The Inverted U: Why Getting Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Really Bad For You

October 8, 2018
Education

In life, we grow up thinking that the more of a good thing we get, the better. More money, more education, more friends. But too much of a good thing is not only too much, but can actually be bad for us and have debilitating consequences.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz asserts that sure, while having no choices tends to be undesirable, having too manychoices can render us paralysed by choice and never fully committing to a decision we’ve made because we might wonder whether we could have done better. This shows up in various aspects of life, whether it’s deciding what to eat at a Japanese restaurant, choosing which job offer to take, determining a place of abode, which product to buy or which romantic partner to settle down with; ahem, of course… I’m not talking about myself here.

Schwartz puts forward the case that there are two types of people in the world — no, not people who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t — maximisers and satisficers.

Satisficers tend to settle for the good enough option whilst maximisers look for the best possible option. Schwartz says that while maximisers tend to make what on paper is the better decision more often, they are generally unhappier than satisficers because their decisions are usually laced with regret and a grass is greener complex. Compare this with the satisficer fully commits to a decision once it has been made, resulting in a generally more contented and happier existence.

Schwartz captured this notion beautifully in the following inverted-U curve.

Source: The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz

Source: The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz

Lately, I’ve been seeing inverted-U curves everywhere. This came to a head at a Startup Grind meetup last week in Melbourne where on three separate occasions I found myself saying “it’s like an inverted U-curve” to people in reference to how much sleep one gets, the pros and cons of startups raising funding and the benefit of going to such networking events.

So it got me thinking, where else does the inverted U-curve show up in life?

This article is the result of said ponderings. I stopped myself at nineteen examples as almost endless and shows up everywhere because it is essentially a byproduct of universal laws such as the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 principle) and the Law of Diminishing Returns. Why nineteen examples instead of a nice round number like twenty? Refer to #8 on channel capacity.

I hope that this article serves as a reminder not only that too much of a good thing is indeed bad for us, but that not enough of a subjectively bad thing can be bad for us too. By becoming more conscious of how the inverted-U curve might show up in our own lives, we’ll be in a better position to determine whether we should scale down or scale up depending on where we find ourselves on the curve.

Too Much of a Good Thing

1 — Planning

Benjamin Franklin is attributed with the old adage, ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’, and there is a wealth of merit to this philosophy. If we fail to plan accordingly, say for a new product development, then we might fail to truly understand who the customer is and what unfulfilled needs they have, how we might reach them and how much they’re willing to pay for our proposed product. We might underestimate how long it will take to develop the product, go beyond our budget as a result of doing so and fail to identify and safeguard ourselves from debilitating risks, resulting in the absolute failure of the product.

However, when extensive planning is used as a substitute for actually doing something and results in said paralysis analysis and unnecessary complexity, then it becomes costly — very costly. When IBM Australia was engaged to deliver a $6 million payroll system for the Queensland government, it ended up costing the government $1.2 billion — the worst public administration failure in Australia’s history! Such is the folly of overplanning.

I recently spoke with Larry Keeley on my podcast, co-author of Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation and a four decade veteran of all things design and innovation. He proposed that corporate executives ask the question, “what’s changing faster, your enterprise or the lives of people it’s supposed to serve?”. The latter, invariably, turns out to be the answer for many slow-moving traditional companies.

We’ve seen a large number of organisations move away from rigid and almost mind numbing methodologies like PRINCE2 to more adaptable models such as Agile and Lean Startup. Having said that, the latter are by no means a licence to move forward without any planning, rather they are a doctrine for effective, ‘just enough’ planning with customer value at their core.

As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says, “most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow”.

2 — Technology Consumption

Technology is awesome.

It has made our lives significantly easier and some might say, richer; we can video-call relatives on the other side of the globe, find our way around unfamiliar parts, meet a love (or lust) interest, hail an UBER, count our steps and listen to brainfood podcasts on the go. We can stream the entire history of recorded music with the touch of a button and similarly, get the answer to almost any question we have with that very same single touch.

Yet the extreme use of technology and in particularly, our smartphones, can be destructive. It can be destructive to our personal relationships, our presence and clarity of mind, our general happiness levels and our productivity. Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Tech Addiction, says that checking our phones, even for just a few seconds, can take us out of the psychological state of flow, or ‘the zone’, and have us suffering the dreaded cognitive switching penalty — which has us taking between 5 and 45 minutes to get back into said zone.

The consequence? Crappy work and lost productivity. The impact on humanity in a world in which people are constantly being drawn back to their phones through the constant buzz and glow of notifications can not be overstated.

Once you transition from using technology to better your life to having your attention held captive by the likes of Facebook and other attention merchants in order to sell you ads, then its the technology that’s arguably using you to serve its own proverbial masters.

3 — Networking

Networking helps to build new connections, learn new things and open us up to opportunities we’d otherwise be blind to. But too much networking can ultimately be detrimental to the reason you’re networking in the first place — your work — and it is far too easy to confuse the action of networking with the effectiveness of doing work that moves you closer to your goals.

By saying yes to every networking event, then you’re invariably saying no to other things in your personal or professional life as a result. I’ve found that the law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly when it comes to networking events.

A note on networking: I limit myself to several conferences a year — usually ones I’m speaking at — and one to two local networking events a month. Before I attend, I try to get a list of attendees, make a note of who I’d like to meet, what I plan on discussing with them and my desired outcome, then seek those people out at the event. I’d rather have five targeted, value-adding conversations that might lead to a desirable outcome than 50 surface level conversations with randoms who aren’t aligned with my professional goals.

4 — Knowledge Consumption

We’re living in an age of content overload, where one can learn anything they want at any given time from any given location — even if they’re sitting on the toilet reacquainting themselves with last night’s curry which is hopefully none too spicy. Many knowledge junkies like to brag about listening to podcasts and audiobooks on 2X speed or even 3X speed (guilty as charged.), but how much of that content is retained and is it even learning if we don’t retain it? Our minds effectively become a holding bay for information.

There might be benefit to reading a book a month and listening to a podcast a day but if you go all Spinal Tap and turn this up to eleven, speed-reading three books a week and listening to several podcasts a day, all on topics that bear no relation to each other, how much of that will you truly remember in three months time? If you haven’t given your mind the time to digest and apply the learnings — which is, after all, how we best learn — it is reasonable to assume that you will retain very little of it. Furthermore, what is the point of all that knowledge if you spend all your time learning and not actually applying?

On the flipside, going the way of so many and considering your learning done after your high school or college graduation ceremony will render you irrelevant sooner than you might think.

5 — Meditation and Mindfulness

A friend of mine spent five years in silent retreat at an ashram, until one day when he woke up and realised that he wasn’t being of service to his fellow human beings and that while he had developed a state of complete presence, his sole devotion to enlightenment was ultimately selfish. What’s the point of being enlightened if you’re not putting it to use, he thought? Were human beings born purely to contemplate? Surely not.

He returned to the real world, where he still meditates, but now he teaches at the intersection of technology, sociology, economics and philosophy, helping organisations make holistic sense of what’s coming so that they can best prepare for the future. He professes to be much happier and says that he now derives a greater sense of worth and purpose from the meaning of his work and the contribution he’s making, something one can’t obtain from withdrawing from the world entirely.

6 — Health and Wellness

There can be no arguing that a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in processed foods and refined sugars is ultimately a fast-pass to the grave. As such, today’s burgeoning health and wellness industry, with its spas, aromatherapy oils, meditation retreats, yoga classes, sports supplements and nootropics, is worth more than US$3.7 trillion globally.

On the other side of the spectrum from said couch potato you’ll find legions of people who takes things to the absolute extreme, whether that be measuring everything from calories in to blood glucose levels to drinking smoothies brimming with emulsified MCT oil, flax seeds, creatine, ginkgo biloba, lion’s mane, chaga, phenylpiracetam, piracetam and vinpocetine (yep!). It is far too easy to confuse the means (eg. exercise) with an end (eg. a healthy disposition) in itself.

We’ve got armies of self-professed biohackers who are said to be seeking ‘the peak state’, who are striving to become ‘bullet-proof’. As Jamie Wheal — co-author of Stealing Fire and co-founder of the Flow Genome Project — said on my podcast, “will you jump in front of bullets once you’re bullet-proof?”. The answer inevitably is a resounding “no”, and Jamie equates much of the supplements that the wellness industry is concocting as recipes for nothing more than expensive piss. If you are bullet-proof, then it’s your obligation to jump in front of bullets and deliver value to society — if you’re not doing that — then it’s ultimately a selfish endeavour that doesn’t serve much except your heightened sense of self worth.

Log onto Instagram, search #fitspo and you’ll uncover hordes of people whose apparent aim in life is to get shredded and tag themselves on Instagram — #fitnessjourney #doyouevenlift #gains — at the detriment to every other aspect of their lives. The effects of too much exercise are well documented — decreased libido in men, increased risk of injury and heart attack as well as tendinitis and skeletal damage among other things — but this exercise and fitness addiction goes deeper than that. As Stephen Covey put it in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, only by living a principle-centred life can we live a whole, successful and truly fulfilling life.

7 — Coffee

According to a team of German molecular biologists, four strong cups of coffee a day might be the recipe for a healthy heart by helping certain proteins inside older adult cells perform more like young nimble ones. The consumption of coffee is also associated with a lower risk of liver disease, types of cancer, dementia, depression and Alzheimer’s. Too much coffee however and you can find yourself with increased risk of heartburn, restlessness and anxiety, heart palpitations, insomnia, gastrointestinal disturbance, increased blood pressure, stomach ulcers and even cardiac arrest.

8 — Hours at Work

Shark Tank investor Lori Greiner once quipped that ‘entrepreneurs are the only people who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week’. There’s so much of this ‘hustle’ narrative in the startup world today urging entrepreneurs that, if they want to make their dreams come true, they need to put in 16 hour days and neglect other aspects of their lives.

However, the literature suggests this is flawed. Author Cal Newport refers to ‘deep work’ as ‘the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task’. We can get much more quality work done in five hours of deep work (also known as ‘flow’ or ‘the zone’) than 16 hours of shallow work that is often plagued by checking email and social media every few minutes, constant interruptions, meetings to prepare for meetings, pointless watercooler conversations about last night’s episode of The Bachelor, exchanging giphys in Slack and routine administrative tasks.

Host of the Zen Founder podcast Sherry Walling says that most human beings are incapable of doing more than four or five hours of deep work a day. That’s because we only have so much of what World Series winning sports psychologist Jason Selk refers to as channel capacity — that is, the cognitive capacity — required to perform at the highest level, where we’re at our most creative and our thinking is its most critical. Once we exhaust our channel capacity, then we are much more likely to make snap judgments based on emotion rather than reason.

Which brings me to…

9 — Sleep

As sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr Matthew Walker said on the Joe Rogan Experience recently, “sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting”.

He went on to warn us that:

  • If you’re getting 6 hours of sleep a night or less, your time to physical exhaustion drops by up to 30%
  • Short sleep predicts mortality
    If you lack sleep, you’re not allowing your brain to fully cleanse itself of all the metabolic toxins that have accumulated throughout the day
  • You don’t know you’re sleep deprived when you’re sleep deprived.
  • Once you get below seven hours, we can measure impairments in the brain
  • We need 7–9 hours a night of sleep a night

At the same time, too much sleep on a regular basis — more than 9 hours — can increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and death according to several studies done over the years. Not only that, but the immediate effects of too much sleep tend to be lethargy and well, a loss of the experience of life.

If you find yourself burning the midnight oil too often, you’re probably burning more than you think.

10 — Sport

Individual superstars in the athletic arena are highly sought after and lavishly paid as a result. Brazilian football superstar Neymar signed on to a $93 million salary upon his 2017 transfer to French outfit Paris Saint-Germain, despite his tendency to roll around the ground like a kid in the snow after an opposing player pats him on the shoulder.

At what point though does the star athlete’s performance compromise the performance of the team? Case in point, 20-year-old NBA sensation Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns, set a franchise record by scoring 70 points against the Boston Celtics last year. This made him the youngest player to score 70 points in a game. As for the game, the Celtics won by a clear 10 points. A champion team usually beats a team champions (unless of course that team is the 1992 Dream Team).

11 — Class Upbringing

Malcolm Gladwell examined the relationship between income and parenting in his bestseller David and Goliath. Middle to upper middle class children are generally more likely to succeed over their well heeled upper class peers or children from low income families. Children who had it too easy often lacked hunger, didn’t appreciate the value of money, were more likely to be tempted by certain fruits associated with wealth and were often neglected by busy, high flying parents. Of course, children raised in squalor are generally not short on hunger but were often deprived of the requisite opportunities they need to gain a foothold on society’s ladder.

Source: David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

12 — Startup Funding

So many early stage startups are preoccupied with raising capital. They often spend more than half their time doing so, usually, at the expense of finding product market fit — that is, developing a value proposition that people care about and are willing to pay for.

Zero funding obviously comes with lots of challenges but too much funding often results in poor financial discipline and decision making on the part of the founders, with most of the funding wasted on team members that weren’t needed, marketing campaigns that tried to sell a product nobody wanted and on developing features that nobody asked for.

Many entrepreneurs how have been there, done that, today vouch for the value of ‘bootstrapping’ — spending your own money — and focusing on finding product market fit and developing a cash-flow business. Then, and only then, if you need external funding to scale the business at a faster rate than you could without it, you can raise at a higher valuation, thus giving away a smaller stake of the business to smarter investors who can help you grow your business, and who you can strike more favourable terms with.

13 — Regulation

A lack of regulation basically opens the door for the Wild West, something we saw last year when blockchain-based ICOs saw companies raising millions of dollars, only to disappear soon thereafter — in one case leaving behind nothing but a penis in their wake (nb: fit for work). Similarly, poor financial lending controls lead to the global financial crisis of 2007/08.

Too much regulation however can stifle innovation, investment, trade and economic growth. Arguably, there is a middle path that strikes a balance and gives markets confidence in organisations, supports trade, investment, innovation, economic growth and ultimately rewards hard work and the creation of genuine value.

14 — Processes

Processes, procedures and policies (okay, so they’re the same thing) are par for the course at most established organisations — for everything from purchasing and project management through to resource allocation, employee performance reviews and choosing the venue for the annual Christmas party.

These processes exist to ensure that staff execute on a repeatable business model, that makes money today, however when organisations when organisations introduce too many processes they effectively become bogged down in not empowering processes but debilitating red tape.

As such, they render themselves unable to innovate and adapt to a changing environment, they lose their most innovative people — who are disgruntled by all of the red tape — and ultimately, sooner or later, go out of business or become a shadow of their former glories. The sweet spot supports the delivery of the core business while also encouraging experimentation and the discovery of tomorrow’s business model.

15 — Psychedelics

Countless high profile entrepreneurs, performers, athletes, authors and thinkers have credited microdosing on LSD as well as exploring other psychedelics such as DMT for expanding their world view and making them more creative. This includes modern day philosophers such as Sam Harris, the author of books like Free Will, Spirituality Without Religion and Waking Up.

However, an overdose on not only psychedelics but almost any drug, can leave you not only suffering long term psychological and medical consequences, but also dead.

16 — Travel

Travel again, is a great way to go on an adventure, meet new people, expand our world view, escape cold climates, develop our taste palette or take a temporary reprieve from unfavourable life circumstances (amongst numerous other things). On the latter point, if you spend all of your time running from your problems, then you’ll never truly address them. Furthermore, too much travel, as Ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger put it, can leave us with lots of acquaintances but few friends. It can limit our prospects for a stable, fulfilling relationship and can open the door to myriad health problems and chronic diseases associated with travel lifestyle factors.

17 — Money and Happiness

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably familiar with Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton’s work on how money buys happiness up to a salary of US$75,000 a year, but no matter how much more people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness after that point. It isn’t so much of an inverted U-curve in this case, as an ‘S-curve’, but again another example that too much of something does not necessarily equate with better.

Not Enough of a Bad Thing?

18 — Stress

In his book, Behave, neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky reminds us that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. The stress response evolved to be life saving and for helping us to do our best work. The problem with stress occurs when we activate it too often for all the wrong reasons. As Mark Twain is often attributed with having said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened”.

According to the the Yerkes-Dodson law, our performance actually increases with stress — when we’re feeling engaged, engrossed, stimulated and challenged — which aligns with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi psychology of the flow state (not dissimilar to ‘deep work’ introduced earlier). Moderate levels of stress can in fact enhance dopamine release which, incidentally, is what I tend to feel when experiencing the moderate stresses associated with writing a 4,000 word article like this one. Once the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.

19 — Adversity

In the Original Law of Success, Napoleon Hill said that ‘every adversity is usually a blessing in disguise’. The comfort zone is indeed a beautiful place but nothing grows there and in order to learn, grow and become better versions of ourselves then we must embrace adversity. Not only that, but learning to make friends with adversity gives us an advantage over too many people who baulk at the first sign of difficulty. As Jason Selk put it when I spoke with him on my podcast, “unsuccessful people are surprised by adversity”. Similarly, a great philosopher by the name of Rocky Balboa said that “life is all about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”.

At the same time, too much adversity can leave a proverbial fighter feeling dejected and feeling like no matter what they do, they will always end up kissing the canvas. There’s only so many times a fighter can get knocked down before their belief and desire is extinguished and they refuse to get up again.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned, this list is by no means exhaustive. Once you look for it, you’ll find the inverted-U everywhere; the use of a standing desk, keeping the attention of people during a talk, the number of extra pizza slices you reach for, your exposure to the sun, the number of friends and mentors you have…the list goes on and on.

Whatever task or pursuit you happen to be engaging in, it is worth reflecting on the following question; “at what point does the value I derive from this start to subside or hurt other aspects of my life?” Once you determine that optimal point, try your best — within reason — not to over or under step it. Always look for, what is referred to in Buddhism as, the ‘middle way’.

With that in mind, I think it’s time for me to close my laptop, head outside and go for a nice long walk.

Education

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Steve Glaveski 2018
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