Our latest guide on how to find the balance between a long-term vision and making the most of today.
Do you ever worry that you’re sacrificing your long-term goals for the thrill of the moment? Do you ever get lost in the humdrum of everyday routine, scramble to find a map, and then plow headlong into the forest you can’t see for the trees?
Your dreams are out there, on the horizon somewhere, and here you are on planet Earth sorting through invoices for paper supplies.
Or maybe you’re fighting so hard to get that next promotion that will set up those key connections that you almost forget what you’ve been fighting for.
It’s like the present moment is constantly sneaking up to you and stealing away, drop by drop, those tendrils of flame that burn behind your eyes, those things that keep you going. Where’s the balance? There’s got to be a balance. If you only ever live in the moment, your life will pass you by before you get a firm grasp of it.
And furthermore, your boss will chew you out for getting your project in late.
Balance is an interesting concept. It brings to mind a vision of a man standing on in the middle of a teeter-totter, pinwheeling his arms wildly as the arms swing up and down, desperately trying not to fall off.
That doesn’t sound like a fun life, fighting constantly to control two tigers determined to pull you in opposite directions. And it’s a losing battle because there is a fundamental error in the way we consider this situation that makes it all but impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s not because we need to rethink our dreams.
It’s because we need to rethink balance.
As part of my clinical training for my Master of Social Work program, I learn about many different types of therapy models. One approach that resonates with me particularly well is called Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT). The thing that I like about DBT is the way that it re-imagines the way that we think about the interaction between opposing ideas.
Unlike our Western way of thinking in which the introduction of one entity automatically forces away its opposite (e.g. cold leaves when you add heat), this Eastern-inspired way of thinking teaches us that sometimes the presence of one end of a spectrum doesn’t prevent the other side from being there too. Sometimes two extremes exist in the same place at the same time. Paradox and reality can coexist. Paradoxically.
For an example, we need not look farther than the roots of modern chemistry.
Anyone who has taken basic chemistry knows how an atom works. Positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons clump together in the middle in a big heap, with negatively charged electrons whizzing around them like deranged yellow jackets. The atom is like a solar system in miniature, with tiny balls orbiting a central structure, held in check by its attractive force.
But in the early 20th century, scientists realized that there was more to it than that. Through many carefully designed experiments involving firing precise hues of light at specific types of material, they began to understand that electrons were not just like spinning orbs. They were also like waves.
Imagine that you drop a rock in a lake. See the ripples spreading out in all directions from the point of contact. Then snap a picture and compare it to another rock in your hand.
These early researchers were saying that electrons were not either a solid object like a rock or a wave-like movement like the ripples across the water. They were saying that electrons were like both things simultaneously.
It felt impossible, yet it was true. There was no conceivable way for the human mind wrap itself around the idea of a rock and a ripple being the same thing, yet that was what the evidence showed. It was a real, living breathing paradox.
Where Psychology, Chemistry, And Your Life Meet
So what does this have to do with psychotherapy?
Well, essentially, Dialectic Behavior Therapy says that what is true in the world of chemistry is also true for psychotherapy patients. Rather than thinking of opposites as mutually exclusive, like happiness and sadness, DBT explains that you can hold them both at once, in the same time and place. The two objects then come together in a synthesis that drives upward progress.
And what is true in therapy is true in your life and mine. Drinking in the present moment and holding tight to a firm vision of the future seem to exert opposing forces on us. Yet the trick is not sacrificing one for the other, but rather going for both at full throttle.
Consider the following scenario. You wake up one morning and suddenly your hopes for the future snap into focus: You want to become the type of person others can rely on in time of need.
So instead of rolling over and hitting snooze, you get up and go for a run, because you have to be strong yourself in order to lift others.
Then you wake up the kids for school so your spouse doesn’t have to and have a real, meaningful conversation with them (or at least, as meaningful as conversations get at 7 AM) because you want them to feel like they can come to you for advice when they’re teenagers.
On the way to work, you bristle instinctively when that Ford F150 cuts you off on the ramp, only to remind yourself that a person who others rely on has to be able to keep their cool when others are melting down. As a result, you let it slide and make it work in a much better mood than usual.
In the staff meeting, you volunteer for a project you wouldn’t normally take on because a person others rely on is a leader who motivates themselves and others to stretch beyond their current capacities. But you also take time during lunch to brush up with a coworker you haven’t seen much lately because a person who others rely on never lets the process of the moment become more important than people around them.
You text your spouse during a free moment because the person you want to be makes their loved ones feel supported even when they’re apart, you push yourself to finish a project on time because a reliable person keeps commitments rather than excuses, and you say no to that last thing your boss asks you to do because your personal ideal includes knowing and keeping your limits.
You spend a relaxing evening watching the sunset creep back over the horizon with your family gathered around you because a person others rely on would never let them, or you, to lose that sense of wonder that will pull them through dark times ahead.
Here’s the question. Would you ever have been able to make the most of that day if you hadn’t kept yourself fixed on your long-term vision? And would you ever make it to your long-term vision without living every day for it?
My answer is no. Not only are these opposing priorities possible to hang onto at once, they depend on each other to reach their full potential. In reality, those two tigers were running in the same direction all along. What needed to change was how we saw them.
Now, we have to face the fact that we live in a world of disappointment that often tries to erode our upward progress. If you were to continue the experiment illustrated above, you would find that some days were harder than others. Often you would fail. Occasionally you might get discouraged. Distractions would abound.
But if you let that fire burning in your heart anchor your soul to what is most important in life and let it drive you each and every day no matter how you were feeling at the moment, eventually you would come out on top. So how do you balance following long-term vision with making the most of each day?
You realize that neither can exist on its own and embrace them both with all your might.
So in true DBT fashion, you can sum up this article in two polar opposite calls to action rolled up into one:
Decide what contribution you want to give the world by the end of your life.
Live every day for it.