Messing With ‘The Big Guy’ (The whole Work Life Balance thing)

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I received a lot of nice comments about my recent blog about my Dad’s once-in-a-lifetime advice to EllisDon’s employees, which I sincerely appreciate (on his behalf of course). Don Sr. had recently retired from ED when he wrote that, and was in a reflective mood.

Great, so now let’s mess with him a bit. After all, he’s not here to defend himself, which makes it almost a fair fight, and certainly it’s never any fun if we’re all just going to agree on everything.

We are doing these ‘Listening Tours’ around EllisDon, which means we are getting a lot of great questions, most of them reasonably enjoyable. The other day, a fellow referred generously to Don’s advice, and then asked me personally if I had been able to master the third one. Assuming you didn’t memorize ‘Don’s Rules’, allow me to refresh your memory:

3: Do not take your work home with you. Worrying about work at home can never help or change anything, besides you don’t get paid to worry.

I fessed up immediately that I suck at that one, always have, still do. My grown kids will tell you about how they used to call me back into the dinner conversation from a glazed-eyed distance with the call “Earth to Dad”. Or sitting at their various lacrosse and hockey games with a phone jammed in my ear, scowling, employing the odd profanity.

And then it suddenly dawned on me that the question wasn’t just about me, so I asked my new friend, “How are you making out on that front?” He acknowledged he wasn’t so good at leaving work at work, and that’s when I was able to give him some good news: Don’t worry, on this point, my dad was way better at the theory than the practice.

Growing up in the Smith household was a daily batch of news from the front, an eternal tutorial on the ups and downs of the construction business, and mostly about how screwed up everything was. My mother told us later that she lived for years in terror that EllisDon was going broke. But there was a lot of great stuff too. I figure that by the time I joined ED, I already had about five years’ worth of experience in the construction business. (Not construction, about which I still know very little, but definitely the construction business.) He would celebrate the ‘great guys’ and trash the idiots, even though one could become the other within a very few months. It was very exciting, and just a little scary. But: Do not take your work home with you? Nifty idea, certainly, but give me a break.

Which brings me, if you don’t mind, to my other mentor, Mike Lavelle, who I think had a better take on this whole issue. Mike was actually offended by the idea of separating ‘work’ from ‘life’, as though work was something bad. He viewed work as a very important part of life, the whole family’s life, and he thought that was not only factual but just fine. He’d say things like “You can’t be happy at home if you’re not happy at work. And you can’t be happy at work if you’re not happy at home.” You have to work on both of them, at the same time, intensely. Pretending they can be treated as different silos is both futile and unhelpful. That was the Lavelle view.

I talked about this with my wife just today, and her view is that when you come home from work, obviously all stressed out, but then you don’t talk about it, that actually increases the emotional distance rather than preventing it. Having a life partner is exactly that.

We’ve all heard the zen advice “Live in the moment”. I heard Mike Lavelle enthusiastically reinterpret this one day as “Just show up! You see some people at work complaining about their home life, then they go home and whine about their job. They didn’t show up either place!” (“Earth to Dad”.)

I think Don Sr. meant well when he said to leave work at work, and not worry, but it’s impossible to do and doesn’t work anyway. I think Mike Lavelle hits it closer to the mark.

I tell what you what though, about both of them. They both showed up. No funny fooling about that.

And in the end, the very best advice I ever received on all this was from Canada’s ex Governor General David Johnson, who finished a speech with these words: “Be nice to others. And go easy on yourself.”

Thanks for reading.