Can You Live a “Balanced” Life and Still Achieve Greatness?

“If you look at all of the really successful artists, they’re all loners. To get to where they are, they had to sacrifice everything, and they just practice all day, every day.”

That was part of a conversation I still remember from college, 40 years ago.

A friend and I were talking about what it took to be the best in the world at something, and that was his response.

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the years, and I think there’s a good deal of truth in my friend’s statement.

I think that if you want to be the best in the world at something, whether it’s music, magic, juggling, drawing, writing, basketball, running a business, finding a cure for cancer, it requires a near obsessive commitment to that goal.

I also think that the obvious outcome of such a commitment is a lack of “balance” in that person’s life. How could such a person have time or energy for anything else if he or she is going all in on such a pursuit?

I can see how such a person could become a loner, since they would would not be able to commit the time necessary to maintain a personal relationship with someone.

The big question of course is whether such s single-minded pursuit of greatness is worth it.

I think we all admire the outcome of such efforts, and we hold those who succeed in such pursuits in high esteem.

But we often don’t think about the cost associated with such outcomes.

I think about a recent tweet from Elon Musk when asked about his life:

“The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”

I think about Bruce Springsteen and the bouts of depression he has dealt with for decades.

I think about Steve Jobs and his obnoxious behavior towards his employees.

Are these all examples of the price one pays for pursuing greatness?

Could these individuals have reached such heights without being fully committed to their goals, and ignoring virtually everything else around them?

Unfortunately, I don’t think they could have.

There was a great article in the New York Times this week by Brad Stulberg, “Maybe We All Need a Little Less Balance“, that looked at this issue.

Stulberg notes that the times in his life when he’s felt the happiest and most alive were also the times that he’s been the most unbalanced. He believes that trying to be balanced — devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of his life — would have detracted from his formative experiences.

Stulberg also gives examples of others who have achieved success and who attribute such success to a single-minded commitment to such success. Stulberg suggests that “perhaps we could all use a little more unbalance in our lives.”  

He references the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who introduced the term flow a mental state during which people become wholly immersed in the activity they are doing and their perception of time and space is altered, their entire being filled with enjoyment. A telltale sign of these optimal experiences, of “being in the zone,” is that the outside world disappears. In such a state, flow and balance are irreconcilable. And compared to flow, balance seems, for lack of a better term, boring.

Stulberg also talks about the costs and risks associated with such behavior, but does not believe that “balance” is the solution.;s life

Instead, he recommends internal self-awareness, the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors and impact on others. Once you have done that, you should then live your life accordingly.

Stulberg concludes with the following advice:

Maybe the good life is not about trying to achieve some sort of illusory balance. Instead, maybe it’s about pursuing your interests fully, but with enough internal self-awareness to regularly evaluate what you’re not pursuing as a result — and make changes if necessary. Living in this manner trumps balance any day.

It still seems like he  is suggesting that there be some type of balance in a person that kicks in when the person becomes aware that they have become too obsessed in their pursuits of greatness.

But in my mind, I’m still not sure that’s possibe.

I guess I still agree with my friend’s comments from 40 years ago; if you want to be truly great at something, then you need to pursue that goal at the exclusion of all else.

It’s then up to that individual to decide if such a goal is worth the inevitable costs.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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