05/28/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Perfect Balance Is Not an Option

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We need some new truth about an old issue.

Most people suffer needlessly from a complete misconception about what life balance is.

I was asked not long ago to give a talk on life and work balance. I've been serving business groups as a philosopher and public speaker for over 25 years, and it was the first time anyone had asked me about that topic. I was told that the executives and managers in the organization I'd be speaking to were stressed and pushed and pulled in so many different ways and needed to take a breath and get their bearings. They felt like they were living unbalanced lives.

So, I was asked: What is balance?

I did what I always do when requested to speak on a new topic. I first pondered the wisdom of the ages and then looked into my own experience. I talked to people whose sagacity I admire. And I dug deep to analyze the issue at the most fundamental level I could. On this occasion, as I began pondering the topic, I recalled something important right away.

When I was a kid, I once saw on television the world's most famous high-wire artist walking a tightrope. He was reputedly so great that I expected to see him strolling the tightly-stretched cable the way you or I would make our way across a wide carpeted floor. But what I saw surprised me. The camera did a close up as he made his way across the rope. His feet were always in motion, seemingly out of balance at nearly every second -- jerking to the left, then to the right, correcting back left, lurching then right, wiggling, shaking, shimmying and stepping forward. I was seeing not the smooth gliding, or simple confident footfalls I had expected, but instead, a constant flurry of movement and counter-movement. The man's arms were in motion. His whole body was undergoing a dance of continuous correction and adjustment.

Remembering this unexpected sight years later, and reflecting on it, I came to realize something important. Just as there are no perfectly smooth surfaces in this world, no perfect spheres, no absolutely straight lines -- all geometers' abstractions -- there's also no such thing as perfect balance. The gymnast or yoga practitioner standing on one foot with what seems like perfect balance actually has a body that's in constant fine motor adjustment, twitching muscles and correcting for miniscule displacements that we can't see.

We're all like the tightrope walker. We're always a little out of balance, in some way or another. The key to real life balance is constant adjustment, correction, and forward movement.

Life balance isn't static. It's dynamic and ever-changing. You're spending too much time at work? Ok, then, change. Spend more time with family and friends. Break the habits that may recently have dominated your life. Or it could be that you're spending too much time away from work, enjoying your hobbies and the closest people in your life to the exclusion of things you need to get done. Well, then, simply adjust in a contrary way. Don't get all balled up in guilt about it. Just change. Adapt. Alter. Turn it around. Too many people, when working hard, feel bad that they're not at home, or worry when they're at home that they're not in the office or on the laptop or iPad, working. They never fully enjoy what they're doing, but are always concerned about what they could or maybe should be doing instead. They're not present. And this is no way to live -- or work.

We should monitor ourselves for when we might be getting a little out of balance and then do something about it. Regret, remorse, and guilt accomplish little in issues of balance. If you feel any one of those emotions, and you think it's a legitimate warning signal, just let it motivate you to change. Then, you'll likely soon have to change again. But don't despair of being out of balance. Most of us are, most of the time. It's the dance of adjustment and adaptation that constitutes the real process of balancing over time.

To put it another way, balance isn't to be found at a moment in time, but only across or through stretches of time. It's a process that could be better represented in a video, not a state of being that could be shown in a snapshot. And what constitutes proper balance will vary to some extent, person to person. Plus, it can vary within your own life from one season to another, one phase to the next. Don't let the past define your present or your future. Your process of balancing things as a young parent will be different from what it was as a single professional new to the workforce. Your life balance as a senior executive may look very different from it did when you were a younger, hungry, upwardly-bound achiever. Life hands us different challenges at different times, and we are challenged to respond in a way that's distinctively proper to that challenge and time. The different stages of life call for different adaptations. But each allows for the dance of balance.

Balance is one of those concepts best thought of in terms of the verb, not the noun. Or to put it differently, the verb is primary and fundamental; the noun is secondary and abstractive. The ongoing action of balancing is our main concern. The result of balance is always to some extent an ideal toward which we move, and in whose light we see what needs to be done now.

This is a liberating conception of balance, but it's not meant to be an excuse. If your significant other or best friend tells you that your life is way out of balance, it's no good to reply merely that perfect balance is not an option. However impossible perfection might be in this particular life issue, there are clearly degrees of better and worse, and there are actions we can take, at almost any time, to improve the process as a whole.

So, the next time you feel out of balance, remember the tightrope walker, and adjust. Those who don't do so are going to fall off the rope, and there's not always a safety net below.

For more by Tom Morris, click here.

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