By A.J. Drenth
Most personality enthusiasts show at least some measure of concern for personal growth. Indeed, many believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite, if not a catalyst, for personal growth and development.
Students of Jung’s work commonly view self-development, or what Jung called individuation, in terms of a balancing of opposing psychological forces. This may include balancing conscious and subconscious elements of the mind, as well as the various functions of one’s personality type (e.g., Ni, Fe).
Even before Jung, myriad sages and philosophers extolled balance / temperance as a sort of arch virtue—the virtue above all virtues. They were convinced that the good life was the balanced life. In Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, however, we find two philosophers who seriously questioned and sought alternatives to the balance motif.
For Kierkegaard, the aim of life was to cultivate passion, intensity, and a sense of possibility. The idea of stasis—of achieving and maintaining a comfortable point of balance—was anathema to him. Nietzsche also saw balance as an uninspiring concept, one which evoked notions of stasis, mediocrity, blandness, and weakness. To Nietzsche’s eye, if something is perfectly balanced it is essentially lifeless—devoid of tension, movement, or desire. Rarely, if ever, is life completely balanced, but is constantly changing, adapting, desiring, and anticipating.
One alternative to the balance motif is the purposeful life, a life animated by a sense of mission and direction (e.g., “My purpose in life is…”), as well as continuous striving toward one’s purpose. Purpose-seekers exist in a perpetual state of tension between where they’re at and where they’re going. While they may appreciate periods of relative quietude, it is rarely long before they are compelled to resume their purpose quest.
As illustrated above, the balanced life can be represented with a circle, the purposeful life with an arrow. Balance is a characteristically more feminine concept and can be associated with things like cooperation and egalitarianism. Purpose is more pointed, focused, and unidirectional and thus more masculine in its connotation. Just as the masculine and feminine can be conceived as two universal forces, so too with purpose and balance. Neither is inherently better or more important, as both play a central role in the grand drama of life. From the perspective of the individual, however, one of these ideals will often feel more compelling and thus take precedence over the other.
Purpose and balance constitute two distinct visions or ideals for self-development. Even if largely unconscious, these ideals can play an integral role in shaping our goals, motivations, and behavior. The balance-seeker’s path is more diverse and multi-dimensional. Balance-seekers commonly show more or less equal concern for their relationships, careers, hobbies, and self-development. Whatever concerns they may have regarding status, achievement, or other forms of self-advancement are balanced by equally strong interests in their relationships and in appreciating the pleasures and beauty of life.
Purpose-seekers, by contrast, are more single-minded in their approach. Their first aim is to identify their purpose, to zero in on the “one thing” they were born to do. After clarifying their core purpose, their focus shifts from discovering their purpose to enacting it. As a young boy, I dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. In order to make this happen, I felt it necessary to clarify what sport I would focus on, as I didn’t particularly like the idea of dividing my focus between multiple endeavors. Once I had come to a decision, I devoted the lion’s share of my time and energy to pursuing my objective. Even some 30 years later, the notion of the purposeful life has continued to be a driving interest of mine and comprised a central theme in my recent book, The INTP Quest.
“Balanced Purpose” / Finding Purpose in Balance
However different the aims of the purpose-seeker and balance-seeker may be, a Jungian view would suggest that these two ideals can become less antagonist and more integrated over the course of one’s growth and development, with the purpose-seeker becoming more balanced and the balance-seeker more purposeful. Combining the circularity of balance and the directionality of purpose, this integration can be visually depicted with an egg, leaf, or even a human brain, all of which are symmetrical (representing balance) along one axis and asymmetrical (representing purpose / direction) on the other. Perhaps nature has clued us into what we, wittingly or not, are aiming for.
With that said, many of us remain, at least for the time being, more circular or pointed than the egg-shaped ideal. And while we may find it easy to criticize others for being too round (i.e., unmotivated, aimless) or single-minded (i.e., imbalanced), we should avoid the temptation to convert circles to arrows, or vice-versa. Although we can certainly help and support others in their growth process, we must remember that self-development is more of a journey than a quick transformation.