Falling Off The Tightrope

IMG_1128“My world was delicately balanced, but the scales never hung even. When something improved, something else had to crumble.” –Rebecca Donovan, Reason to Breathe

Hello friend,

I have never been good at balance. Never. I tend to zero in on one thing and let it consume all of my time and energy, leaving the rest of my passions, hobbies, and pursuits twisting in the wind. However, because I am a man of many interests, with an insatiable desire to learn new things, my headlong pursuit of only one thing at a time—no matter how worthy of my attention it is–invariably leaves me feeling torn, restless, and unfulfilled. And sometimes, just plain burnt out.

This is exactly why I don’t have a Ph.D. behind my name right now. I started my doctoral program full of high-minded ideals and enthusiasm. The intensive education—not to mention the cache of being called “Dr. William Rutten”—was going to help me save the world, so I was eager for the commitment. Then, however, classes started, and my Perfectionism Gene reared its ugly head. I had to know everything and get every answer right, as I always had in school. As it turns out, thanks to this annoying trait, the only way I do school is to study every waking hour of every day. My life was the epitome of imbalance. All of my other passions were crowded out by school. In a moment of clarity, I realized that that was no way to live for six straight years. So I bailed out.

You might think that I was wise enough to never let that happen again. You would be wrong. Not long after I checked out of academia, my career path switched into tennis teaching and management. I moved into Tennis because it was my first love and because I love teaching. And hey, how busy or stressful could it be for a guy who gets to wear shorts all day? As it turned out in my case, pretty darn busy and stressful. It wasn’t long before 60 and 70-hour weeks became the norm. I hardly ever saw the light of day, was completely wiped out physically from all of the hours on the court, and was a giant stress-ball from all of the demands off the court. And, oh yeah, I had neither the time nor the energy to pursue my other passions. The job was all-consuming, and once again, I was off-balance. This time, though, the imbalance lasted for several years, not just a semester or two.

You would be astonished to know that someone stuck by me through both the school and the work addictions, each time on the wrong end of my imbalances. As though her love and loyalty through all of that were not enough, she also provided me the key to let myself out of my self-created prison of workaholism. That key was our first child. When my daughter was born, the reality of how little time I was spending at home and my overall imbalance hit me immediately, and it shocked my system enough to make me want out right then and there. I wanted the elusive home/work balance that I had heard about. So I quit my job. Well, not exactly. I quit the management portion of my job and cut my working days down to four, taking the evenings off as well. My daughter was my number one priority, and I wanted my schedule to reflect that.

Here might be a good time to admit the full truth. I didn’t actually want the home/work balance. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to go from 60+ hours at work directly to ZERO. I wanted to spend every single minute with my daughter. If my wife made more money, I would happily have been a stay-at-home Dad and removed myself entirely from the work force. Basically, I wanted my comfortable imbalance back, only I wanted the imbalance to be fully attached to my daughter, not my job.

This longing has never left me. My daughter is almost six now—my son is almost four—and I would still shake your hand right now if you offered me the chance to stay home with them every day. As it is, I have manipulated my life with them into a different version of imbalance. I still work when I have to, yes, but when I am not there, I spend their every waking minute with them. I have given up all hobbies—e.g., golf, hanging with friends, etc.–that happen while they are awake. My wife and I don’t even go on evening dates—EVER, I mean—because that would come at the cost of missing their bedtime. I don’t miss bedtime. Last year, for our 10th anniversary, I only very begrudgingly agreed to leave them for a night. I simply want to be with them all the time.

I know that probably looks like just another unhealthy imbalance to everyone else, but this is one imbalance that I embrace. I don’t know, I guess the other stuff just feels pretty unimportant compared to them. Spending so much time with them—even to the deterioration of the other things—has never caused me much inner turmoil. When I was in school and studied all the time, it pained me that I was not giving time to my other hobbies, interests, and loved ones. That tension eventually led to my break-up with school. When I was working like a maniac, I was keenly aware that it was an unhealthy way of being. My daily journal entries from that period are pretty pathetic, mostly describing the depths of my exhaustion and how, despite my happiness, I would not recommend my lifestyle to anyone. It took the birth of my daughter to give me the strength to change it, but I knew the change was long overdue. I was a model of imbalance, and knowing that bothered me. It is only the imbalance of spending so much time with my kids to the exclusion of other things that has felt tension-free for me. The other imbalances I regret; this one I do not. Does that mean, in some strange way, that I have actually found a balance? Not someone else’s version of balance, but one that fits only me? Maybe.

It has only been in the last year-and-a-half that I have felt much inner competition for my time and energy on this family-time front. Around the time I turned 40—can you say midlife crisis?—it became more clear to me that I wanted to do some things with my life that I was not already doing. Beyond just doing my job and spending the rest of my time with the kids, I wanted to do The Journal Project to revisit and re-create the story of my life. I wanted to help people in a bigger way. I wanted to learn more and create more and be more fully who I believed I could be. But I had to keep working, and I was not willing to give up time with the kids. My solution was to be the most efficient guy in the world…….after 8:30 P.M.

Since then, instead of winding down after the kids go to bed, I attempt to get all of my other projects taken care of. I go like a madman until I can go no longer. That worked pretty well the first year, when my main thing was The Journal Project. I didn’t sleep much, but the inner turmoil was gone. I was feeling satisfied with my efforts. But then I got greedy. I wanted all of my dreams to come true. So, four months ago, I started Journal of You. It has been a fantastic addition to my life, but—argh!—quite consuming of those precious post-8:30 hours. The Journal Project has been sitting on hold, and a couple of other projects I am itching to start are getting no love. I am also feeling like I am not allowed any leisure time for things like a sway in the hammock or a ride in the kayak, because I need the minutes to get it all done. Lastly, it is becoming increasingly clear that I cannot survive on this little sleep forever (those post-8:30 hours go quickly, and for some reason these darn kids don’t wake up any later just because I was writing into the wee hours). Needless to say, I am feeling that tension again. I have lost my balance.

I think my biggest fear in this world is that I will waste my life, that I won’t make the most of my time here. I am always aware—sometimes painfully so—of how “productive” I am being. I want to spend my time being a positive influence, giving my gifts to the fullest, and making my dreams come true.  When I am doing that efficiently, I feel at ease. The moment I lose my way, I feel tense. Imbalance strikes again!!!

How about you? How balanced is your life? Get out your journal and take an honest look at your life and how you are spending it. Does your schedule match your priorities? Are you like me, getting stuck on one aspect of your life to the detriment of all others? How many hobbies do you have, and how important are they to you? Do you work too much? Do you make time to recharge your batteries? Do you spend as much time with your loved ones as you would like? If not, are you willing to change your day to make it happen? What can you sacrifice from your current schedule in order to spend more time on your highest priorities? Do you have any areas that others would say are imbalanced—like me never getting a babysitter—that feel just fine to you? If you knew you would die in one year but had to keep earning a living, how would you spend your non-working hours? Would you become more balanced, or less? How important is balance, anyway? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you falling off the tightrope?

Live a 100% self-approved life today,

William

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