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Metabalance: How to Combine Balance with Imbalance

Balance is usually good, but sometimes imbalance makes life more interesting.

Key points

  • Balance is usually desirable in keeping our bodies upright.
  • Imbalance can make life more interesting in art and other enterprises.
  • Metabalance requires finding a balance between balance and imbalance.

People aspire to life/work balance, but is balance what we need? In the 2018 movie Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos says about a knife: “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.” Usually, balance is good for people and imbalance is bad—for example, when walking down the street. But imbalance sometimes has advantages, for example when a basketball player makes a tricky shot while falling over. I use “metabalance” to mean balance about balance, specifically the question of how to perform tradeoffs between balance and imbalance.

The clearest example of the importance of metabalance is art and architecture where balance is largely symmetry contributing to the beauty and usefulness of paintings and buildings. But perfect symmetry can be boring and introducing asymmetries generates interest and surprise.

For example, Raphael’s magnificent "School of Athens" painting has great symmetry in its general composition but much variation in the depiction of the philosophers on either side of Plato and Aristotle. Picasso’s cubist paintings portray unbalanced faces that are far from beautiful but grab our attention.

The architect Frank Gehry has produced startling buildings in line with his doctrine that imbalance is nice, but the underlying functional core of buildings such as concert halls and museums inevitably require much internal symmetry to be functional. The characterization of beauty as unity in variety recognizes the value of combining coherence and incoherence. No absolute standard for how to reconcile balance and imbalance is available, but their integration is crucial for producing art and artifacts that satisfy goals such as beauty, emotional engagement, and practical usefulness. Similarly, musical pieces are more stimulating when they balance consonance and dissonance.

Economics has the problem of balancing efficiency and resilience. Resilience is a balance metaphor because it concerns returning a system to equilibrium. Efficiency is a kind of stability but resilience shows the importance of being able to respond to external surprises by regaining stability. Hospitals are good examples of the tension between efficiency and resilience. High efficiency means that their resources of beds and staff are fully used, but this efficiency can limit their ability to deal with unexpected disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

We cannot identify in general the best balance between efficiency and resilience, but it is easy to identify cases where institutions have gotten the balance wrong and cost lives. Journalists may, for example, have a serious metabalance problem when they try to balance fairness (construed as balancing competing interests) against the obligation to get things right.

Similarly, leading a meaningful life requires finding a balance between balance and imbalance. Systematically pursuing the satisfaction of appropriate needs and values is a good strategy for achieving meaning, but sometimes it is fun to be spontaneous, wild, and a bit crazy. The regular, predictable life can benefit from occasional ventures into irregularity.

I do not have a formula for determining how much imbalance is good because people’s circumstances vary. Spontaneity is more to be valued in a new romantic relationship than in raising a sick child. It is enough to recognize that balance is not always good and that moderating it with surprising imbalance can make life livelier. Challenging the golden mean, we can strive to be moderate about everything including moderation.

One of the great powers of the human mind is the recursive ability to think about thinking. My favorite analogy about analogy compares it to Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as the worst system of government except for all the others. Similarly, using metaphors is the worst method of thinking except for all the others. The recursive capacity of the human mind is limited because we get lost if we have to consider too many layers of aboutness, but nevertheless enables us to be creative in applying concepts to themselves. Metabalance itself is a strong, novel metaphor because it illuminates previously unrecognized complexity in how we think about our lives.

How can metabalance problems be resolved? They require reconciling constraints about constraints, which stretches the recursive capacity of the mind to its full extent. As with ethics, my recommendation is to regain focus by concentrating on human needs, both the physiological needs such as food and the psychological needs such as love and work. In trying to figure out when to go for balance or imbalance, we should keep in mind the slogan: need, not greed.

This post is adapted from Balance: How it Works and What it Means, Columbia University Press, 2022.

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