“Everything in moderation” is bullshit advice. You will never hear me say this to anyone I mentor. Why? And, what can you do to spot it and then how can you avoid it?
For ease of navigation, to allow you to jump to the parts that interest you, here is a hyperlinked content list.
Why Moderation can be Bullshit
Moderation vs Extremism
Unidimensional vs Portfolio
Balance is True Mastery
Why Moderation is Bland and Causes Problems for You
Moderation and Hormesis
Where Might Moderation be Useful?
B A C K G R O U N D
Why Moderation can be Bullshit [top]
Typically, when you hear ‘moderation’ it has been about food and drink. Today, I will not take up our time speaking about ‘moderation in politics’. Politics is, broadly, external to you. Instead, I will focus on what is internal to you.
You may hear this “Everything in moderation” advice reformatted as “A little bit of everything is good for you” or “You have to try everything once”.
We know, right off the bat, that such advice is rubbish. Just apply it to cigarettes. Even one puff of a cigarette will cause you harm, even if one puff will not kill you. And, even though I said I won’t speak about politics, it’s good to bring out the analogy that “a moderate level of racism and a moderate amount of sexism” is also harmful to society. It won’t kill society to have it on only one specific day, but see what happens when it exists daily!
Having thrown “Everything in moderation” into the trash bin, let’s see what else we can say about moderation and where it might be useful.
Moderation vs Extremism [top]
During the period of ancient eastern philosophers like Confucius and Lao Tzu or European philosophers like Aristotle and the Stoics, there was advice to not take extremist positions in order to live a happy life. This was typically advice for the purpose of having high moral standards, especially with regards to our interactions with others. The analogy of health was used to illustrate that neither extreme daily exercise nor extreme consumption of alcohol was good for you. [Fortunately, science today tells us that even a small amount of alcohol is harmful.]
I have already said I don’t care about your Ultra, and asked how big is your ROTI? So, we know that consistently taking extreme action is unwise. Why then is moderation not a great way to look at things and what is the better alternative?
Unidimensional vs Portfolio [top]
Moderation looks at a single dimension. How much alcohol is OK for me to drink tonight? How much should I run tomorrow morning? How much should I sleep on weekdays?
Your life, we know, is not that simple. There are a bunch of other things you have to get done in your day. They are all part of getting you from where you are right now to your goals in life. And, your list of constraints and preferences are very specific to you.
The problem with suggesting ‘moderation’ to such genuinely complex questions is that in the best case it will harmless and not very beneficial in the long run. And, in the worst cases, it will prevent you from reaching your goals and also bring forward painful years with the only release coming from death.
In the real-life that you are living, what you have at your disposal to get to your goals is a portfolio of decisions. When should you wake up in the morning? What should you do when you first wake up? Should you do a morning workout or should you do it later in the day? When should you have breakfast? What should you eat and drink for breakfast? What should you not eat or drink for breakfast?
…and we haven’t even gotten past breakfast!
Balance is True Mastery [top]
Calculating how much to have in your portfolio every day of the various things that are available to you is an on-going challenge because every day is different and as the future unfolds, besides your goals changing, so will your constraints, preferences, and the choices available to you.
I help those I mentor wrestle with this balance, just like I do for myself. If we were mentally lazy, it would be easy to suggest that bland solution “everything in moderation”. Sounds glib to me. And anyone following that advice would not flourish.
Why Moderation is Bland and Causes Problems for You [top]
We have evolved to avoid pain, conserve energy and seek pleasure. And, because at the time of our ancestors, conditions were such that we did not have to naturally moderate ourselves, we have not evolved to naturally moderate either. That is, after all, the reason that we have always been reminded in the advice from wise men to ‘be moderate’. But, what does that mean for things like food and exercise?
Food: If you love salty deep-fried food like I do, you too won’t find it easy to eat only 2 pieces from a plate of French fries! It’s possible to eat just 2 fries and stop there. But, how many of us can do that with everything attractive every day? And, moderation especially doesn’t work with processed foods that are laden with the very things that your brain is wired to want for your ‘survival in the wild’ – fat, sugar, salt!
Exercise: If you are someone who is generally sedentary and you do not make time for exercise that pushes your heart, the ‘moderation’ guidance is likely to make you think that just walking for 30 minutes on a treadmill is sufficient. That might be fine for me when I’m 110 years old, but you should be able to do more than that if you are below the age of 80 and have been doing that treadmill drill for more than 2 months. (Want help with ‘how’? click)
Moderation and Hormesis [top]
When I told you that Hormesis is your best friend it was clear to us that in order to get an optimal dose for maximizing your return we need to understand the input that we are dealing with and how it interacts with the system e.g. your body.
It is only by chance that a randomly selected amount as “moderation” would be at the right level to be hormetic. Do you have all the time in the world to assume that some moderate amount would get you the hormesis you desire? If you are like me or those I mentor, you too have no time to waste on pointless effort. We would like to focus on antifragility and develop robustness.
Where Might Moderation Be Useful? [top]
Bad Things – For things that are bad at an individual level or a societal level, moderation makes no sense and the prescribed amount for yourself should be zero. Whether it is racism, sexism or cigarettes and alcohol! DITCH MODERATION!
Things That Can Fool You – For things that appear to you to cause no real harm e.g. a couple of biscuits daily or a serving of ice cream three times a week – that’s where the advice to be moderate really sucks! It tricks you! My recommendation is that you go for zero! DITCH MODERATION!
Definitely Beneficial For things that are known to mostly provide you with just benefit e.g. the health benefits of exercise, consumption of nuts and seeds – without knowing any further information, moderation where it means “do some, but don’t be extreme” is decent – as a starting point. But that is all – just a starting point.
After that, you should be aware of the hormetic dose specific to you that will make you thrive and create robustness. And, all the while being aware that Balance is True Mastery – not moderation. PREPARE TO DITCH MODERATION SOON!
Final Advice [top]
The refusal to think is evil. Today you have understood that it is best to not rely on moderation blandly when thinking hard about life’s real choices.
As always, I hope you found this note useful. If you did, please share it with your family and friends.
When you look back on your life many years from now, I hope you do not feel it was one of mediocrity.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.