Last night, I fell asleep while watching a compilation of TED lectures titled, Life Lessons and Confessions, on Netflix. The series had continued to play, even though I had dozed off. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the voice of Doris Kearns Goodwin quoting one of my mentors, Erik Erikson, who once said, “The richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love and play.”
Goodwin’s TED lecture, Learning from Past Presidents, draws on the teachings of Erikson. She attended a seminar led by Erikson as a graduate student at Harvard and says of him:
He taught us that the richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love and play. And that to pursue one realm to the disregard of the other, is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age. Whereas to pursue all three with equal dedication, is to make possible a life filled not only with achievement, but with serenity.
Goodwin is able to use her wonderful storytelling abilities to weave a narrative that frames her own life experiences from childhood through adulthood against the backdrop of her intimate knowledge of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. In this lecture, Goodwin drives home universal truths about how each of us can find fulfillment and inner balance in our lives. If you have time, please take a few minutes to watch Goodwin's TED lecture:
Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who among other things coined the phrases “identity crisis” and “generativity.” Erikson described generativity as, "a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation." Erikson’s theory about the stages of psychosocial development and the importance of “generativity” in later life have been resonating with me in recent weeks. This is probably because, I am the father of an 8-year-old, who's on the edge of the big Five-O.
Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, “Can I make my life count?” and the psychosocial crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation." Personally, I’ve found Erikson's framework extremely helpful as both a parent and someone coping with a potential mid-life crisis.
At this point in my life, Goodwin’s TED lecture was a godsend. Over the past few months, I’ve been re-examining Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development through the lens of my own life and that of my child. As my daughter approaches eight years of age, I'm in search of parenting advice that can help her navigate the stage of “industry (competence) vs. inferiority."
Like every child her age, Erikson would say that my daughter is focused on developing a sense of personal pride and accomplishment. She's asking the existential question, "Can I make it in the world of people and things?" I wrote about this in a recent post, "One Easy Question Can Help Break the Anxiety Cycle." I strongly believe that not being a helicopter parent leads to success at this stage of development and fortifies a sense of independence, competence, and self-worth. Erik Erikson famously said,
We all dimly feel that our transient historical identity is the only chance in all eternity to be alive as a somebody in a here and a now. We, therefore, dread the possibility, of which we are most aware when deeply young or very old, that at the end we may find that we have lived the wrong life or not really lived at all.
I find these words to be a powerful reminder to avoid 'living the wrong life or not really living at all.' Baz Luhrman believes, "A life lived in fear... is a life half-lived." I agree.
How many hours a week do you work? Do you love what you do? The ultimate goal for me, and most people I know, is to find a way to make a living doing something that you love to do and are passionate about. Recently, I've added the importance of pouring my heart and soul into work that will outlive me to this criteria.
As Goodwin describes in her TED lecture, finding a career that has the potential to make the world a better place is both a noble ambition and one that leads to fulfillment later in life. She says,
As for that first sphere of work, I think what Abraham Lincoln's life suggests is that fierce ambition is a good thing. He had a huge ambition. But it wasn't simply for office or power or celebrity or fame—what it was for was to accomplish something worthy enough in life so that he could make the world a little better place for his having lived in it.
As he grew older, he developed a certain consolation from an ancient Greek notion—but followed by other cultures as well—that if you could accomplish something worthy in your life, you could live on in the memory of others. Your honor and your reputation would outlive your earthly existence. And that worthy ambition became his lodestar.
I find Lincoln's ambition to leave the world a better place inspiring. Personally, I try to do this through my daily interactions with people, my writing, and my annual charity road race (The Provincetown 10K) which raises money for local non-profits. How about you? What is your lodestar? Is generativity important to you at this stage of life?
The realm of love can include: family, friends, colleagues, and romantic partners. Ultimately, the realm of love is about nurturing close-knit social connections and intimate relationships. How would you rate yourself and those close to you in the "love" department?
When I heard Goodwin telling her stories about Johnson, I was reminded of my own father. My dad poured himself into his work and career at the expense of forming intimate connections. When he died unexpectedly of a heart attack, I realized how truly alone he was at the end of his life and made a vow to make my social network a top priority.
As William James wisely observed, "Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendships and intimacies … and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to "keep" by force of mere inertia."
In summing up Johnson's lack of balance in the realm of love, Goodwin says,
So as for that second sphere, not of work, but of love—encompassing family, friends and colleagues—it, too, takes work and commitment. The Lyndon Johnson that I saw in the last years of his life, when I helped him on his memoirs, was a man who had spent so many years in the pursuit of work, power and individual success, that he had absolutely no psychic or emotional resources left to get him through the days once the presidency was gone.
And yet, years of concentration solely on work and individual success meant that in his retirement he could find no solace in family, in recreation, in sports or in hobbies. It was almost as if the hole in his heart was so large that even the love of a family, without work, could not fill it. As his spirits sagged, his body deteriorated until, I believe, he slowly brought about his own death.
As a parent, I am extremely grateful for my Psychology Today colleague Peter Gray's writing on the importance of play and his book Free to Learn. For people of all ages, play has been squeezed out of our modern lives. Personally, I find various outlets for play which primarily involve physical activity, adventure, dancing, and the daily "coffee klatsch."
What are your forms of play? As Goodwin points out in her lecture, humor, and laughter during social interactions are a form of play which dovetails with the realm of love and relationships. Unfortunately, play is lacking in so many of our lives. Looking at this realm through the case study of Lincoln and Johnson Goodwin says,
So as for that third sphere of play, which Johnson never had learned to enjoy, I've learned over the years that even this sphere requires a commitment of time and energy enough—so that a hobby, a sport, a love of music, or art, or literature, or any form of recreation, can provide true pleasure, relaxation and replenishment.
An even more important form of relaxation for Lincoln, that Lyndon Johnson never could enjoy, was a love of—somehow—humor, and feeling out what hilarious parts of life can produce as a sidelight to the sadness. He once said that he laughed so he did not cry, that a good story, for him, was better than a drop of whiskey.
There is a Hopi word, koyanasquatsi, which means "life out of balance." Simply identifying that your life is out of balance can be the first step towards adjusting your equilibrium.
When I ask myself, "How can I improve the inner balance of my life?" I find that the insights of Erikson and the advice of Goodwin on how to balance the three realms of work, love, and play very helpful. Identifying these three realms and then taking inventory of concrete examples of my time and energy commitment in each sphere makes it easier to identify next steps that will lead to inner balance.
What areas of your work-life balance seem off kilter? Between the three realms of work, love, and play do you give a disproportionate amount of time and energy to one of the three? What are some tangible things you can do to adjust this inbalance?
In closing, I've included the final segment from the transcript of Goodwin's TED lecture in which she talks about her own life story, her relationship to her father and her sons, as well as generativity. I can personally relate to the magnetic pull of wanting to pass on the idea's and passion of your parents to the next generation. Goodwin captures these emotions so eloquently with her wholehearted storytelling and memories:
Well, though my father died of a sudden heart attack when I was still in my 20s, before I had gotten married and had my three sons, I have passed his memory—as well as his love of baseball—on to my boys. Even now, when I sit with my sons with our season tickets, I can sometimes close my eyes against the sun and imagine myself, a young girl once more, in the presence of my father.
I must say there is magic in these moments. When I open my eyes and I see my sons in the place where my father once sat, I feel an invisible loyalty and love linking my sons to the grandfather whose face they never had a chance to see, but whose heart and soul they have come to know through all the stories I have told.
Which is why, in the end, I shall always be grateful for this curious love of history, allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past. Allowing me to learn from these large figures about the struggle for meaning for life. Allowing me to believe that the private people we have loved and lost in our families, and the public figures we have respected in our history, just as Abraham Lincoln wanted to believe, really can live on, so long as we pledge to tell and to retell the stories of their lives.
What legacy do you want to leave behind? I was very candid in a recent Psychology Today blog post, "The Dark Side of Mythic Quests and the Spirit of Adventure," about my own shortcomings and lack of balance between work, love, and play at various stages of my life. Finding inner balance between work, love, and play is still a work in progress for me.
That said, every day, I'm getting closer to achieving this balance—especially because I've tagged it and identified the importance of avoiding koyanasquatsi. Hopefully, reading this has motivated you to identify actionable ways to create more balance between work, love, and play in your life, too.
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