work-life balance

New Zealand, professional nourishment, parenthood and opportunities


On Guy Fawkes Night I set off for New Zealand, where I pursued the most exciting opportunity of my professional life. It was AMAZING. But I also won't be doing it, or anything like it, again - for a very long time. Because it's a pretty selfish act, to go away for 8 days and leave your spouse and children to it, just because you get to do a cool thing. This post is partly unpacking that and partly writing about the fantastic experience of going to the LIANZA Conference.

Shed 6, where the conference took place, is on the left of this picture, near the crane. Amazing venue!

Shed 6, where the conference took place, is on the left of this picture, near the crane. Amazing venue!

(Email subscribers! There's a lot of pictures in this one. If they're not displaying view the original post online.)

Taking opportunities

I am by nature both overly cautious, and overly lazy. As it happens falling into librarianship has sorted both those things out for the most part. It's not that I'm 'cured' of them, just that they're both constantly superseded by circumstances. I care about my job and the profession enough to stop me being lazy or cautious most of the time.

But it's always there, in me. Often I secretly hope things I'm committed to will fall through. When I went to the LIASA Conference in Cape Town the travel didn't get sorted for ages, and I started to get genuinely hopeful the whole thing would be called off. But it got sorted, and I had an absolutely incredible experience. It's always the way. 

So when the chance came up to go to LIANZA in Wellington (thanks to my bad fonts...) I was conflicted - I really, really wanted to go, because a) it was such an honour - to do a Keynote at an international conference, and I feel incredibly fortunate to get that sort of opportunity in the first place b) it was in Wellington, which sounded like an amazing place, and c) because I didn't want to give in to the lazy and cautious part of me and not pursue an extraordinary opportunity. In the negative column was a) I'd have to be away from my family for at least a week, which would be hard for me and also for them - solo parenting = zero fun a lot of the time, and b) I'd have to spend time at the weekends preceding the conference writing the keynote, and prepping the workshop I was also going to do while I was over there, and c) the journey door to door is about 35 hours each way, which is not much fun.

The positive column won over the negative column. Fundamentally I didn't want to turn down the greatest professional opportunity I'd ever been given. I asked my wife if I could do this, and she said yes - but really, it's not that meaningful to have done that, because she's not the kind of person who's going to say 'no, you must stay with us'. But she was dreading it. It loomed large in the calendar for us as a family - something to get to the other side of unscathed. I was excited, but it felt like a selfish excitement.

#SHOUT15 itself

I felt quite odd during the conference because I found it incredibly difficult with what was happening at home (more on which below) to be away, but it was perhaps the most professionally nourishing thing I'd ever done. I LOVED it.

The conference was fantastic. It was very much a shared experience for librarianship in New Zealand. I felt this about LIASA for South Africa too - and missed not having that in the UK. We don't have a single conference that unites everyone, that everyone in the profession catches up at. It's a shame, because it's a great feeling to be among a community who share so much understanding.

The powhiri begins...

The powhiri begins...

We started with a powhiri - a Māori ritual ceremony of encounter. It's hard to describe - it involved all of us lining up inside the venue, and then entering as part of a sung call and response between our leader and those inside the building, which established we were friend rather than foe. Here we are all lined up, ready to go.

It was exciting! Everything about the opening to the event was vibrant - I genuinely feel for any New Zealanders coming to UK conferences because we can't promise anything quite as involving over here! 

The first keynote was from Sarah Houghton, who has achieved quite a high level of librarianship-celebrity with her Librarian in Black blog. She was talking about library ethics and privacy, and it was something I needed to hear. I believe in a notion of librarian ethics, but often on twitter it's assumed there's a universal set of values we all subscribe to. It's not really something that's ever come up, in my career, outside of the twitter and blogs discussions. I'm not sure staff are being told what our general values are, only those of the institutions they work in. (I may be wrong, but that's my experience of it.)

So to have Sarah lay out exactly what it means to be a librarian in terms of ethics and values, and to give several examples of not just what not to do but what we CAN do, was very valuable to me in shifting this whole conversation to a firmer footing in my head. Sarah's slides are here.

A picture Justin took to say hello to Jan Holmquist and Andromeda Yelton, our Buyalib partners

A picture Justin took to say hello to Jan Holmquist and Andromeda Yelton, our Buyalib partners

Justin and Ines Almeida

Justin and Ines Almeida

Then Justin Hoenke did his thing. I'll put a link to his keynote here when he uploads it, but you can watch the talk right away if you wish. I was unbelievably excited about meeting Justin, because we'd worked together before, but remotely, and it pleased both of us that we'd finally meet in so far-flung a location for someone from the US and someone from the UK... Amazingly it lived up to the hype, too - we spent a lot of time together and I absolutely loved it. I'm crap at being myself with people I've just met, but with Justin and with Ines from LIANZA I was able to do that right away, which is a rare and exciting thing for me that is so liberating it feels like flying.

Justin's talk was ace, and watching him deliver a talk in a very laid-back style made me, as someone who also tries to present as conversationally as possible, really excited about talking to this group of people. They were receptive and engaged and enthusiastic - perfect. I've never wanted to work in public libraries so much as when watching Justin talk: the difference he's made to his community both in his previous job and his current one is just amazing! It was inspiring.

Kim Tairi's slides were BEAUTIFUL and are online here - she uses her own drawings and I really like the style. Like all good slides they don't tell you the whole story, so you can watch her talk here. It was pretty amazing to hear Kim's talk because she seems like one of us, but she runs a library! She's in charge of a whole academic library! Justin and Kim are both (I think) somewhere around my age, and although I don't envy them being bosses I'm hugely admiring of their ability to do it. 

As I said in my talk, doing a keynote at an international conference felt like a big responsibility. I was as far away from my house as it's possible to get without coming back the other way, and although I didn't ask for a fee it still cost LIANZA a small fortune in plain tickets and hotels to get me there. I felt like my talk was positioned at the ideal time - Sarah and Justin had to open the thing, which is pressure; David Lankes had to close the thing, which is pressure; Kim had to speak first thing the night after the Gala Dinner, which is very tough indeed! My talk was 3 days in, and in the afternoon, and I felt really ready for it and happy with the slot. Usually I practice the first 10 minutes of a talk so I know how I'm going to start, and then allow things to flow from there - for this one I practiced the whole thing in full THREE times! I've watched it back and there's a few things I'd change, but it's basically a presentation that's as close to how I'd wanted it to go as it was possible to get. The people in the room were LOVELY: so supportive and responsive and engaged. It felt great. Thanks to everyone who tweeted such kind things, too.

If you're interested in the library marketing manifesto I presented, the slides and recording are elsewhere on the blog.

A picture of me presenting which I don't hate!

A picture of me presenting which I don't hate!

The audience being warmed up before my talk...

The audience being warmed up before my talk...

In the UK I normally cap workshops at 20 - this one had about 130! I think it sort of worked, although I should have trimmed it down a bit further

In the UK I normally cap workshops at 20 - this one had about 130! I think it sort of worked, although I should have trimmed it down a bit further

David Lankes started his talk by saying 'I'm glad I get to go last as I can correct Ned and Justin's keynotes...' which I liked. There were indeed things in David's (masterfully delivered) address which I disagree with, but I think people appreciated getting multiple perspectives. I certainly enjoyed the through-line of conversation between all the various talks - I quoted several of the other keynotes in mine and found them all to be valuable in shaping my thoughts. David has done a lot of big talks like this one, but it's still a new thing for me - he was very supportive, which I appreciated. We went to the amazing World War I exhibition at Te Papa and afterwards agreed that, in the grand scheme of things, the stuff we disagree about doesn't really matter...

Wellington is a fantastic place. I had no days there where the conference wasn't on, and there was always something in the programme I wanted to be at, so I only had the odd snatched moment to explore. I went up and down Cuba Street which was great, I ended up going to Te Papa, the national museum, twice because it was so amazing. On the first occasion I got there when it opened and headed straight for the top and worked my way down; everyone else did the opposite and it felt like I had the place to myself for about three quarters of an hour, which was magical.

The view from Te Pap's viewing platform. It is unbelievably windy up there!

The view from Te Pap's viewing platform. It is unbelievably windy up there!

Inside the amazing Te Papa

Inside the amazing Te Papa

On the Tuesday after the Gala Dinner we retired to a Korean Karaoke Bar (I never do this sort of thing....) but I was running a workshop the next morning so I left at 1am, long before the rest. I have absolutely no sense of direction, so it was with some excitement that I set out into the Wellington night to find my way back to the hotel. Normally I use Google Maps for EVERYTHING but with no foreign data plan I just wondered around until I found the coast, and then followed it back home. It was great, having the quayside to myself with ocean crashing away in the dark beside me.

Justin sings a song by Journey...

Justin sings a song by Journey...

Fireworks night on the waterfront

Fireworks night on the waterfront

I met so many great people at SHOUT15 - I don't want to list everyone in case I miss someone out but you know who you are! It was brilliant meeting people I've known for years via Twitter, and I made a lot of new friends too. This is what made it such a fantastic event for me.

LIANZA made everything very easy, too. From the moment Ines and I started emailing about going over there they've been kind and helpful. It's a great organisation. One day I'll be back!

Fatherhood and Career Stuff

I've been away from my family for a period of a few nights four times since my 5-year-old was born, all career related: the SLA Conference in America, LIASA in South Africa, doing some training in Australia, and now LIANZA. For the latter 3 of these, I was away for about 8 nights - essentially the shortest possible time without it being impossible to get anything meaningful done whilst there. The journey in each case was at least a day each way, so the time spent in each country was basically 5 days. Parenthood is more important to me than my career, so how can I justify this? In each case, it felt like a one-off opportunity, too good to miss. I wouldn't trade going to any of them - they've each felt hugely significant in my development, and my understanding of culture. But as of now, there won't be any more until at least the kids are a lot older, or they can come too. 

While I was away this time, they had a spectacularly unlucky time. Both of them ended up in hospital (the youngest in the middle of the night, the oldest rushed there from school in an ambulance), and my wife ended up missing work attending to and following up all of that drama. Other smaller things went wrong too and all in all it was just massively stressful - and I wasn't there. Because of what happened with our youngest last year (and her last treatment was only a couple of months ago so it's been a real war of attrition) there's a sort of residual stress-level to do with their health, which means relatively small problems feel like yet another thing to deal with. Everything feels bigger than it is. It was awful to be literally as far away from home as it's possible for someone in England to be - the guilt of voluntarily not being there came second to the horrible feeling of just not being able to help. I had anxiety dreams and trouble sleeping. I coped by not thinking about it as much as possible during the day, which felt like a betrayal in itself.

(I'm aware how #firstworldproblems this all sounds - but I didn't want to present a varnished version of this experience that made it all sound like perfection. It's important that we talk about this stuff and the feelings that surround it. Everyone has different circumstances around work/life balance, and I'm glad this post has sparked conversations around that in general rather than specifically doing talks abroad. The specifics are different for all of us but there are common issues. Lots of people have told me men don't talk about this stuff enough, too!)

So basically, no matter how cool the thing abroad, I can't do it anymore. For a while. Everyone else has to suffer while I swan off to another country and have fun. It's just not justifiable. The fact is I don't need to do it, I don't have to travel abroad for my job. I want to do it - if it were consequence free for my family that would be fine, but it isn't, so it's not.

Shout15 was an awesome, fantastic, magical way to duck out of long-haul foreign travel.

I can't believe you've read this far...

Thanks for getting to this bit, if you did. My overall feeling from LIANZA is that people are pretty great. We all need to look after each other.

Work-life balance - it's a fluid concept



Recently I've read a good few posts about work / life balance. I also get asked about it sometimes.

This post has turned out quite long, so here's a one sentence version for those whose work / life balance doesn't give them enough time to read the whole thing... The balance changes over time, which is fine, and so is having bursts of intense work activity balanced out by longer periods of 'life', but you need to keep a hold of what you're doing this for and where it's taking you.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's what I think:

1) Whatever the balance is like now, it needs to be FOR something. If you feel that you're working too hard, it had better be because this is helping you achieve something - in other words, it has to be a means to an end not an end in itself. Personally I like to be either happy with the balance (with 'life' very much in the ascendancy) or comfortable in the knowledge that if the balance is wrong, it's getting me somewhere I specifically want to go, after which I can relax again.

2) Work / life balance isn't static over time. I wonder if people look at everyone else and just assume their balance is a permanent one? As in, person X is at SO many events, they must be 'always on', or person Y really seems to spend a lot of time with their family, how do they do it? But presumably we're just seeing a snapshot of a particular time. Good work / life balance is fluid.

In my view, it should be as in favour of 'work' as it will ever be, at the start of your career. The period on which an info pro is defined as a 'new professional' is often said to be the first 5 years, and that's a nice marker. You do a LOT of work in those five years, in order to expand your horizons, add to your CV, find out what you really like, and get noticed, get into the kind of job you want. Then after that, the balance can shift much more towards 'life' because you've put in the hard work to build some kind of platform, and then you're on the platform.

If you're a new professional reading this (see this, also; it might be useful) and you're thinking 'all the papers I'm writing and conferences I'm helping to organise, and presentations I'm giving - this isn't sustainable' then that's probably fine - it doesn't have to be sustainable. Just make sure at some point you do actually cut down or stop. Which leads me to...

3) Sometimes it's okay temporarily putting the balance out if it's going to be worth it in the long term. So sometimes, you can take on a really big project that you know will make things difficult, as long as you know when the end of the project is and that things will become a lot easier as a result. The key things here are taking things on which actually have an end! And not just chain-smoking right onto the next big thing when they do end. It's fine to stop. I know people (you know who you are!) who simply don't stop, even though they know they should... (This is, as you can imagine, a self-perpetuating cycle. Librarian Z takes on lots of things, so a: becomes expert in a lot of fields and b: gets a reputation as being helpful and receptive to being asked to do stuff, and so gets asked to do ever more stuff, etc etc, forever.)

4) Saying no is excellent. In my experience it feels good to say no when it's the right thing to do. Obviously it's better for the person asking if you can recommend someone alternative to do whatever it is instead. But the key thing is, once you've got yourself into a position where you're asked to do things, saying no doesn't mean you get asked any less in future. (Sometimes people feel like they ought to grab every opportunity, even not overly suitable ones, in case eschewing results in the opportunities drying up. But this isn't the case in most people's' experience.)

5) There are two types of balance - short-term and long-term. The day-to-day stuff is the detail level - doing that talk or not doing it, getting a sponsored place at that event which involves writing a report afterwards, or not. That can be managed, and can be fluid.

But then there's the long-term which is basically your job, which is a little harder to be in control of after a certain point. Some types of job really DEMAND an enormous amount of work hours. This post from the always honest and readable Jenica Rogers literally made me not want to be successful. So you have to think about where you're going, about what all your hard work is ultimately for.

I used to do a LOT more stuff in my own time (see 1, 2 and 3 above) because it would help me get a job where the same stuff was relevant to my work, so I wouldn't have to do it in my own time anymore. I'd use annual leave to speak at a conference. I wouldn't do that now - I did it then because it was a short-term thing and it was worth it.

The job it all resulted in is not the kind of job where you have to work 50 hour weeks, and nor would I want one of those (even for twice the salary). Also, I have to work where I live, because my work / life balance approach is that you live where you want to and then find work there - as opposed to going where the work is. So if someone says 'I'll give you £150k a year to do your ideal job in London' I say no without hesitation. That's the long-term balance.

6) You don't have to the best that you can be. I've said this before and I'll keep saying it to anyone who'll listen. If being 80% (or whatever) of who you could be makes you HAPPY,  that's what you should be aiming for. Society is blindly accepting of the notion that doing one's best is the be all and end all, but it's only worth it if that'll make you happy!

7) Focus on things you're naturally good at so you can make more progress in a shorter time. You can make more time for life if the work comes easy to you, so as much as it's nourishing to challenge yourself, don't take that idea so far that you always have to work doubly hard on everything because everything you take on is out of your comfort zone.


Everyone is different, but the above is what works for me. I'm really happy with the balance I have, I'd recommend it - but to people who are a bit like me, not to everyone... A lot of people have a lot more drive than I do, and this approach probably wouldn't suit them and their own quest for happiness and contentment.

When I wrote the book, the balance was wrong. I was working on weekends, I had a young child, and it felt awful. I felt like I'd done the wrong thing. In fact, I probably HAD done the wrong thing - I certainly wouldn't recommend it. (Again, that's just me - Beth did much the same thing at much the same time and coped a lot better than I did.) But I can't regret it now because we got through it and I am where I want to be, doing freelance work for the BL among others, as well as the job I love. I do freelance training about areas I already know about and have a natural affinity for, so I don't have to spend much of my free time preparing them. I obey number 7, above - if someone came to me and said 'could you run a workshop  for us, on managing change' I'd say no, call Lisa Jeskins. It would take me too long to put together the materials to keep my work / life balance as I'd want it be (but Lisa's done such a course before, and in any case is a full-time trainer). I obey number 4 too - of all the interesting offers I had in 2012 to do stuff at conferences, I didn't do 13 of them, even though I really wanted to. People often say 'it's the things you don't do that you regret' and I understand that, but actually I don't regret saying no to anything, even if, at the time, it was really hard to do.

I am a very reflective person; I spend lots of time analysing stuff, processing stuff. So I am very aware of what works for me and what doesn't, which is how I've arrived at the above, which is basically a description of my life as much as it is advice to anyone else. I think the key thing is to do your own analysis of where you are, what you're doing, and where you're going, as objectively as possible, without reference to your peers or accepted norms. It's easy to be influenced by what librarian X is doing, or to feel we 'should' be more like Y. But actually that's not relevant, it's all about you and only you.

What is going to make you happy?

P.S [added the next day]: I meant to say, all the extra stuff we take on should be so fun it doesn't feel like work anyway. (This partly why it's easy to get overwhelmed by it and out of balance, because it's enjoyable.) If you're taking things on which feel like work, or things which were previously fun start to feel like work, that's a sign that it's time to cut down - either getting rid of some long-standing responsibilities, or saying 'no' for a long period of time, or both.

The message is (and this post is aimed primarily at information professionals - this may not be true in other industries, I don't know) - there should be enough relevant and interesting opportunities out there for you never to have to feel like all this stuff is a drag. Seek out the good stuff. :)