Balance… Balls and Burners

A metaphor for approaching life that I’ve heard in several contexts attempts to reflect a recommendation to seek balance in our lives. It’s suggested that most of our lives can be broken down into four core areas of action: career, health, family, and friends. In the metaphor, the four key areas of our lives are represented by balls. We’re encouraged to consider our health, job, family, and friends as separate balls which we are trying to juggle. Most of us don’t have the capability to juggle four balls at a time. If we’re successful at keeping three airborne, we’re still dropping one. Are we consciously choosing which one to drop?

A separate thing we may be encouraged to consider is that three of these balls can be viewed as rubber while the fourth is made of glass. If we drop one of the ones made of rubber, it’s not the end of the world. The balls made of rubber do bounce back. They may not bounce back perfectly or immediately, but this metaphor suggests we can recover this area of our life when dropped. However, the fourth ball made of glass doesn’t do so well when dropped. Should this ball be dropped, it breaks into a million pieces and may well be irretrievably broken. At best, the broken glass ball takes much time and effort to restore. Of the four balls, it is family that is represented as glass.

The point of this metaphor is that we can only do so much. If we put too much of our heart and mind into a few areas of our lives, another area may suffer. Focus and commitment come with a cost. The cost is the inability to not do everything well. The more we devote our energies to an area, the less energy available to apply to other areas. The suggestion seems to be that we should use this knowledge to seek balance across the four core areas of our lives. Many people seem to regret being one dimensional. Pursuing work or career while sacrificing family relationships seems to be a regret that folks later in life look back wistfully wishing they had done things differently. Being dedicated to work such that one’s health is compromised is another cause for regret for many in life. We’re often urged to consider that nobody on their death bed wishes they had spent more of their life at the office. Promoters of the juggling metaphor are broadcasting the benefits of balance. Give thought to maintaining each of the four main areas of your life, they are suggesting. If you’re going to kill it in an area, it’s family first. This advice does seem to make sense. It feels intuitively correct. We each may have some experience being off balance and realize the cost of our commitment to a single dogged direction.

The ancient Greek Stoic philosophers offered a similar metaphor for approaching life. They saw our lives as a stool. If we were over-committed to a given area, it was like having a one or two legged stool. It wasn’t easy to sit or live like this. Philosophers, in particular the Stoics, were consumed with considering the question, What makes a good life? They were cautious to chase success. They considered success sadly measured by just money and power. Even if achieved, these would be just two legs of a stool which result in an uncomfortable existence. It is one that they reminded themselves would inevitably tip over as a result of being off balance.

However, the idea of balance is just that, an idea. It’s a recommendation made by others. It’s not a universal rule. As compelling as it may seem for some, others may see it as settling. Achieving balance has its own cost. The cost of balance may be mediocrity. If we’re dividing our limited resources of time and energy across all areas of our lives, it becomes difficult to achieve excellence in any one of them. Our existence may be decent, but not spectacular. For many, if not most, this may be a desirable outcome. However, some would consider this conceding or giving up.

If we hold in one hand the concept of balance in our lives we can, in the other hand, contrast it with the perspective offered by Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank character, Kevin O’Leary. In this three minute clip recently posted on Linked In, O’Leary paints a perspective that is anything but balanced.  He has been an entrepreneur and has witnessed countless others participate in this arena. From his vantage point, what he’s viewed is that the commitment required to make progress is not just bordering, but well past obsessive. Progress is tied to, yet not guaranteed by, monomaniacal focus. Single minded, one-dimensional, complete commitment to the work world is what is a common characteristic of this group of individuals. It’s the case for achievers in business, sport, and the arts. O’Leary is not suggesting it’s healthy, he’s simply offering that this is this world’s reality. Too many think we can be balanced and successful. We can have our cake and eat it too. O’Leary is not sprinkling but spraying from the firehose of reality on our dreams of rainbows and unicorns believing we can be successful while balanced. It just isn’t happening. Strivers, those desiring to build businesses and careers are consumed by what they are doing. They think about it day and night. Even if they make it to their kid’s sport event, for example, they may be physically there yet their mind spins with ideas or issues related to their work. This would be an example of unhealthy focus violating our ball metaphor. However, these folks are so driven, they can’t help themselves.

Some of us look at the commitment level O’Leary is talking about and think that’s awful. Who wants to work like that? Why would any reasonable person give up all other areas of their lives, including their own health to pursue not even a guarantee of success but just an opportunity? This seems like a bizarre trade, an unreasonable sacrifice. Going down this road is destined to result in regrets later in life, isn’t it? Nonetheless, others look at this and think, yes, there’s no greater satisfaction than being so fully in love with and committed to one’s work. Getting out of bed in the morning isn’t difficult for these folk. They are eager to get up and get going. Working long days every day is all they want to do. Their commitment to their direction fuels their efforts. There are those for whom this is the point of life.

I’m not advocating for one approach or the other. I’m suggesting that they are both available options. We should work to be conscious about how we choose to allocate our time. It’s up to us to define what success means for us. It’s up to us to chew on the Stoic question of what constitutes a good life. Based on how we choose to answer these questions, either approach may be perfectly fine for us to consider.

A separate metaphor detailed in this New Yorker article encourages us to view the activities of our lives as belonging to the four main areas of career, health, family, and friends. In this metaphor each area is represented by a burner on a gas stove. We’re only able to get the heat up to high on two of the burners. In order to achieve this, we have to turn down the heat on the others. To push in one area is to neglect another. There are always trade offs. To advance in one direction, we’re ignoring another. The burner metaphor may help raise our awareness of our choices. Whether your goal is to try to heat all four burners equally or crank out high heat in one corner for a period, the burner shows us the consequences of our choices. Neither approach is perfect for all of us all of the time. One approach may come more naturally to us than the other, that’s fine. Perhaps, there’s a time and a place for each approach at various points in our lives? When we’re younger, maybe devoting our efforts to our development makes more sense as our relationships may be fewer. If we’re going to act in the direction of O’Leary’s observations, we can try to set a time limit on it. For example, I will put my head down and work like a dog in the pursuit of X for up to five years. Again, both approaches have merits. There’s no single, right way. Consider these ideas as options to consider not rules to follow. Choose your direction, consider your option, and act consistently with your chosen course.

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness write in The Passion Paradox:

“Maybe the good life is not about trying to achieve some sort of illusory balance. Instead, maybe it’s about pursuing your passions fully and harmoniously, but with enough self-awareness to regularly evaluate what you’re not pursuing as a result—and make changes if necessary.”