A Reader Asks: How do I find a middle ground in life? I don’t want to live in a mud hut, for example, but I want to help preserve the environment. I want to help the poor, but I’m not planning to give away all my money and become poor myself. How do I find the balance?

Michael’s response:

First, the good news. Your life will never be completely in balance.

Actually, that’s not good news. It’s great news. Absolutely incredibly marvelous news. Because, if you know your life will never be perfectly balanced, you have one very large item that you never have to worry about again.

Ever.

Life balance can’t be measured. It’s almost entirely subjective, based more on our feeling of being in balance than any external measure or opinion. In a way, our lives are in balance if we believe them to be so and they are out of balance if that is our royal decree.

Who says your life is out of balance? You do.

You believe there is something else you should be doing and someplace else you should be spending your money and some other way you should be more supportive of your friends. And when you look for the culprit who’s telling you all the things you aren’t doing that you SHOULD be doing, you don’t have very far to look, do you?

So the first step in finding balance is to avoid being unbalanced in the search for balance. Knowing that close enough is good enough can help us avoid the deadly trap of overcomplicating the issue. Basically, finding balance requires two things:

  1. Decide approximately where you want to be and what you’re willing to give up to get there. Avoid the crash diet impulse that leads to three days of frenzy and a lifetime of failure. Take it slowly, the balanced way, and just add one or two things at a time. Leave a note on the door to remind you to turn off the lights when you leave. Take a minute to direct HR to deduct 1% of your salary for your 401(k). Add things as time goes by, but never add so much that you feel pressured by the demands.
  2. Don’t fixate on it, don’t feel guilty about it and don’t try to measure it. Balance is a bit like sleeping. Sleep is very important, but you won’t get there if you lie in bed all night thinking about it. Be conscious of your goal, but don’t make yourself crazy, because crazy people are…what’s the word??…unbalanced.

Let’s say you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Take a look around and make a list of how you live. Do you set the air conditioning at 62 degrees, leave the lights on when you leave the house, drive an SUV so big you need to have a gasoline tanker truck following you to the store?

Find the low-hanging fruit, the handful of things you can do that require no effort and have some impact. Forgive yourself for the items that are very expensive and very difficult and have very little net impact. You can get to them later.

So, if you were planning to fly to a vacation spot but worry about the energy impact of your trip, remember that the plane is taking off with you or without you. If you are on the plane, your incremental impact on the environment is actually very small. In fact, we can use less energy in a week when we fly away on vacation than if we stay home. If I stay home, I’m heating/cooling an entire house, but if I’m in a hotel, my incremental impact is heating/cooling one room. 

That’s the thing about balance. There are a million tradeoffs along the way. Tradeoffs and imbalance are the natural order of the universe. Our failure to be in balance, however we define it, is not a failure at all, but normalcy.

The reality, though, is that we have to believe it to make it so. If we make changes and we can’t give ourselves credit for doing good, can’t escape the feeling there’s more we should be doing, then we might as well make no changes at all.

So the first step in achieving balance is very simple:  We have to be able to forgive ourselves for our inability to be perfect.

MR

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