A few years ago, I wanted to swim 1.9 miles across Cayuga Lake in Upstate, NY.
I thought, “The Ironman marathoners do it routinely. With preparation, I should be able to do it once or twice.”
So I trained in the pool, did some stretching, and joined my friend Carl Hopkins, a Cornell biology professor and strong swimmer, for a couple of August swims across the lake.
I made it across, but I admit to some mistakes in judgment. I used only one stroke: freestyle. Instead of reasonable pacing, I aimed for speed. And I failed to appreciate the extent to which swimming in a pool is not the same as swimming in a deep lake, especially when the wind picks up.
The result was rotator cuff surgery to repair an “overuse” injury: Too much of a good and healthy activity.
Much of the decision-making about those swims came from habits – automatic functions. The habit of impatience – thinking with a short-term orientation. The habit of pushing myself to achieve a non-critical goal. The habit of believing that passion can make up for clear thinking.
Lessons from my shoulder surgery have come slowly, but I’m working on improvement. My consciousness has been raised about the enticement of “More, Bigger, Better,” an assumption that impaired my long-term thinking and seduced me from the wisdom of my cooler judgment.
I hear this same “Myth of More” in the implicit beliefs of leaders. It’s a lure I consider both perilous and surprisingly optional.
Perilous because the hope of “More” triggers our consumption reflex, even when we don’t need it, can’t use it, and might suffer for the grab.
Here are four relatable examples of this myth from everyday life :
TOO MUCH CONSUMPTION
Modern Americans and Europeans are eating themselves to death. In the developed world, burgers and colas pose a far greater threat to our existence than ISIS or war.
In his book, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Israeli historian Yuvul Harari points out that for the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little:
“Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010, famine and malnutrition combined killed about one million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.”
When our Stone-Age ancestors discovered fats or sweets, they gorged themselves, unsure of when they might run across such food again.
We also gorge. The difference is that what used to be a rare find is now only a refrigerator away. Instead of occasional binges, we overeat daily.
Easy food access and lack of discipline is a deadly duo claiming more people each year, and leaders are not immune.
TOO MUCH MONEY
For those who are poor, or barely making it, getting hyper-focused on acquiring money makes life-saving sense.
But for the upper class – many of those reading this blog – a mostly unconscious trade-off commonly dictates their choices: giving up precious time in order to amass more wealth than they need or can use.
As people age, time becomes a treasured commodity. Time to cherish relationships, solve humanitarian problems, help or mentor those in need, enjoy natural beauty, learn and explore. But most well-off leaders I know are still going at it with the same intensity at 50, 60 and 70 years of age, using their finite energy to acquire unnecessary wealth without reflecting on their true financial situation.
Too often, the pursuit of money is used as a scorecard to buffer fear: fear of failure, fear of ordinariness, and ultimately, fear of mortality.
When I ask, “What’s your plan for your money?” most confess they have no plan. “I just enjoy the challenge,” they often respond. Really? You can’t have fun or be challenged unless you’re shooting at money targets?
TOO MUCH ENTITLEMENT
Baby Boomer leaders often complain that younger workers carry an entitlement chip on their shoulders, and that the work ethic of Millennials lags behind their own.
But Boomers display plenty of entitlement themselves.
By thinking our beliefs are the correct beliefs -- and that those who don’t agree are misguided.
By believing that only hard work has produced our lavish success, with little acknowledgement that dumb luck – the family, country and race we’re born into – has put us in a privileged position from the very start.
By feeding entitlement in others, particularly our children: automatically paying their freight, rescuing them from routine adversity and compromising their responsibility by over-directing their choices.
I understand that it’s difficult for high-level leaders not to walk around full of themselves. Most of us have been treated “special” for a good portion of our lives.
It takes a fairly secure individual to question his or her own specialness.
TOO MUCH CLOSENESS
Having a close connection with a spouse, child, parent or friend grounds one’s life in a context of belonging and meaning.
In the end, for most of us, it’s what matters most.
But when the need for closeness chokes out freedom, and morphs into possessiveness, control, excessive worry and over-functioning, it becomes counter-productive.
The secret of intimacy is combining just enough meaningful togetherness with just enough separateness.
Rabbi Ed Friedman, a renowned family therapist, astutely observed, “One of the main reasons people divorce is because they can’t separate.”
The lesson is that permitting emotional space – room for others to be themselves - breeds healthy connection. Sometimes our need for emotional closeness makes it hard for those around us to breathe.
The four excesses described above lead to problems at work and at home, impacting individuals and the entire society.
As a species, our unbridled pursuit of pleasure and happiness has put us on a collision course with reality.
Dare we acknowledge that growth and accumulation carry potentially destructive consequences?
Sometimes “More” makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t.