"We come from the stars; we're not made of microchips." -Erica Peng
We all require some degree of what I'll call romance in our lives. I'm not necessarily referring to romantic love for another person, although some relationships certainly qualify. I'm talking more broadly about any passionate yearning for someone, someplace, something, some way of being that fulfills us in a way that's hard to understand, let alone explain to others. Some romances may be logical on a certain level, but ultimately they are their own justification.
But as uniquely fulfilling as romance can be, it's also insufficient. We have to balance the romantic with its converse, the practical. Because romances justify themselves, they can consume vast amounts of resources as we pursue them, but practical things must meet a different standard. They must be justified by the returns they generate in exchange for our investment of resources (e.g. time, money, effort, attention). And as in any healthy market, these exchanges are a sign of value creation on both sides, and, at their best, a source of meaning and purpose.
When our lives are too airily romantic, we may be free to choose our path, but we lose traction and fail to make any actual progress. But when our lives are too stolidly practical, we carve out ruts that become impossible to escape, and although we're making steady progress we can't change course even when we're headed in the wrong direction.
There's no balance that's right for everyone; we all have to find our own level. But it's important to be aware of the internal and external forces in our lives--formative experiences, mental models of what's desirable or necessary, obligations and commitments (both real and imagined)--that might pull us away from our optimal balance in one direction or another.
My dad likes to joke that I've "tacked my way through life," and (although I can't stand being in a boat) it's an apt metaphor. I've pursued some major romances--leaving college to go to art school, following a girl to New England, packing three careers into 16 years, and eventually leaving management to launch a coaching practice. And at alternate intervals I've made some very practical decisions--leaving art school to go back to college, going into management to gain hands-on experience, getting an MBA, and returning to Stanford to join the business school's coaching staff. (I also married the girl, which was both romantic and practical.)
I haven't taken any daunting leaps in a while, and I certainly don't feel that I'm in a rut, so it's possible that in my 40s I've found my optimal balance. (Not that I've been in a hurry--as Seneca wrote, "It takes the whole of life to learn how to live.") I know I'm unusually privileged in that my work as a coach is both a romantic passion--a true vocation, a life's work, not a job--and a practical profession that pays the bills. But I don't take anything in the present for granted, because we all continue to change even when we think we're done.
For now, I'm just going to enjoy this feeling of practical romance.
Update: That last line strikes me as too pat. I am privileged to enjoy a certain balance in my work as a coach--it fulfills my romantic desires to make a difference in the world, to connect with people and to feel a sense of meaning and purpose, while also meeting my primary practical needs. And yet I don't feel quite at peace, either. I'm restless by nature--I tend to "repot" myself every seven years, and it's not lost on me that I'm in my seventh year back at Stanford. I know I'm not in a rut--at least not the sort of rut that's prompted me to take those major leaps noted above--because coaching does feel like my life's work. It occurs to me that I don't want anything different--and in that sense I have found the right balance between the practical and the romantic--but I do want more. Of what, I'm in the process of discovering.
The coach in me can't help but ask: Where are you in all this? What are your romantic yearnings? How are you fulfilling them? How are you neglecting them? What are your practical needs? And how are you fulfilling (or neglecting) them? How does the current balance between the two feel? If you could change something, what would it be? What's holding you back?
Thanks to my friend and colleague Erica Peng for the conversation that led to this post.
Photo by Bill Mill. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.