It probably won’t surprise you to know that, though 90% of what I share online relates to my work, thinking about breakpoints, JS plugins, and fonts isn’t all I do.

I love my family. I like science fiction movies and F1 racing. I worry about whether or not my hair is going to fall out (which probably increases the chance that it’ll actually happen).

I bet you’re the same. What you share online only captures a fragment of who you are as a person. Your stream of photos, status updates, links, and posts most likely revolves around a handful of interests, and that’s what the online world knows of you. A few days ago, Joshua Blankenship expressed this really well in a couple of tweets:

What I share on the web (and am known for) is mostly work-related. I love that part of my life, but it’s just one part. If I focus too much on that one aspect (Trent-the-worker) I often wonder if I, myself, am in danger of becoming a “poor substitute” in real life. Consider this crude personal examination exercise:

work values

I’ve circled the 5 words that I most associate with my work. They echo what, as far back as I can remember, my parents hoped for me as I was growing up: “Find something that makes you happy.” And I have, but there’s a catch: finding fulfillment and joy in my job muddies the waters when it comes to work-life balance. I find both work and leisure on the web. Even after I’m through working, hobbies often pull me back to the web, and thus back into the world of work.

For example, say I point out a typeface to my son while at a restaurant on a Saturday. I think about using it on a project. I tweet a photo of the typeface. I begin looking for webfont options. I post them to basecamp. As mashed potatoes squish out from between my two year old’s fingers, I realize that somewhere along the line I got lost and allowed myself to be drawn back into focusing on what I’m known for instead of taking the opportunity to be known by my son.

It takes effort to separate my work from my life in moments like these. Happily, I find that it gets easier with practice, and I’m a better husband, parent, friend, etc., for it.

My friend Naz (who I’ve always considered to be one of the most well-balanced industry friends I have) captures this side human complexity perfectly by comparing it to a drained lake:

Laid bare was the scum, algae and rocks, making up the foundation and guts of the vessel. Exposed, for all to see. Similarly, this is how I feel about who we are and what we do and this world we live in. On the surface, we can look fantastic — smooth, calm and at our best. But at our essence is a complex ecosystem and environment that let us present the version of us, our work or our lives, that we want everyone else to experience.

Investing time and effort into being known and knowing others (in my work or in my life) allows me to better do the work that I want to be known for. The online me is only one facet of who I am. That’s okay. I’ll accept your poor substitute on the web if you’ll accept mine. I’d rather spend my time wiping off mashed potatoes.

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49 Responses

Leave a comment or contact me via Twitter @TrentWalton

  • Matt

    I guess we’re all just trying to find that middle path.

  • TJ

    It’s easy to get lost in your work, especially when it’s enjoyed. Glad you shared this.

  • derrick kempf

    Your best thoughts on here yet. It is indeed very interesting how we can literally create a picture of who we are with the web, but that picture reflects only part of who we are and can fail to capture those real things that help form who we are and affect us deeply... relationships, with real people. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what/who is most valuable to you. It shows how those worlds for you are merging and being lived out more holistically. You are not alone.

  • Anthony

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about a lot of the same things recently. It definitely is hard to keep a good balance when you love what you do.

  • Ben Johnson

    This is great and its a real issue that lots of people in and out the the web world face. I constantly find myself doing the same thing where I am at home/relaxing and find myself in my work again because my interests overlap. I find its a constant learning experience on how to balance that work-life relationship. Good insight and thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts Trent!

  • Chris

    Thanks, Trent. I also think the web industry has a tendency to blur the lines between work colleagues and friends, making the whole work/life balance even more difficult. When working with friends, it’s all too easy to slide into work conversations when the time and place don’t necessitate it.

  • Calvin

    Thanks for this. Being rather new to the industry, I feel the tug all of the time to put more and more hours into perfecting my craft. But hearing this from someone who has been established in the industry is very heart warming and encouraging, and lets me feel like I don’t really have to sacrifice my family to get there.

    Thanks again!

  • Clint

    Yes. Thank you for posting this.

  • Kevan

    Thank you for your insight into this hard-to-discuss-even-with-myself topic. I’ve often wrestled with this line of thinking - I have this need to share where my mind is pre-occupied about (inspiration, typography, design, etc.) but yet in that same moment I recognize that these thoughts do not make up the totality of who I am. Thanks for pointing this out and I look forward to how you continue to think through this.

  • Mike

    Thanks for sharing your point of view. I find it refreshing to be around friends and family (not in our industry) who could care less about what I made on the internet.

  • Matthew

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and struggles with this, Trent. Our crafts, fascination and passion can lead to personae that we are placed in by others, and sometimes trapped in by ourselves.

  • Jessie

    Tender stuff, Trent. Thanks for writing this. As a web wife, I thank you.

  • Rick

    Brave of you to share this. I think it’s one of those things we all think about, but I’m grateful for how you put it here. Love the lake example. Gonna remember that. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jesse Gardner

    There’s another facet of this I’ve been struggling with, one that I can summarize best by explain in terms of writing: writing for my blog and writing for the sheer joy of writing. I’ve found myself *not* writing because I don’t have the time or stamina to flesh an idea out enough to make it presentable. Consequently, a lot of the joyful exuberance that comes from just doing a thing is lost and I’m stuck in “how does this contribute to my overall reputation” mode—a lousy place to live.

  • Matt Heerema

    Thought experiment: why worry about the segmentation? If you are able to integrate your “work” into the rest of your “life”, and vice versa (showing your son a typeface, and explaining it, looking it up together, etc), is there actually a problem?

    If you neglect your family and other duties because of work, there is a problem, but the problem flows the other way as well.

    You are a true craftsman. Your vocation (calling in life) seems to be to this realm. It shows in all of your work. You are one of the best I’m aware of. Perhaps the constant tying of things back to your “work” isn’t actually a bad thing, perhaps it is simply who you are.

    We are often told not to let our work define who we are. But why not? Can we really cut it out of or separate it from our core identity?

    Methinks there is an unhealthy dualism in the air of our culture that causes us strain in this area, where there ought be none.

  • Cesar

    Well put, Trent. I love these moments of reflection. It’s so true that our “web persona” is just a fraction of who we really are. Thank you for sharing. I still think you’re a great writer. :)

  • Chris Coyier

    I think this is partly why Twitter is so great. A lot of us share all more parts of our life there than we do elsewhere. I *like* seeing photos of what people ate for breakfast sometimes. I follow people that I like, and it gives me a little more connection with that person, beyond the #hotdrama and #coolinks.

  • Ced Funches

    Great article. It’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit and forget that what makes you the designer you are includes the things people don’t see. I’m much more content with my life and family. It honestly has helped me be a better designer.

  • Diana Simakhov

    I really enjoyed reading this article! As a mom, this is my struggle every day.

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Rogie

    I’m with you, 100%. I’m in the same conversation with myself. But, something about what Matt Heerema says intrigues me. What if work bled into life...and we actually let life bleed into work too. What if they weren’t separate.

  • Luca De Luise

    Thanks for this post. Cherish the fact that you love what you do for a living. No doubt, the joy coming from your work will shine on your real life and on the people around you.

  • Robert Banh

    Family is a great anchor. It keeps you stable. I also hear some people limit screen time at night so that they’re not hyper at 10pm b/c they just read a blog about a new web technology, which then leads to hacking at midnight. Great post sir.

  • Trent

    @Jesse Gardner: I know what you mean. This still rings true to me.

    @Chris Coyier:

    I *like* seeing photos of what people ate for breakfast sometimes. I follow people that I like, and it gives me a little more connection with that person, beyond the #hotdrama and #coolinks

    +1

    @Matt Heerema & @Rogie:

    We are often told not to let our work define who we are. But why not? Can we really cut it out of or separate it from our core identity?

    For me, I think that’s great unless the worker part of our identity begins to diminish others. This practically manifests in the choices we have to make: Do we check email at dinner with a friend? Stuff like that.

  • Dalton Blankenship

    One of my husband’s favorite phrases is: “When you’re hip deep in alligators, it’s hard to remember your original objective was to drain the swamp.” I spent thirty-one years fulfilling my childhood dream to be an RN. My second dream was to be a wife and mother. There was never a day that I was not at odds with myself as to whether I was doing the ‘right thing’ by having a career, because I so wanted to be at home being a wife and mother.

    My children (one of whom is said Joshua Blankenship) say I did a good job and I have begun to own that, knowing that I did the best that I could. I don’t think I would have been as good at either thing had I not fulfilled that dream.

    If we have that burn to create, it is put there before birth and I truly believe we have to honor it. It’s the HOW that give pause. As long as we make ourselves aware that we have the work/family blessing within which we can exercise that creativity and make the effort to see that is IS a blessing, then it is less of a pull to ‘either/or.’ I wish I could have realized that much, much sooner. Enjoy the mashed potato years. They are far too fleeting. Trust me.

  • Ben Peck

    This really resonated with me. I often feel that in our fast pasted changing profession I find it hard to turn my work brain off just so I can keep up. I also have the challenge that my work is my play.

    Finding the steady balance if hard to find. Mine tends to be more of a wavy balance.

  • Scott Gilbertson

    I’ve been struggling with this same thing for some time, but from the opposite angle. I’ve got a new “work”-related venture and I spent months trying to decide whether the new project should be part of my more “life”-related site, which I’ve been creating in a fairly narrow, single faceted way, or its own thing. I ended up going with its own thing, which I still think is the right decision even if the split feels artificial in many ways.

    Now I’m think that if I had decided to mixed writing about bad python code, travel and responsive design, at least Chris Coyer might have liked the site.

  • Tone

    Great article and food for thought. Something I think many people can relate to.

    The timing of this article is coincidental in the fact that someone just released a project called becausetheinter.net

    It points out those blurred lines we consciously and subconsciously set between work | life. Being comfortable or vulnerable enough in exposing ones “dry lake” in the form of being authentic.

    My apologies Trent. Not trying to plug anything but a common thread in today’s digital age. I find it, and your article, absolutely fascinating.

  • Hendrik-Jan Francke

    Thanks for helping take a look at myself from 50,000ft.

  • Ben Callahan

    Something I evaluate and struggle through daily. This is a beautiful perspective. Thanks for sharing, Trent.

    It’s also interesting to me that you qualify Naz as an “industry friend.” I have made that separation in the past, but the longer I do this work the more blurry that line becomes.

  • Francois Royer Mireault

    That was very honest.

    My girlfriend helped me realize that when she asked me: “Why do you put all this work crap on your twitter bio? You’re much more that a bunch of URLs and @s”.

    We kinda get stuck in this pattern because we see a lot of people doing it. Oh, this guy is the perfect entrepreneur and all he’s doing is talking about work, sharing links and blabla, I’ll do too.

    In reality, it’s much more interesting to discover the complete picture. The one that include weird passions and non-work related hobbies.

  • Steve O'Connor

    Great piece. You’ve made me realise that my work/life balance is pretty good and I should stop feeling guilty for not having myriad ‘interesting’ side projects.

    Work - enjoyable work - is selfish, family first.

  • Michael Ware

    I’m reading this on a Saturday morning instead of cleaning the house. :)
    Because so much of a web worker’s reputation and job prospects are based on side projects, blogging, contributing and just staying current, I feel constant pressure to rob my personal and political life in order to match the pace of the design/dev community as a whole. Only a lucky few can log these activities as billable time or part of our salaried workday.
    While it’s often fun, the dev/design community should take Trent and other’s words to heart and SLOW DOWN THE PACE. Avoid burnout. Turn off the computer after 7pm. Demand time to train and contribute on the clock, or work it into your hourly rate somehow.
    Our family and friends will be glad we did it. And the corporations who often benefit from the beauty we create don’t deserve our unpaid labor.

  • matthew carleton

    Hey Trent,
    Thanks for writing this. I can certainly relate, we just had our first kid this year. I work on my own so I have a lot of the same challenges.

    It’s a good reminder to keep focused on what’s important.

  • Manjit

    Trent,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with them. I too have struggled with this and held back on sharing many personal thoughts and interests publicly; mainly because it does not seem relevant to “others” or necessary to share.

  • Greg Marcus

    Trent, I agree with you 100% about the benefits of practice to keep work out of those moments when we are with family and friends. I find it also helps to seek out people who also favor boundaries between work and the other parts of life. (That way they don’t start bringing up work when you are trying to watch the basketball game.) This is the first time I’ve visited your blog, and I look forward to your next post.

  • Chad Engle

    Hey Trent,
    I really loved the thoughts on this, especially sharing the lake quote from Naz. I struggle with many times as well and sometimes rarely use my social media stuff as “personal” and instead, use it for design related stuff. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and thank you for an inspiring read.

  • Brad Frost

    @Chris Coyier: Exactly. As much as I use Twitter as a tool for professional growth, I’ve made so many Twitter-to-IRL friends that I can’t draw a line between work and life.

  • Chandler Van De Water

    It’s crazy how having a kid has made me reconsider how I spend my time. Old habits die hard, so it’s not without some angst that I attempt to practice what you wrote about here. This was encouraging, though. I needed to read this today.

  • Theo

    Beautiful reflection. I really enjoyed reading this post. You will mostly never know what’s behind the guy you know “online” if it’s not your personal friend...

  • GoodBytes

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m sure many of us feel the same way. Some of my college students already feel the pressure of always keeping up and comparing themselves to all these great Dribbblers and they haven’t even started work yet.

    One of them told me that he had the feeling that he couldn’t find a moment of rest/piece anymore because there was always something he should be learning. Balance, I hope it’ll be the buzzword for 2014 so that the industry as a whole reflects more on this.

  • Ryan Boone

    I think most people are incredibly complex, and we are, to a certain degree, walking paradoxes. It’s difficult to convey these complexities online if we are also interested in speaking a particular message to a particular audience. You’re “diluting your brand,” so to speak. The tricky part is to make being human part of your brand, and I think you and many other professionals do a great job of it.

  • Robert Fauver

    Such an important topic to be conscious of maintaining to balance your life. Working causes enough strain on your relationship with others on a day to day basis. If you don’t spend your time wisely you could damage without you realizing it.

    I feel that most Ad Agencies don’t understand or care about work/life balance.

    As a contractor, I’ve worked at Ad Agencies, Corporations, Small Design studios, etc. I’ve found that it’s the larger more established companies that are more aware of their employees needs. Ad Agencies,in general, are adept to think about the client demands. At agencies it’s common to here, “We’re putting out a fire, Working the weekend to meet the deadline, We were here til 3AM last night, etc.” That’s bullshit and I feel that it’s almost always self inflicted. Most of the people I’ve meet at an agency, that have been there for a while, don’t have kids, complain that their spouse complains that they never see them, pride themselves on being workaholics and appear to be miserable.

    I actually love working in a larger corporations. I don’t wear jeans on Fridays or the day before a holiday. I’m not allowed to drink at lunch. I try not to curse. I wear a tie and black dress shoes most days.

    I spend my day writing CSS, JavaScript and HTML. I enjoy every minute of it. I spend my nights, morning and weekends with my family. I love every minute of it.

  • conrad

    reading last post made me start to think I’m a workholic

  • Tom

    Great article, really enjoyed while reading. Keep going.

  • Nick

    Good stuff Trent. Hit home. Just me and the four kids this week and this struggle has been unrelenting. I love seeing our community change as we enter new life stages. Our priorities are shifting. Where we used to impress each other with perfectly executed visual fluff, we now impress each other with humanity and imperfect parenting. As designers we have the tendency to want things to appear perfect to all viewers. In work and family. The web makes this possible and tempting so it’s a gift to all of us when any one of us pulls the veil back.

    Thanks

  • Ratko Solaja

    Good points there. As you mentioned, it’s hard to balance those things in life. When I think about my day, it usually ends up me working even though I don’t need to. I finish with my work, I try to enjoy spend my free time by doing something, but in 99% of time, the internet draws me back in. It seems like internet has a tight grip on me. It’s not much about the internet as it is about how much I love what I do. And with every new idea, with every new glimpse of what I can do when the inspiration strikes me, it’s just hard to separate life from work.

  • Aubrey Taylor

    Trent, A very thoughtful article. I enjoyed reading it.

  • Catherine

    Great article! :)

  • Ryan

    What a great article. Some very good points raised!

    It’s so hard to separate work with our personal life, and with a computer almost always available, somehow you seem drawn towards it.

    In the web design world, it’s all about balance, and schedules, and finding an equal distribution of time.

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