Elephant balancing on a beach ball.

Busting the “Balance” Myth: A Better Way

NOTE: This post originally appeared as an episode on my podcast, Andrew Petty is Dying. You can listen now with the media player below, or just read on…

If you’re looking for more “balance” in your life, then I’m sorry to say that you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m not your guy. I think our modern pursuit of “balance” is for the birds, and I think there’s a much better way.

What We Really Want

If you’re anything like me–like most humans, in fact–you’d like a little more balance in your life. My coaching clients frequently want more balance in their lives. What I mean when I say “balance” is similar, I think, to what a lot of us mean if we’re really honest:

Freedom from stress and strain, to weather the ups and downs and corkscrews and constant demands of life with unflustered grace, calm, and ease, to become an impregnable fortress of serenity that nothing and no one can topple or disturb.

We’re tempted to think that if we can just crack the code on “balance,” it’ll be smooth sailing from then on and we’ll be impervious to future stress, strain, and fatigue–floating zen-like in an unflustered way through life.

The Real Failure

There are plenty of respected, respectable, and prominent voices out there telling us that balance IS achievable. This three-part formula or that 6-week course will help you achieve the balance that you desire AND deserve.

Persuaded that “balance” is not only desirable but also attainable, we beat ourselves us up over the fact that we’ve failed to achieve it. And then we re-double our efforts. Maybe with a few tweaks here and there, a little more yoga, a perfected morning routine, a great journaling practice, sticking to my nutrition plan, etc. etc….Maybe then I will indeed achieve a rarified state of balance that makes me serenely impervious to all that life might throw at me.

I think our real failure, though, is not a failure to achieve balance. I think our real failure is believing that balance is possible in the first place.

We’re chasing a mirage that always stays just out of reach. And we can spend a lifetime chasing the mirage–trying to rise permanently above the gritty, grimy, unpleasant, and dangerous parts of life–all the while forgetting to actually live.

Can you relate to this longing for balance?

Life is hard, and it can be exhausting–even in the best of times. We want some rest. We want some relief. And if that relief could be sustainable, even permanent? Well that would be amazing!

The Problem With Balance

The problem, though, is that our desire for permanent relief–for uninterrupted balance–doesn’t match the reality of life as a human being on planet earth. Life continually exerts unbalancing forces upon us.

On a normal day in a normal week for many of us, life as a human being on planet earth includes some or all of the following: Our Significant Other wants and needs us. Our kids want and need us. Our job wants and needs us. Our health needs attention, our house needs some TLC, and our friends want to be with us, too.

Those are just a few of the normal and good things competing for our time and energy. They create tension in our lives, if you think of tension in the purest sense: a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other. Add to those normal things some of the other, less welcome things that can create tension in our lives, and you’ve got a system under sometimes enormous stress and strain: sickness, injury, economic uncertainty, job loss, and social unrest, for example. How about a global pandemic? That’s fun. And let’s not forget our ancient foe, Death–who never shows up at a good time or when we expect it. It’s easy to feel pulled in a kazillion different directions even on a very average day.

Strive for Balance…Get the Opposite

It’s really interesting to me that some of the people I know who strive the hardest for balance in the midst of all of these tension-inducing forces are also some of the least peaceful people I know.

I’M that guy when I try to pursue perfect balance and someone or something threatens to unbalance me.

What’s that about?

My hunch is that the relentless pursuit of balance produces very much the opposite. That any semblance of balance achieved is so fragile and fleeting that we can actually become hostile to anyone or anything that threatens it. And intensely unhappy at the same time with the fragility of the balance we’ve achieved.

A Better Way

When the balance that we want doesn’t match the reality of life as a human being on planet earth, then we have at least a couple of options: We can ignore reality and demand irrationally that it bend to our will. We can keep chasing that mirage. OR, we can accept reality and find a better way.

I vote that we accept reality and find a better way.

So, let’s stop chasing balance and commit to getting better at managing life’s many tensions, instead.

Bridges: A Metaphor for a Better Way

Bridges are amazing structures. They allow us to cross formidable gaps by successfully managing two forces–tension and compression. Engineers have devised various ways of managing these forces over the millenia. No engineer, however, has ever devised a way to eliminate these forces altogether. For a bridge to span the gap from “here” to “there,” tension and compression must be successfully managed 24/7. In fact, the bridge is ABLE to span the gap because of those forces.

I think this is a great metaphor for what it’s like to live in the real world.

We’re like a bridge–constantly encountering and redistributing the forces that act upon us to bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to go.

Sometimes we do that well. Other times, not as well. Unlike the unattainable mirage of perfect balance–which will always remain just out of reach, no matter how hard we try–we CAN get better at managing life’s tensions. Like a bridge, we can upgrade our engineering in response to the many forces acting upon us.

I like the idea of putting my time and energy into something I can actually get better at when I put in the work.

BTW, have you ever seen video of a bridge undulating violently in the wind? Massive concrete and steel structures actually convulsing and rippling and even breaking apart when certain wind conditions exploit flaws in their engineering. Weaknesses in their ability to encounter and redistribute the focus action upon them. It’s unbelievable to watch.

I felt like one of those bridges a couple times this week, in fact.

Tension’s Here to Stay. Yippee?

There’s always tension in the system, so to speak. It’s not going away as long as we’re above ground and breathing. And in my experience, if we stay in the game, the amount of tension in the system only increases over time.

When we stop and really think about it, like in the case of the bridge, it’s good that these tensions exist. We feel pulled between our work and our family, for example. It creates tension. But we would never want either one of those sources of tension to go away forever. So our best option is to actively manage the tension that’s created by the two opposing forces pulling on us. Sometimes that might mean giving more attention to your family and less to work, or vice versa. I can make those adjustments and redistribute the forces acting upon me when I’m consciously and actively engaged in managing those tensions. A bridge actively absorbs and redistributes the forces acting upon it in real-time, all day long–like wind and water and traffic.

But if I’m insistent upon achieving balance–if I’m insistent upon life cooperating with certain very specific conditions in order for me to be okay–then the slightest source of imbalance is an existential threat.

A Simple 3-Step Process!

So here’s your three-step process to becoming a master at managing life’s tensions…

Ha. Just kidding. I think you know it doesn’t work that way.

Managing life’s many tensions is the ongoing work of a lifetime.

As you train yourself to stay in the tension rather than flee toward some elusive, unattainable notion of balance, you grow in your ability to manage the tensions more and more effectively. And as you grow, life will inevitably add more weight to the bar. Then you’ll put in the work to upgrade your engineering in response to those new forces.


The myth of balance? Busted. Commit to the work of managing life’s many tensions instead. As you do, day by day you will become the person you were made to be and live the life you were made to live.

Final Mileage from the Metaphor

Let’s see if we can squeeze some more mileage out of this bridge metaphor…What kind of bridge are you? How do you know? What conditions are you made to function in best? What kind of maintenance do you need, and when? Who’s on your maintenance team? Do you need other people on your maintenance team? Do you need to let some of your maintenance people go? Do you need other tools to keep yourself in good working order? Do you have unnecessary sources of tension in your life–creating tension that you aren’t meant to have to manage?

A powerful coaching partnership helps you answer these and many other foundational questions so you’re even better equipped to manage life’s many tensions. It’s one of my greatest joys as a coach to support people in this part of their journey.

Let’s Talk

You and I might be a good fit to do this work together. Let’s talk! Email me, or visit my website for other ways to connect.

In the meantime, check out this blog post and these other episodes of Andrew Petty is Dying for more insight and tools to manage life’s tensions:

Remember, you are going to die. But you’re NOT DEAD YET. So get after it!

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