A number of years ago, when I was speaking at a leadership conference in New Zealand, I had a eureka moment. Everyone in the room felt overly busy, overly stressed, and overly guilty about not doing everything they thought they should be doing (just like most other people I talk to). A few were close to burnout. In the middle of an open-ended question-and-answer session, someone asked about work/life balance.
As I was answering the questions and drawing concepts on the whiteboard, I had what can only be described as a sudden flash of insight: Rhythm. Rhythm is a better model than balance.
I’m not sure exactly how the idea was generated. We were talking about the need for rest and for sabbaticals, but we were also talking about starting new organizations, which requires intense effort. I may have been drawing waves, giving me the idea of the ups and downs of life, when those insights somehow merged and I realized that different seasons of life call for different kinds of living. It’s not that rest and intensity are to be held in balance at the same time but rather that they’re to be in rhythm over time.
The New Zealanders responded so positively to the idea of rhythm that it surprised me.
Weeks later, my friend Rowland Forman, who had hosted the New Zealand conference, told me that “rhythm” was the leaders’ major takeaway. They encouraged me to put the ideas into print. Well, the ideas were not even developed at that point; they were just a flash of insight that had instantly resonated with everyone.
Back in the States, I started working with the idea of rhythm, trying to flesh it out to see if it could possibly replace balance as a fundamental metaphor for a well-ordered life. I soon found that it was a deep and rich concept that was more than adequate as a governing paradigm. The more I thought about rhythm, the more places I saw it already functioning in my life and in the world around me. It seemed so obvious that I wondered why someone hadn’t hit on this before.
Balance is an inherently stagnant concept, built on preserving a certain tension between fixed objects. Rhythm, on the other hand, moves. It happens in time. It’s active, just like our lives, which are not uniform or constant but are always moving and changing.
To develop the concept, I initially didn’t have to look any further than my own body. I put my hand on my chest and felt my heart beating in rhythm. I listened to the natural rhythm of my breathing: inhale and exhale. I knew from science classes in my growing-up years that our bodies are filled with natural rhythms. Brain waves, for example, are not supposed to be flat. In fact, that would be a bad sign. We want oscillation: up and down.
Again, it seemed so obvious. Human bodies are rhythmic, and so is life.