Received wisdom is that in life we should strive for balance.  Yet, when I think back at the times in my life when I have felt most happy or fulfilled, they have probably been the most unbalanced of times.

Falling in love.  Writing a book.  Visiting children in a war zone.  Training for a sports event.  Getting lost in some research or study.  My wife, Lotty, will tell you that when I ‘get into’ something, I am anything but balanced!  When I am full-on living these things, I certainly don’t devote equal proportions of my time and energy to all areas of my life.  If I had, it would have detracted from these formative experiences.

And it’s not just me.  If you read or listen to the stories of great performers – athletes, artists, entrepreneurs – there is often a direct line between being happy, fulfilled and themselves at their best and going all-out on something.  Dr. Michael Joyner, a top researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says, “You’ve got to be a minimalist to be a maximalist; if you want to be really good, master and thoroughly enjoy one thing, you’ve got to say no to many others.” Nic Lamb, one of the best big-wave surfers on the planet, speaking of his relentless pursuit of excellence in the water, puts it like this: “The best way to find contentment is to give it your all.”

I’m making this unbalanced concept sound very positive I know.  The idea of ‘getting into the flow’ – a mental state during which people become wholly immersed in the activity they are doing and their perception of time and space is altered – sounds like a very cool thing.  A telltale sign of these optimal experiences, of “being in the zone,” is that the outside world disappears.  In such a state, flow and balance are irreconcilable.  And compared to flow, balance seems, well, somewhat boring.

However, there are risks inherent to having our identity tied up in a single activity — mainly, what happens when doing that activity is no longer an option?  It’s not surprising that athletes and performers often struggle with depression, addiction and other mental health issues when they are forced to retire. It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.

Surely, the key to this is finding a self-awareness, or an ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviours and impact on others.  Put differently, internal self-awareness is about creating the time and space to know yourself.

Which all leads to a key question for those of us in schools: How are we helping children to develop this self-awareness?  I worry that the pressures of the national curriculum squeeze out the opportunities for children to really find out how to express their passions in an unbalanced but full-on way.

There is a lot of talk about ‘risk-taking’ in school and that’s a strong concept to instill in pupils.  But are we helping them to wrestle with the some of the implications of finding out what makes them tick?  And giving them permission to be unbalanced if that’s where they want to go?

Chris Seaton

10 January 2017