The Illogical Allure of Extremes
It’s a fundamental human flaw: We’re driven to pursue extremes.
We’re enamored with exotic sports cars, even though their extreme specialization makes them highly impractical for any activities outside of driving quickly with a single partner (in other words, life). In many cultures, there’s an inverse relationship between practicality and prestige. No one is impressed by a used Honda Fit, despite the fact that it’s arguably the most versatile, economical, and logical vehicle available. It’s a vehicle for smart people. Instead, automotive magazines swoon over low slung two-seaters, extreme off-roaders, and silly impracticalities like sport-utility coupes. They rarely discuss the most intelligent options. Extreme sells.
We admire the marathon winner, but we forget that knees are like tires — they’re good for a limited number of miles. We forget that exercise, like all other activities, is subject to diminishing returns. It actually creates health problems when taken to extremes.
Too much of anything becomes its opposite . — Tim Ferriss
Every activity has an opportunity cost. Excessive attention in physical fitness radically reduces free time for other valuable activities like learning, working, and socializing.
I’m No Better
I am enamored with my own pursuit of extremes. I’ve been writing software for over 15 years, but only decided to pursue excellence around five years ago. I recorded my manifesto: “Becoming an Outlier: Reprogramming the Developer Mind”. I outlined three fundamental habits one must master to become an outlier developer. And over the last five years, I’ve practiced what I preached. Daily.
The journey (hint: there’s no arrival) has admittedly paid off handsomely thus far. I make great money speaking and coaching software developers across Europe and North America. I’ve traveled the world for free, often bringing my family along for the journey. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk shop with the authors of many of my favorite programming books. I was accepted as a Pluralsight author and as a result I’ve landed lucrative and interesting development side-work. Finally, I’ve spent the last couple years in a software architect role that provides levels of leadership and autonomy that formerly seemed unobtainable. Bottom line: I’m living a lifestyle that seemed completely unimaginable just a few years ago.
The Diminishing Return of Extremes
Yet even success is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Just consider income: Once you’re earning more than the happiness plateau, more money doesn’t significantly increase happiness. (Somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 / year in the USA)
Even permanent increases in income have little effect on perceived happiness, as we compare ourselves to those above us, no matter how much progress we make. Material goods give us a short-lived happiness sugar high…
Yep, happiness hinges upon your status relative to those around you. And that’s a problem, because the more successful you become, the more time you spend around those who are at or above your pay grade. Every time I speak at a bigger, more selective event, I’m thrust back into being the small fish in the very big pond. “Oh, you’re leaving here to spend a couple weeks in Italy, then keynoting in London? That sounds…wow”
For me, the experiences above required sacrifices that few would be willing to accept. I’ve spent the last five years working at least 40 hours a week at a full-time job, plus around 15–20 hours/week on the side. As a husband and father of three, this level of dedication leaves little time for other pursuits. I stopped watching TV. I consume virtually no mainstream news (though I recommend this to anyone anyway). I dropped my golf and photography hobbies. Most sadly, I’ve even lost touch with some friends.
To reach the level of success I desired, I zeroed-in on two core priorities: Family and career. As a result, I’m largely disconnected from the world outside software. I can’t small talk about politics, sports, or the latest celebrity gossip because I’m uninformed.
The greater the extreme, the greater the cost.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with extremes. But the risk of extremes lies in fixating on the benefits without a clear understanding of the costs.
If you want success, figure out the cost and pay it. — Scott Davis
I lost balance in my life because I fixated on my “productivity” heroes. I aspired to match or exceed their levels of output and success.
Don’t let rat racing be the only game you play against the Joneses. There is always someone willing to sacrifice it all to earn more, so let them. Just remember: it is entirely possible — in fact, common — to be a success in business and a failure in life. — Tim Ferriss
I continue to struggle with hero envy. Although I now realize my envy is illogical. It’s illogical to envy anyone you don’t know intimately because you don’t know the price they paid to get there. To maintain balance and eliminate envy, we must clearly understand the cost of achieving extreme success. I’ve come to realize that the more clarity I have about my personal mission and goals, the less time I spend comparing myself to others.
I’ve also been reminded that every meaningful pursuit has diminishing returns.
Recognize the extremely diminishing returns of life, love, and meaning beyond a certain level of financial success…I’ve talked to more than my fair share of entrepreneurs who won according to the traditional measures of success in the standard startup rule book. And the more we talked, the more we all realized that the trappings of a blow-out success weren’t nearly as high up the Maslovian pyramid of priorities as these other, more ephemeral, harder-to-quantify motivational gauges. — DHH in “Reconsider”
The risk is this: We keep repeating behaviors without considering the opportunity cost. Humans, like rats, are prone to repeating behaviors that produce positive results. We exercise more as we see muscles grow. We’re energized to work harder when given a raise. This natural reaction is certainly useful. It fosters commitment and drives us to excel.
Yet inherent risks exist with any activity that produces positive feedback. We ignore the opportunity cost. We become blind to diminishing returns. And we pay a slow creeping price for imbalance. If we’re not careful, we keep pushing long past the point of diminishing returns.
So before you set your new years resolutions this year, ask yourself: “Have I focused so much in one area of my life that I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns?”
Never underestimate the power (and the risk) of perpetual forward motion. Good habits are so powerful that at some point, you may just look around and realize that you went too far.