To Be Happier, Embrace a Life of Imbalance

Conventional wisdom tells us that balance is key to happiness. I object.

Trying to live a “balanced life” sounds good, but I speak self-help BS, so let me translate: “live a balanced life” really means “frantically try to do everything.”

Ironically, our desire for balance is a driver of chaos. Am I really “supposed” to have a thriving business, excellent relationships and romantic prospects, great physical and mental health, adventurous travel plans, once-per-week volunteering, and responsible money management and investments, PLUS a nicely trimmed beard? Is that the life I need to be happy?

That’s just unreasonable when you add in the beard. That takes like… three minutes!

Guys, I don’t even have children. I can’t imagine adding “raise a human being” to my already-overwhelming list of things I “should” have for a balanced life. Many people have multiple children! Whew. How can it be done?

It can’t be done. Not all of it.

Here’s the truth: I’m doing superbly in some of those categories, middling in others, and floundering in others. (My beard is scraggly right now.)

But I think it’s a good sign if you’re less than ideal in some areas of your life. I’d be miserable and burnt out if I tried to do it all.

True Happiness Is Found in Imbalance

Not enough time? Ha! That’s only the beginning. We also have limited energy, limited resources, and limited patience!

Tweet:

I know for a fact that many people go through their lives trying in vain to juggle allllll of these things. They tend to drop four balls as they pick up one.

The key to a happy life isn’t to juggle everything, it’s to enjoy juggling. (click the bird to tweet this)

To enjoy juggling, you need to choose the right number and type of objects. Picture two jugglers.

  • Jack is juggling. He’s sweating profusely with a vein popping out of his head. His grimace and demeanor makes onlookers nervous, too. He started by trying to juggle six bowling pins, five knives, and a small puppy. He is constantly worried about the pins and knives that he’s already dropped on the ground, and wonders if/when the whole operation will collapse. He’s especially worried about the puppy.
  • Jim is calm with a smile on his face. He’s juggling three swords and doing tricks with them. He’s mastered it. There are knives, swords, and puppies and the ground around him waiting to be juggled, but he ignores them and smiles as he juggles her three swords. He knows that he can add in more items at any time.

Real Balance vs. Fantasy Balance

Balance always sounds good—it’s a positive word—but when used as a blanket term to cover all of life’s responsibilities, it can quickly become a nasty, overbearing word.

Stephen, your books are selling well, but why don’t you have a girlfriend? You have had a lot of fun playing basketball lately, but why haven’t you been traveling more? You’re stronger from weight training, but why you haven’t done yoga in months?

We pose these questions to ourselves and society pelts us with them, too. Don’t get me wrong. I would like to have a girlfriend, travel, and do more yoga, but I don’t NEED any of them to be content. Put another way, their existence would be positive, but their lack of existence is not negative.

There’s always something we’re missing, isn’t there? And that’s the insidious side of “balance.” Balance can become this fantastical life pursuit in which you try to be whole in all major areas. You strive to do everything you want, be exactly who you want to be, and have everything you could ever need.

When we pursue this holy grail of a life, we end up like the crazed juggler, going out of our minds to figure out how raise three kids, stay in great shape, start a software business, write a book, cook healthy meals, and maintain a clean home. By pursuing this fantasy idea of “balance,” we end up mentally imbalanced and unprepared. Everything falls.

As we scan the scattered objects on the ground, now we hesitate to pick anything up. We can’t figure out which of these 18 objects to pick up first. We already know we’re going to drop them again. We feel the need to get them all up in the air somehow, but it just seems… impossible.

It is impossible!

The smart person (and juggler) knows that the real, important balance to maintain is mental. It means not doing a little bit of everything, but doing what you can physically and mentally handle, while occasionally throwing in something new to develop your skills and continue to grow. Real balance means being happy even though some of your available pins are on the ground and not in the air. It means being comfortable with the discomfort of not having everything together.

This is not a call for complacency. Unlike the overwhelmed juggler, the juggler who juggles three swords will eventually master it.  The world admires and values mastery more than anything else, so if you want to contribute and leave a legacy (a common human desire), this is your best path.

Career isn’t the only application. Some people master relationships. Some people master the art of travel. Some people master leadership. Some people master raising children to be great people. 

What Do You Want Most?

Who wouldn’t “want it all?” I would love to have it all, but I’ve found the more relevant question is: “What 1-3 things do I want most right now?”

The answer to that question is the same answer to this question: “What pursuits should I be juggling right now?”

As you grow and change, your answer will change. This is what makes life so dynamic and interesting. With this perspective, instead of one amorphous blob you call life, your life will have different seasons. For example…

  • Age 21-25: Career development, work-related skills, friendships
  • Age 26-31: Investment, money management, marriage
  • Age 32-34: Raising kids, fitness, healthy living
  • Age 35-63: Travel, creative expression (painting), teaching
  • Age 64+: Golf, golf, golf (just kidding, unless you like golf that much!)

That’s an arbitrary example of how it might play out. These core areas of focus won’t stop you from doing other things, they’ll just be your bread and butter for that period of time, and as long as you’re in tune with them, you’ll have every reason to be pleased with your life. There’s great joy in putting your energy towards fewer things and seeing better results from those things. Why else would we see so many people dedicate their entire lives to ONE thing? 

  • Many NFL players retire and become football commentators. They live and breathe football. Are they missing out on other things? Of course. But it doesn’t matter because they love football.
  • Some people dedicate their lives to studying dolphins, others to training dolphins.
  • Some people dedicate a big portion of their lives to snuggling. Seriously.
  • Some people live to surf.
  • Many moms live to raise their kids.

These people aren’t crazy, they’re geniuses. 

They’re not living a “balanced life.” Their lives are heavily weighted towards the things they care about most. And that’s more than okay.

Life isn’t about doing it all, it’s about neglecting almost everything to focus on those precious few things that mean the world to you.

(photos by Nicolás Pereira and Jarod Carruthers)

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