on similar lines. She’s good. Really good.

And comment. Please comment.








8 thoughts on “Back on the Chain Gang”

  1. Your father may not be the model for discerning work-life balance. I think your general analytical approach was about right: time and activity. I think these can be and naturally are delineated. It’s not to say that one can’t enjoy work or social during work, but that one must recognize that as being work (commerce, trade, income-generating, money-focused). There are other activities which may or may not require work, but have nothing at all to do with earning revenue or the art of the deal… simply enjoying experiences (exercise, travel, art, games, family, nature, hobbies, selfless giving) of what it is to be a multi-faceted, well-rounded, living human being.

    There is validity to the idea that work-life can include shades of grey. I humbly hope you don’t, however, delude yourself into thinking that business is living. It’s but one part of what you can do, feel, contribute, achieve, teach. There’s a whole other world of humanity that doesn’t involve you earning, and yet it’s clear you must know this already.

    Great piece on thought process and concept exploration. Cheers!

  2. @Sean when it comes to business, I tend to be guided by two Druckerisms I quote regularly:

    1. The purpose of business is to create a customer.
    2. People make shoes. Money is an end result.

    So when I am “in business” my job is to make shoes. To make shoes so well that people want to give me their custom, become a customer of mine. To enjoy making shoes, making shoes well, making shoes with a passion. And if I’m any good at it, money will come.

    Some of the things I do will give others pleasure. Some will give me personal satisfaction. Some of it will teach me something. Some of it will help me teach others. Some of it others will want to pay for. All of it is life. Some of it is business. Business is a part of life, not the other way around. Which is why I find the separation hard to understand.

  3. @sean and yes, I agree, my father was probably not the model but he influenced how I tried to analyse it later. Thanks for the comments and advice

  4. Balance in multiple dimensions is needed for a happy and truly ‘successful’ life – I thought this was a persuasive thought from Adam Fraser: “The lack of space – time to oil and facilitate a flow – between each of our activities, obligations and roles means there is the likelihood of taking anger or frustration from one engagement to the next.”

    As technology erodes the signals and hard-wired rules that used to create these balances semi-automatically, successful people who wish to be genuinely and sustainably productive need to make their own rules and set their own limits. They need to set in motion a virtuous cycle driven by what matters to them. Of course that means deciding what matters, a deeply personal equation not necessarily easy to solve.

  5. JP thank you for a very interesting post – love that it starts with a poem and Doors moves through your and your father’s working and family life ending in provoking me to reflect on how my early life in Belgrade and subsequent working patterns in UK brought me to the current stage where I work mostly from home at all hours.

    It always struck me that “work-life balance” was a wrong term from the start. At least when it comes to being a professional woman this expression was inevitably interpreted as “work-family balance” in the past. It implied an assessment of whether I can be relied to be like a bloke who does not bear children and happily leaves all the home and family cares behind (or in the hands of a capable secretary). Such was the corporate ethos of 1980s and early 1990s London.

    You have brought to my mind Shoshana Zubbof’s book”In the Age of the Machine” and her exploration how the nature of work changed as industralization marched on. For the early workers in the factories it was literally question of “work-life balance” when they had to abandon work at harvest time to tend family fields and ensure their survival.

    But then I remembered my husband’s grandfather who was a reknown classical musician. His students travelled from all over and came to his home for lessons.

    And at this late hour, my husband just came to check why I am still up – in the interest of domestic harmony I will come back in the morning!

  6. In olden days everyone was in the same place most of their lives, for work and for play. Then came factories and towns, and workers went to ‘work’. When you were at work you worked, and when you were at home you had your time to yourself. Times change. The mobiles changed a lot. The factories closed and agile working started to become normalised. So many jobs in the digital world these days you can’t close the door and go home. So many working wives now, so men are often called back to the family in working hours. I think its a case of digital has shrunk the world back to the size we thought it was when we thought the earth was flat and we operated in a small world of our own. Now its a global village, and we don’t have the luxury of staying small. We have to adapt, as humans always have. It was good to read your post last night and I have thought about it a lot. It is good to start to think about these things and get the balance.

  7. JP – couldn’t agree more – “work life balance” always struck me as being odd – surely work is an integral part of my life…

    One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my mother – an English teacher – was that being passionate and engaged with what you do – whether it’s raising your children, keeping a house, being a teacher or writing poetry – is a reward in itself.

    This implicit trade-off “i hate it but I have to do it so I can support my family” fills me with horror – I know that some people truly find themselves in that position – but for many of us, if we took the time we could have a much more fulfilling relationship with the thing that gets us paid.

    I think that Charles makes a very good – and important – point. It is up to all of us to figure out our personal understanding of what matters – this is a scary but fundamentally liberating proposition. It’s a hard problem but luckily – we have a whole lifetime in which to solve it and I think it’s also something which can be addressed iteratively…simply setting out on the voyage is a hugely empowering step.

  8. Danah Boyd’s | Apophenia tag line: Making connections where none previously existed. Till this point to do any level of scalability you’ve needed the resources of national security agency or Google / Facebook perhaps a Walmart / Tesco. However 2013 is shaping up to bring Big Graph Database technologies via machine learning to the enterprise. They are very powerful and eliminate stand to eliminate notions of separation. San Francisco 1st July

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