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.”
There are also risks inherent to having your identity tied up in a single activity — mainly, what happens when doing that activity is no longer an option? It’s not surprising that athletes often struggle with depression and other mental health issues when they are forced to retire. It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.
But even so, I don’t believe that balance — which essentially asks us to never go all-in on anything — is the right solution. I think far better than striving for balance is striving for what psychologists call internal self-awareness, or the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors and impact on others. Put differently, internal self-awareness is about creating the time and space to know yourself; constantly check in with yourself (since your “self” changes over time); and then live your life accordingly.
Someone with keen internal self-awareness is able to separate the acute euphoria of being fully immersed in a pursuit from the long-term consequences of doing so. It’s the Olympian who chooses to retire in time to start and raise a family; the artist who realizes that setting aside some time for life outside of the studio gives rise to great works inside the studio; or the lawyer who sets a hard rule of not missing family dinners or her children’s sporting events. This type of self-awareness doesn’t come easily. Paradoxically, one of the best ways to accomplish internal self-awareness is to mentally step outside of your “self.” Psychologists call this self-distancing, and examples include pretending you’re giving advice to a friend, journaling in the third person (and then examining the emotions that arise when you read what you wrote), or reflecting on your own mortality.
Practicing internal self-awareness allows you to honestly evaluate and re-evaluate the trade-offs inherent to living an unbalanced, flow-filled life. It ensures that you are making conscious decisions about how you spend your time and energy, and thus decreases the chances that you’ll have regrets about what you did — and didn’t — do. It helps you realize when your identity may be getting too interwoven with a specific activity and that in some instances — writing a book, the first few months with a newborn baby, or trying to make an Olympic team, for example — your lack of balance may be excessive, but it can be O.K. because it’s temporary.
Studies show that those who possess strong internal self-awareness make better decisions, have better personal relationships, are more creative and have more fulfilling careers. Other research demonstrates that internal self-awareness is associated with improved mental health and general well-being.
When you put all of this together, an interesting idea starts to emerge. Maybe the good life is not about trying to achieve some sort of illusory balance. Instead, maybe it’s about pursuing your interests fully, but with enough internal self-awareness to regularly evaluate what you’re not pursuing as a result — and make changes if necessary. Living in this manner trumps balance any day.