We're not talking about mere balance here . . . A visionary company doesn't simply balance between idealism and profitability; it seeks to be highly idealistic and highly profitable . . . a highly visionary company doesn't want to blend yin and yang into a gray, indistinguishable circle that is neither highly yin nor highly yang; it aims to be . . . both at the same time, all the time.

~ James Collins & Jerry Porras, Built to Last

The English proverb tells us that we can't have our cake and eat it too. I've often struggled to understand exactly what that means. I guess it's supposed to imply that we can't have it both ways. How can we preserve something of value if we continue to consume it?

Today's quote comes from a book I've been reading on visionary companies: the ones that stand the test of time and continue to evolve while remaining true to a set of core principles. Principles you say? How can you have principles and profits? Aren't they mutually exclusive? Far from it, according to the research performed by the authors.

[Side Note: The book came out in 1994, so some of the companies we might think of as visionary (Apple) are not included. Interestingly, the research shows that a charismatic, “visionary” leader (like Steve Jobs) is not only unnecessary for a company to endure, but it can actually be detrimental. A visionary company does not always have a high-profile CEO, but one that puts systems and values into place that persist far beyond his or her tenure at the helm of the company.]

How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Not only is it possible to support seemingly opposite principles at the same time, it's actually a common characteristic of the most successful corporations. According to the authors, these visionary businesses shun “the tyranny of the OR” while embracing “the genius of the AND.” They are simultaneously profitable and principled. They endorse autonomy and adherence to core values. They embrace larger, long term goals while they execute the daily details as flawlessly as humanly possible.

Can we juggle opposing values in our business and personal finances? Can we save enough for retirement and our children's education while we enjoy a reasonably prosperous existence? Can we reap profits without compromising our ethical principles? Why not?

Usually, the answer to “Why not?” is something like “I don't know how”, “my situation is different” or “I don't have time.” Perhaps that's why the list of visionary corporations is not all that long. I know that these are some of the reasons my personal finances aren't where I'd like them to be. It's hard. It takes, time, effort and focus, three things that seem to be in short supply these days as we become lost in the daily cacophony of media messages.

Here's what I'm going to do to cut through the noise and achieve a more integrated balance among conflicting priorities:

Time: I'm going to cut out any activities – mental or physical – that don't advance my goals or enrich my quality of life. While I may spend less time reading articles or interacting online, I'm also going to try to increase the amount of time I have to recharge so that I can be more effective in achieving my primary goals.

Effort: I usually do OK in this area, but I am often guilty of putting too much effort into projects with too little yield.

Focus: My attention has become divided of late among too many projects, to the extent that I feel like I'm not performing as well as I'd like at any of them. I'm narrowing my focus.

You can call these some of my larger goals for 2012, but I'm not waiting until January 1st to start. I'm starting now. Today.

Until We Meet Again

I've written many articles over the past 2 years on how far we've strayed from the principles of free market capitalism. We've socialized losses for large institutions and expected smaller businesses to live (and too often, die) by the strict capitalist code that says failures must fail. Cheaters have prospered. Our core values have become bifurcated, diluted, and unrecognizably grey.

I started Balance Junkie to try to help people understand that we are in the midst of a transformational period – one that will have a significant impact on our finances and perhaps our quality of life. Not wanting to see folks hurt financially as they were in the crisis of 2008, I hoped to shed some light on the fact that the neither the crisis nor the secular bear market ended with the March 9, 2009 market bottom.

I'm not sure I've made any measurable difference. I still see a lot of complacency and can-kicking. Many are still following the models that contributed to the crisis and listening to the same gurus and bloggers who failed to steer them around the 2008 debacle. Is it worth my time, effort and focus to continue to write about economics and personal finance?

That's a question I hope to sort through over the fading weeks of 2011. At the same time, I'll be turning my focus to helping Mr. Cents get a business off the ground in our region. Right now, that feels like the right place to direct my focus. Rather than simply writing about the economy and idealistic capitalism, I'm going to become a more active participant. If you're thinking this sounds like a farewell article, you may be right – and it hasn't been an easy one for me to compose.

I'm putting Balance Junkie on sabbatical until January. I may write something in the interim if I have the time, but I will certainly return in January with some kind of answer to my question. In the meantime, I wish all of you peace, prosperity and balance and I sincerely thank you for reading Balance Junkie over the past couple of years. My email box will remain open during the sabbatical, so please don't hesitate to say hello.

Can we have our cake and eat it too?