Maybe We All Need a Little Less Balance


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Ever since I can remember, I’ve been told to strive for balance. Yet I’ve noticed something interesting: The times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.

Falling in love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced — devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life — would have detracted from the formative experiences.

It’s not just me. Nearly all of the great performers I’ve gotten to know — from athletes to artists to computer programmers to entrepreneurs — report a direct line between being happy, fulfilled and at their best and going all-in on something. Rich Roll, a top ultra-endurance athlete, told me that “the path to fulfillment in life, to emotional satisfaction, is to find what you really excites you and channel your all into it.” Dr. Michael Joyner, a top researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says “you’ve got to be a minimalist to be a maximalist; if you want to be really good, master and thoroughly enjoy one thing, you’ve got to say no to many others.” Nic Lamb, one of the best big-wave surfers on the planet, speaking of his relentless pursuit of excellence in the water, puts it like this: “The best way to find contentment is to give it your all.”

Perhaps we could all use a little more unbalance in our lives.

In the 1990s, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the term flow, a mental state during which people become wholly immersed in the activity they are doing and their perception of time and space is altered, their entire being filled with enjoyment. A telltale sign of these optimal experiences, of “being in the zone,” is that the outside world disappears. In such a state, flow and balance are irreconcilable. And compared to flow, balance seems, for lack of a better term, boring.

And yet there is still a cost of pursuing something full-on: all of the other things that you leave behind as a result. When you are wholly immersed in anything, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience carry you forward without ever really evaluating what you’re sacrificing along the way; for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones.”

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