Customer Service Update #2. More surrealist checkout goings-on over Easter: after my story in the last issue about the M&S checkout person’s egg-related OCD, a reader shared with me her experience of taking up a special offer at Blockbuster Video.  You may have seen their current deal where you can rent three videos for £5.00.  My correspondent was taking up the offer, only to find that one of the three she wanted was not in stock.  “That’s OK,” she told the man at the checkout, “I’ll just take the two.”  “That’ll be £5.50” he replied.  He refused to allow her to have two videos for five pounds, because the offer was for three.  Plus (you may be one step ahead of me here) the computer wouldn’t be able to allow two videos for £5.  This beautifully brings together two of my previous themes: scripted customer service (see and the limitations of technology (see  None of which has anything to do with this week’s topic…..


The Life-Life Balance


I had a conversation a while ago with a workshop participant who confided in me that she found it impossible to enjoy her weekends, because nothing was as exciting as work – and she worked in Compliance, so goodness knows what levels of tedium she reached on an average Saturday night.  She popped into my head earlier this week, when I found myself watching a news item on breakfast TV which turned out to be a thinly veiled plug for a new book on ‘downshifting’.  (If you’re too young to remember the last downshifting craze in the mid 1990s, this is the phenomenon which manifests itself in merchant bankers deciding to opt out of the rat race and become crofters in the Outer Hebrides.)


There are two things which tend to pass unnoticed when well-meaning TV programmes froth about these intrepid heroes who risk everything to find true happiness in a remote corner of the country.  First, has nobody stopped to wonder why only people with at least half a million in the bank seem to find the courage to follow their dreams at whatever cost?  Secondly, when you listen to downshifters talking about their post-rat-race lives, you begin to wonder what possessed them to do it in the first place. 


During the last downshifting craze, I read a book on the subject, one of whose case studies concerned a merchant banker (there’s a surprise) who was now a charcoal burner on some godforsaken island somewhere.  Apparently, his work involves a 24-hour vigil sitting on a hillside staring at smouldering wood (during which his family bring him cups of tea, or willow bark infusion, or some such New Age sustenance).  Reflecting on how fulfilling he finds this life, he observed: “What would I be doing if I’d stayed where I was?  Probably just staring at the television.”  Look, I know a few ‘duvet days’ spent watching Des & Mel would cure most people of the desire to spend more time away from the office, but I’m not sure ‘Charcoal 24’ is a particularly sexy alternative.  Has the world gone mad, or...?


Carl Jung once said: “Conformity is one side of man, Uniqueness is the other.” Employers recognize our impulse to escape the prison of conformity. That’s why they invented ‘Casual Friday’, when everyone comes in wearing Gap chinos to express their individuality. (Come on HR departments, let’s have some creativity: how about ‘Hairy Friday’, or ‘Rare Breeds Friday’, or ‘Gender Swap Friday’?)  We all feel this conflict between wanting to escape and wanting to be secure.  The difficult thing is knowing what to do about it.


A friend of mine was telling me about a book on Buddhism she’d read which suggests that our lives consist in finding a path between two opposing choices.  Having myself just read a book on listening skills, I energetically empathised and launched into a lengthy stream of consciousness about the agonies of having to choose between French fries and garlic mash on a restaurant menu.  After she woke up, my friend explained that the point she’d been trying to make was that we all have some kind of creative tension within us, as we struggle to find the ‘balance’ between the two paths. 


In other words, the banker who yearns to burn charcoal probably shouldn’t be doing one to the exclusion of the other, but would be better served finding a way to bring his banker and burner sides together.  Otherwise, he runs away from the inadequacies of one, only to run headlong into the inadequacies of the other.  If you’ve ever found yourself thinking: “I’ll be much happier once I’ve got this new job/house/car/book about crofting in the Outer Hebrides” then you’ll probably understand what I mean. 


The zeitgeist around ‘work-life balance’ is always an interesting one.  What does it actually mean?  Statistically, Britons work the longest hours in Europe, a fact which is usually taken as evidence that we’re all dissatisfied and spiritually bankrupt.  But the Britons who by and large work the longest hours – the self-employed – are statistically the most satisfied with their lot.  At fault is a misreading of the word ‘balance’; we think of work-life balance as meaning not working longer than 9-5 and never reading emails at the weekend; but I rather like the definition by C. Brooklyn Dere who in Managing the New Careerists thinks of it as balancing not hours, but meaningfulness between work and personal life. 


And there lies the perennial creative challenge for all who work in career development:  helping individuals find a path between two opposing impulses.  Next time you’re walking through your office and see a colleague sitting cross legged on the desk, staring at a lump of smouldering wood, you’ll know they’re half way to cracking it.


© Phil Lowe, 2004