Interesting Thought: The Benefits of an Unbalanced Life
Earlier this week, I had published with The New York Times an essay on the benefits of living an unbalanced life. This is a topic that Steve and I discuss frequently, and one that almost always comes up in my conversations with individuals who are trying to get the best out of themselves in their respective endeavors.
The essay is here. I encourage you to give it a read.
If this topic is one that interests you, then some more context may be helpful. Minds far greater than mine have wrestled with passion vs. balance for the past two millennia. Here's what a few had to say:
Some 90 years ago, in his classic novel SteppenWolf, the author Herman Hesse writes that the balanced individual “aims to make a home for himself between extremes, in a temperate zone without violent storms and tempests; and in this he succeeds—though it be at the cost of that intensity of life and feeling which an extreme life affords.” Yet, at the same time, Hesse acknowledged the pitfalls of going all-in on something: "A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self."
Nearly 1800 years before Hesse, the Stoic emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius advised that "the value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You're better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve." At the same time, however, the Stoics also advised the passions should be tempered - temperance was a core principle in their system.
And over 2300 years ago, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, offered perhaps the first take on losing balance when he observed that “people who are fond of playing the flute are incapable of attending to arguments if they overhear someone playing the flute, since they enjoy flute-playing more than the activity in hand; so the pleasure connected with flute-playing destroys the activity concerned with argument. This happens, similarly, in all other cases, when one is active about two things at once: the more pleasant activity drives out the other and if it is much more pleasant it does so all the more. This is why when we enjoy anything very much we do not throw ourselves into anything else.”
The above examples show that this is a timeless conundrum. If you are lucky enough to find something that's worth going all-in on, for now, I'd say go for it. Just be sure you don't lose self-awareness and perspective in the process.
Coaching Corner: To Breakthrough, You've Got to Struggle
The first day of school is a magical period for a coach. A short few months ago, you sent your athletes home with a sheet of paper detailing the training that they needed to do. But, deep down, you also sent them off with hope and desire -- that they not only put in the work, but also grow as athletes and people. When they arrive on the footsteps of the school during that first practice back, you want to see that they made a choice, a choice to be better at their craft of running.
Every year, a few runners come back from their summer “break” and surprise me. The first run back, they look like a transformed machine. No, the transformation wasn’t physical, but instead, it was upstairs, between the ears. They come in hungry with a new desire to perform, or a level of grit and determination that wasn’t there just a short period ago. And, most importantly, it shows up in their racing. You have young men drop from 26 minute 8k’s to 24 minutes, or young women drop from 18:30 in the 5k to sub 17. In other words, massive improvements off of just a month or two of training.
Whenever I see these breakthroughs, I’m left asking the question, why now? What led to a breakthrough during the month of July that we couldn’t achieve during the 9 months of the year in which they had coaches supervising them and teammates with whom to train? Why couldn’t they figure this out between indoor and outdoor track, or after the rough performance at their first meet?
While each individual is different, the key almost always lies not just in the training that they’ve done, but also in a shift in their mentality.
Most often, a breakthrough follows a period of struggle. It’s the athlete who had a subpar track season or didn’t finish quite as well as he or she wanted at the championship meet. Or it could be something smaller, like performing well, but not contributing to the team’s performance (i.e., the woman who improved but ended up the 8th finisher on a 7 person cross-country team). Struggle prompts an athlete to ask important questions. Why did I not reach my goals? How do I improve? Is this something I really want to do?
But merely asking these questions isn't enough. The second part of the equation is in the reflection. Asking questions doesn’t get you anywhere unless you truly search for the answers. This is where those who struggle and improve set themselves apart. They take responsibility for their own shortcomings, choosing to look at what they can control versus blaming external causes. For runners, this is a key piece to the summer breakthrough puzzle. To reflect requires time. In the busy world of high school or college sports, during the year, we tend to look for the quick fix or the band-aid to fix our shortcomings. We don’t take the time to get to the root of our performance woes.
In the summer–away from most of your teammates, doing more solo training, and forced to find the motivation to train in in sauna-like heat–there is ample time to spend alone in your head reflecting.
The athletes who show up to that first practice a changed man or woman don’t just magically appear. They do the work -- physical and mental. They put in the effort to actually change.
The pattern is simple but takes both vulnerability and ambition to accomplish:
1. Struggle or “want more”
2. Reflect and identify shortcomings
3. Put in the work
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