There’s a metaphor that bothers me because I think it’s harming creatives and entrepreneurs. It seems benign enough. It’s the symbol for justice, after all. Yet, I’ve seen and heard otherwise talented, hard-working people bludgeon themselves because they think they must be doing something wrong for not attaining this idealistic metaphor.
I’m talking about balance, and I’m wondering what you think about it and what metaphor could replace it. (and scroll to the bottom to get a video answer)
Metaphors matter to more than poets. In 1980, cognitive scientist and philosopher Mark Johnson and cognitive linguist George Lakoff made that point clear in their landmark book Metaphors We Live By:
“The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. …Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people….[T]he way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”
Some of my clients and team members with whom I’ve consulted have used balance to describe what they’re seeking. I’ve used it. “I want balance between my work and life” or some variation is usually what we say.
I looked up the word balance in my nifty dictionary of word origins, Eric Partridge’s Origins. The word balance stems from bilance – literally two scales or plates.
Work and life.
Work and family.
Work and creativity.
Creativity and family.
This is what we talk about when we talk about balance.
What’s the problem?
The metaphor encourages at least three near-imperceptible thinking patterns:
2~ It sets up an unattainable ideal. How would you know when every facet in your life is “balanced”? It suggests a lot of control over elements you cannot control.
3~ It’s fragile. If you’ve ever used a scale, you know how delicate the balancing act is. It teeters and totters more like a see-saw. Living your life trying each day to hold everything in balance seems like it would create more anxiety not less.
Let judges and journalists aspire to be balanced (although neither a justice system nor a certain news network that claims to be otherwise is fair & balanced).
I do not think there is an ideal balance of creative work and experiences outside of creative work.
I’ve been searching for a replacement.
The summer my father was dying was when I especially started searching for a replacement. In a blistering summer, I spent every day talking to doctors and nurses while also maintaining a business and continuing my writing and spending time with my wife and daughter and taking care of my own health. It wasn’t business as usual. And it wasn’t balanced per se.
It was that summer that I started imagining how to help myself and other people during what I now call Emergency Momentum – those temporary periods when you are in crisis, professionally or personally, and you cannot carry on with business as usual.
During an emergency, you don’t seek balance.
I think I’ve found a viable replacement metaphor.
Forget balance. Aim for an optimal mix. The optimal mix of friends, of family, of client work, of deep creative work, of pure pleasure, of pure practice. Optimal as in what’s contributing to the well being of you, your loved ones, the people you serve. Optimal as in what sounds, looks, and feels as if it’s contributing to the work and experiences that matter.
And mix up the mix. The mix that works today won’t work next week or next year.
The optimal mix is messy and forgiving but intentional and corrective. Corrective in the sense of Picasso painting over a few lines.
Balance promotes false personas of “having it all together” with tucked corners. Mix lets your frayed ends show.
Balance makes an optimal moment always feel out of reach. Mix puts the colors and sounds of your life in your hands.
- Notice the next time you use balance in this way. (“I wish my life were more balanced.” “I want to figure out how to balance my work life with my home life.”)
- Replace it with mix. (“I’m seeking the right mix in my life.” “I need a different mix in my life.”)
Here’s a poem to remind you that you have the core ingredients for the optimal mix. And let me know what metaphor you work with in the comments section below.
What metaphor helps you frame the important areas of your life?
See you in the woods,
Two chances to mix it up with Jeffrey this January:
Sacred Poetry & Songs of Longing
with Jeffrey and world-renowned musician Steve Gorn
Paradise Island, Bahamas January 27-28, 2013
Yoga as Muse for Authentic Writing Course
Paradise Island, Bahamas January 29-February 3, 2013