A Tale of Two Extremes

(Or a tail of two extremes if you’re familiar with power laws and long tail distributions…)

I have a natural desire to strive for perfection.

In the past this made me deeply miserable and depressed.

I was trapped in all or nothing thinking: either I achieved perfection, or I failed completely. There was no middle ground.

With experience I learned that it was better to aspire for perfection and accept that I can’t always achieve it. And I learned that failure is sometimes valuable, even necessary, if you want to develop and grow.

I nearly fell into the trap of thinking that moderation was the answer.

Robots and humans

A robot is a machine characterised by relentless, flawless consistency. Robots don’t feel emotions. They don’t get tired or stressed.

(And they always use #machinemode on social media.)

Automaticity is good, especially when you harness it to establish good habits. Consistency is necessary for getting results.

But being human is important too.

Humans are organic, with the ability to adapt and grow. We do things consciously. We feel emotions. We enjoy time with family and friends. And occasionally we get drunk, eat too much, and skip the gym.

These things don’t benefit from mindless repetition, so robots don’t get to do any of the fun stuff.

What about the middle ground?

In a conflict, the middle ground is the least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Think of the middle ground as no-man’s land. You don’t want to be stuck there.

The illusion of moderation is that you can achieve balance by avoiding extremes. The reality is that aiming for the middle ground results in mediocrity.

It may limit the depth of our greatest failure, but it also limits the height of our greatest success.

We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.

Alan Watts

But it’s tempting to believe that you don’t have to work too hard to be successful, isn’t it? Or rather, it’s tempting to set your sights lower and achieve limited success, because it’s easier.

And it’s comforting to think that we can insulate ourselves from failure too.

The reality is that just doing enough and just doing it some of the time is not necessarily going to give you the results you want.

There is a time for relentless hard work, total dedication, and complete focus.

But not all the time.

You must disturb the balance every now and then because constant, perfect equilibrium is deadly.

I think the middle ground is probably how things will appear if you look over the long run. But I also think that we’ll benefit more from contrasting methods that average out to moderate over the long run, rather than actually training in the middle ground. Your body responds to exaggerations and extremes – to volatility – more than it does to nice predictable rhythms.

Matt Perryman, Squat Every Day

How to achieve balance

You must recognise when you need to push and when you need to let go.

Learn to refine your own internal feedback loop. You don’t push when you’re burnt out and you don’t just let go when things get tough. You will make mistakes, but if you master this process then the reward is huge.

Understand that most of your efforts may end up falling in that dreaded middle ground, but don’t deliberately aim for it.

Moderation is your reward when you have pushed hard enough and built up enough momentum to let go when you need to:

Moderation must be earned through hard training and consistent good habits.

Bryan Krahn

I recently took a few weeks off training and dieting to renew my appreciation for the whole process. I didn’t plan it that way, I just felt like it was time to let go. Now I’m ready to push again with more motivation than before.