Where the Balance Is
In recent years I have been exposed to, haunted by, and tailed by a branch of popular thinking which advocates that we all should follow our own path and do whatever it is we want to do in life. Follow your dreams. Live your life. Do what you want. Embedded in this way of thinking is the idea that if you simply do what you love everything else will fall into place.
I was first forcefully exposed to this philosophy while studying for a Master’s degree at an art school. I was surrounded by artists seeking an unconventional lifestyle. Their concept of self was closely tied to the need to present themselves as non-conformists. There were many hair colors not found in nature, face piercings, and men wearing skirts. There was a moral superiority behind their life strategy that suggested anyone who chose a path that was grounded in making money to support themselves was a lesser human being.
Anyone who has had a bad day at work can appreciate the idea. I understand the premise, but I often find the concept of living only for one’s self and following only one’s own passions anti-social, anti-community and impractical in a world where most people need money to live. If we all committed to living life only on our own terms, many necessary jobs would be left unfilled and we would all suffer as a result. Many of those unfilled jobs would involve sanitation.
The thing is, we have all had our moments when we look up from the task we are being paid to perform and ask ourselves, is this all there is? What is the larger point to life? Do we all exist solely for the purpose of making money and accumulating things through the great middle third of our lives only to spend our accumulated wealth trying to extend the last third? Is life just a hamster wheel, or is life something to be experienced? Can it be both?
Anthony Bourdain, who in his forties got off the hamster wheel of restaurant work, when he was discovered as a writer, once said in an interview, he did not understand people who are overly health conscious. He did not understand people who treat their bodies as a temple in the hope they will extend their lives. He said, I treat my body like “an amusement park ride,” I want to experience every sensation there is until there is nothing left. He could do that, because it seems he was naturally thin.
Bourdain landed on the construction of one of the great questions of life. Do you speed down the highway bouncing off the guardrails until you crash, or do you stay in your lane, driving the speed limit with the intent of getting further and seeing more? I don’t know the answer, but I may have stumbled upon it just by listening to the wisdom of youth.
As I continue my life journey, I have made a special effort the older I get to listen — really listen — to others. Anyone. If you have something to say I will listen. Most of what I hear is just the useless information contained in normal conversation, but at least once a day I hear one bit of wisdom and often from a place I don’t expect.
I was teaching a college course last fall that required the students, as their final project of the semester, to give a speech, or talk, on any subject they wanted to talk about. By the end of the semester I had already learned a lot from my students and none of it had to do with how to use my phone and social media to start a revolution. That is a secret they chose to hold close. One student, in his final talk backed into the question of whether it is right to live your life only for personal fulfillment, or whether it is proper to live what most of us consider a conventional lifestyle.
This student had attended a Jesuit high school and he shared with the class how that experience shaped his life, so far, and made him a better person. In high school he learned one lesson that stood out above all others.
He was taught that the way to find balance is to discover what your passion is in the context of what the world needs. Find the intersection between what the world needs and what you are passionate about. That is the secret to a fulfilled life. Mathematically speaking the equation would look like this:
World Needs/Your Passion = Life Balance
That makes sense I thought. It is a formulation that finds the point between blindly believing we can all be artists, or social media influencers, and a society that resembles a bee hive, where we all are assigned tasks that we repeat over and over again until winter comes and we die. This wisdom was being delivered by a twenty-year old who was handing it down from a religious order founded almost 500 years ago.
In the context of art school you might say that during his lifetime Picasso found the balance between what the world needs and his passion, while Vincent Van Gogh, did not. People saw Picasso’s work and responded, “yes, I need one of those.” That didn’t happen much for Van Gogh until after he died and by then it was too late for him to pay the rent.
The university where I teach part-time specializes in public service careers in law enforcement, national security and fire safety. Based on their early choices, it is clear many of the students I work with have already made a balanced choice about how they intend to spend their working careers. It may change some day, but as of now most have decided they want to work in fields where the goal is to help others. They know they will not get rich doing this work, but they will feel as if they are making a difference and ideally they will be saving lives. It’s not up to them to decide how those lives will be spent once they are saved.
So which school of thought is right? As a practical matter I have to come down in favor of balance. The world, in general, will not find you and support you financially or otherwise, just because you have decided to follow your dreams. Your passion may be of no use to the rest of the world. Chances are that is the case. As is often true, the best answer lies in compromise between you and the world. Between your passion and what the world needs.
Let me take it a step further. Ask the questions in this order: What does the world need? What is on that list I would be passionate about providing? This formulation serves others first and then yourself and produces a better result for everyone.