Balance & Greatness: A Paradox

Written October, 2015


My whole life I’ve strived for balance. I’m the epitomic product of parents who constantly enforced the importance of being well-rounded. Studying hard and getting good grades in school was expected. As a competitive figure skater for all of my childhood and adolescence, the words “I don’t feel like going to practice tonight” were a waste of breath, and I reaped the intrinsic rewards of intense, exhausting training. And though back then it seemed a minor annoyance to be constantly pushed to do my best in every area, I know that I have this to thank for my hard work ethic and successes today.

But it’s also this obsession with well-roundedness that is responsible for an ongoing internal struggle I deal with every day. The struggle of feeling like I need to be the absolute best that I can be in every aspect of my life, yet never quite feeling like I’ve gotten there. I push myself to be the best graphic designer that I can be, but also an ideal partner and friend to my loved ones. I push to reach my personal peak of strength, both physically and mentally, trying to max out weight stacks and run times while still allowing time to learn and grow more in areas that interest me.

You may be thinking this isn’t that complicated of a problem. It’s all about finding balance and managing time, right? Well, balance and time management are hardly the problem. I’ve gotten both of them fairly down pat by now and have mastered the Jack of all Trades persona. I’m in great physical shape, and continue to maintain a healthy weight and strong fitness level. I’ve landed multiple prestigious design positions in an area where graphic design jobs are hard to come by. I have developed friendships with people that have truly touched my life, and am dating a man who gives me the world, and for whom I would do anything. I say these things not with arrogance, but with confidence and gratitude that I have truly found great harmony in my life. So what’s the problem?

If you are a “Jack of all Trades”, are you truly a “Master of None”? I constantly battle the notion that because I value so deeply the balance which I’ve acquired, I will never truly be amazing at anything.

It isn’t so much a problem, but a nagging question.

If you are a Jack of all Trades, are you truly a Master of None?

I constantly battle the notion that because I value so deeply the balance which I’ve acquired, I will never be truly amazing at anything. I struggle with the constant need to meet some undefined personal requirement so that I may be satisfied with a given level of accomplishment. But the fact is that there are only so many hours in a day, and to try to master everything often leads to a burnout in one area or another. Something inevitably has to give, and this turns into a cyclical pattern of extremes, only to realize that I am not in fact Wonder Woman and end up dropping everything for a month to recharge.

We are surrounded by extraordinary people. All you have to do is watch the news, listen to a TED Talk or glance around your workplace to see hundreds who have succeeded so greatly at one specific thing, that you can’t help but also see the incredible sacrifices they made to get where they are.

The female fitness model with 2% body fat that can squat 300 pounds, but hasn’t had a glass of wine with dinner or a bowl of mac and cheese in over 10 years. The college professor who’s aged far beyond her true years, who clearly placed more value on knowledge than physical health, but can tell you everything there is to know about Classical Greek Literature. And the geeky businessman who invented a multi-billion dollar online collaboration that changed the world, but can rarely go out for a nice quiet dinner with his wife or make it to his son’s baseball game. I come across these people every day, and I become increasingly envious of those that are able to simply let go of the need to be good at everything, and just be great at one.

I become evermore fearful that my mother was right in pushing me to leave this area for a big city with bigger and better opportunities, even though I resented her persistence. These thoughts present a puzzling paradox that plagues my mind.

Is it sacrifice that defines passion and greatness?

Does a balanced life mean that I lack passion, or at least the kind that it takes to be great?

Or worst of all, is achieving a balanced life actually the greatest sacrifice at all, because you sacrifice greatness? Whoa. Mind blown.

Maybe it’s all semantics. Maybe it just depends on what you define as “great” and what you personally value. But the semantics of it don’t make the paradox any less real.

Is it sacrifice that defines passion and greatness? Does a balanced life mean that I lack passion, or at least the kind that it takes to be great?

Having just begun a career as a Graphic Designer at a liberal arts college, I’m becoming more knowledgeable of the meaning of a liberal arts education. The people here place great emphasis on the value of a liberal arts education because it is highly successful in creating well-rounded individuals. It’s all about encouraging students to branch out and take courses in multiple areas that interest them; to volunteer in the community, and to become eloquent speakers, articulate writers, creative thinkers and effective problem solvers. All of this so that they may be successful in all aspects of life, not just one field of study.

How ironic that I am working someplace that values the exact qualities that seem to be causing my quandary? Since I’ve started working here I have seen one question arise more than once:

How do we continue to elevate the value of a liberal arts education in a world where it’s becoming increasingly important to have expert knowledge in one specific field?

And it’s through contemplating this question that things start to become slightly more clear. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As somewhat of an outsider looking in, the answer was, for me, an easy one. Students can be well rounded, and take different courses and become wonderful writers, communicators and problem solvers while still focusing on one area of study to prepare for a specific type of job. It’s not about there being perfect balance. It’s about there being some. No matter how the scale tilts for each individual student, the ones that put in the their best effort go off to do amazing things.

So, I thought, if I could apply this logic to other peoples’ lives, why couldn’t I apply it to my own?

The bottom line is, I enjoy a glass of wine and a bowl of mac and cheese every now and then. But I also enjoy exercising and taking care of my physical health. I stay in this area because I love my family, and the changing of the seasons, and because I truly believe that if I work hard enough I can do anything that I want, even here. The more I accept that the balance doesn’t have to be perfect, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be one extreme or the other, the more I can accept that it’s my overall happiness that matters more than my accomplishments.

Though the paradox may never be completely answered for me, accepting that it is balance I value, and knowing it is possible to be successful without sacrificing everything, is enough to keep me pushing towards that one great thing.