Forget Balance; Think Equilibrium

by Emily Moorhead, FACHE, ’21

Early in my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about balance. Like the vision of the scales of justice, I imagined if I just kept my composure, I could keep the weight of my personal world in line with that of my professional pursuits.  

Those scales of justice are an apt symbol of just how deluded I’d become in my pursuit of balance. First, because I don’t lead a life where I can neatly fit work into one tidy space and life in another; most of us don’t operate with that kind of binary ease. Second, that my mind conjured up those scales of justice every time I thought of balance reminded me that success or misstep too often comes with (and from a place of) judgment. I was judging myself for failing at a paradigm that was never going to work for me.  

To be sure, there have been those rare and glorious moments when I was enthralled by my own sense of got-it-togetherness – when I was briefly mastering the juggle of mother, colleague, spouse, and general extraordinaire. Like the adage goes, however, this too shall pass – our hardships and our highs. And just as Lady Justice is perched on a pedestal, the sudden loss of footing can be a rough stumble.  

From the dust of “work-life balance” came the rise of “work-life integration.” I aspired to the former; I loathed the latter. A new image came to mind: that of a mother, on the phone with her boss, while at her child’s soccer game, one index finger raised as she mouthed the words, “Just one more minute,” to her spouse. Let’s be clear, this is not a healthy (much less sustainable) image of success. In an era of self-care proselytizing, this seems exceedingly inconsistent. It’s no wonder that feelings of burnout and inadequacy are ubiquitous among working adults.  

So where does this leave us? 

As I was reflecting on my sense of personal and professional weariness, my mind wandered to those few things I know to be absolutely true. I’m a chemist by training, soothed by the certitude of science. So, I rested on the wisdom of my field. Facts like chemical pathways, for example, with predictable reactions. And chemical equilibrium, defined as an energetic state where the concentration of all reactants remains constant. The reactants aren’t necessarily equal, but they’re unchanging and in optimal flow.  

This reflection was my own kind of eureka. I doubted I’d achieve balance and was adamant against pursuing integration. It was equilibrium that I sought.   

Applying this concept to our own lives, the concept of equilibrium is an invitation to start thinking less about work and/versus/or life and start identifying the reactants that are part of our daily rhythm. To get rid of the big mixing bowl of ingredients that we hope turns out alright, and instead single out the aspects of our lives that are essential and fulfilling. The chemist in me thinks of this new framing as a kind of alchemy of the best of ourselves. The shift also moves us from the question, “How can I balance tasks to get more done?” to “How do I want to be?”  

So, as I lay down the proverbial scales and step away from the metaphorical soccer field, I’m heartened by the new image of my beakers and burners, as I identify, mix, and adjust all the elements that will yield a life of purpose and gratitude. Of equilibrium.  

Emily Moorhead, FACHE, is a seasoned healthcare executive, Carol Emmott Fellow, and thought leader. She currently serves as both an interim president and chief operating officer within the Henry Ford Health System.