The One Question

Gerwig 2014-04-04

Has a question ever haunted you? Now I don’t mean truly haunted (as in “ghosts”), I mean haunted as in caused you to think. Really think. Long and hard. You know, the hard kind of thinking.

Not long ago I was traveling in Seattle for business and I heard a wise man discussing work in general and work-life balance in particular. He was talking with a group of professionals from many industries and geographies about a variety of leadership topics. The subject of work-life balance came up. Some of the professionals were concerned about being able to successfully balance work, family, friends, and personal interests.

The wise executive said, the question you need to settle is, “Are you all in?” He went on to explain that if you’re “all in” then work doesn’t seem like work. If you’re not “all in” then it will difficult to work out an equitable balance between work and “life.” Simple enough. But disturbing.

You see I want work-life balance. I want to have a successful job and I want to have a successful life outside of work. I want to spend time with my family. I want to have hobbies. I want to serve at church and in the community. I want to have it all so to speak, a great job AND a great life outside of work.

At first, I thought this executive was being overly career-focused. You know, solely concerned about titles and executive compensation, a successful workaholic (assuming that’s not an oxymoron). Yet all week I thought about his question. “Are you all in?” The question burned in my mind all week. And made me restless.

Was the guy a type-A workaholic? Was he serious? Or was he simply spouting off some “pyscho-babble?” I wasn’t sure. What I did know was that during the week as I enjoyed the seafood bounty of the Pacific Northwest and the famously strong local espresso, the question rattled around in the back of my head. The one question. “Are you all in?”

The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. And, the more it made sense. The question is the key. To ignore it, is to be in limbo. Restless. Frustrated. Confused. To answer the question calls on courage and intellectual honesty. What do you really want? What is important to you? What are your priorities?

You see, despite what you might’ve heard, you can’t have it all. Yes, you can have work-life balance if that means being average at one and great at the other. But you can’t have it all. You can’t be the CEO of a company and enjoy the same amount of discretionary time with your family as a junior engineer. Being a great CEO takes significantly more time than an entry-level engineer. And while you may work hard to achieve work-life balance as a great CEO, the demands of the job will prevent you from having the same amount of time as a mid-level sales manager, a school teacher, etc.

You must make choices. If you want to be the CEO, you must make tradeoffs (and that’s assuming you have the opportunity to be the CEO to begin with). If you want to be the head coach, or the sales VP, or the high school principal or the … (you get the idea), you must make tough decisions. You must prioritize and make tradeoffs.

Do I mean to imply that job success and family time are mutually exclusive? No. What I’m trying to say is that you can’t have it all and that you need to make choices. To be content requires that you answer “the one question.” Are you all in? The answer isn’t as important as asking the question and being able to answer it, regardless of the answer.

Be intellectually honest. Don’t fool yourself or others around you. Don’t be miserable. Ask and answer the question – are you all in? If you’re not, ok. Just don’t expect the benefits of being all in. If you are all in, then recognize there are trade-offs as well. Just don’t pretend to be all-in if you’re not. Just don’t pretend to not be all-in if you are. Be truthful with yourself.

Whether you’re nearing retirement or just starting. Whether you consider yourself to have a job or a career. Whether you’re near the bottom or the top. Ask and answer the one question. Are you all in?

Don’t ride the fence. Don’t fake it. Don’t be a pretender. Don’t allow bitterness or discontentment to dominate your emotions. Take stock. Answer the question and go from there. Develop a plan. Change your course. Or stay on your current track. But ask and answer the one question. Are you all in?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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