Direction vs Balance Problems

An idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is balance. We need balance with issues that can go wrong in multiple directions.

Some problems are one-sided problems–direction problems. Right vs. Wrong is a good example. More of “right” and less of “wrong” is always a good thing. More good, less evil. Though the execution might be tough, the idea is simple. If we move in the direction of more good, more right, and we’ll always be improving.

But many problems in life aren’t like that. For many topics, we can go wrong in multiple directions. So we need a different strategy to navigate it. We need balance.

“Work-life balance” is a good example. If we focused 100% on life, we’d be missing out on a lot of the joy of work. We wouldn’t be using our skills or providing value to others, or have a sense of purpose in our lives. But if we focused 100% on work, we’d also likely miss out on a lot. We wouldn’t enjoy our time outside of work. We wouldn’t have the family or travel experiences we’d like to have. So that’s far from ideal also. If where we can be lies on a spectrum, and both ends of the spectrum are wrong, then the ideal must be somewhere in the middle.

But where? Well…. it depends. On who we are. On what we think is important and what we’d be willing to settle for. On what’s possible. And on where we are right now, in this season.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about Balance Problems.

Many of the big topics in life are balance problems. For problems that are difficult and long-standing, they’re typically about balance. Work and life balance. Money and happiness. Buy a house or rent. Pay down debt or invest for the future. How much companies or people should pay in taxes. How we should make our medical decisions. There are multiple ways to go wrong on all of these questions–so they require balance.

If everyone agrees where we are, balance problems seem like direction problems. When a group is homogenous in their views of the current state–when they have a shared understanding of reality–it’s easier to agree on the right direction. So balance problems begin to seem like direction problems.

Many teachers don’t include caveats with their point of view. If you read enough, you’ll see intelligent experts on both sides of big questions. Often the disagreements aren’t about the logic, but about the current state of the world. Where we are on the curve we’re trying to balance–or where our intended audience is. And the speakers rarely share those details: for us, right now, with what I think about our current state, I believe…

And here are a few strategies for dealing with Balance Problems.

Comfort with contradiction. A famous economist is credited as saying “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?” This seems simple, but most of us resist updating our opinion when circumstances shift. We could also remember Walt Whitman’s words:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Recognize the temporary. Often we look at the present situation, form an opinion, and think things will always be the way they are now–forgetting that change is constant. For balance problems, consider: can I use “right now” or “in this season” instead of “always” in thinking about this issue?

Conditional Habits. I came across Eli Finer’s blog, where he shares the idea of Conditional Habits. If things are going smoothly, I’ll execute the plan. If not, I’ll make an adjustment. We don’t have to press ahead through the resistance. We can change when things aren’t working.

Mostly Reasonable over Coldly Rational. Morgan Housel includes this idea in his book The Psychology of Money, explaining why investment researchers don’t follow their own advice, or why people diversify their investments when the math doesn’t make sense. We’re human: when we’re dealing with difficult problems, we might prefer to be reasonable, and that’s okay.

I hope this encourages you today.

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