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This chapter is from the book

The Answer Is Very Rarely Just One Thing

In the movie City Slickers, Jack Pallance (Curly) told Billy Crystal (Mitch Robbins) the secret to life. Holding up one finger, he said as if speaking from the wisdom of the ages: "Just one thing."

Audiences felt terrific leaving the theatre with an answer, but this was fast food. It's just a fantasy that satisfies our compulsive need for a single magic pill for the happily ever after. But that kind of thinking is also the source of enormous frustration if you deny yourself everything else you've got going for you in life.

In organizations, it's often necessary to focus on one core competency—the one thing that your team is better at than others. And, in your career, a central focus to which you are willing to deeply commit is also important, as we'll explore later in this book. But, this focus should not be confused with a narrow life. Builders may look like race horses sprinting with blinders on, but most live large and complicated lives filled with many different personal and professional passions. The myth that there is only one thing to do with your life is not an idea that we could get many to endorse.

Balance Is Bullshit

Ironically, at the same time society insists that you do one thing with your life, those same cultural norms pressure you to have a "balanced" life split into neat little slices. That means not one, but at least four, miraculously proportioned commitments of time and mindshare. Again, the problem here is thinking there's a right answer—the notion that balance can be defined by a time allocation pie chart carrying the good housekeeping seal of approval, representing work, family, community, and if you're lucky, you're included in there somewhere, too.

When asked what he thought about life balance, Keith Never-Eat-Alone Ferrazzi didn't hold back: "Balance is bullshit!" he asserted. The voice in your head might reply, "Wrong answer." What do Builders have to say on the matter? Basically this: As culturally defined, balance is in fact bullshit—as a popular concept, it ranks right up there with the idea that there is just one passion for your life, and when you know what it is, you'll be happy. It rarely works this way.

If you define balance in the sense that it requires equal proportions of life partitioned into four or five politically correct parts, then CEOs and presidents don't have balance, nor do most Nobel laureates. The Dalai Lama doesn't either, nor does Nelson Mandela or Bono. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa did not have balance—we could go on and on, but you get the idea. Enduringly successful people, many of whom live a life that's a gift to the world, don't raise balance as a major issue—not because they had it masterfully handled, but because they were all busy doing what mattered to them.

It's a struggle for everyone at some point. If you're feeling a twinge of guilt about balance, there is a probability that you don't want more balance, exactly, but need more of something that you can't admit you want. The balance you're seeking is a meaningful portfolio, not a balanced one. The reason that balance is so painful and elusive is because that's not what you really want. What you hunger for is a place for all of your passions—not balance as culturally defined.

Feeling a desperate need for balance may have nothing to do with balance per se as much as it means "you're not getting access to a huge chunk of time to do the things that really matter to you," said Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and best known for Moore's Law. In addition to his love for crunching numbers and inventing technology in Silicon Valley, this big-hearted, down-to-earth billionaire has many other passions that he ferociously pursues, such as philanthropy, sport fishing, education, and saving the planet. Your fixation on balance may actually mean you need your work 80%, or kids 80%, or fishing 80%, but rarely in "comfortable" proportions. It might mean time to be a stay-at-home parent, refurbish Model Ts without the family around, explore medieval castles with your pals, or paint homes for Habitat for Humanity.

The point is to look and see if it's a neglected passion that drives the hunger, not a social obligation to some idealistic sense of balance. When you say to yourself you need more balance, ask yourself: if you had it, what would you be doing that you're not doing now? Chances are a neglected passion is making the request. Pay attention. What you really need is to balance your portfolio of passions. Understand that what you will actually experience as balance can change with the passage of time and may never look like balance to any other soul.

You don't have to make a career of everything that is meaningful to you, but you do need to find a place for everything that is meaningful to you. That's the balance that you are seeking.

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