Part Eight: Balance vs. Excellence

“The Margin Series” focuses on the reality that everyone has limits regarding time, emotional energy, physical energy, and money, among other areas. These monthly sub-topics assert that we need margin for optimal function as well as for availability to love and serve others.

“Placing our lives in a stable, balanced orbit around our core priorities is the first step in achieving a balanced life.”
—Richard Swenson, In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life 
(Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010), pp. 66.

“If you wish to achieve excellence but also to have life balance, beware. Those who advocate excellence at all costs often do not believe in ‘outside interests’ and may not tolerate them. Family, friends, church, as well as margin in personal time and emotional health—all are luxuries that may compete with a stellar performance in a single area.”
—Richard Swenson, Margin (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), p. 187.

For those of you who may never read Margin by Richard Swenson, or those who simply want to ponder a concept that often resonates with many readers, it’s the idea of “excellence vs. negative excellence.” Dr. Swenson himself credits this concept to a 1987 article by Richard Bube entitled “On the Pursuit of Excellence: Pitfalls in the Effort to Become No. 1.” Swenson takes this sub-topic of Margin and quantifies it on p. 186 via a two-part graph laid out with 10 common categories in a person’s life: Career, Education, Family, Emotions, Church, Nutrition, Service, Exercise, Rest, and Community.

The graphs are effective visual aids which correctly assume a finite overall level of “degrees of excellence” in one’s life. By definition, either a person is fairly balanced across all 10 areas (and therefore not supremely “excellent” in any one area), or one or more areas are negatively affected by the area demanding the most attention in the quest for excellence. If too much is demanded from any given area, other areas inevitably suffer. For instance, a workaholic may unduly and perpetually sacrifice family time, or a service-minded person may neglect proper nutrition and exercise. What our society (and often, human nature) defines as excellence—not settling for less than the best—comes at the cost of “negative excellence” (i.e., failure) in other areas of life balance.

During my freshman year in college, I watched the film “Baby Boom” (1987). Even as a young man far from the full responsibility load of adulthood, one pivotal scene in the middle of the movie proved especially poignant for me. A 70-something executive (Sam Wanamaker) admonished a 30-something yuppie (Diane Keaton) who was trying to balance life as a newly adoptive mother with her reputation as a “tiger lady” of business: “You can’t have it all. Nobody can—not me, not anybody. Look, I don’t even know how many grandchildren I have, okay, but I’ve got this company grossing $200 million a year. Well, something has got to give.”

That movie was a good follow-up to my last drama production in spring of my senior year at Roseville High School. In the comedy play You Can’t Take It With You, I played Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, a 75-year old patriarch who left his big city corporate career at age 40 because he “wasn’t having any fun.” His descendants followed suit, prioritizing simplicity over the ulcer-inducing pursuit of wealth. A simplistic message, maybe, but playing that character 18 months after my mom’s death (whose winsome priorities resembled Martin Vanderhof) and on the brink of the real world (and its myriad pressures) taught me that life consists of more than ambition, worldly success, and the nebulous virtue of “keepin’ busy.”

Many people who have heard or read me opine in columns, meetings, Juggle Jams, and conversations over the years know that I can be as ambitious as most people. I can be Type-A to a fault, and I often obsess way too much over my goals (whether noble or trivial), self-describing as an “all-or-nothing” person. That may be my default setting, but I continue to work on that. At heart, I prefer balance.

In this season of giving grace to one another amidst a global pandemic, I’ll add the caveat in the argument for balance over excellence by stating that there certainly are times in life when the noble thing is to strive for excellence at the (temporary) cost of other areas. A student studying for finals, a retailer in inventory season, a parent with a newborn, a Coach editing videos for JJ22 online, and a Director writing a newsletter on his wife’s birthday 😉 are sometimes necessary. However, we need to acknowledge that such times of “negative excellence” or even just plain, unqualified “excellence” come at a cost, and we’d be wise not to allow certain sacrifices to become habitual. We’re forced and even called to devote ourselves wholly to certain areas of life at certain times, but the wise person reverts back to balance as much as possible when the opportunity comes—or the storm passes.

I planned my monthly column topics for this series way back in early Fall 2019. In my JJ22 Director’s Note, my theme will be “Time.” Interesting…timing. As for this month’s theme, we all should be wondering: might there be blessings hidden among all of these shutdowns, reinventions of work/school/family life, and adjusted expectations for the present, short-term, and possibly even long term plans we’ve laid out? How many families in the past month have re-discovered board games, walks, family devotions, and simple pleasures in new ways because we’ve been forced to do so? How many people obsessed with social media or even binge watching have instead begun longing for real, in-person “face time”?

For the entirety of our company’s history, I’ve celebrated the idea of excellence. I believe every human has the capacity for excellence in one or more areas (including virtues such as faith, love, grace, and generosity—see 2 Corinthians 8:1-7). But excellence always comes at a cost. Right now, we all have negative excellence when it comes to our familiar, physical communities outside the four walls of our homes (unless you happen to be an essential worker). As long as these times are here, let’s take the negative excellence of the lack of (in-person) Community, Church, and Education and work on adding measures of excellence to the often-neglected areas of balance in life: Family, Emotions, and Rest.