The Ethos of the Extreme
Today’s world expects us to go to extremes in everything we do.
Entrepreneurs wear the 90-hour workweek as a badge of pride.
Parents obsessively pursue every new childrearing fad.
The ideal body image, for both men and women, has become unattainable without strict diets and hours at the gym.
All reality TV competitions now repeat the same mantra: to the victor the spoils. You’re either the best, or you’re one of the rest.
This is not a worldview which supports balanced living.
Ours is a world in which intense competition is praised, with all the glory going to the ones at the top. But at the same time the world also tells us: you can have it all.
You can watch all the shows, buy all the things, enjoy all the experiences. You can be a tiger mother, a brilliant careerist, an extraordinary athlete, and a lover who makes the earth move — all while travelling the world, speaking seven languages fluently, playing lead guitar in your spare time, and knowing your Pinot Gris from your Pinot Grigio.
Fear of Missing Out has become the spirit of our age. Faced with such unrealistic expectations, we have only two solutions:
either we spend our guilt-ridden lives endlessly trying — and failing — to measure up, or we take a stand and tell the world to mind its own damn business.
You Don’t Need to Excel at Everything
It’s definitely possible to get good at a number of different pursuits. But you can’t be world-class at them all unless you have a very generous definition of “world-class”.
Getting better at things takes energy, focus, and time, and we have a limited supply of all three. The more we spend our energy, focus, or time in one area, the less we have remaining to devote to the others.
And if — just like me — you have a very wide variety of interests and passions, trying to satisfy them all can leave you spread very thin.
Earlier this year I tried to catalogue every interest I’ve ever pursued. The list came to more than 80 items: from poetry to parkour, Cuban salsa to Zen spirituality, kitchen science to classical guitar. I’ve spent much of my life trying to acquire breadth and scope, and to this day I enjoy listening to people who are masters of their craft.
But if I tried to excel in 80 different areas, it would all end in tears.
So I don’t. I aim to be world-class at one thing only: writing. That means both literary work and copywriting. I set time aside every single day for practice, reflection, and critique. To me this is non-negotiable.
Everything else — however much I might enjoy it — has to come second.
In other words: choose what you want to make your main focus, and commit to giving it your time, energy, and attention.
But that’s much easier said than done. Enter a new strategy: deliberate deprioritization.
Chances are you’re already pretty clear about the things that matter to you. (For quite a lot of people, this means work and family.)
What’s harder — much harder — is to identify all those things in your life that aren’t top priority, and then consciously take them off the priority list.
This can be painful, because many of those other things are good in and of themselves. Friends! Fun! Exercise!
But once you’ve taken this step, you will have an incredible degree of mental clarity about how best to use your time, energy, and attention.
To be clear: deprioritizing something doesn’t mean cutting it out of your life altogether.
But it does mean limiting the amount of time you spend on it, possibly giving it attention for only a few minutes a day, a few hours a week, a few hours a month, or even less.
We need to be as clear as we can about what truly matters most to us. Then — and only then — can we make optimal decisions about how to use our time.
If something turns out to be a lower priority for you, it’s okay to be comfortable with slow progress or at times even no progress at all. Don’t let the world guilt you into thinking otherwise.
Because if we want to truly focus more on the things that matter most, we have to consciously give less time to the things that matter less.