On Balance As A Goal Of Personal Development

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A rock balancing. Pretty freakin Zen right?

The topic of balance came up in a recent conversation with a friend. She was relaying the results of one of those personality tests that claim they can classify your personality “type” based on certain behaviors, characteristics, and/or tendencies. There are hundreds but the vast majority are based on the Meyers-Briggs classification system which is itself an out-shoot of Karl Jung’s personality type theory. I have no intention of debating the merits of Jung’s theory in this post, like many theories in the social sciences, it has its proponents and detractors. Instead I will accept it as generally accurate and ask what that implies from a self improvement perspective.

My friend told me her test results very matter of factly and then added, “so I am in need of more x to become well balanced”. The particulars of the results and the thing(s) needed more of are not important, the fundamental question is why should balance be the goal? When I asked her that very question she replied with “to move in the world with more harmony, have more poise and understanding of myself and others, compassion, and leadership.” Noble goals indeed but why should a balanced personality be better able to achieve any of those things? What is it about balance that it is considered the ultimately correct, healthiest, and ideal end state of a person’s personality. Shouldn’t we instead seek to maximize the personality traits we possess that are positive and good and minimize those that are negative and bad. That does not imply balance at all. In fact one could argue it implies something totally antithetical to it. Of course the definitions of positive, negative, good, bad, will vary some from to person to person but I think in general most people basically agree on what are ‘good’ characteristics to have as aspects of our personality and what are ‘bad’ ones.

The Meyers-Brigg scheme does not stake any moral positions outright. It does not comment on which personality types/characteristics are considered good or bad, or right or wrong, or which should be sought, and which avoided, it is very much neutral in this respect. It simply says here are the options and you are xyz based on those options. That said I have taken similar tests on at least three different occasions that I can (vaguely) remember, and in each the instructor(s) all talked about the importance of not being overly represented in one area. Either directly or indirectly they outright said or very much implied that the “correct” or “best” way to be is a mix of all the options spread across the spectrum. They did give some examples of famous historical people who had done great things and tried to show how they would be classified and by example how the system seemed to accurately depict what would make them famous. Generally they were significantly over represented in one area. Confusingly this was still communicated in a manner that suggested this was a bad thing. Sure these people did great things and their personality type was responsible for much of their greatness but they were actually crazy, or everyone thought they were crazy, or they were nasty, or they had no friends, etc. It was if they achieved greatness in spite of their strong personality types rather than because of them.

My guess is that somehow the idea of the importance of moderation, generally a good idea for many things, slowly expanded to moderation in most things, and then without anyone really noticing suddenly became a universal law applicable to all things. What makes good advice for avoiding obesity or staying physically fit does not always or even usually make for good advice on becoming or staying emotionally and/or psychologically healthy. Call it maxim creep — when good advice in one area slowly becomes accepted as good advice in another related area. The process continues until the area in which the advice is being applied unquestioningly is maybe only tangentially or not at all related to the original target of the maxim. Balance may be important for acrobats and gymnasts but its importance to personal well being is definitely not a given.

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