Like black lace silhouetted against the bright sun, branches of delicate pine trees fill the view from the old screened-in octagon-shaped porch beside the lake. The shrieking yet soothing sound of loons crying out with melancholy melodies echoes off the faraway banks. I can faintly but clearly hear the voices of fishermen in the distance, yet I can barely make out their boat, suspended in the dense morning fog.
Summertime has transported me to my muse … the lake in the vast Adirondack park, with its mountain views, deep forests, and a blanket of quiet. This porch was built in 1896, just 30 years after the Civil War. Over the last 123 years, this porch has shared its old, worn wicker rocking chairs with seven different families and their friends, some of whose descendants still live on this lake. Though the old wooden beadboard walls can’t talk, a treasury of old photos with notes and explanations tells the story of this camp, its owners, its old wooden boats, and buildings lost in fires, moved, reconstructed, and remodeled. The very chair I sit in, along with most of the furnishings, have passed from owner to owner, because they belong here in this boat-access-only camp for rustic summers. Our goal is to preserve this legacy, only adding our touches, which in my case will be paintings that I hope will live on in this house for generations, so my kids can tell their great-grandkids that their father painted those old paintings here on the lake.
Over 30 years ago, when we first landed on this lake, my father announced that this was one of the few places on earth he could truly relax, with the calm coming almost instantly. It’s been the same for me. Our busy year of kids, school, business, and life takes a long, relaxing pause here in this place. It provides much-needed balance.
A week ago, as my ninth annual Adirondack Publisher’s Invitational paint retreat ended, one of my guests said, “You seem to have achieved perfect balance in your life. Would you write about balance? We all could use a little help.”
The Value of Chaos
Though “perfect” is a goal, balance is the love child of chaos. It takes stress and a crazy life to come to the realization that balance is critical. Like all things, you don’t know what you don’t want until you have it — and don’t want it. For me, balance was nonexistent. Mimicking my workaholic father and his high work ethic, I’d work from sunrise to midnight most days, and did so for years. I’d go decades without a vacation, and I was driven to get more done. Not only was I having a ball, I was making things happen, and it was hugely rewarding. But the intensity, the stress, and the constant level of activity had its downside. I was constantly lacking sleep, resulting in chronic crankiness, and I pushed others to work just as hard, which resulted in their being cranky too. Over time I became a different person, someone I did not love. Some might say an insensitive jerk, always pushing for more.
There was no time for leisure or vacation. My wife begged me to take just three days to celebrate our 10th anniversary, which I resisted but (thankfully) gave in to. We flew on the Concorde, spent two days in England, and came back home. Then it was back to work.
Off to the Hospital I Go
One moment 25 years ago I was sitting at the long conference table in my office, in an intense meeting, and suddenly my face went numb. Then my left arm, then my left side. Not wanting to cause alarm, I excused myself, went to my top desk drawer, pulled out a baby aspirin and took it. (A week earlier my friend Wayne Cornils had told me a baby aspirin had saved his life when he had a heart attack and suggested I should keep it nearby at all times.) I returned to the meeting, finished, then drove myself to the ER. They could not do an MRI for two days, so I drove myself four hours to the Mayo Clinic. Tests were inconclusive, there was no evidence of a stroke — maybe because of the aspirin — and eventually the feeling returned.
I was lucky. I’d had a wakeup call. Balance was calling.
Balance calls when you have chaos in your life. I could have ignored the call and probably would have gone to an early grave.
Vacation Half of the Time?
One day in a meeting with one of the richest men I knew, a billionaire, he told me that he takes 26 weeks a year vacation on his yacht in the Virgin Islands. He convinced me that he was more productive and more successful after he achieved balance. His job was so stressful, he told me, that he was making reactive decisions and not using thinking time. When he started taking more time off, he started becoming more successful. That’s what I needed to hear.
Though I did not have a yacht, or a jet to get to the islands, and I didn’t feel I could take 26 weeks, I could start with two weeks a year and gradually, over time, take a little more. But I’ve since discovered that balance does not come from vacation time, it comes from a balance in your daily life.
Giving Up 18-Hour Days
I had to admit I was a workaholic, and, though I love to work, I knew I had to give myself some other joy. That’s when I took up painting. It’s also when I stopped working 18-hour days. I told myself I had to get eight hours’ sleep a night and had to give time to my family, my friends, and myself.
Once I started painting, I got balance in my life by de-stressing at night when I got home. You can’t paint and be stressed. So I’d paint nights and weekends (and still do). I started going outdoors to paint, and that made me want to travel more.
I did not want to be one of those people who waited till retirement to do all the fun things, so I started building them into my life. I made a list of what I wanted to do, which included a trip a year to Europe for a week or two of painting. But I could not afford to do that, so I created events for my business where I would take others.
Making a Balance Plan
Like all good things in life, balance has to be planned. You start by designing your ideal life because the things that bring you joy also bring you balance. Work brought me joy — but I was doing too much of it. A muscle that is always tensed eventually cramps up, which is why I think we need to use different mental muscles to create variety, to keep life interesting and allow the mental muscles to relax.
Balance is different for you than for me. I can’t sit on a beach to vegetate. I need to be doing something … reading, painting, drawing. Knowing yourself is key.
Too Much of a Good Thing
I also think too much balance can get out of balance. We’re made to work, made to be productive, made to have some stress. Vacation or doing nothing all the time probably isn’t great for balance or self-esteem. Most of my retired friends tell me that you can only play so much golf or tennis.
Are you out of balance?
Ask yourself these questions…
Do you have a smile on your face most of the time?
Are you grumpy or cranky most of the time?
Do you ever wish you were doing something else?
Are you feeling stress more often than not?
Do you wish you had a change of scenery?
As I’ve said before, we all tell ourselves stories, and the story of being out of balance includes “They need me at the office” or “They can’t do without me” or “The business will fall apart if I’m not there” or “I don’t have time or money for balance or vacation” or “Balance is for wimps and losers.”
If you take a vacation and tell yourself you’re not ready to go back to work, maybe you need to find some balance so you can look forward to going back.
I don’t have “perfect” balance. But I work hard at achieving balance, and when I get out of balance, I feel it. Like an alcoholic who easily slips back into alcohol, a workaholic easily slips into working too much. It’s a need to be needed, a feeling like they can’t do without you. But they can.
We can’t go through life like a pinball in a pinball machine, bouncing and reacting. We need a plan. Those with the best plans often live the most enriching lives.
Balance requires a plan.
PS: At my event last week I met many people who were there because they read Sunday Coffee or they listen to my PleinAir Podcast. I’d like to thank them for showing up and trusting that they would have a good time. I think they did, because most signed up for our 10th-anniversary reunion Publisher’s Invitational next June (it’s already 60 percent sold out). Many have also signed up for my Fall Color Week invitational at Ghost Ranch, which sold out this week and now has a waiting list. Thank you.
The greatest next experience I can offer that still has a few seats left is my Fine Art Connoisseur magazine behind-the-scenes art trip. These trips are life-changing for those who love art and want to see things you cannot see as a typical tourist. This year we’re going to the South of France, Provence, Nice, and many other areas, and there is an optional post-trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. And though it’s not a painting trip but a luxury art trip, there are a few artists who squeeze in a little painting, so this year I’m offering a pre-trip for painters to Saint-Paul DeVance in the South of France, a historic place for painters. If you want a lifetime memory and want to join a family of people who love art, check it out.
PPS: Last week I had a major disappointment. I had tried to buy a business out of bankruptcy, and after weeks of planning and effort, I failed. I was seriously disappointed and sad for a couple of days, but I know that when God closes doors, there is a reason. It has not been revealed to me yet and may never be, but in my case balance comes also from prayer and trust that there is a plan and that if I let go and stop trying to control things, perfect balance will come. It was a good lesson for me and a reminder that things don’t always go the way we want them to. But I have to trust that bigger and better things are ahead.