I am a career coach, podcast host and faculty at a globally renowned business school.  The #1 question I am asked is “what is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?”

I plan to be alive much longer to make many more mistakes, but thus far my #1 mistake was believing in work-life balance.  Work-life balance is a common concept. Some now dress it up and call it work-life integration.  The concept implies that work and life are equal sides of a seesaw.  The implied goal is to keep the seesaw horizontal while managing the ups and downs.  (I remember the sugar-high kid banging his end of our seesaw on the playground so hard my buck teeth almost straightened.  His name was Tommy.  I digress.)  

I now know there should be no work-life balance.  There should be only your LIFE…and everything else falls underneath that, including decisions you make about work, relationships, family, health, spirituality, passions, finances, learning.  Obviously work is an important, time-consuming component, but work should be in service of the life you want to live, not be a partner in balance with it.  There’s a difference. 

I didn’t begin to learn this difference until I was on a red-eye from Seattle to Birmingham.  I had been called home from a critically important client project that couldn’t possibly progress without me–my first project as the overall lead at my new employer–and, did I mention, I planned to be promoted within the year.  A blockage in Dad’s left anterior descending artery (LAD), a proximal LAD lesion, had him now under sedation.  He survived the Widow Maker procedure while I was hurling at 35,000 feet for 5 hours reflecting on his principled life.  Literally hurling, btw.  As a two-million-miler, that remains the only flight when I’ve used the barf bag for barf.  

I had quiet, dark time in the air that night to think about my own life.  How do I know if I’m making the right decisions for the life I want to live? I thought, “If someone speaks at my funeral about Donna’s amazing abilities to build a merger integration playbook, I’m gonna be pissed.”  I’ll be dead, of course, but I’ll also be pissed.  I thought about the companies I most admire and how they make big decisions.  Nike, Tesla, Johnson & Johnson, Accenture, Starbucks.  They have Core Values that steer behavior, that take a stand, that create the future they envision.  

I thought, why don’t I have this steerage for my own life?  What are my Core Values?  How do my Core Values guide decisions for the future I want to live in?  And thus began my learning from a big mistake.  There is no work-life seesaw to balance.  There is only my LIFE at the top of a jungle gym–and all decisions I make–including those about work–are the scaffolding in service of that life I want to live, not in balance with it.  

My Core Values are Curiosity, Freedom and Respect.  I am curious what big mistake I will next freely make. I respect I will have much to learn from it too.