I am a minimalist, but I am not too enamored about minimalism.
It is easy to become overenthusiastic and go too far with minimalism. It is not as tolerated, as going the other way, constantly accumulating more and more stuff. But it is as dangerous.
Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.Aristotle
Today’s essay is about learning to take the middle path in life. Life is separated into good and evil, virtue and vice.
It is worth remembering that life is not black and white. From a very high viewpoint, the 30,000-foot view, life does appear to be like that, but upon further inspection, it is clear that there are large grey patches.
We can have too much of the good in our lives that it actually becomes terrible.
This seems obvious, but it is incredible how often we are duped, both as individuals and a society. We tend to believe that we need more and we need better. Often the only benefit comes to the person who happens to make a significant profit out of the entire enterprise.
Other times, we fool ourselves.
We can actually plot this “too much of a good thing” problem on a graph, and it would look something akin to an upside-down “U.”
Often it is also called Kuznets Curve.
We plot the quantity on the x-axis and the supposed benefit on the y axis.
This tells us that as we increase the quantity of x, we begin to receive great benefits (y). Still, we pass a stage where increasing quantities of x don’t provide a similar increase in benefit in y. At some point, the process reverses. We actually end up having less benefit y for the amount of x we have.
This is true for almost everything. From your workforce’s size, the amount of money you have, and the number of hours you study to the amount of physical exercise you take.
Why Is It Important?
The good life is in a middle way, not too much, not too little.
It is like cooking: too much salt is bad for you, but none at all makes for a tasteless dish.
We need to learn to moderate our desires. Fortunately, and unfortunately, we live in a world where almost all desires are possible.
Does this automatically mean that we should ditch self-control and try and experience as much as we can in one lifetime?
While this may sound exciting. But, we need to remember that all actions have consequences. We are all capable of having too much of a good thing.
The upside of all this is it is pretty easy to avoid once we become aware that life follows in the inverted U curve.
The obvious thing to take home from the fact that we can get too much of a good thing is to strive for qualitative improvements, not quantitative. Do you need one hundred staff, or can you make do with fifty good people? Or ten outstanding rockstar staff members and some clever software?
Examples of the Inverted U Curve
The most exciting aspect of the Inverted U curve is how it sheds light on how life works. We all need money to live, but exactly how much? Someone, somewhere, said that a rich man is someone who earns 20% more than his wife’s sister’s husband.
We are all aware that wealth is relative, so one cannot put an actual dollar figure on how much money is enough or too much. This is because that changes according to where you live in the world and your place in society.
We can probably formulate a rule of thumb that can work for most people. How about this:
A person needs enough money to afford the basics such as a home, food, clothing, general bills, and transportation. They need enough money left over for a moderate amount of entertainment and savings. They need a safety net in case something bad happens.
If you have six children, this is going to turn out to be far more money than if you’re a twenty-year-old student.
Some studies claim that a moderate amount of alcohol is actually good for you. I’m not going to get into that. Still, one can confidently state that a reasonable amount of alcohol will not majorly disrupt your daily life. Yet, it is so easy to start drinking more and more over time. Before you know it, it is actually causing a problem.
The Inverted U Curve of alcohol consumption is quite steep. The disadvantages of increasing the quantity can make themselves clear very quickly.
Try drinking ten beers a day for a week, and see how you feel.
Apparently, one can also be too happy that it actually causes underachievement because the status quo is just acceptable. On a personal level, this doesn’t seem too bad. After all, if I am happy, why should I go through the stressful and challenging process of change, creating new opportunities full of uncertainty and risk?
Well, the reason that you should go ahead and always create these opportunities is threefold:
It forges character. The more we deal with risk, uncertainty, and stress in our lives, the better we get at handling it. Of course, the inverted U curve also applies here. So don’t get too stressed.
You don’t really have a choice. Life will automatically create stress, risk, and uncertainty without you having to do anything.
If you choose to ignore it and stay all happy, it may well come back and bite you on the ass. This is why Western nations give a tremendous amount of aid and continue to maintain nuclear capabilities. Hope for the best. Prepare for the absolute worst.
If everyone was thrilled, then nothing would move forward. Look around yourself, note every single object around you.
Each one of these objects has been built by a company. Just think about what that means. It means that there were probably dozens of competing companies trying to make that object in the best possible way, people having arguments, staff getting fired, promotions, families have broken up, taxes avoided, lawsuits, entire factories created, shipping freighters that missed deadlines and so on and so on.
All so that object could land on your desk. Amazingly, every single thing you can think of has gone through this process of intense competition, and hopefully, at the end of it, the best rise to the top (but not always!). This is not always an enjoyable, happy process.
Being Moderately Moderate
Moderation is complex, and also, isn’t there a contradiction in always being moderate? Indeed…that is not moderate? Also, moderation can come in many forms, shapes, and sizes, and who is there to tell us which to follow?
For example, let’s take the problem as mentioned above of alcohol consumption. As we keep going towards to right-side of the x-axis on the inverted U curve graph, we reach a point where the amount of alcohol ingested in one session can lead to adverse, permanent health damage or even death.
I like to draw the line quite a long way away from that point when I go out with friends!
So, that sets a top-end point – if you die drinking alcohol, you weren’t being moderate. So what about not drinking any alcohol at all? Well, that’s for sure a more intelligent option than the other extreme, but it can still lead you to problems.
Not drinking alcohol doesn’t conform to social standards in many parts of the world. This is not a huge problem per se, especially if you don’t let yourself be bothered by such things.
Unfortunately, you cannot have the cake and eat it. If you don’t drink alcohol, you will have to expect some degree of separation from the average person. A lot of business and bonding does happen over a drink, and you may miss out on that. Again, not a big deal if you’re not bothered about it, but then don’t be surprised if you don’t win that big contract.
So between those two extremes, what is moderate drinking?
The problem is that we live in an all-or-nothing society. Everybody either goes all-in or cold turkey. Nobody wants to slow down or cut down. It doesn’t feel sexy, it doesn’t feel revolutionary, but guess what? Significant changes are actually small daily changes stretched over time. Not particularly exciting stuff.
What about not drinking every day but then going out on a binge once a month? Is that less or more moderate than someone who has a glass or two of red wine each day?
If you measure the amount of drinking done, the daily drinker probably outdrinks the once-in-a-full-moon binge drinker by dozens of drinks. Yet, you would never judge the daily drinker as being not moderate, while if you catch the occasional drinker on one of their nights out, you may think that they have a drinking problem.
I’ve not managed to make my mind up about it.
The Stoics took a strict view on this:
Moderation is about what you do every damn day.
So the moderate daily drinker is the more moderate person from their point of view, and I tend to agree. But, if you go out and get completely drunk every so often and it’s not causing you too many problems, then continue. Ensure that you are aware that you’re not being as moderate as you think.
So it all boils down to creating positive daily habits and routines that are moderate in nature. This will allow us to easily navigate the middle path in life.