Much of mainstream wellness advice revolves around creating a “balanced life.” There are phrases like “work-life balance,” “balanced diet”, and “balance of power.” All of these are considered positive culturally and worth striving for.
When it comes to balance in your own life, though, this advice can lead one astray. A life worth living is making choices — which means each person is going to weigh things differently. “Balance” implies that you need at least a decent amount of everything … but the reality is that you need to clearly make choices on important things that you are going to skimp on.
I’ve met a lot of people in my life. I’ve never met one that was “balanced.” Everyone, absolutely everyone, is weighted in the areas they care more about. That’s natural. That’s good.
Some people weigh their lives towards their kids. They give up their job, their personal dreams, and often their friendships to focus on their kids. These people are not balanced. They are weighted. They have made the decision that the best use of their time is to focus on their kids. That’s their choice.
Other people dedicate their lives to helping others in need. They sacrifice their own family and sometimes their own health for the “greater good.”
Everyone makes sacrifices. Everyone makes choices.
None of these people are balanced because no one is balanced. We all make choices. We all weigh our lives in directions that we think is best. And sometimes we change those weights as we mature. And often we are wrong about the best weights. Balance, while sounding nice, is both impossible and undesirable to achieve.
Balance makes a person mediocre at a lot of things instead of great at only a few.
Culturally, we are pressured to improve in areas of deficiency in the pursuit of an imaginary “balance.” There’s no one out there screaming at us to get better at what we are already good at.
“Self-help” is a $10-billion industry. There are life-coaches, consultants, mentors, business-coaches and the like all helping people improve their personal and professional weaknesses. The reason so many people focus on their weaknesses is that it is much easier for others to point out weaknesses and give some tips on how to improve than to help you get better at your strengths.
Even customary employee performance reviews revolve around identifying areas of weakness in an employee, with the subsequent goal to improve in those areas.
After all that hard work to improve a bad skill, what are you left with?
A mediocre skill.
This approach is backward. While in many cases it makes sense to invest in things that you are not naturally gifted at (I’ve been trying to play sports poorly for many years), others already have a competitive advantage and you are not likely to catch up.
The best long-term strategy is doubling down on your strengths.
Avoid balance. Seek greatness at one or two skills to get society’s rewards.
People — all people — have very obvious flaws. Instead of spending massive amounts of energy on those flaws for the sake of “balance,” they should be doubling down on the things they are already really good at.
I wrote about this in To become a superstar, improve your strengths (not your faults). Here’s the key idea:
“To really differentiate yourself in this winner-take-all world, you should be focusing on improving your strengths, not your weaknesses… focus on one or two of the things at which you excel and hone those skills or talents to the point of excellence.”
This is how you can become a superstar in your work and life – a 10xer.
One should not give equal weight to all parts of your life. A meritocratic society does not reward balanced mediocrity – it rewards greatness. It makes more sense to try and move from good to great than to move from bad to mediocre.
“Going from good to great is really hard. But so is going from poor to mediocre. And if you have a predisposition or talent for a trait it’s likely to be something you love to do and you’ll enjoy the process of refining it.”
Think of the last bit of praise you gave to another person. It probably didn’t involve praising that person’s balanced personality or work skills. Instead, it very likely referenced the way the person used a particular skill of theirs to solve a problem or create something new.
This is how people differentiate themselves in a winner-take-most world. We don’t praise Tiger Woods for being a “well-rounded” human. In fact, he has some very public flaws.
What we love about Tiger Woods is the way he is great at golf. That’s a very specific skill that he has leaned into to improve, not abandoned to improve in other areas.
Sure, he may be “lopsided” — but the dirty secret is that everyone is extremely lopsided.
We are all lopsided.
There is no one in the world that isn’t extremely lopsided. There is no one that is ‘balanced.’ There is no one that does not have glaring flaws that will be with them for their entire life. There is no one that is great at everything … in fact, there is no one that is even somewhat good at everything. Everyone is extremely out of balance and that will be the case forever (or at least until AGI takes over).
For big wins, concentrate heavily in areas of extreme competence.
Concentration is where you’ll find the greatest rewards. Look at the investment portfolios of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. They’ve built Berkshire Hathaway into the $500 billion company it is today with a very concentrated portfolio.
They are famous for betting heavily only when they see a “fat pitch” – an opportunity well within their circle of competence where they feel they have a competitive advantage. Then and only then do they swing heavily. This concentrated approach when the odds are in their favor has resulted in Berkshire’s outsized gains.
As Munger says: “The idea of excessive diversification is madness. Wide diversification, which necessarily includes investment in mediocre businesses, only guarantees ordinary results.”
The world does not reward balance and diversification. It rewards concentration in areas of competence.
When it comes to compounding individual skills, Scott Adams (creator of the Dilbert comic strip) has a useful mental model that he calls a skill stack. A skill stack is basically 2 or 3 skills you have that complement each other. The goal is to get so good at those skills that you are in the top 25 percent in the world at them, and when you combine them you get outsized rewards.
For example, Adams worked at his comic drawing skill to become in the top 25 percent in the world. He also honed in to develop his sense of humor, specifically around life in an office. It’s this combination of drawing and humor that led to the creation of the Dilbert comic strip – an international success.
That’s how you win “bigly” – by concentrating in areas of competence. Not by seeking an arbitrary “balance.”
Yes, all people are lopsided.
Lots of people think that just all great people are lopsided.
For instance, Tiger Woods does not give equal weight (and time) to everything in his life. He lives and breathes golf. Everything (even his family) comes a distant second. He is not balanced. He’s lopsided and that’s his competitive advantage.
Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett read most of the day. They don’t give equal time to meetings, leisure activities, etc. They are lopsided and that has been their competitive advantage since 1955 (when Buffett took over Berkshire).
Elon Musk is not balanced. We can see his flaws publically on display on Twitter. But that hasn’t stopped him from changing the world with Tesla and Space X. He is lopsided, and that’s his competitive advantage.
But it is not just great people that are lopsided. We ALL are lopsided. None of us have balance. We all overweight our lives in the direction we think is most important. None of us split our time equally.
We should stop seeking balance. It’s arbitrary and counter-productive. Just make sure you are deliberate about the choices you are making. Understand that as you work to improve in the area of your choice, the other parts of your life will remain stagnant (or even regress).
If your goal is to be a great parent, note that you may be a less good friend.
If your goal is to be healthier, you may not be able to spend as much time reading.
We need to make deliberate trade-offs or those trade-offs will be made for us.
And that is ok. It is a choice we make.
When we choose to become better at something we are implicitly choosing not to reach our potential in another area.
That’s the reality — we cannot be great at everything…at least not at the same time. And we shouldn’t try to be. Balance is not something to be pursued. It’s something to be avoided.
Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.
I agree that one shouldn’t strive for complete balance, and being lopsided is important.
I often think of balance as being lopsided into a few buckets, rather than just one–having multiple dimensions of life that you invest in, so that when one isn’t going well, you have others to draw happiness and strength from. I’ve seen lots of people who invest their entire selves into their startup, or their romantic relationship, and when things hit a low point they just totally fall apart.
You might say, “such is the price of greatness.” But I actually think that investing into multiple dimensions (spouse, kids, friends) is necessary for greatness. Because greatness comes from getting through the lowest of low points (which are inevitable), and I don’t think that’s possible without having other dimensions of your life to fall back on when needed. And those dimensions won’t provide you with the happiness and strength you need if you haven’t invested in them.
It is not about finding ‘the balance’, it is about finding your own balance.
On the drowning on $300K / year… College is a major factor. Tuitions have risen at 3X the rate of inflation for over 30 years. A key underlying reason is the generous pension schemes that drive huge student loans, as well as driving up state income taxes. Tenured professors are another driver: they may teach only one class to check the box, but they can often loaf around until 65.
Many school teachers do their 25 years to secure their pension (if they started at 21 they would be 46 with full pension), and then get a SECOND state job where they can add another state pension. This drives up income taxes: hello California & Illinois!
Another solid post Auren. I wholeheartedly agree!
I agree with your point that we should focus on enhancing our strengths rather that our weaknesses. But your dismissal of “life balance” feels like a straw man argument. Where is “balance” defined as “equality”? What chef in their right mind would add equal amounts of every ingredient if they wanted a dish to taste “balanced”? Life balance means ensuring you are giving adequate time and attention to everything in your life in the proper proportions.
Many people focus so hard on one thing (work?) that they inadvertently neglect other aspects of their life (family?) It’s fine to have a passion that consumes a preponderance of your time and attention, but not to the exclusion of everything else (at which point it sounds more like a behavioral addiction, or in the case of one’s career a work addiction, both of which are considered mental health conditions.)