Lessons on Work-Life Balance from the Harry Potter Series

I’ve jokingly said that all of life’s most important lessons can be found in the pages of the Harry Potter series. Since the series is a children’s series, examining the handling of full-time employment isn’t really what most fans spend time thinking about. However, one quote from my favorite character, Molly Weasley, frames a philosophy of work-life balance that is a great guidepost for anyone looking for that elusive “sway” between office and home life:

“Is Mr. Weasley still at work?” Harry asked.

“Yes, he is. As a matter of fact, he’s a tiny bit late. . . he said he’d be back around midnight. . .”

She turned to look at a large clock that was perched awkwardly on top of a pile of sheets in the washing basket at the end of the table. Harry recognized it at once: it had nine hands, each inscribed with the name of a family member, and usually hing on the Weasley’s sitting room wall, though it’s current position suggested that Mrs. Weasley had taken to carrying it around the house with her. Every single one of its nine hands was now pointing at “mortal peril”. 

“It’s been like that for a while now, ” said Mrs. Weasley, in an unconvincingly casual voice, ever since You-Know-Who came back in the open. I suppose everybody is in mortal danger now. . . I don’t think it can be just our family. . . but I don’t know anyone who’s got a clock like this, so I can’t check. Oh!”

With a sudden exclamation, she pointed at the clock’s face. Mr. Weasley’s hand had switched to “traveling”.*

It’s pretty straight forward: the only reason to work such late hours is if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back. It’s is an oversimplification: teachers grade on the weekends, catching up on email on a Sunday while the family is still sleeping helps keep the rest of the week running smoothly, and journalists report the news 24/7. And, of course, I was incredibly happy my doctor stayed past the end of his shift to deliver my son (Thanks, Doctor M!).

Yet it raises the question of how serious and important your work is that it should take you away from home more than a “typical” full-time job? Are you saving lives? Maybe. Do we all have situations that would be full-stop, all-in, work around the clock challenges? Of course. What I appreciate most in how Molly presents her husband working long hours and weekends is that: yes, it’s happened before and no, it’s not typical. This event in the Harry Potter series magically gave me permission to think about the times I was pulling long hours: did the reason why I was in the office on nights and weekends make sense? Was it because of a singular event like the Dark Lord returning? Or was it a habit and expectation that could be revised?

In my career journey, I’ve experienced both. Working in event management in the early 2000s meant I was on call all the time. Calls about menu decisions at 7:15 AM on a Saturday didn’t seem as critical once it became a typical issue that could be solved during normal work hours but somehow only was a priority on the weekends. Working in financial services in 2007 – 2008 meant all hands on deck: to the point where I knew where the motion sensors were to make sure the lights stayed on past 8 PM. Being able to recognize when something was creeping into “how I work all the time” to “rise to the challenge for a short time” helps me keep perspective on my mindset about work.

Another way the wisdom of Harry Potter helps me frame challenges in my profession life is how J.K. Rowling presented villains and challenges. Lord Voldemort is the ultimate baddie, the problem to end all problems, the one that cannot be ignore and must be challenged. Delores Umbridge is a henchman, a dangerous person that must be managed yet will rise or fall in not on her own, but with the real problem of Voldy. Bellatrix Lestrange is flat-out crazy, and Draco Malfoy is a victim of his circumstances. Peeves is just that – an annoyance. The Dursleys can be escaped and overcome, eventually. And so on. When a situation or person pops up in my life as a challenge, it helps me to try to figure out if what I’m dealing with is on the order of magnitude of Lord Voldemort or perhaps Argus Filch, and adjust my reactions and energy accordingly. So far, I’ve definitely met an Umbridge or two, but have personally avoided a Dark Lord scenario.

And, in the interest of sharing lessons learned based on Harry Potter, here’s a pro-tip: If you do decide to draft your own casting list of all the major Harry Potter characters and who holds their equivalence in your real life, don’t do it on stationary with your name on it. And don’t lose the list. At least, not until you’ve figured out how to enchant that parchment a la Messrs Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs.

Note: June 26, 2017 was the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. Now would be a good time to reread the series: I recommend the illustrated versions now available or the amazing audiobooks read by Jim Dale.

 

*From Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Chapter: An Excess of Phelgm, page 85.

15 minutes happier: Rainbow Photo Safari

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Happiness Exercise #2: Rainbow Photo Safari

When to use: When you’re stuck in a routine that feels like a grind or need new perspective.

Supplies: the outdoors, a camera, comfortable shoes

Instructions: On a 15 minute walk, challenge yourself to snap pictures of:

  • Something in each color of the ROY B. GIV rainbow (beginner)
  • Things you see in order of the rainbow: find something red before looking for something orange, and so on (intermediate)
  • Seven things in each color category over 15 minute walks each day of the week: red on Monday, orange on Tuesday, etc. (expert)

Why it works:

  • Taking pictures instead of only noticing the colors around you encourages the mind to shift perceptive
  • Being outside in the fresh air engages all your senses, helping increase the likelihood you’ll focus on being in the moment
  • Looking for specific colors increases the changes you’ll notice something new about your environment – even if it’s your neighborhood you’ve walked daily. Who knew your neighbor has a purple front door?

Pro-tip: Something that is pink may look red when lined up in order with the other colors of the rainbow, and something almost white can look yellow when between orange and blue. Give yourself leeway to be creative in what “counts” in your rainbow.

 

About 15 minutes happier exercises
Why 15 minutes? Because anyone can find at least 15 minutes in the day for themselves.
Why be happier? Well, why not? To make a business case for this investment of your time, several studies have shown happiness drives success, not the other way around. If we want to succeed in building fulfilling and purpose-driven lives, a good place to start is to make sure we’re doing things to make ourselves happy. Each exercise is designed to be done anywhere and at any time. I like to actually leave my desk for a lunch break a few times a week – not too much to ask! Find 15 minutes in your schedule, and let’s get started. Let me know how your 15 minutes went in the comments – or if you have an idea for a future happiness exercise.

 

Purpose vs. a Paycheck

“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”
“Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“Make passion your paycheck.”

I’m all for inspirational quotes – but these three platitudes get me especially fired up. Because really, how many of us are in a financial position to only do work that calls out to our souls? To make passion your paycheck means it’s likely someone else is putting the food on the table – and we all have to eat. Looking at work separate from the rest of your life is a reductive perspective. I prefer to think of an entire life as a system; a mutually supportive ecosystem where what we do to create financial stability isn’t all we are.
Your purpose may not be your job at all.

How to know how close your job is to your purpose? I use The Lottery Question as my go-to question to get a reading on how someone is feeling about their work and purpose. It’s simple: What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow? 

There are three primary answers:

  1. Stay! I’d invest my winnings wisely, maybe go on a big trip, but at the end of the day I’d keep going in to work.
  2. Sashay! I’d be out that door so fast that hopefully I’d remember to take my family pictures off my desk.
  3. Delay! I’d give two weeks notice, wrap up my current work and transition things to the rest of my team before heading on to Disney World.

Stay! I am inspired by my friends who would keep working – but it’s a short list and frankly, not that common. If you fall into this category, share your story – how’d you get to do the work you love and earn the necessary money to support yourself? Ask yourself why you would stay and if those elements could change. If they did change, what would you do?

Sashay! If you’d you’d sashay out the door, calling out “Later, suckers!”, do you know why you’re in the job you’re in right now? It can be a lot easier to face Monday morning not going to your dream job if you know that it’s making travel, health care benefits, or living in a certain part of the country possible. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, do you know why? Is it the commute, a boss that micromanages, a boring project? If you can pin-point why you’re doing the work you’re doing and why you don’t enjoy it, you will start to see solutions for making smaller changes will have a positive impact without overhauling your career. Advocating for a new project assignment, negotiating a flex schedule to avoid the commute, learning how to manage your boss… now there are actions you can take to improve a less-than-ideal situation without giving up the reasons for why you need this specific job.

Delay! If you know what you’d do with your time after getting back from that amazing vacation following your two weeks’ notice, do more of whatever that is now. The issue I take with the saccharine “love your job, never work” advice is that it comes from a position of privilege implying we all have the choice to not worry about financial concerns. It would be fantastic if we all had work that we wouldn’t leave for lottery winnings – yet it’s aspirational. “Delay” is the sweet spot – work that doesn’t make Sunday nights miserable yet leaves room for our passions and purpose outside of the workplace.

In a past life, I worked in attorney recruitment at a DC-based law firm. One employee I spoke to a only handful of times taught me key lessons on how to think about what our “real work” can be. She is now a well-known author who ran the legal library after stepping out of a litigation career to focus on her writing. She had a solid, corporate 9-to-5 job with good benefits fueling her purpose, rather than being the purpose itself. To be fair, she is a full-time writer now.

Spend time on your purpose and your paycheck: both are critical, not mutually exclusive and certainly not necessary to fully integrate in order to be happier. If you want to keep reading about this topic, here are 5 Reasons to Ignore the Advice To Do What You Love.