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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Losing Our Balance

  Dr. Paul. D. Houston
  Dr. Paul D. Houston
Founding Partner

When my partner Sandra asked me what I was writing about for this issue of the Lens, I told her "Balance." She broke out in hysterical laughter and couldn't stop. I think she was telling me that maybe I shouldn't address a topic about which I know so little. And she would be right. On the other hand, I do know a lot about being unbalanced, and that is the other half of the equation.

When we were little, most of us logged time on a teeter-totter. Remember that long board with a fulcrum in the middle? A child sits on each end and they go up and down. The key is that each end needs to have about the same weight on it or the contraption doesn't work so well. If a big fat kid is sitting on one end and a small skinny one on the other, the heavier kid just sits on the ground and the lighter one hangs suspended in the air. Some action can be created if the heavier kid pushes off really hard, but the overall lack of balance makes the whole operation really hard, and not much fun. Trying to reach balance is a lot of work and pretty frustrating.

Likewise, if you get perfect balance between the two ends—if each kid weighs exactly the same—the teeter-totter will balance in the middle, not moving at all. That's no fun either. The key to the fun comes from the up-and-down motion created by the pushing at each end; a slight imbalance is needed to make the see-saw work well.

To take this issue of balance to a higher level, it has been said that the absence of stress is death. We need action in our life to make things work, but the key is to make sure that the action we have balances between what we want and what we need.

Herein lies the lesson of balance for each of us. It's not the static state of balance we need as much as the pursuit of being balanced. The truth is that we will never reach a perfect state of balance in our lives, nor should we. What we need to do is pursue that state. It is the journey toward balance that makes life rewarding.

Balance is really all about more and less. Our lack of balance comes when we have or desire more of one thing at the expense of another. It can be about having "stuff" or attention or money or whatever. I am currently fighting that battle—I have way more stuff than I need; it takes up too much space in my life at the expense of having room to breathe. I have often joked that it takes a village to wear my clothes. My closets are stuffed to overflowing and, since I don't even know what I have, I wear the same things over and over. No wonder Sandra laughed when I said I was going to write about balance!

Balancing our work and our personal life is another challenge. Too many of us spend so much time and energy on work that we have little time left for our own lives. This approach to living is like riding a bicycle with a flat tire. One tire is nicely pumped up and rolls great, but the other tire lacks the air it needs and makes riding very difficult and bumpy because things won't move as they should. The irony is that when one retires, as I recently did, the flat tire analogy reverses. The home life is all nice and full but the professional work has gone flat. The problem remains: How do you balance having a sense of purpose and meaning with your newly acquired freedom?

For years I tended to suffer from occasional bouts of vertigo. This didn't happen often and usually didn't follow a night of overindulgence so for a long time I wasn't sure what caused my vertigo. I thought maybe the cause was some kind of inner-ear problem, or maybe the result of allergies. I think, over time, I have figured out the cause: It happens when I lose my balance.

I'm not being redundant here. Yes, I lack balance when I lose my sense of balance, but it doesn't have as much to do with the physical part of me as the metaphysical part. Like most people, I know I heap too much on my plate and have too many pulls and pushes that worry me. When this gets overwhelming, I get dizzy. The way to recover from my dizziness is to get my life in order. I have to get things lined up and tidied up. When I can bring order to my life, my vertigo goes away.

As a child, I was attracted to the Greek teaching of the "middle way." The Greeks believed that one should not go to extremes but, instead, find a middle way. They thought humans should have both a sound mind and a sound body. Today we seem to have lost that sense of moderation. Our modern culture seems to subscribe to "sound mind, sound body—take your pick." That sense of moderating the extremes that the Greeks revered is another way of recognizing that balance is a wonderful thing to have.

There is a story about the patriarch of the Flying Wallenda family, that famous family of circus acrobats known for tight-rope walking. Talk about needing a sense of balance! (I'm not sure why they called themselves the "flying Wallendas." Obviously, when you're a tight-rope walker, the last thing you want to do is fly!) To make it safely across, the Wallendas used a pole to help them balance as they walked the wire. They also kept their eyes open—not just to see where they were going, but because we keep our balance through vision. You have to see what is around you to maintain your ability to stay upright.

The end for Karl, patriarch of the Wallendas, was not a happy one—he fell to his death attempting a difficult walk between two buildings in Puerto Rico. His wife commented later that it was the only time he had talked about "not falling." Before, he had only talked about walking across. The doubt that crept in as he tried to avoid falling undid him. He lost his balance and fell to his death. He needed a positive sense of purpose. In trying to avoid failure, he failed. A lesson for us all.

Most of our balance issues are not so life-and-death as those of the Flying Wallendas, but they are about the quality of our lives. We have to keep our eyes open so we can see our competing interests, want a little bit less, appreciate a little bit more, and make sure we enjoy the journey with a focus on the positive.

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