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How to Get Your Life in Sync

Four fundamental forces pull you in different directions. Here's the secret to getting them to work together.

By Jeff DeGraff

Every day my life increases in speed and complexity. It feels as if I’m a boy again running down a hill so fast that I can barely keep my feet under me. You too?

Chances are, you’re at the apex of your life — accomplished, capable and confident — believing you seek balance, but unwilling to make the transition from active-doing to passive-being. Perhaps what you really want is to synchronize your life, integrate the personal with the professional and find a pathway to growth. But how?

Stack the Russian Nesting Dolls

As you age, the desire to synthesize the various aspects of your life into an essential self increases.

The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung called this the "individuation process." That means you become authentically aware of who you are and what you genuinely seek. It is the wise amalgamation of your experience, mindfulness and aspirations.

I find it helpful to think of this integral process as the stacking of Russian nesting dolls. You have a personal, social and transcendent self and each is contained above or below the next.

Your personal self is you as an individual. Your social self is you as part of a group (like a parent, child, sibling, spouse, neighbor or co-worker). Your transcendent self is you as a boundless being — your spirit, soul, psyche, mind and essence.

When you're in sync, you’re cognizant of where these versions of your self touch, align and meld into one another.

Think about the situations where you feel energized, fully immersed in the moment and there’s reciprocity in what you give and receive. Maybe it’s writing a family history that involves interviewing your aging parent. Or sitting in with a bluegrass band and rediscovering your passion for the violin. Perhaps it’s just doing more of what makes you happy, fulfilled and enlivened.

(MORE: The Easy Way to Find Time for Everything You Want to Do)

The trick is to pay attention to those genuine experiences where you are centered and do more of what gives you energy and less of what takes it.

Practice Prismatic Thinking

When you’re seeking sync, think about a prism.

The magic of the prism is that it appears to create color from ubiquitous streams of white light that imperceptibly dance about us at all times. All you need is a little glass with a few oblique angles and voila — instant rainbow. Colors are as much defined by their opposites as they are by their composition. Like colors, the opposing forces in your life can be mixed to create vivid new hybrids of your self.

The 4 Fundamental Forces

This is why you need to come to grips with the four fundamental forces that pursue competing values and pull you and those around you in different directions: create, control, compete and collaborate.

These forces drive or thwart growth in paired oppositions: create vs. control and compete vs. collaborate. The paradox of growth is that it is born from the tension and constructive conflict of these opposing forces and their agents.

These fundamental forces aren’t determined by how you feel or think; they’re defined by the outcomes you pursue or avoid.

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The forces of create and control largely determine your level of ambition and your tolerance of risk.

Create is about doing new things. It includes your aesthetic vision and artistic expression as well as your psychological and spiritual exploration.

Control is about doing things right, security (safety and savings) and productivity (accomplishment and advancement).


You can find the tension between create and control in your everyday life, like how your efficient daily grind has crowded out your creative soak time for playing the guitar or mediation.

The forces of compete and collaborate govern your speed of innovation and your sustainability.

Compete is about doing things now. It includes vitality (your physical and emotional health) and your financial well-being.

Collaborate is about doing things that last — learning and intellectual development and your connections with family and friends.

The compete vs. collaborate tension is where your work-life struggles occur.

Balancing the 4 Fundamentals

Of course, in the right measure, situation and sequence, you must engage all four types of growth — but not all at once and certainly not all the time.

You need to practice prismatic thinking by syncing what you seek with how you seek it.

You cannot create your own white light — the integration of all colors, your wholeness — without understanding the composition and integration of its parts.

That means you must determine how you want to grow within your world. (I have a video on Next Avenue that can help you make that decision, by showing you the way to create a personal challenge statement.)

Be the Top

I love spinning tops. The whirl and swirl keep them both animate and balanced not by doing less, but rather, by doing more in sync.

So skip the fantasy of a stationary life in repose. It doesn’t exist anyway. Instead, seek out your truth, your meaning, in a dizzying twirl of liveliness.

Celebrate the positive tension that creates energy and opportunities again and again and again until you are in sync with your self.

Jeff DeGraff is Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and known as the “Dean of Innovation” because of his influence on the field. He hosted the PBS program, Innovation You, and writes a syndicated blog for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post and Big Think. Jeff's website is You can follow him on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and Facebook. Read More
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