Life-Balance – Is it over-rated?

I’m not sure, but life- balance may be over-rated.

Think about it. Who are the people who have achieved great things in life?  Did they have balance in their lives?  Do you get to be President of the United States by having balance in your life?  Do Bill Gates or Warren Buffet have balance in their lives?   Did Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, or Leonardo da Vinci have balance in their lives?  Or our military leaders – McArthur, Eisenhower, Patton, Nimitz, Halsey, or today Patreaus or McChrystal?   Do they talk about the balance in their lives?  No.  These are passionate and focused people.

Where does ‘balance’ fit in with Great Responsibility and Great Achievement?    Do we refuse responsibility for the lives of others, the responsibility for the security of the nation, or to bring great talent to bear to move humanity forward in order to maintain balance in our lives?  Do we abrogate great responsibility for life-balance?  Sounds somewhat selfish, doesn’t it?

“Well, you may have a point, but …”

It seems that the only people who talk about ‘life-balance’ are people who have already achieved what they were going to achieve in life. They are ready to slow down, rest on their laurels, and then we have to listen to them sanctimoniously preach to the rest of us how important it is to have life balance.  Are we to take them seriously? Sounds somewhat hypocritical doesn’t it?

“Well, yes but…”

Or we hear about ‘life-balance’ from people who have never really achieved anything of note, and chose ‘balance’ instead.  They may even use balance as an excuse for never having made a real difference.  They don’t acknowledge that their balanced lives were made possible by people who didn’t have balance in theirs. Sound somewhat short sighted, doesn’t it?

“Perhaps, but…”

Isn’t life really about passion, commitment, and enthusiasm?  People who achieve great things and move humanity forward do so by pursuing their passion with a single-minded focus.   Remember that memorable quote from the movie The Highlander, “I’d rather burn out than fade away.”  A  German Philosopher (Hegel) once said that ‘the great are seldom good,’ meaning that those who dare to be great follow a different set of rules than conventional society demands of the rest of us.   Balance works well for those who can’t stand the heat, who want to lope along in the outside lane, and cede the prize to those with the ambition, drive and energy to run hard on the inside.  Slow down to smell the roses, and you better move to the outside lane or you’ll get run over.  He who hesitates is lost.  Balance is the consolation prize for those who don’t have the gumption to reach for the golden ring….

“Come on now.  Aren’t we being a little harsh?”

Balance is boring.   Who wants to watch a movie about someone who has his or her life in balance?  Where is the story, the drama, excitement, passion, the thrills, the yucks?     Isn’t the impulse to balance the impulse to be well-balanced ‘sheep?’    Wouldn’t you rather be one of the sheepdogs, committed and  focused on protecting  the sheep,  or one of the wolves who go after our enemies and bring home the bacon?  Let the well-balanced sheep hide in their pens, and/or be led to the slaughter….balance is for prey and herbivores.   Choose instead to be a predator and a carnivore!

 Ok! OK! We get your point…and yet…something just doesn’t feel completely right about all this fist pumping, testosterone-driven posturing….


The problem with the above pseudo-conversation is that one doesn’t choose between passion and balance.  The good life has both – and how much of each will be different for each of us, at different times, in different contexts.

Yes, balance may be stasis, and yes, there are many who will seek and stay in the safe harbor.  There are those who are afraid of the risk of putting one’s beliefs, one’s passions, oneself on the line.  It is true that those who drive and lead society are risk takers, heroic, passionate, and driven.  And we respect and admire them.  And perhaps we are them.  But is that all we want?  All the time?

Balance DOES have its place, even for the ambitious and the driven.    Imbalance  (stress) can be a source of creative tension, and provide us motivation and energy to rise to a challenge and perform at our best.  And when we feel that passion, or when we are fulfilling an important commitment, or serving a need for the greater good, passion, commitment, focus will certainly weigh more, and the fulcrum of the life-balance  scale will shift dramatically toward meeting that need.  There may be periods when the only weight on the other side of the scale may be sleep and infrequent, quiet periods with a friend or loved one. 

And then we need to recover – consolidate our gains, assess our wins and losses, heal, and gird our loins for whatever comes next.  For the heroic, and even for the more humble of us, I contend that life-balance is a temporary state that some of us are lucky enough to experience with some regularity in our lives.   But it is a temporary state, when all is in synch…an interlude between periods of challenge, commitment and focus….even for those who choose to run in the slow lane.   It is temporary….until the next challenge.

Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s most famous executive coaches, relates how many very successful CEO’s  he coaches struggle to find balance and meaning in their lives after having achieved all the prestige, power, and money they want.  It’s almost a caricature – overweight, high blood pressure, 2nd, 3rd,  or 4th marriage, tons of money, homes and yachts around the country, and now what? Another yacht?

A well balanced life needs passion, commitment, and focus, as well as periods of quiet joy, a meaningful avocation, and relaxed time with friends and loved ones.  The balance between passion and quiet or distracted relaxation is different for each of us, in different contexts and different times in our lives. Staying out of balance for too long has its price.

I see ‘life balance’ as an account into which we make deposits over a lifetime.  There are (slower) periods when we can deposit more, and crazy periods when we struggle just to keep our heads above water, and have little left to put into our ‘life balance account.’  We all know, and know of, people who have needed to draw on a life balance account, and found it empty.  It is sad to see.  Whatever we are able to deposit into our life-balance account accrues interest over a lifetime, providing dividends that we can draw on when we need them – especially when we get older and seek to balance the energy and passion of our youth with the perspective and wisdom of experience. 

And in the end, we all break even anyway.

13 thoughts on “Life-Balance – Is it over-rated?

  1. Love it Bob and I agree. Balance is not a day to day activity, it is measured over longer periods of time. When riding a bicycle, it is easiest to stay balanced when moving quickly, why not take that attitude with life.


  2. Really good, Bob. I agree that balance is a temporary state. We catch our breath, look around, assess, then assault the next interesting hill. Sometimes that seems like a “balance” move, but it isn’t. You can assault meaningful time and experiences with your adult children with the same fervor you bring to a new job; looks like balance, but it isn’t. It’s a commitment and you can’t let your job get in the way.
    Keep it up, Bob. As always, you make me think.


    • Bob,
      Really good to hear from you, it has been awhile. I miss the MSGL sessions. Anyway, interesting writing, I had the feeling you were taking both sides of the argument and thus it would be difficult to challenge your ideas. However, I do challenge the premise that life balance is temporary. There are those, I among them, who believe life balance is an absolute imperative for true success. I think it unfair to blame balance as an excuse for not being successful in either of its dimensions. I would argue that without a consistent life balance one cannot be truly successful and must accept failure in either one’s career or personal life demands. Consistent life balance is achievable and I believe it is the benchmark of the truly successful.


      • Great point Bruce, but I’m not sure that I would measure a life, or my life, by whether I’m always keeping it ‘in balance.’ My point: there are times when I must indeed give up the balance to deal with the exigencies of the environment, whether it be hurricane, sickness, family or work emergency, or whatever. As I get older, I look for longer periods of life balance, but even then, I anticipate things beyond my control, demanding that I focus my energy on dealing with something over which I have little control – my own health or the health of a loved one, for example. In those times, I still may shoot for making small deposits in my life balance account, but I’m really drawing on it much more, to give me the strength and enquanimity to deal with whatever ‘The Author’ may have thrown in my path. Given that these periods when one is focussed on ‘survival, and require intensity and focus, and may not permit ‘balance’ are part of the rich tapestry of life, I’m not sure that constant and sustained balance is achievable or even desirable. Just a thought. Thanks for your input. Bob


  3. Killer post, this reminds me of a discussion i had the other day with a guy who asked me wether we wanted people to think we were fanatics with something we were trying to pull off, to which i responded “thats the only way it will”


  4. I work in a very “balanced” environment. I show up whenever I want, am encouraged to take two-hour lunches to form meaningful bonds with my colleagues, and have my leadership’s full blessing to cut out early whenever I need to attend one of my kid’s events. Many of my co-workers are moms who do much of their work from home in order to spend more quality time with their children.

    It’s a very balanced environment, indeed. And it’s about to drive me out of my f-ing mind.

    Nicely done, Bob.


  5. One of my friends responded to me personally: ” In my attempt to stay balanced, and not achieve greatness, I’m leaving the office after the market closes for a couple hours of stand-up paddling into some overhead surf on Pt. Magu base. I guess I’ll have to put my efforts into raising three kids that have the tools and drive to change the world” – I thought that was clever. Bob


  6. Rick Woolard responded with a quote from Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck:

    “I had seen so many men begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap.

    A kind of second childhood falls upon so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase in life span. In effect the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby.

    In my own life I am not willing to trade quantity for quality. I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”

    -Thanks Rick! Bob


  7. Great post, Bob. As you know, we enjoy a nice work-life balance here at USD, but I can’t help but think about what life would be like in a different job. I’d probably make more money, but would that make me happier? Not likely, especially given that the extra money would come at the expense of spending time with my family, having a less flexible work environment, and of course, not working for you!

    Seriously, though. It’s 3:45pm on the Friday before a three-day weekend. Time for some balance. See you Tuesday!


  8. Thought-provoking post! I must confess that I am unsure what “life balance” really means – different things to different people I expect – but to me it is a certain contentment with my life and all that I have done so far and never regretting “the path not taken”.

    Thanks, Bob, for including me on your distribution list – are you sure you meant to? I am sure that I am not nearly as clever or interesting as your other friends!


  9. Bob,
    Enjoying the discussion. When you cite those times where a job requires 80 hours or a sick family member needs more of one’s time, I view those as the times we must get out of balance. I see those as temporarily unbalanced events that when finished one should return to balance. I just believe there is a pletera of evidence that when one lives without balance one of the deminsions of balance represents failure whether that is career or personal life. I remember one of your fathers colleagues a 3 Star with two young sons living on the strteets of San Diego. Clearly success as an Admiral but failure as a fat5her.


  10. very insightful. for those accepting of increasing responsibility and accountability. with passion and drive for what they do, the challenge is having less control over the obstacles to managing the balance–crises, operational tempo, global finance, natural disasters–. one can only hope that crises on the personal side of the scale don’t collide with crises on the work side–important to have a resilient and understanding family and friends support base.


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