During the early 80s, in the heart of Silicon Valley, on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto, I worked at Hewlett Packard as a computer operator. My cubicle domain was found in the basement of HP Corporation’s Research and Development lab. I sat closest to the main computer room that housed all the processing systems used by the engineers.
Back then, there was an ongoing debate concerning centralized versus decentralized personal computer power. At the time, individual PC’s were in their infancy, and mainframes ruled the high-tech world.
HP, the largest technical company on the planet at the time, working in their primary think tank as a computer operator… sounds cool and super technical! Nah, not really. I was the grunt that worked the swing shift (3 to 11 p.m.) and I simply mounted magnetic tapes and did system backups on the large, mainframe computers.
I can still feel the raised, air-conditioned floor blowing cool air up my pant legs as I walked down the aisles and aisles of state-of-the-art mainframe processors lined up neatly in rows. These massive supercomputers were named Thor, Heracles, Zeus, Apollo, Venus, Hermes, Athena and other gods and goddesses. Each had a hum of fans that cooled as it ran. Each had blinking LED lights that would signify they were crunching away at some new algorithm or program; one of the hundreds of software engineers had fed it.
There were massive bundles of neat, tie-wrapped wires running from each Greek processing God to a sea of cabling under the raised floor. These wires would then lead to the various engineers’ workstations, where they could access the CPU number-crunching brains living in the basement.
During this time, I had the privilege of interacting with some freakishly fascinating intellectuals.
There were Len and Sandy, the two primary founders of Cisco. I remember, they would often come to our HP labs basement in the evenings and tinker with a black box they called a router. I asked them once what their router did and they said it allowed two computers to talk to each other. (I should have invested then and there!)
Then there was a gentleman by the name of Doug, an eccentric individual with an amazing mind and a veracious work habit. I will never forget him excitedly telling me one evening that he had bought a 40 megabyte hard drive for a personal computer at his home. Forty MB was an inconceivably large hard drive at the time. It cost him nearly $40,000. Yes, you read that right. Back then, it was almost one thousand dollars per megabyte when looking to purchase a hard drive for a personal computer.
There was also a young 19-year old engineer who had just graduated from MIT adorned with numerous scholastic honors. This academic prodigy was brought in to write critical code that would provide the foundation for HP’s computer product line for more than 15 years.
The list of intellectually beguiling cohorts went on and on. During my swing shift stint, it was easy for me to see the insane hours many of these folks put in at the office. They would come in about nine in the morning and yet would often stay long into the night. Sometimes I left before they did.
Some would openly brag about working more than 80 hours a week. While I did not understand much of what they were doing, it was exciting to be in the center, observing this zealous, intellectual creativity and brilliance.
One weekend while visiting my parents, I was chatting with my father and telling him about some of the global changing projects the engineers were working on at the labs. That bled over to me admiringly describing some of the individuals tasked with solving these projects. “Dad, I work with geniuses.” He could clearly sense I was captivated and enamored by their high-tech vocational success and accomplishment.
That is when my father taught me a classic Arthur Coombs, Jr. maxim.
He said: “Art, genius is not being ‘great’ at any one thing. Genius is being ‘good’ in all aspects of your life. Genius is being good vocationally, socially, financially, physically, scholastically, family, emotionally, spiritually, etc. When you over-excel in any one area, you often create a vacuum or deficiency in another. Being fanatical in any one aspect of your life is extremely dangerous. Many live terribly unfulfilled, unhappy lives and yet are simultaneously at the top of their chosen profession and passion. We all have 24 hours a day. If you invest 18 hours a day at the office, you will ascend great vocational heights, but at what price? The true genius avoids extremes and embraces moderation. Fanaticism in anything is unhealthy.”
This came from a man who had his PhD. from Stanford University.
He then started listing professional athletes that I could identify with. They were some of the most talented baseball, football and basketball players on the planet. He then began to point out scarcities in other facets of their lives. One had several children with various women, another made more than $40 million during his 15-year career and yet the year after he retired he filed bankruptcy, and another had been arrested for assault and battery, his career cut short while he spent time in prison.
I am not trying to pick on professional athletes; many seem to be good, well-adjusted individuals. But my father was trying to ardently drive home a point that I could most relate to. When you are obsessively successful in one aspect of your life, it is extremely difficult to maintain a sense of balance.
This resonated with me. It stuck, and I began to view those who I thought were incredibly accomplished from a completely different perspective. These engineers with degrees from Stanford, MIT, Caltech, etc. were Einstein-ly brilliant. Yet, I began to notice deficiencies in other aspects of their lives. Working 70 to 80 hour weeks was commonplace for them.
And the more I observed, the more I could see the wisdom in my father’s sagacious and astute maxim.
Obtaining balance in our lives is one of those lifelong goals for which we constantly strive, but never quite obtain.
It is like the circus juggler who is intently riding a unicycle while juggling bowling ball pins in the air high above his head.
While his eyes and hands are dedicated to the heavy pins flipping above his tilted head, his lower half is subtly transferring weight forward and backward or side to side as his human super computer mind is calculating and recalculating, the correct shifting and muscle movement necessary to keep him balanced on one wheel.
From afar, it appears he is coolly riding a unicycle while pins are being thrown in the air from one hand and caught by the other. We marvel at his concentration, dexterity and talent.
It must have taken years to perfect this circus act. As he verbally plays comedian with the crowd, it appears he is in utter control, so comfortable… it seems effortless to him.
And yet when you move closer and examine his balancing act, you will realize that what you perceived as graceful balance is essentially the opposite of balance. He is constantly shifting, rocking and adjusting to equalize his imbalance.
Similarly, a pilot will tell you that when they fly a plane, it is rarely on the exact path needed to go from A to B. No — the plane’s pilot is continually adjusting and readjusting to external turbulent forces that are blowing the plane off course.
From afar, it looks as though the pilot has flown a straight line from one city to the next.
But if you look very closely, the plane is off course, controls are adjusted and then the aircraft is on course. This off-course, on-course process happens many times per flight, just like our juggler who is balanced and then off-balanced while juggling those pins atop a unicycle.
So, here are some more maxims regarding a balanced life.
Maxim 1 – No one is ever in complete balance. As we know from the content above, striving for balance requires us to be imbalanced and constantly adjusting, learning and moving, evaluating our selves to those external and often turbulent forces we cannot totally control. Yet, we humans seem to want to look at and compare ourselves to others and say, “wow, I wish I were them. They seem to have it all together.”
News flash: they do not have it all together; they are striving for balance just like you are. Thus, they are imbalanced, just like you are. Truth is that when you focus your attention and start comparing their lives to yours, you take your eye off your own unicycle and pins.
Maxim 2 – Balance is not easy. When you are balanced, you are actively processing and adjusting to external forces around you. You must recognize the external influence, mentally process, make changes and then take the action needed to counteract those forces.
Balance is action — not inaction. The longer you take to recognize, process, change and act, the bigger and harder the action needed to pull your life back in balance.
Maxim 3 – Balance requires a point of reference. Just as a pilot needs a true north, you need to have a true north. You need to have your own core code of ethics that are reliable, consistent and steadfast.
Without your true north, you will be forever looking for un-achievable balance.
Maxim 4 – Balance is not playing it safe. Authentic balance is being in a constant state of imbalance. Let’s take our juggler and envision him swapping out one of his bowling pins for a screaming chainsaw. We are now truly mesmerized by the balancing juggler because he is at greater risk. His skill in making thousands of minute adjustments is now more apparent than ever. Most anyone can throw a ball in the air and catch it.
But throwing four bowling pins and one deadly chainsaw while balancing on a constantly shifting unicycle? Now, the juggler has us enchantingly captivated.
Similarly, our ability to attain a balanced life is acting to regain it when forces beyond our control push to-and-fro (e.g., starting a new job, moving, the death of a loved one, marriage, divorce… you get the picture). You cannot stand there and play it safe. Life is inherently risky. Take chances and be flexible.
Maxim 5 – Falling is not the end of the world. In fact, it is the beginning of growth and improvement. The juggler did not decide one day he was going to jump on a unicycle and throw several objects in the air above his head. He started with a vision of who and what he wanted to be and fell time and time again.
It was the act of falling that propelled him to recognize, process, act and change and resulted in a honing of his skills. So, in life, when you fall, wallowing in your pity will solve nothing. Take the opportunity to rediscover balance with new methods and action.
Maxim 6 – Balance requires us to say no. A balanced person will share time and serve friends, family, colleague’s and others. Yet, I would argue that you are as important to look after and love than anyone else. You cannot save a drowning victim if you are drowning yourself. A balanced person knows his or her limits.
Balance is saying ‘yes’ to sharing with others. Just do not forget to say ‘yes’ to yourself now and then. It is OK to say ‘no, I cannot juggle another item without dropping them all.’
Maxim 7 – Balance is not vainly impulsive. True balance is not a quick, emotional reaction. It is not impetuously jumping to a conclusion.
Balance is calmly assessing, changing and deliberately acting. Balance is being levelheaded. Balance is not boasting or applauding success, nor is it ashamed or dejected by failure. Balance embraces failure as opportunities to grow and growth and achievement are softened with unpretentious humility.
Finding balance in our lives is a lifelong goal. In math, science, accounting, etc., we strive for absolute balance. But for me, life is not like my checking account. Life is often messy, uncertain and unpredictable.
I have had periods in my life that seem like an assembly line of unforeseen chaos. And you know what? That is normal. Life is full of ups and downs, rights and lefts, hot and cold, pain and joy, good and bad. That’s normal.
In his “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” Sir Isaac Newton proves that two forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. There truly is opposition in all things. Being sick occasionally is normal. Feeling calm and content is normal. I have low-energy days like everyone else and you guessed it — it is normal.
While striving to live a healthy, fulfilled life, it is essential you recognize and accept the natural flow of opposition. That balance and imbalance are realities for all.
Tranquility comes from not attributing too much importance to either state. Simply gauge your imbalance and gently shift toward balance as best you can, acknowledging it as the natural rhythm of life.
We all have 24 hours a day.
Invest wisely!Tags: Art Coombs, balance, Caltech, Cisco, Don't Just Manage -- LEAD!, Einstein, falling, Greek gods, Hewlett Packard, leadership, Len, MIT, Sandy, Sir Isaac Newton, Stanford, Thor
Categorised in: Uncategorized
This post was written by Art