Friday, my better half was preparing to cross the international dateline for a week-long business trip and my parents were getting ready to board a plane for a week-long visit at Casa Free-Ride. As I contemplated the prospect of digging out our guest room (known in these parts as “the place clean clothes go to wrinkle”) it became clear to me that the chances of my finishing writing (and preparing overheads for) the two presentations I will be giving at the conference that starts the day after my parents depart before my parents’ arrival were nil. Of course, this means that I will not be kicking back for a relaxing week with my parents and my children, but will instead be trying to cram Scholarly Work into the interstices.
Balance has always seemed to me like something other people do. When I’m not dead in the water, I’m not balancing — I’m juggling.
I will confess that I stole this characterization from my mom. But it’s dead on. If you’re trying to balance, the least little extra stress on direction or another will throw you off. With juggling, you know that there’s always at least one ball in the air at any given time. The trick is to catch it before it crashes to the ground, and the way you manage to free up a hand to catch it is to hurl something else skyward.
Balance is something that The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You Do seems to achieve effortlessly, but show me a human who’s achieved equilibrium and I’m willing to bet that human is deceased. Living humans get things done by being far from equilibrium.
I’ve blogged before (here, here, here, and here) about kissing goodbye to any dream of balance by deciding I was going to try to have an academic career and a family. Conceivably, I could pin some of my down-to-the-deadline lifestyle on my offspring. But who am I kidding? Back when I was a blissfully childfree graduate student trying to get a thesis written (both times), I could stare at the computer screen for hours without writing more that a few paragraphs that were worth anything. Don’t get me wrong — I’d be typing for a good part of each of those hours, but then I’d decide that what I had typed didn’t explain what needed to be explained, or set up the problem right, or tie together the previous work, or …
With all the time in the world, I could not get a damn thing done.
What I was reasonably good at was writing seminar papers. I couldn’t really understand my fellow graduate students who piled up incompletes owing to seminar papers that weren’t perfect enough to hand in. Why should it be perfect? I’d ask. It’s a seminar paper — a paper that you’re writing with a serious time constraint. It needs to be good enough, and it needs to be done by the deadline. It’s not your freakin’ life’s work, and if it were, it might take a lifetime to finish.
I wish I had understood then what I think I’m just now coming to understand: having a lot on my plate makes me work smarter, and working smarter always seems to get me better results than working harder or farther ahead. Balance makes you a slave, always reacting to the dip this way or the sway that way. When you know that you’re juggling, you have to have the confidence to throw the damn ball up and to commit your free hand to catching the ball that needs catching now.
That cliché about sacrificing the good for the perfect? With too much time, I could believe that the perfect should be attainable. And I would beat myself up for not attaining it. With many tasks and a finite amount of time, I shoot for something attainable, namely, doing the best I can in the available time. Because I have to, I figure out which desiderata are the most important to meet and which can be sacrificed if necessary.
Something else I am starting to figure out is that, while some of my work habits may be changeable, others may, at this point, just be part of who I am — and that’s not a character flaw! Being a down-to-the-deadline person isn’t a sign of moral failing. It doesn’t mean I don’t do a good job, even if much of that job gets done in the eleventh hour. And that energy I’d use beating myself up for not getting the job done way ahead of schedule is energy I can put to better use.
There are ways I’d like to improve my juggling act. I could learn to toss the clubs to a partner more often (i.e., ask for help), especially when those clubs are on fire. I could be a little more cautious about my tendency to throw another ball (or apple, or sword, or chainsaw) into the air with what’s already aloft — recognizing that there are limits to how many objects humans can juggle at a time (at least without losing a limb). And, I can be honest about what I sacrifice in the juggling; I don’t want to present myself to anyone (especially my daughters) as a superwoman. There are enough unattainable ideals out there right now.
Still, there’s a way in which juggling requires a kind of balance: the balance between working out the best upward arc of the ball you are throwing and getting your hand in place for the actual downward trajectory of the ball you are catching. It is the balance between striving and satisfaction, between dreaming about what could be and making something that is.
It’s just that when you achieve this balance in juggling, you don’t kid yourself that it will be about standing still rather than being in motion.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I taught myself how to juggle during part of the time I should have been studying for my qualifying exams in my chemistry graduate program. I passed them all.)
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