Balance is weak. Tension is strong.

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Objects in tenuous balance will tumble at the slightest nudge.

Objects in tension, on the other hand, are strong.

When you fire a gun you pull with one hand while pushing with the other because in tension there is stability. A pull-up bar in a doorframe can hold 200 pounds because it’s in tension, not in balance. Ethernet contains a pair of wires twisted together, electrons moving in opposing directions, because their opposing magnetic fields cancel each other but also act as a shield to foreign fields that would otherwise disrupt the electrons’ movements.

It’s often said that “extremes are bad” and thus you should “seek balance.” But balance is fragile; it’s the wrong thing to seek.

Seeking tension means taking two strong stances, letting each thrive while keeping the other in check.

Seeking balance means starting with two strong stances, then stripping out the powerful bits until both are weak enough to coexist in a gutless truce.

Seeking tension in co-founders or team members means extracting everyone’s best while maintaining decorum and respect. A team wielding excellence, coordinated across multiple areas of expertise, is formidable.

Seeking balance in a team means sanding objections off your ideas until the committee converges, not on the most powerful possibility, but on a grey, uninspiring average that is disagreeable to no one only because it’s empty of meaning.

Extremes can be reckless, but the powerful middle way arises from tension, not balance.

  • Declan Chellar

    You make a very interesting point, Bear, and you made me put my thinking cap on. However, you seem to conflate “balance” with “instability”. In martial arts there is the concept of “rooting”, which uses the analogy of a tree’s roots to describe the stability you should train into your stance so that when you redirect your opponent’s force, or counter-strike, you do so from a stable platform. Rooting requires complementary tensions in the body. In this case, balance is not an alternative to rooting, it is a consequence of it. Even in the simple example of two equal masses at either end of a scale, the balance derives from the tension between two equal and opposite forces. Assuming no change to that tension, the balance is not unstable. But anything can upset the balance of tensions in a system, whether it’s two weights on a scale, a martial arts stance, or a team. A sudden muscle cramp can upset the balance of tensions in a stance. An emotional breakdown can upset the balance of tensions in a team.

    I think you are spot on regarding the value of tensions and opposites, but it is having those tensions in balance, complementary, that makes them useful. In Chinese philosophy, Yin Yang does not say to avoid extremes. It simply recognises that they exist and that balance is the state of having those extremes complement each other.

    Balance is not the antithesis of tension, it is the consequence of well-applied tension.

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