Balance v. Alignment
While on parental leave for my newborn son, I realized the futility of pursuing “work-life balance.” I’m not against the objective, but the concept is misleading and impractical. Balance requires the even distribution of weights. When we consider all of the balls that we are juggling between work and life, we have an impressive variety of weights to manage. On top of that, we have the chaos of life’s surprises. It’s an implausible circus act.
If you’ve ever been to a ropes course, you probably know about the whale watch element. It’s that big wooden platform on top of a fulcrum. In this popular team-building activity, a bunch of people try to balance their combined weight, shuffling until the platform hovers above the fulcrum. What happens when there is a hurricane? Or when a rabid porcupine drops from the trees? What happens when Victor has a sudden heart attack or when Jade has a family emergency or when Leroy Jenkins gets tired of your endless planning and storms onto the platform? We know what happens.
The work-life balance concept is doomed. First, the weight of the weights change. With a newborn, the work weight has to diminish––along with everything else in the daily routine. The scales are tipped in totality for that baby. It would be weird if they weren’t. We can’t say, “Welcome to life, baby. There’s milk in the fridge. I’ll be back around 7:00. It’s bowling after work today. Wish me luck.” Second, we can’t predict the future. Weights go on and off the scale at random, and it’s impossible to plan for those sudden shifts. Third, we are not the fulcrum. The universe does not balance for us, and we cannot balance it. We are not the center. Forget the whale watch.
Instead of jockeying for balance, I’m opting for a pragmatic concept: alignment. The concept map below may not look simple at first glance. You’ll have to stay with me a touch longer to get the gist, though I can tell you up front that concept maps (organizational drawings that visualize how ideas are connected) lead to dramatic increases in learning, according to recent educational research. This first drawing is designed to resemble the familiar XY axis. If you read on, you’ll see how it evolves into something more flexible and multidimensional.
The overall challenge is to sustain a sense of alignment––experiencing a feeling of alliance, that all things are in their appropriate relative positions––given our place in space and time. Rather than fretting over whether or not we are achieving balance, we appreciate each moment as it unfolds. If we find ourselves unable to do so, that’s a sign that we need to realign, like realigning with the breath when an inevitable and distracting thought pops up during meditation.
Before diving into the weeds, let's confront two common thought patterns. (1) I need to be centered to live a good life. Instead, alignment is a moving target. The center is relative to where we are in space and time, rather than being in a fixed spot (there’s no 0,0). The concept map moves with experience. (2) I need to be goal-oriented to live a good life. Think of alignment as a diamond we possess, not a goal off in the distance. We polish it to prevent a collection of dust and grime. We avoid subjecting it to prolonged extreme conditions. We are aware of its presence, and we check in on it amidst our constant movement. Just as a journey is not about the destination, alignment is not about the final sum of treasures. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
One day, I may find the space and time to explain this idea of alignment more fully, but today is not that day. Alas, I give you the quick guide and hope it may be of use.
The alignment axes resemble the XY axis, but they work differently. There are no precise numbers, no positives and negatives, no polar opposites. Instead, picture alignment as the sweet spot, and the far ends of the axes as excessive amounts, the extremes. In terms of the axes, here’s what the sweet spot looks like (I’ll get into the extremes soon):
Fear is present and leads to motivation and positive growth. It is not debilitating. Fear is necessary. Pursuing and confronting it results in learning and improvement. Fear drives human survival. With too little or too much, people do not grow into their potential.
Example: I fear my kid will think I am always using a cell phone, so I put it in “the phone jar” when we are playing together.
Joy is present and leads to fulfillment and happiness. It is not mindless. Joy is a necessary equalizer. All people pursue it, and it is the most relevant factor––more so than socioeconomic status––for assessing one’s quality of life. With too little, life is dull. However, one should be aware if excessive personal joy comes at the expense of the suffering of others.
Example: Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning brings me joy. Even if it is just the first few sips, it feels like drinking warm, positive energy.
One keeps an open heart and mind to all that exists––to fearful and joyful experiences and to all people. One is not uncritical. If people are too closed, they are like a sunflower under a bucket. If people are mindlessly open, they are like an impala in a pride of lions. Openness is not the absence of judgment.
Example: Hiking on a trail, I open my heart to everyone I pass, acknowledging them with a smile and saying hello.
One lets go of the uncontrollable, both fearful and joyful experiences. One is not irresponsible. If people hold onto everything, they lose their sense of self in a sea of distraction. If people let go of everything, they lose self purpose. Letting go is not the absence of connection.
Example: There is a slower driver in front of me on the road. I feel anger boiling in my chest, and I tell myself to let it go.
There are four core values of alignment. Proper amounts of joy and fear as well as keen abilities to be open and let go result in healthy states of mind. Different situations may call for different values, and practicing each one moves a person closer to the sweet spot:
Carol Dweck popularized the term “growth mindset,” though people have been talking about it for centuries. The ancient Stoics were all about it. When people are open to their fears, they demonstrate courage and a growth mindset. They see challenges and setbacks as opportunities to become wiser and stronger. They believe in the examined life and never stop learning.
Example: I have a fear of dancing, so I take dance lessons.
This is the central tenet of most major religions. When people are open to joy, they are unconditionally compassionate. They do not tie imaginary strings to their love. They understand that loving and helping others lead to personal joy. In alignment, people seek the joy in the myriad experiences that come their way.
Example: I write a letter of gratitude to one of my students, telling them how impressed I am with their progress. The student’s parent then sends me a message explaining how happy their kid was to receive the letter. This makes my day.
People gain constant access to equanimity when they learn to examine their thoughts, let go of imagined suffering, and recognize the joy of existing in the present moment. One’s existence is nothing short of miraculous. With composure, peoples’ thoughts do not sweep them away, and they avoid negative feelings and reactions.
Example: I am running a meeting with colleagues to resolve a controversial issue, so I focus on the excitement of learning multiple perspectives, thinking critically, and making progress.
Psychologist Marsha Linehan coined the term “radical acceptance” in 1993, and it is more widely known today as the ability to accept situations beyond one’s control without judgment and self-induced suffering. One can achieve this state of consciousness by acknowledging fears and letting them go, or letting them be.
Example: My two-year-old daughter is throwing a tantrum because she wants to drive the car. I know this is natural and will pass––and it’s pretty funny––so I smile and explain that she can drive when she’s older, but dad has to drive for now.
There are more than four ways to describe people who are out of alignment. I have settled on four primary extremes based on the axes. While everyone will spend time out of alignment, we want to avoid living in the extremes. These are exhausting places to exist. People who live in the extremes are prone to hurtle from one extreme to another. Think of it like a balloon on a string tied to a flagpole. Let’s say the string is ten-feet long. When the wind whips, the balloon will thrash all over the place. The shorter the string––or the more aligned it is with the top of the flagpole––the closer the balloon stays to home, despite the wind.
People at the extreme ends of the fear and be open axes suffer from chronic stress. They are consistently overwhelmed by their fears and feel crippling pressure over a long period of time. Chronic stress has negative health effects and shortens longevity, not to mention quality of life.
Example: I check my social media constantly to ensure I am on top of current events and making comments that get a respectable number of likes so that I continue to build my following and I can rest easy knowing that my thoughts are making a real difference in the world.
People at the extreme ends of the joy and be open axes exhibit non-critical thinking. They blindly accept everything that agrees with their beliefs and provides them with a sense of joy. Non-critical thinkers are thought followers who refuse to consider logic. Agreeable experiences bring them joy, but opposing ideas make them angry.
Example: The presidential candidate of my political party explains at a rally that we will reduce the legal voting age to any citizen older than 6 who passes a “national competency test,” and I roar my applause with the crowd.
People at the extreme ends of the joy and let go axes suffer from heedless selfishness. They let go of everything that does not promote their personal joy, and they relentlessly pursue their own happiness. They are stuck on the hedonic treadmill, and they will only invest in the well being of others when they have satisfied their own desires––or to signal virtue and elevate their own status. As a result, they grow disconnected and egocentric.
Example: My friend and I go to a baseball game. Everyone at the stadium is entered into a raffle for a signed jersey. I win. It’s my friend’s favorite player of all time, and I don’t really care about baseball. I keep the jersey so I can sell it online.
People at the extreme ends of the fear and let go axes undergo anxious avoidance. These people let go of everything that frightens them. Rather than solving problems, they avoid dealing with them, and their issues multiply as a result. Anxious avoidance is like living in an endless minefield. Stepping around the mine seems to work at the moment, bringing temporary relief, but the more one resorts to avoidance, and the more one fears the act of defusing, the more troublesome and thought-consuming the mines become.
Example: I see a colleague who I argued with in the last meeting coming down the hall, so I step into the bathroom and pretend to use the toilet.
The Alignment of Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors
The cognitive triangle is a product of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It expresses the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Each influences the other. For example, I think no one at this party likes me because my friend ditched me and is talking with someone else and everyone else has their own friends, so I feel sad, and I sulk in a corner scrolling on my phone, all of which continues the cycle and reinforces my current way of thinking, feeling, and behaving into the future. This concept map is pretty simple:
When we are in alignment, our thoughts, feelings, and actions follow suit. Take the previous example. My friend ditches me at the party. I use courage and move toward my fear of rejection, introducing myself to other people. I open my heart to everyone around me and seek the joy in making new connections. I let go of the possibility that people won’t like me as well as the feeling that I’d rather be somewhere else. I recognize that it’s pretty amazing that I have the opportunity to attend a party at all, and I enjoy the experience while I can.
Placing the cognitive triangle in the middle of the alignment sweet spot helps to commit this relationship to memory. But why bother with these concept maps in the first place? Isn’t there enough to think about already? That’s the thing. Our thoughts run rampant. They interject and commentate all day, every day. Accessible concept maps that facilitate the examination of those thoughts can check negative thinking and self-induced suffering. Alas, it is time for the original alignment concept map to evolve:
I have to confess something. I spent an exorbitant amount of time trying to describe what this concept map looks like. After several failed analogies, I saw that my problem was that I was trying to conceptualize in the first place. My fear of being misunderstood and my unwillingness to let go of needing an answer had me in anxious avoidance. I nearly quit altogether.
Alignment is what it is. It is an experience-oriented way of being. I can best compare it to the ocean. The many tides and waves––coming and going––are all a part of the same body of water. The ocean isn’t preoccupied with the height of this or that wave crashing on the beach. It does the best it can, with what it’s got, where it is. It sustains alignment in step with all the other forces beyond its control.