There is a line in the ancient took, the Tao Te Ching that says that we should avoid excess, extravagance and extremes.
It states that as the key to remaining happy and calm through life. If we strive for these areas we stop following nature’s way bringing unhappiness. If we push for these areas we can’t sustain them and we always worry about keeping up with those levels.
But in our society, extremes, excess and extravagance are the things that are often prized. We envy the person with world record for number of pull-ups. We look up to the billionaire. We want to win the lottery so we have instant excess, instant extravagance.
Despite the fact that we all have probably seen the dangers of going after extremes, we still get sucked into those stories. I know I do.
Recently I read the book Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins. This book represents the idea that only the extreme matters. If we aren’t living by extreme measures, regardless of cost, then we aren’t doing enough and should be pushing ourselves to do more.
At first I was completely inspired by Goggins story. He was a Navy SEAL who had to endure the difficulties of SEAL training multiple times, even once with a broken leg. He ran Ultra Marathons, which I never even heard about prior to reading the book. Ultra marathon runners cover 100 miles in 24 hours.
His story is the epitome of individual, physical success. His achievements are enough to wow anyone. I enjoyed reading about how he pushed himself to extremes in order to reach new heights.
The book inspired me. I was coming off a minor back injury at the time. I stressed my back and was easing myself back to my normal routine. I gained a couple pounds and was disappointed in myself feeling that I should be pushing to the extremes, not nursing an injury.
I was just about healed up so I started to push myself more and more. I did more push-ups, pull-ups, cardio and curls then ever before. I kept adding more and more and pushing for more extreme levels in my workout.
At first it was great. Everything was progressing and I kept doing better and better. I noticed physical changes in my body. I felt better.
But then about a month after starting this new daily routine, I was getting in the shower and happened to look down and see a bulge in my lower stomach/groin area.
It caught me off guard so I took a day off. It seemed to go away a little so I assumed it was just swollen from bumping it or something that didn’t hurt at the time but must have caused some swelling.
So I got back into my workout routine. And the bulge came back.
I slowed down a little but didn’t want all my progress to disappear so I kept working and working. I kept thinking of Goggins pushing past injuries to keep going. I kept telling myself that if I want the extremes I have to train harder and harder and keep pushing myself more and more.
After a couple weeks of the bulge not going away, I met with my doctor. He confirmed what I assumed. He said it was a hernia and would require surgery. And it would be a lot of time to recover with minimal exercise.
Instead of getting upset, I just can’t stop thinking about the Tao and how different the message is from how I interpreted Goggins’ message. The Tao talks about extremes and why it is important to avoid them. Chasing more I ended up with less. Goggins stresses the extremes and the benefits of constantly pushing to extremes.
Truthfully I am just happy it wasn’t anything more serious. I started to worry that the bulge was something worse, like a tumor, and that the consequences were even more serious.
Now that I am planning out when to get the surgery and how long the recovery will last I can’t help but think how at the end of all of this I will probably be further behind physically than I would had I just kept going and slowly adding more to my workout.
Sometimes life lessons are the most memorable and the one’s that we should really cherish. In this case it seems to point to the avoidance of extremes, extravagance, and excess just as the Tao dictates. While extremes might produce extreme success in one area, it usually results in other consequences that we might not even realize are related.
While I still would recommend Goggins’ book to most people, due to it being an inspirational story, I would probably hedge with something about the fact that his view aligns success with extremes, and that in my experience I have found this to be a double-edged sword. So take his story and use it to motivate you, just don’t be naïve and put yourself at risk for injury by trying to go to extremes too quickly (like I did).
I also think that looking at extremes can be misleading. It reminds me of a story from Zig Ziglar. Ziglar. He was talking to someone about success and the individual wanted to be more like his boss, due to his the massive success the boss has experienced at work.
But when Ziglar asked about other areas of his boss’s life the individual realized he didn’t want to be like his boss at all. His boss was divorced, had a strained relationship with his children, and was miserable. Yes he had extreme success in one area, but at what cost?
It is more important for us to define what is important to us and then make sure we align our actions with those areas. If we want to be extreme in one area we can strive for it but have to understand what that means. It likely means that other areas are going to get sacrificed and we have to take risks. If that is ok, then keep going. But if you realize that means sacrificing things that are even more important, realize the dangers of pursuing those extremes.
In our society we tend to devalue the slow and steady path. We don’t like when people play it safe and equate that with being a loser.
Instead we look up to those who achieve enormous success in an area. We ignore their faults in other areas and praise them for their achievements. They tend to take risks that worked out in their favor, so we admire their risk-taking mindset.
Yet that is exactly what the Tao is pushing against, this idea that extremes are the way to happiness and a life well lived. But maybe the goal shouldn’t be extremes for recognition by others of our success; maybe it should be to align with our true purpose and taking the slow and steady, safer path. In my experience this slower path has led to more positive results and a general happiness and every time I get caught up in the extremes I sacrifice happiness for some vision of more success.