Is “balance” a universal principle
We’ve all heard the saying “life is a balance”. We understand that you shouldn’t work too hard and you shouldn’t play too hard. You just need to find the right balance. It sounds obvious doesn’t it? But is there some deep, profound truth hidden in that statement? Is there some deeper principle that could help us to make sense of the world around us? The more I experience life and the world in general, the more I am convinced that there is some fundamental universal law that we are somehow missing.
As a civil engineer I learnt about balance when I designed my first pipeline. For any pumped flow of water in a pipeline there is a best solution for the pipe size. I know this sounds a bit technical but bear with me here. If you make the pipe too big you spend a lot of money on the pipe but the pumping costs are low. If you make the pipe too small, the pipe itself is cheap but the pumping costs are very high. Guess what — there is a pipe size in the middle where the balance of the pipe costs and pumping costs is just right and you get the lowest cost solution. As a young engineer I was required to plot the cost curve and it gave me a graph that looked like this.
When you look at the graph you can see the “sweet spot” that shows the best balance between pumping and pipe costs. It is the solution that gives you the best pipe size. If you change any of the factors such as the flow rate, the pipe material, the water pressure or the power cost then the sweet spot would move but the principle would be the same. Of course you could always pick a pipe size that sits slightly off the sweet spot and the pipeline would still work — it just wouldn’t be the best solution and it might run into problems later on.
Our natural, social and physical world is full of solutions that sit on their own sweet spot. They encompass every aspect of the world and our lives but we often overlook them and do not see them as solutions. Like the pipeline, they tend to endure if they have the right balance between the factors that affect them. There are also many attempted solutions that do not sit on the sweet spot and are poorly balanced. They continue to fail time after time or collapse completely very often baffling the individuals that created them and leading to unnecessary hardship and suffering.
To ease you into this way of thinking I’ll start off with a quirky example from the world of tennis which, as a big tennis fan, is close to my heart. The greatest four male tennis players of the last 30 years are undoubtedly Sampras, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. All of these players are between 1.85m and 1.88m in height. This very narrow band is no accident — it is simply the best balance between the tennis serve, favoured by tall players, and agility and speed around the court, favoured by shorter players. It is the best solution for the modern male game. A taller player such as John Isner at 2.08m, has an incredible serve but poor agility around the court. A shorter player such as Leyton Hewitt at 1.78m, has great agility and speed but a weaker serve. These two players had tremendous potential but never achieved true greatness like the big four. 1.85m to 1.88m is clearly the sweet spot in height for the modern male game. As the game of tennis changes over the years this sweet spot in the player height has moved and continues to move in favour of increasing height but the point is that for any tennis era there is a sweet spot.
The principle of balance also applies to solutions in nature which develop through long term evolution. Evolution is the finest example of long term problem solving as it occurs over millions of years. Suffice to say that it randomly tries an infinite number of possible solutions until it finds the best possible fit for any particular environment. For example, the height of a karri tree here in the south west corner of Western Australia is about 100m (yes it’s very tall). It is that particular trees solution to balancing the need for height, and therefore sunlight, and its need to draw water from its root system by capillary action. If it was taller it wouldn’t get enough water up to the leaves for photosynthesis. If it were shorter it would get shaded by its neighbours and wouldn’t get enough sunlight. In that particular location the karri tree has found its “sweet spot” or best fit tree height. If you moved a population of karri trees to an area with different sunlight and rainfall conditions then over time the trees height would converge on a different height solution.
Another example of balance that I have observed in life is the art of parenting. Again on a very simplistic level, the two extreme forms of parenting appear to be indulgence and discipline. The indulgent parent will shower their child with love and support and will tend to take over and arrange the child’s affairs for them. The child may grow up to be secure and confident but somewhat spoilt and dependent. On the other hand, the disciplined parent lays down the rules and expects the child to take responsibility for their activities. The child may grow up to be somewhat insecure and may lack confidence but is likely to be fiercely independent. When I observe all of the different parenting styles I see that the happy, successful, motivated young adults that I know, received a balance between these two extremes. They received a degree of love and support mixed with a dose of discipline and independence. Their parents found a sweet spot that worked for those individual children. Clearly the sweet spot will vary depending upon the child’s disposition, and it’s almost impossible to know where this sweet spot lies when the child is an infant. So no real magic answers here but that’s parenting!
I recently read the book entitled “The 12 rules of life” by Professor Jordan Peterson which I found to be very insightful. Jordan Peterson, a somewhat controversial figure, is a clinical psychologist who has thousands of hours of one on one experience with a wide range of clients and seems to have developed a profound insight into the human condition. One of the main topics in the book is the level of order and the level of chaos in people’s lives. Order is our comfort zone; working in the same job for 30 years, eating pizza on a Friday, holidaying at the same beach. Clearly order is predictable and makes for a stress free life but excessive order could lead to boredom, lack of motivation and ultimately depression. On the other hand, chaos is about leaving our comfort zone and challenging ourselves; taking up a new sport, applying for a promotion, moving to a new city. Chaos tends to cause stress but also tends to motivate individuals to achieve things in their lives. Jordan Peterson notes that the most effective and useful members of society are those that have found a sweet spot between order and chaos that works for them. Clearly different people have different sweet spots between order and chaos. Some people thrive on more order and some people thrive on more chaos. The point is that everyone needs some form of balance between order and chaos to flourish in their life and be useful members of society.
A very significant example of balance in our world concerns political systems. Simplistically, we have pure communism on the extreme left and pure capitalism on the extreme right. With communism the state provides everything and, in theory, there should be excellent social security, low crime and low homelessness. However, everyone is rewarded equally no matter how hard they work. As a result people lack motivation to work hard and the production of goods and services can be low resulting in a weak economy. We have seen historically how communism has failed. With pure capitalism the opposite applies. The state provides nothing and individuals are highly motivated to work hard, be entrepreneurial and to produce goods and services. However, the lack of social security can result in the more vulnerable members of society failing to support themselves adequately which leads to high levels of crime, homelessness and other social problems. Without being specific, we have also seen some of the problems faced by the more capitalist societies of the world today.
If we look at countries that have strong economies and low levels of social problems we see that these factors are somewhat balanced. The state taxes individuals based on income and provides a basic level of social security to the more vulnerable members of society. The tax level is not so high as to completely demotivate individuals but a degree of demotivation is inevitable. The social services are not sufficient to provide a high standard of living without working but a degree of dependency is inevitable. For each country there seems to be a unique balance between social security and the economy that produces the highest level of overall benefit and seems to be sustainable for that particular culture and environment. Each “successful” country has its own sweet spot. Here in Australia, the policies of the Labour and Liberal Parties, supposedly left and right wing, seem to have converged on a sweet spot somewhere right of centre. You would be hard pressed to differentiate between the policies of the two parties. Clearly their policies have evolved over time towards this balance between left and right that seems to work reasonably well in the Australian context.
The more I read and the more I observe the world, the more I see balance in all successful solutions. The list is literally endless. I recently designed a new house and continually had to find the balance between aesthetics and function. Design features that looked really good generally tended to hinder the function and vice versa. The final design is of course my own personal balance between these two factors. We drive on the freeway here in Western Australia at 100kph. If we travelled faster we could reduce our journey time but there would inevitably be an increase in road accidents. We could reduce accidents by travelling slower but that would increase peoples travel times. The solution is again a compromise, or balance, between these two factors. I could literally cite thousands of examples of balance in natural, physical and social world of solutions. You may disagree, but I find these observations quite profound. The idea of balance seems to apply across such a wide range of examples that it feels as though there must be some underlying principle or universal law behind it. Whatever the cause, once the idea of balance is understood and internalized, it can be applied in any personal, teamwork or design situation where solutions are being sought. From engineering to art; from personal relationships to mental health; from nature to nurture; remember to always look for and understand the factors involved and find your own personal balance. Good luck.