A Balanced Life is the Devil’s Workshop

Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, currently President of Caltech, abhors the balanced life. He thinks it is destroying America.

Baltimore appeared last night on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point to discuss “America’s Lag in the Sciences.” His main point is a familiar one: the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in math and science education, and we will ultimately pay the price in a reduced standard of living. While I have several objections to Baltimore’s views, some of which I touch on briefly at Conglomerate, in this forum I would like to draw attention to Baltimore’s disdain for the balanced life. His recent editorial in the LA Times contains the following:

I think that the major failure is our inability as parents to pass on our culture to our children. I say “inability” because I truly believe that parents want to do better but do not know how. One reason is the downgrading of family life in the two-wage-earner home, another is the speed with which technology changes how kids spend their lives and how people communicate; yet another is a lack of will when it comes to imposing discipline on children. And one that particularly galls me is the denigration of the word “stress.”

When I grew up, we worked hard, played hard and never thought to minimize our activities because of stress. Sure, people were under stress and some cracked under it, but leading a “stressful” life was honored because of the accomplishments that could be achieved by those who could handle it. Today we deify the spa, not late hours solving problems at school or work. Caltech’s high-achieving faculty and students are seen as weirdos because of their intense focus, but even here, some graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are seeking a more balanced life.

I don’t know about you, the denigration of stress in my life is more symbolic than real, and I could use some stress reduction in real time. It doesn’t take too much self-reflection to realize the source of stress in my life: I want to lead a life that is both balanced (personal, family, community, Church, and professional obligations) and accomplished. One of the ideals that was drilled into me at BYU — through many talks by very accomplished Church leaders — is the need to pursue excellence in all aspects of my life, including my profession. A version of this idea even appears in my patriarchal blessing!

In my experience, Mormons know stress. We are culturally programed to be high achievers. Nevertheless, it would be nice if we could hold the applause. I would like to take a nap.

18 comments for “A Balanced Life is the Devil’s Workshop

  1. December 4, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    Applause? isn’t usually a half-asleep Amen at the end.

    Look at these “New Rules of Work” http://www.tompeters.com/entries.php?note=007081.php
    It is nuts, this guy seems to _think_ in PowerPoint. Notice it never matters when you start work, only end it.

    Striving for excellence is a good thing, but striving for excellence NOW or better yet yesterday is just nuts. It cannot be done. It takes 1000 hours of practice to become proficient in a skill and 5000 to master it. But no one has time to practice everything is always “for real” even “play” time nowadays is “for real” because we _have_ to win.

    I understand God has mastered all skills but it took time. I feel that if f I can master nothing else but being an excellent husband, and excellent father and an excellent learner. These goals match up with what we can take with us beyond the vail, our knowledge and, conditionally, our families, everything else will fall into place or not.

    Most jobs have little use in the afterlife, so it needs to be considered in that context. it’s just work, like it’s just a hobby or just something that should be done but in the grand scheme of things is just not that big a deal.

  2. Mark B
    December 4, 2004 at 10:48 pm

    I am searching for the words that foreign ministries used to put in their “strong protests” to other nations’ governments, so that I might in a diplomatic way object most strenuously to the substance of Stephan’s comment.

    I believe that the Lord was serious when He said that we should be “anxiously engaged” in a good cause. If your work isn’t important enough for you to be anxiously engaged in it, then perhaps you should seek something more important to do with your time.

    That absolutely is not intended as a suggestion that we all go work for CES.

    Not to toot the family horn too much, but I’d suggest that you read “Everybody Is Ignorant, Only On Different Subjects,” by Eliot Butler, one of the best forum addresses ever given at BYU. It’s in BYU Studies, and you can get a reprint for a buck.

  3. December 4, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    “Late hours solving problems at school or work” (quoted from the article) would seem agree with a researcher’s findings that following formal education, getting married and raising a family might be an effective way to destroy a scientific mind (of the parent, not the child).

    It sounds like one of those “no man can serve two masters” things.

    Here’s a link to the research article: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2003/08/17/do_scientists_age_badly/

  4. Rosalynde Welch
    December 4, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    Baltimore seems to be making two contradictory points: 1) we’re falling behind because we’re not working hard enough; and 2) we’re falling behind because we’re working too hard to teach and discipline our children properly. I’m really not sure which hypothesis is correct; perhaps he’s wrong on both counts.

    Still, I respond personally both to what Baltimore argues and what you say, Gordon. Baltimore claims that we’re working less, but the latest numbers seem to suggest that American workers have never worked more, if weekly hours is a reliable indication (I heard this on NPR last week, sorry no source). This seems to me and ominous portent, when I hear it on the radio and imagine what this must mean for working parents. But my husband works 80+ hours each week as a medical resident, and while this is not ideal, we’re doing fine after six months–although he’s no good for church service, rarely available on Sundays. The ideal of the balanced life– family-church-career-personal, or wisdom-stature-favor-with-God-and-man, however you define it–is immensely attractive, but simply not feasible for much of the demanding work on which our lifestyle is based.

    On the other hand, I’d love to get a shot at having it all. While I enjoy my daily life, and am happy in the choice I’ve made not to pursue a professional life, I am in a position in which the “balanced life” you describe, Gordon, is not available to me even under the best circumstances. The dream of the “balanced life” is the fiction of the working world.

  5. December 4, 2004 at 11:40 pm

    Rosalynde, My post was more of a lament than a declaration because (for many) the balanced life I imagine is just that: imagination. Some manage better than others, though I am afraid that I manage in fits and starts. Derek suggests that we cannot serve two masters, but I have come to some peace with my inner conflict by convincing myself that my daily work has eternal consequences. This seems to be what Mark is getting at above. But I also see the attraction of Stephan’s view of trying to “master nothing else but being an excellent husband, an excellent father and an excellent learner.” There I go again, wanting to have it all …

  6. Ed Enochs
    December 5, 2004 at 12:04 am

    Dear LDS Friends,

    It has been awesome chatting with you the last couple of days. I want to tell you that I love you with the love of Jesus Christ. I do not do internet debating or blogging on Sunday’s due to my church responsibilites. I will check in on you guys sometime next week.

    Sincerely in Jesus Christ,

    Ed Enochs

  7. December 5, 2004 at 12:37 am

    Related: Tom DeMarco’s Slack , and Richard Wiseman’s examination of luck.

    Possibly also related (but unexamined by me as of yet): The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal.

  8. Jed Woodworth
    December 5, 2004 at 1:04 am

    Our “stress” is not so much in working all day at the expense of the spa; ours is in trying to look in five directions at once and still seeing everything clearly.

    Gordon’s comment about high achievement in professions gestures at a question I have pondered for some time: Can believing Mormons consistently reach the height of their professions? I have somewhat pessimistically concluded “no” for the same reason I have concluded there will never be a Mormon Olympic downhill ski champion. The Sabbath Day is the reason. Ski champions are made when they are young, and that means they hone their skills on the slopes on days when school is not in session: Saturdays and Sundays. Two days in seven make a ski champion. You cut those two days in half and you have a qualifier not a champion. I conclude most believing Mormon academics will forever be qualifiers not champions.

    I do not say a few do not reach great heights; at least five on the Harvard Business School faculty were LDS at last count. In the field of business academics does it get any higher than that? The same may be true in law where Mormons have argued impressive cases or developed ground-breaking theories. But I doubt very much that in the humanities we will see many Mormon academics who dominate their field with a cache of prize-winning books. They may have one or two, but not many more. Those books are hard to write, and it takes time to write them, and not only do believing Mormons not have the Sabbath Day to write them, they do not have Monday nights and many other nights either. High achievers are often called into positions of leadership requiring time that might have been spent laboring over their prize-winning prose.

    I do not deny the Lord opening up the windows of heaven and pouring out a blessing for those who serve Him. Many times after giving time to the church I have plead to heaven for assistance in writing papers or finishing school assignments. The help always comes. But I have a hard time seeing how prayer makes up for lost time in the archives. Maybe I need more faith before I can write my Messiah in 24 days like Handel did his.

  9. David King Landrith
    December 5, 2004 at 1:28 am

    People who complain about stress in their lives are weenies.

  10. Julie in Austin
    December 5, 2004 at 9:08 am

    I dunno, you guys. I’m not sure ‘the balanced life’ is inconsistent with excellence. My thinking about this has been strongly shaped by two thing: The Cheerio Incident, which I’ll post on later, and my mentor-that-I’ve-never-met, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I’m not sure how else we would define success in the humanities besides a Pulitzer and a job at Harvard. But first, she raised five kids. She worked in the early morning (OK, she’s not my ideal for that part!) and took a several year hiatus from that in order to teach seminary. (This is detailed in a great little book called _All God’s Critters Got A Place in the Choir_.)

    Quality time and quantity time are not always correlated.

  11. Rob Briggs
    December 6, 2004 at 12:51 am

    I was a bit peeved at David Kind Landrith the other nite regarding his perverse anti-environmental rant (another thread) and was even going to insist that he resume his meds. But then he completely redeems himself with this one-liner:

    “People who complain about stress in their lives are weenies.”

    How can you not love a guy like that?! In a sentence he has put the Suck It Up school of thought back in the running.

    Best to David,

  12. December 6, 2004 at 10:04 am

    “I doubt very much that in the humanities we will see many Mormon academics who dominate their field with a cache of prize-winning books. They may have one or two, but not many more.”

    I hope you are wrong, but acknowledge that you may be right. I don’t think that the discouraging trend to this point is due to Sabbath observance, however. I think it has more to do with the particular challenges that fields like Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies present to the religious mind. So far in these sorts of disciplines carefully negotiated compromise seems more common than creative contribution. But, perhaps that won’t always be the case.

  13. Lisa F.
    December 6, 2004 at 10:46 am

    Mark B. — This is tangential, but Eliot Butler was a major influence in my academics — and in my life. I don’t know if he knew it, but he encouraged us as chemistry students to be well-read. He would recommend books each day, and write them on the chalk board. If he saw us on campus, or if we met him in his office, he would always ask us what we were reading — and church books did not count. I could write much more, but he was a remarkable teacher.

  14. James Rabaan
    December 6, 2004 at 10:49 am

    (Melissa: “I think it has more to do with the particular challenges that fields like Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies present to the religious mind. So far in these sorts of disciplines carefully negotiated compromise seems more common than creative contribution.”)

    Melissa, Could you please elaborate?

  15. Mark Bishop
    December 6, 2004 at 12:09 pm

    All this talk about not having enough time to do something because church and family sponge up time seems to me misguided. I’ve worked 70+ hour weeks before, and I saw up close individuals who worked 100+ hour weeks. My observation is that there is a law of diminishing returns on time invested and that after too much work you actually lose productivity.

    Based on my time at BYU in studying in the economics department, I cannot see LDS people as not having a outsized influence in the world. The students I studied with were unusually intelligent and dedicated. Having a balanced life will only help them make a mark in the world.

  16. Jed Woodworth
    December 6, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Julie: Good point about Thatcher Ulrich. How many Pulitzers does it put a scholar at the pinnacle of her profession? One should be enough. And that requires but one book.

    Melissa: yes, I would be interested in ellaboration on the “challenges” in writing in religion, philosophy, and literature. The challenge I see is that Mormon children are not raised to think outside the box, to discover answers for themselves, to seek creative answers to religious or philsophical problems (what problems?), the kinds of thinking required in the fields you mention. I also wonder if the way we teach the gosepl creates doesn’t smother the angst that other folks channel to write their masterworks.

    Mark: thinking about it again, I am skeptical not so much of the LDS reaching the pinnacle of their professions, if for a short time, but in remaining there with book after book published with reputable non-LDS presses. Is that happening?

  17. Rosalynde Welch
    December 6, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    Jed and Melissa: I agree and disagree. As for the challenges of the believer working in the humanities, I think it’s less a matter of a misfit between “the religious mind” and the principles of the discipline than a simple matter of taste: at the moment, cultural studies and its cousins privilege sexual and political counterdiscourses that, for me at least, were simply unfamiliar and, in all honesty, distasteful. But I experienced no conflict or disability with the methods or discourses of cultural studies as a discipline; indeed, I had no trouble with method or discourse when working with other objects. Sooner or later–and probably sooner–the trends will shift, and other sorts of objects, perhaps more familiar to LDS, will come back into focus. (Indeed, I was complimented repeatedly on my shrewd professional choice to deal with religion in my dissertation, since that was the “new thing.” I’m deeply interested in a new religious studies, but I had no professional strategy in my choice!)

    And as for Mormons lacking critical thinking skills, I don’t fully agree. As an undergraduate TA at BYU, I did observe, as you suggest, Jed, that young LDS students were at first nervous to read critically, to challenge texts. But once they learned the skill, I found them to be, overall, far more engaged and interested in ideas than the undergraduates I later taught at UCSD. Most UCSD undergraduates had been immersed in a sort of methodological doubt that ignited a few but left most apathetic and unengaged. (Many of them were engineering students, which didn’t help–Glen and other engineers in present company excepted, of course!)

  18. Mark B
    December 6, 2004 at 1:42 pm

    Lisa F.

    Thanks for your note. It’s too bad that the youngsters on this board didn’t have the chance to encounter him–he retired in 1991.

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