A number of separate incidents left me thinking a lot about work/life balance these last couple of weeks: research deadlines near the start of term had me working a lot on weekends, bouts of sleeplessness had me up at my desk before 5am for several days running, multiple students came by to talk about academic career issues, and I heard yet another discussion on the oft-heard wisdom that older people nearing the end of life are more reflective/proud/wistful/etc of encounters they had with people than with long hours spent at work. It was enough to induce frenzied angst about overwork even in my calmest moments.
Yet, it didn't, and not because I was too stressed to think about it. I'm actually bemused by how calm I've been these last 3 weeks, especially in contrast to how uncalm I was under similar workloads in the fall. When I consider working less, part of me stops and wonders "to replace it with what?" And this just after having one of those moments with a dear friend that I will recall for the rest of my life as one that truly mattered.
Driving to work after a wet snowfall earlier this month, I was struck by how blindingly beautiful the highway was surrounded by bare trees coated with strong clean snow as thick as the branches themselves. Immersed in that powerful image, I suddenly knew that what stays with me over the years are powerful emotional and sensory moments. If I aim to live a life that I won't regret in the end, amassing powerful moments like these seems critical. And some of my most vivid memories of being human and real have come from work. I have both emotional and muscular recall of certain seconds when I saw specific research problems in a new way. I can replay segments of lectures given ages ago that were on song. These remind me that I am human and alive as much as the analogous treasured moments with friends, family, or nature.
Of course, it's often far too easy to get lost in the aspects of work that won't lead to moments like this. There's a lot of seemingly pointless work even in the unfettered academic life. But this insight gives me a metric: if I'm going to spend hours at the desk, do it to work on something hard and interesting enough to create those moments of a lifetime. At that point, it's not work. It's living.