Where Does Your Pendulum Need to Swing?
What thermostats can teach us about living better and a first look at the New IHD Membership.
Hello, good people! Today we’ll explore one of my favorite concepts - the paradox. Also, at the end I’ll go into more detail about the New IHD Membership that Justin and I have been working on. These changes are emphasized in our new website as well (kudos to Justin on this gorgeous site design)!
But first, the stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 on the varying nature of life:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
ONE FROM YESTERDAY
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Source: Song of Myself, 51, by Walt Whitman
ONE FROM TODAY
English actor, director, comedian, and writer, Stephen Fry, on the human condition.
“To be human means to be constantly in the grip of opposing emotions, to daily reconcile apparently conflicting tensions. I want this, but I need that. I cherish this, but I adore its opposite, too.”
ONE FROM US
Have you ever noticed how often famous maxims contradict each other? It’s better to be safe than sorry, but fortune favors the bold. Be vigilant and prepared for anything, but don’t worry because most worries never come into fruition - just cross that bridge when you come to it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, yet keep in mind that a stitch in time saves nine. The early bird gets the worm, but don’t hurry because good things come to those who wait. You shouldn’t complain, but if you don’t stand up for yourself no one else will. Sleep is essential to your success, but you may have to sacrifice some sleep to do the things that make you successful. As Arnold Schwarzennegger said, you may have to “sleep faster.”
I’ve recently finished my near-annual pass through Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way (I try to do this with most of the books on my top 15 list). This is the first time I’ve read Obstacle since reading Holiday’s more recent book, Stillness is the Key. I’ve been struck by how often these two books seem to contradict one another. In Obstacle Holiday has a tendency to go on about the effort that is required for success. He’ll go on rants suggesting that if we aren’t obsessive about our craft then someone is going to outwork us. In Stillness he takes more of an essentialist tone, noting how every great thinker and leader found their deepest insights by committing to rituals of daily or periodic stillness. John F. Kennedy took time for daily swims even during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Winston Churchill laid bricks to relax; and two of the most influential philosophers ever, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, took long walks every day.
So, what gives, Ryan? Should we be relentless and fanatical or patient and balanced. The Insufferable task-master Steve Jobs or the passionate, humanizer of technology Steve Jobs? Bill Bellichick or Sean McVay? The obvious answer is: a bit of both. What these apparent contradictions show isn’t that some proverbs are wrong and others are right or that Holiday was wrong in The Obstacle is the Way and that he has corrected himself with Stillness is the Key. Rather, we find that the right answer is heavily dependent on context, timing, and the feedback each individual needs at a given moment. My hard-charging personality tends to need the stillness reminders more than the reminder to be persistent. For others it might be the opposite. Still, both perspectives are essential for all people. No single view will hold all the answers all of the time.
In one of his best articles, Mark Manson compares human personalities to thermostats. Thermostats determine a set temperature range and whenever temperatures drop or rise outside of that range, they kick on to push the temperature back where it is desired. Our bodies operate similarly, sweating when we are too hot and shivering when we are too cold. This tendency to seek balance is called homeostasis and the majority of our physical and mental processes operate by it. Likewise, we all have different desirable ranges for our many different personality traits and values. We want freedom but also commitment; connection but also independence; social time and also solitude. The skill of living (that sounds sexy doesn’t it) comes in building greater self-awareness and a firmer grasp of the human condition, and then using these understandings to recognize what is currently required to bring us into harmony. This skill is at the heart of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.
I first read The Obstacle is the Way on a 2014 summer trip to see my parents in Seattle. I was 25 and frustrated by the low standards pervasive in public education. Obstacle gave me the kick in the butt I needed to get my CSCS, create a campus Strength and Conditioning position, and eventually to begin writing and creating again. Months later, in October of 2014, I began dating my wife-to-be. I was through the worst of my Pure-O OCD, but I still had a relatively constant background anxiety and a proclivity to get angry. Realizing that in order to be my best for Neely I needed to develop my emotional “yin” side, I finally committed to a consistent meditation practice.
But, as the Yin-Yang metaphor suggests, none of these goals were accomplished by one temperament alone. I applied the same regimented, no-excuses commitment to meditation as I had to studying for my CSCS and to exercising. As I delved deeper into writing, I learned that I needed to show up and put the hours in every day, but that good-writing could not be forced. This became especially apparent during the early days of quarantine when I struggled most to organize and communicate some of the major ideas in my book. My three-year-old and my 20-month old were always with me, always needing me, always asking me questions. Without my daily bike rides, quiet lunches, and the general mental space I thrived on, my mind felt cluttered and fuzzy. I responded by getting up even earlier every morning (“sleeping faster”), carving out a four-hour period in the middle of the day, and trying to write a bit before bed. I stopped meditating and worked out while playing with the kids so that I could optimize every moment of time. I obsessed on the book all day long, trying to force revelations that would not come.
The results were awful. Almost nothing I wrote in those initial quarantine months made it into the book. Worse still, I wasn’t a very good father and husband. Finally, I realized the obvious. I needed to start taking care of myself - to meditate, sleep, play, and set clear work/life boundaries again.
So much of life follows this rule of homeostasis. This is why every message must be put into its context. For example, I often find myself writing about the need for more toughness, standards, and community sacrifice because those are what I find lacking in society. If modern life was more like Spartan society or like a repressive theocracy, I’d need to write more about individuality, empathy, and respecting human dignity.
Society tends to operate like a pendulum, swinging from extreme to extreme. A central thesis in my book is that our youth development pendulum has swung to the extremes of providing and protecting, which causes us to neglect other essential goals that are incompatible with those ends. Specifically, the over-provide and over-protect youth development paradigm is not very compatible with creating capable, antifragile, contribution-oriented citizens. Every mama bear knows she must protect her cubs and ensure they are fed. But she also knows they have to become tough and self-reliant. These competing needs have to be balanced.
Through most of time, civilizations have recognized the need to bring the person into harmony with the world. They organized their cultures around the cycles of life. There was a recognition that fighting the gods, the fates, the Tao, or Mother Nature was the epitome of foolishness. Since the scientific revolution, there has been a tendency to believe that us humans can harness nature and bend it to our own will. To some degree we can and this has been amazing. I recently flew on an airplane, after all. But this mindset has led to many destructive trends - denial of death, ignoring our bodies, insulating ourselves from all discomfort, and forgetting the importance of the hero's journey.
To thrive now, as always, we have to consciously work to honor the varying needs of our nature. This becomes harder as our environment becomes less natural, however. Justin and I have always sought to explore this challenge and help others like us, who want to get better at the skill of living. Which brings us to the new and improved IHD Membership.
As usual, the IHD Membership will grant access to our foundational program, the 30x30, but we are excited to bring a consistent group offering. Beginning in July, there will be a members only site where we host a monthly meeting and come together in a common pursuit of higher quality living. We will support each other and share insights as we implement common core habits and annual suggested rites of passage like our bi-annual group 48 hour fast (the next fast is this July). Additionally, we are excited to facilitate member interest groups where members can help other members explore skills and interests like playing an instrument, getting into a martial art, or starting to play chess. That last part is a bit more unstructured and open-ended as of right now, but I think it has the opportunity to spark some very neat developments. Head to our new website to learn more!
Thank you for reading and sharing with your kindred spirits! Also, thank you to all who voted or gave feedback to help me select my cover design for my book. Your suggestions proved crucial in determining the final design!
Life is too short to be normal,