Exploring the Scandinavian art of balance

“If you don’t like climbing mountains, I promise the peak has nothing more to offer you” — Taylor Foreman

I’ve never really understood why people who don’t typically enjoy running sign up for marathons. It’s an impressive achievement, I’m not denying that. But to me, it only seems like a worthy achievement if you actually like to run; because the ‘running’ part of the experience is a lot longer than the ‘finishing’ part. The average time it takes to run a marathon is 4.5 to 5 hours. I can’t think of many things I’d like to do for that long without taking a break (other than sleep). Plus, unless you’re a trained athlete, running a marathon is probably going to be more detrimental to your health than it is beneficial. Why is being able to say “I ran a marathon” so important to so many people?

My confusion doesn’t just apply to the context of marathons. Millennials have been characterized as a particularly ambitious generation. And it probably comes as no surprise. We’re living in a society where giving 110% is good, because there’s always more you can do [see Mark Wahlberg’s herculean schedule]. We’re told to exceed expectations, to reach our full potential. Define for me please, what is my full potential? How will I know when I’m there? The point is, never. We’re expected to just keep running like we’re taking part in an endless marathon of life.

Being ‘average’ is stigmatized (regardless of the obvious fact that the ‘average’ will, by definition, always shift to include a majority of people who can therefore never run away from ‘mediocrity’). And yet, we’re also told we can all be great. If we were all great, it would be ‘normal’, i.e., average to be great. So we would be both average and great at the same time? I’m beginning to question whether these social standards are realistic.

Millennials are often stereotyped for being self-centered and individualistic, but this stems from our desire to continuously improve ourselves, which I think is great. I’m a fan and an advocate for self-development; I think we should all strive to become the best version of ourselves. But I also think that oftentimes, we lose sight of our own definition of ‘best’. And we end up running marathons (metaphorically) that we don’t enjoy just so we can prove to others that we can, and reassure ourselves that we’re no ‘less than’ anybody else.

Breaking Point

My cousin came over for lunch this summer with her husband and their two young children. As we toasted to her promotion at work, she began to cry. We assumed these were happy tears at first, but as the sides of her mouth began to droop, we realized they weren’t.

She had been holding these emotions in for months. It felt a little surreal to me. I don’t think I’d ever seen her cry until then. She always seemed so perfect. She was always an excellent student, she got married young, has two beautiful children, and a prosperous career at just 33 years old. She made the Millennial generation proud. These tears seemed so out-of-place. But as she began to explain, it all became clear.

For her entire life, she had been holding herself to a standard of ‘perfection’, trying not to disappoint the rest of us, who admittedly had high expectations for her. For years she had been working hard and showing her commitment to her company, only to realize that a promotion meant less time with her family.

She was working long hours and traveling every week. Between the stress and the travel, she was barely getting any sleep, and most of her meals were on-the-go. Also, she actually preferred the work that she was doing in her previous role.

She kept asking “what is the point?” And I think it’s a question we should all consider. There’s no right or wrong answer; we all want different things. But if ‘the point’ of what you’re doing isn’t ultimately to live the life that you want for yourself, then, what’s the point?

A Lesson from Sweden

Lagom” is a popular word that permeates Swedish culture. There’s no literal translation but it essentially means “just enough”. It pops up in a popular expression:

“Lagom är bäst”

In a very IKEA-worthy way, the Swedes have packaged the Goldilocks story into three words. The expression means “not too much, not too little — just right”. In fact, renowned Swedish brands like H&M and IKEA owe part of their success to this philosophy. Their products are accessible, practical, and comfortable. Not too nice, but available to everyone.

Swedish culture encourages humility. People tend to be modest and self-promotion is frowned uponThe Law of Jante is deeply engrained in Sweden; there’s disapproval towards expressions of individuality and personal success, in favor of adherence to the collective.

And it’s this lagom lifestyle that makes Swedes among the happiest people in the world. They don’t focus too much attention on themselves. They don’t obsess over their own success and their own wellbeing; they see the bigger picture and minimize the complications in their lives.

This doesn’t mean Swedish people aren’t ambitious. But it does mean that being a ‘successful individual’ isn’t glorified. There are ten rules in the Law of Jante. The first of these is “You’re not to think you are anything special”. It’s the exact opposite message to the one that most millennials have been hearing their entire lives (i.e., that they are special).

In Michelle Obama’s first podcast episode, with special guest, Barak Obama, they discuss exactly this; that the younger generations expect to ‘have it all’. We want a prosperous career, we want a family, we want work-life balance, holidays, a CEO title, an impressive following on social-media…

“That was the opposite of how we were brought up. You were never supposed to have it all. In fact, if you had it all, you were being greedy, because if you had it all that meant somebody didn’t have anything” — Michelle Obama.

So maybe we did use to be more Lagom. And maybe we should consider reinstating that mindset. Not to sap our ambition or become complacent, but to consider whether we actually ‘want it all’, or whether we’re happy to let some things go and prioritize what we want for ourselves.

Final Thoughts

Being ambitious is great. Having that fire in your belly that drives you to constantly improve makes you feel alive; it’s exciting. But wanting to be the best always in all-ways can understandably take its toll, and you could end up wearing thin.

There are things that you consider worth fighting for, but there are things that aren’t. And your time and your energy are limited. Do you want to invest these towards ‘having it all’? Or do you want to focus on the things that you want for yourself? There’s no right or wrong answer, but there is an answer for you.

“Do what you love, love what you do, and with all your heart give yourself to it.”
― Roy T. Bennett, 
The Light in the Heart