The Search for Balance Is Making You Miserable

Are you stuck? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Despite its cheerleaders, balance is the road to mediocrity and moderation just another reason to feel inadequate.

In school, I was told to work hardest on my weakest subjects. It was great that I got straight A’s in some classes without breaking a sweat. But a “good student” gets those grades across the board. And joins extracurricular activities. And has a fulfilling social life. And gets home in time for dinner. Right?

As a result I was fine at everything but I didn’t excel at anything. I slogged through core requirements in Statistics, Econometrics and International Trade only to barely pass. And I felt guilty working on electives like Art History, Communications and Marketing, where I happily burned the midnight oil, because those weren’t to be taken seriously.

In retrospect, it seems obvious where my natural abilities lay. But having majored and gone to work in economics, my talents rotted on the vine for years as I nurtured skills that I had no passion and ultimately little use for. (Not to mention learning a bunch of stuff that is now being junked, but that’s another story.)

None of my grown-up mentors suggested I change focus. Just that I try harder. And I was too obedient to question them. So my strengths were discounted and the spotlight cast on my shortcomings. That eventually spread to other parts of my life: social skills, body image, you name it. Conventional wisdom had destroyed my self-confidence and put me on the road to mediocrity.

Be imbalanced

Over time, I have forged a satisfying life and career that brings together both my natural talents and my studies. But it has been a decades-long process of difficult realignment away from balance, towards the wild ride of passion and dedication. And, meanwhile, I can’t help wonder where I’d be now had I allowed myself to forget about the weaknesses and run full-speed with my strengths.

So kudos to Randi Zuckerberg (Mark’s sister) who recently provided a useful counterpoint to her former Facebook colleague Sheryl Sandberg’s admonition to Lean In. While Sandberg has been criticized for hewing close to old-boy notions of success and “just try harder”, Zuckerberg hits us with a cold, clear dose of reality that says, ‘Work, sleep, family, fitness or friends: pick three.’

Let’s be honest: neither society nor business elevates the balanced, the moderate, to the level of our ambitions. From Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, to Elvis, Hemingway, Lindbergh, Lincoln, Jefferson, Mozart, Shakespeare, da Vinci and beyond, all are case studies in imbalance and obsessive excess.

Moderation is for the middling and unambitious, which is fine for those who want a quiet life. But in our world of Instagram-famous lifestyle gurus, you have to fight tooth and nail to defend even the ambition of a quiet life.

And those gurus will preach that balance is the road to success and well-being. But what of balance as a virtue when we have turned yoga into a competitive sport, a multi-billion dollar industry and a political fight? (By the way, Gandhi? Anything but a paragon of balance and moderation.) Suddenly, moderation itself becomes just another thing to make us feel like underachievers.

Balance is stasis: nothing moves. It takes tremendous physical effort to maintain. And the longer you do it, the harder it gets. It might be impressive to onlookers, but that’s just it: it’s designed to please the audience. Meanwhile, it saddles people with unrealistic expectations of themselves, their careers and life itself.

Juggling unicorns do not exist

That person with the perfect body? They’ve put fitness (note: or just appearance) ahead of everything else. No two ways about it: If you’re spending three hours a day at the gym, that is time you’re not reading books, sleep, or helping the kids with their homework. And if you are doing those at another time, then there is something else you’re not doing then.


Never gonna happen. (Source)

The same goes for any overt achievement. The person with the big paycheck: They’ve put making money (note: plenty of poor people create value) ahead of everything else. Or the famous one: They’ve put making a difference (or just fame) ahead of everything else. Or he stay-at-home one: They’ve put their family (or just themselves) ahead of everything else. In the best case scenarios, they haven’t balanced so much as outsourced the cooking, cleaning, kids and PowerPoints to someone else.

(Caveat: Yes, it is hard for me to defend someone who chooses late nights at the office over quality time with their family or maintaining their health. But I do respect their choice as their own, and I hope it’s in the creation of something meaningful and not just the pursuit of a bigger salary or popularity.)

So do not zoom in on a person’s most enviable accomplishment and assume that means the rest of their life is equally impressive. Something, somewhere falls by the wayside. The most accomplished people I know are barely functional at anything other than what makes them successful. It means that sometimes they’re not that easy to relate to, but it doesn’t make them bad people, or narcissists, or sociopaths or even unkind. They just know what’s important and whose opinion counts.

The lesson here?

1. Don’t assume that balance is ideal or that it means equal, or even proportionate, doses of everything. The ideal is whatever gets you closer to your ambitions. And balance is whatever combination of factors keeps you motivated and fulfilled.

2. Choose your imbalance. Sure, breadth of knowledge and activity is important, but not everything is satisfying, important, relevant or even useful. And for the stuff that is, a C-grade level may be good enough if it means more time to develop your A-game.

3. Own the consequences. Don’t apologize for the C’s. Or the F’s. A friend was interviewing for a job when the HR manager pointed out her thick accent in English. “Perhaps,” she said, “And I’m fat too. But I speak four languages, have an office full of industry awards and brilliant children.”

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