The Third Space

By Matthew

· 7 min

It’s now universally acknowledged, thankfully, that work is just one part of a balanced life.

That wherever possible, family life and work life require plenty of give and take from each other.

And that ultimately, it’s your family and home life should do more of the taking.

These two spaces occupy most of our waking life, and can be endlessly demanding.

But is the idea of two spaces, in balance with each other, still helpful?

The balancing act

There have always been people who have a better or worse life balance skill.

But I feel like during the course of my twenty years in marketing and advertising, the shift towards re-balance has been significant, and decisive.

When I started work, many members of the generation of leaders I was looking ‘up to’ would absolutely not have taken the balancing act for granted. These men (and they were nearly all men) would have given what was left after the work was done to the pub, the restaurant and the golf course. What was left after that, went to the family.

In that time I also saw many attentive parents and friends (and far too often they were women) become, by intent or by thoughtlessness, second class citizens in the workplace, excluded from decision-making or from the key roles because their balancing act placed them somewhere else at the time.

It’s delightful that we live in different, more humane times. Not perfect, but much better.

Times when a major event in the life of your kids is a perfectly reasonable explanation for not being at work; when your own and your family’s mental health is viewed as a top-tier priority; when the bravado of working incredible hours is generally viewed with suspicion, or pity, rather than wide-eyed admiration.

But what pervades is the sense that this is about duality. Work. Life. Balance.

Two worlds, one stage

For many professionals, they will remember 2020 and the aftershocks for the collision of the two key worlds in their lives, the personal and professional.

It was a moment of reckoning. For me, it was frequently a practical near-impossibility!

I mean, how do you help home school three young kids, and try to run a new business at the same time? (Answer: badly, and with high stress levels).

For some, used to a life of clearly demarcated worlds, where each gave relief from the pressures of the other, it was an emotionally and psychologically challenging experience. And one with none of the usual pressure release of the pub, or the sports pitch.

At the same time, many of us drew useful things from this experience – about how to create better alchemy between the worlds of work and home life.

But I think for everyone who it also showed the intensity of having all of your eggs in one basket.

The need for something else

The professional journey that I’ve been on has meant that lockdown simply accelerated a change in work-life interaction that was already well in train.

Beyond the stresses and strains of lockdown, I was intentionally seeking a closer and better connection between the different parts of my life – psychologically, physically, practically. And I was lucky enough to have the space in which to make that choice, and to maintain it.

But that compression and connection of life has also led me to start thinking more and more about ‘third spaces’. The things that exist outside that duality, that act to complete the balance, and create new direction.

And the longer I’ve spent with this idea, the more important it seems to me. That the tiny slivers in between that are in service of neither work nor home life are an essential part of the mix.

That if you can possibly find it, everyone needs a ‘third space’.

What do I mean by a ‘Third Space’?

By this third space, I guess I mean an extra world that we create for ourselves, and try to inhabit when we can.

It’s a hinterland…a playground for the interests, aspirations, emotions that can’t be satisfied by work, or by family life.

If you are have the luck and privilege to do so, it might be something you create significant time for. If not, it has to be something that you carve into the nooks and crevices of your day; or that you find a way to pursue by bending the normal path of your work, or your time with family.

I think the urge to find it is something we see playing out in the shed…but it’s definitely more than a hobby.

I think many have tried to seek it in bars and restaurants and parties…but it’s definitely more than a social life, and can be in conflict with the expectations of your social circles.

I think people look for it in side hustles and entrepreneurialism, and some find it…though some just find another job.

I guess at its most successful it is a confluence of various different activities, influences, ways of spending your spare moment, that link more deeply into who you are, and who you want to be.

What’s crucial is that the creation of that space is intentional, that is combinative, and that is holds within at a sense of future purpose, and personal flexibility.

It’s a place where you can start to become something, or someone else.

Why does this matter?

We are, let’s hope, going to be living longer and healthier lives that take us through multiple chapters, both professionally and personally.

Our happiness won’t just come from following careers, being good family members, but from being flexible and finding new sources of joy and meaningful occupation.

And for many, our livelihoods will demand it. We’ll have to work for many years, and to sustain ourselves financially and psychologically, we’ll have to shift gears, to embrace the next step outside a well-protected comfort zone.

I certainly feel like being able to create, maintain and develop a third space is going to be a key attribute of my future happiness.

But the pursuit of that idea has also shown its ability to inspire and energise in the short term too. It helps you to look from a different perspective, and to avoid the psychological malaise of feeling stuck.

Finding a Third Space

I think this is an incredibly personal process, and I think it means something very different for different people. But when I speak to people who have experienced, or are exploring, a similar aspiration, the same themes tend to emerge.

It involves taking tentative, vulnerable, experimental steps into the unknown.

It’s more about doing, than it is about thinking.

It generally involves going backwards – to past passions, abandoned projects, core values – to go forwards.

It’s usually not the same as having a plan. It may even be the opposite.

It may have its own, ring-fenced time – or it may have to live in the intentional use of the spaces in-between or during the things that have to be done.

For me, this space is made of various ingredients: of the yearning to write, both this kind of thing and other snatched projects much more lateral, from songs to scripts; of the purposeful application of exercise, music and research; to the increasing focus on working with organisations of purpose in the areas that I personally care most about; to a rediscovery of academic study.

Without a clear and specific intention, I find myself building this space, and amidst the many other demands of life, I guard it jealously. I don’t know exactly where it’s going yet, but it feels integral to the next stages of my life.

This has made me deeply curious about what this Third Space looks like for other people, and how to be an encouraging supporter of how they grow it.

By opening this conversation with people, I’ve already discovered some amazing things about the secret lives of people who are spending their physical or mental time in the most unexpected places.

Thanks for reading this, I appreciate it. And if you’d like to tell me about what you’ve got going on, and enlist any help with it, I’d be delighted.

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