We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and extreme, and in a time where everyone seems to have strong opinions that are strongly held (and unfortunately, usually weakly researched). Many folks with extreme thoughts are also closed off to other inputs and conversations from folks with differing perspectives. The unfortunate result of which is further divide and disconnect between people. Some of this is natural.
In the past century, our world has gotten a lot smaller. Air travel prices have drastically reduced such that the average person is able to fly and see much more of the world than ever before (in 2022 the Gallup poll stats show that the average American flies 1.4 times a year). Video conferencing technologies make it possible to talk to virtually anyone in the world in real time. The internet has made it possible to access news, research, and opinions from anywhere and everywhere in the world instantaneously.
In this environment, it is natural that those seeking to be heard and to build a platform would have to differentiate themselves. Since your local newspaper is no longer your only source for news, agencies and publications need to differentiate themselves. The media is shaped by “newsworthiness”, which is in turn shaped by what is trending on Twitter and Facebook. The easiest way to get things to trend? Toss outrageous extreme grenades at core beliefs and watch it rain.
This type of extremism, while being occasionally amusing at best and purposefully confrontational at worst, does not lead you to a great life. It does not bring people together. It does not create a better world. It does not bring the type of vulnerable closeness that we seek, and does not lead to great and long-lasting outcomes.
The pitfalls of extremism
There are many pitfalls to extremism of any sort, but that’s not our primary topic today so we’ll touch on this only briefly. In my mind there are two major downfalls of extremism as we see it playing out in our world.
The first is that it divides and does not unite. Having strong opinions is fine - great even. But those strong opinions must be weakly held, and must be fair game for honest and open conversation and debate, and must not close the door for collaboration. Remember that human life is created to move forward together. We were created for relationship.
Oliver Burkeman put it perfectly in his book Four Thousand Weeks:
“The truth is that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others.”
Put simply, extremism breaks cooperation.
Second, our current rendition of extremism is not open to other ideas. Rather than allowing new information from opposing opinions to change our minds and provide us perspective, these encounters tend to deepen our certainty about our own perspectives. This echo chamber is further amplified by social media’s knack for surfacing more opinions that are like ours (and slightly more extreme than ours - as we said above, grenades generate great click rates).
A balanced approach
In contrast, there is much beauty to be found outside of the extremes.
Consider a simple example. We hold in high regard the quality of courage. We make movies about men and women who demonstrate high amounts of courage. We give awards, commendations, and much recognition for courageous acts. It is a trait we believe the paragon of virtue contains.
Yet this trait taken to either extreme is bad. In extreme excess, this trait becomes rashness. In extreme deficiency, this trait becomes cowardice. We need the balanced middle; courage.
Another example. There is a fine line between neediness and vulnerability. It is perfectly fine to vulnerably express that things have been quiet of late and therefore one has been lonely. That is explicitly different than expressing that one is lonely and needs to never be left alone again.
Aristotle provides the following framework, for which we’ve filled in a few examples:
|Vice from deficiency||Balance||Vice from excess|
Our world is not characterized by balance. We all too often lean into either excess, and see examples of those all around us.
Learning through diversity
Why is it so common for people to lean into excesses? To address this, it’s useful to understand how our childhood programming around learning factors into all of this.
We were taught that when we learn, whether we are reading, discussing, or experiencing, we gather inputs in order to strengthen a given argument. We start with the assumption that our belief is true and then we seek to confirm that. We need to flip our understanding of learning so that we learn from the bottom up. We need to read, ponder, and process for the purpose of gleaning knowledge and wisdom from the text, not to reinforce an idea we’ve already held.
By adjusting thus, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting because it gives us an opportunity to expand our thinking, and to gather more perspectives on a given topic.
In work as in life, perspective matters. But more than that, knowing which perspective to adopt is essential, and our ability to find the right level of zoom and the right altitude to take will be critical to our continued growth along the path that we’ve intentionally set ourselves out on.
Let me unpack that.
First, it is good to understand that there are many different perspectives to any given situation. Having a good range of perspectives that you can understand so that you can pick and choose the right one to handle a given situation will be very beneficial.
Next, figure out the right zoom level. When you zoom in as deep as you can, many details emerge that you could not see at higher altitudes; perhaps you can see the details of the seashell in your hand, and its intricate colors and contours and textures. Zooming out, you are able to see that this seashell was sitting on a beach filled with many other seashells. Further still, you are able to see that this beach is a part of a river, lake, or ocean. Even further and you are able to see that this river flows from one large body of water to another.
We need to be able to discern when it is in our best interest to zoom in and look at all the granular details and when it is best to zoom out and look at the big picture. We need to determine which perspective and zoom level gives us the best perspective to make the best decision possible.
It is said that life is a series of individual moments that make up a larger path. Each of these moments requires us to pick the right perspective so that we can best stick to the larger path that we intend for our life progression.
Balancing impact and savoring life
We’re often told that we need to go big or go home. We’re trained to think about our careers as the thing of utmost importance. We’re pushed to be productive, to have lasting impact, to have great effect on our teams, our industries, and our world.
And somewhere along the way, we accepted that this came at the expense of savoring life.
But here too, it is possible to have a balance! The key is to think through what you want and how hard you want to run after each thing. We must realize that in life, as in work, there are skills to be developed, discipline to be employed, and learning to be had to savor and enjoy life to the full.
Yes, you read that right. We need to learn and apply effort to enjoying life.
We grow up believing we need to put effort into school, into learning new skills, into getting better at sports, at music, at art. But for some reason, we think that relationships should be easy. We think that enjoying life should be easy. We think that finding someone who you can spend your life with, and who you can squeeze every ounce of enjoyment and pleasure out of life with should be easy.
It takes as much effort, learning, intention, and instruction to savor life as it does to be highly impactful in our world. We need to therefore work hard to get as much of both as possible, and in doing so find the right balance for us at every given moment.
A final word on solutions
Something I’m learning is that there are no solutions, only adjustments for a certain time. Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. As such, I want to encourage you not to think of any of this as a solution for how to live a balanced life. Rather, we make adjustments for a time, for a season, for a spell. And when it is appropriate to do so, we reevaluate and make more adjustments.
My sons, life is dynamic. It is free flowing. It is full of beauty, of joy, of sadness, of sorrow. It is rich with color, abundant in love, spotted with pain, with the occasional streaks of anger. It is best experienced together, with vulnerability and trust.
My hope for you is that you live lives that are not characterized by extreme behaviors but rather of balanced, thoughtful, mindful, and measured.