What do you want to get out of life? What motivates you? Athletic accomplishment? Academic achievement? Strong relationships? All of the above?
The thing is, you can’t have it all. Not if you want to be great.
The Traditional Concept of Staying Balanced
When a typical balanced life comes to mind, I think of working 40 hours per week, exercising 30 minutes every three days, and eating the standard American diet. You know, someone normal.
The balanced individual doesn’t do anything to excess, following the Middle Way whenever possible. Here are some examples of what a moderate man or woman would probably not do:
- Work 100 hours in a week.
- Fast for five days.
- Run 50 miles.
- Live in a foreign country.
- Spend ten years working on the same scientific question.
- Run for political office.
- Experiment with psychedelics.
- Stand up to an oppressive government.
- Earn five academic degrees.
- Give everything away and become a monk.
Actions like these are extreme — the opposite of moderation. By avoiding unusual behaviors, the balanced individual avoids an unusual life.
The Seduction of the Extreme
Now, some of you may have looked at that list of extreme experiences and gotten a little excited. Outlandish behaviors hold a certain allure. Deep down, you know you’re a bit different from everyone else. Why not prove it?
We’re attracted to greatness. When we look back on history, we don’t learn about our average ancestors. Einstein, Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman weren’t working 40 hours per week.
I just finished reading Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. This guy is a beast. He’s a Navy SEAL who’s won ultramarathons, pounded out 4,000 pull-ups in 24 hours, and defied a challenging childhood to become a motivational speaker.
Reading the book, I got dangerously stoked. Suddenly, I found myself wanting to compete in extreme athletic events — my marathon in 2018 seemed insignificant compared to Goggins’s accomplishments.
If you’re not exceptional, what’s the point?
The Dark Side to Obsession
The problem is that incredible results require incredible dedication. Goggins is inspiring beyond belief, but I’m not sure I’d want his life.
His autobiography mentions multiple divorces. He has a daughter, but she only comes up once in the book. We don’t learn her name.
And this isn’t an indictment of Goggins. I totally get it. I’ve been there before.
In law school, I was obsessed with getting to the top of my class. I studied all day every day, except for morning gym sessions. I didn’t socialize much. At one point, I decided to break off a relationship because studying seemed more important.
In Gandhi’s Autobiography, we learn how his lifestyle took a toll on his wife and children. Similarly, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein biography revealed an obsessive scientist who was often callous toward his family.
“Greatness” often requires isolation, extreme behavior, and habits that fly in the face of living a balanced life.
Do You Want Happiness or Life Satisfaction?
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate famous for his work in behavioral economics, distinguishes between happiness and life satisfaction.
Happiness involves momentary pleasures like a delicious meal, a warm hug from a loved one, or the warm rays of the sun on a tropical beach.
On the other hand, life satisfaction encompasses your sense of accomplishment and pride when you look back on what you’ve achieved.
The constant tension
Often, happiness and life satisfaction are at odds with one another. Staying balanced might lead to temporary happiness by preventing unnecessary pain, dedication, or sacrifice. But if you give 50% effort to everything you do, you might not end up satisfied in the long run.
Working hard and dedicating yourself to a few principal goals might be a better strategy to achieve life satisfaction. To accomplish something great, you’ll need to put in the work. However, the obsession required to achieve lofty goals is often incompatible with a happy, balanced life. So, what to do?
The Solution to the Problem of Balance, Happiness, and Achievement
For the optimal life, we need both in-the-moment happiness and life satisfaction. To get both, I suggest engaging in periodic bursts of obsession, broken up by periods of balance and restoration.
Get a Little Obsessive
To live a meaningful life and accomplish great things, we need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and do things that scare us. You might need to get a little excessive.
Here are some examples of situations that might call for temporary obsession:
- Work. You may decide to work long, difficult hours for two years to build your resume and set yourself up for a rewarding career.
- Health. You may decide to dedicate yourself to hard, consistent training for 16 weeks to prepare for a marathon.
- Family. You may decide to take a leave of absence from work to help your sick mother recover.
These experiences might not be enjoyable in the moment. They’ll require incredible focus and dedication. But the sense of accomplishment and pride will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Plus, in many cases, accomplishing lofty goals will help set you up for future happiness. By working hard to secure a promising career, you’ll spend years of your life doing what you love. When you train your body, you’ll enjoy better health as you age. After dedicating yourself to your family, you’ll earn their trust, admiration, and love.
Then Take a Step Back
While these bursts of dedication can help you accomplish your goals, they shouldn’t last forever. If you get carried away and compulsively work 100 hours a week for the rest of your life, you won’t have time for family, friends, health, spirituality, or anything else.
After accomplishing your objective — such as earning a new degree, finishing a race, or getting a promotion — take a moment to bask in your achievement and offer gratitude to those who helped you along the way.
Actually, take more than a moment.
Dedicate a substantial amount of time to reconnect with any areas of your life you may have neglected. Try to restore an element of balance to your life as you reset and find equilibrium. At this point, you might encourage your partner, child, or friend to chase their dreams while you hold down the fort. It’s only fair.
By prioritizing extreme dedication and balance at different times in your life, you’ll get the best of both worlds.
Everything in moderation — including moderation.